KC True Crime

Thomas Swope

In 1857, when Kansas was still a territory, a 30-year-old real estate speculator named Thomas Swope arrived in the area and began buying land.

He gained title to parcels in what would become downtown Kansas City. He acquired properties in the Kansas River bottoms where meatpacking plants would rise one day.

As the two Kansas Citys eventually boomed, Swope sold his properties for far more than he had paid. His profits turned into a fortune, allowing Swope to donate land for a hospital and support other charitable endeavors. In 1896 he gave Kansas City more than 1,300 rural acres just outside the city limits. It became Swope Park, the city’s grandest.

Swope was childless, a lifelong bachelor who lived in hotels. Late in life, Swope moved in with relatives in Independence. The 26-room mansion on a 19-acre estate on Pleasant Street was the home of Margaret “Maggie” Swope, the widow of his brother, Logan Swope. Five of Maggie Swope’s children and a couple of other relatives also lived there.

As time passed, Swope grew grumpy and more private. Of the mansion’s residents, he was close only to cousin James Moss Hunton.

Because of his great wealth, his will was an important document. His estate would be valued at $3.5 million — roughly $75 million today.

The will divided his land and cash in specific bequests among his many relatives and certain charities. The residuary estate, which would amount to more than $1.4 million, would be divided equally among his nieces and nephews.

But by autumn 1909 he was considering devoting more to the poor and less to family. He discussed a will change with Hunton, who was designated as executor.

On Oct. 1, 1909, a cerebral hemorrhage struck Hunton. Unable to find the family doctor, nurses called Bennett Clark Hyde, 38, the husband of one of Swope’s nieces, Frances Swope Hyde.

A physician, Bennett Clark Hyde, according to the custom of the day, relieved pressure on Hunton’s brain by draining blood. To the nurse’s horror, Hyde kept draining it beyond the customary point until he had removed two quarts, or 40 percent of Hunton’s blood. Soon, Hunton was dead.

The next day, Swope hinted to his office assistant that he planned to name a new executor promptly and proceed with altering the will.

The morning of Oct. 3, Hyde left a capsule with Swope’s nurse. He told her it would aid the old man’s digestion.

About 20 minutes after he took it, Swope began convulsing violently. His legs and eyes froze, his teeth clenched, and his pulse raced. After a while, Hyde ordered the nurse to inject strychnine, a drug normally used to stimulate heart activity. Swope’s heart already was pounding rapidly. Hyde soon ordered a second injection of strychnine. Then came a third and perhaps a fourth and fifth.

Swope died about 11 hours after taking the capsule.

As he had with Hunton, Hyde listed the cause as apoplexy, even though the men’s symptoms were not similar.

Then in late November, at least nine people at the mansion came down with typhoid.

The condition of Chrisman Swope, 31, appeared to be improving before Hyde gave him a capsule. About 20 minutes later, Chrisman Swope began convulsing. Hyde again ordered strychnine injections. Chrisman Swope died. Hyde listed the cause as meningitis.

In late December, Chrisman’s sister Margaret, 20, took a capsule at Hyde’s direction. She went into violent convulsions about 20 minutes later. By chance, the family doctor, George Twyman, was in the mansion and treated her. She survived.

The family hired a squad of nurses, who grew suspicious of Hyde and consulted Twyman. Reluctantly, he agreed that something was wrong.

Hyde was told to leave the mansion and to stop caring for people there.

Hyde’s mother-in-law, Maggie Swope, never had liked Hyde and hadn’t wanted her daughter to marry him. Now her worries returned. If fewer relatives existed to share the inheritance, her daughter Frances — and Hyde — would receive more.

Clues came to light that appeared to confirm suspicions. A month after Thomas Swope’s death, Hyde had asked a Kansas City doctor and bacteriologist to provide him cultures of typhoid, diphtheria and other bacteria. Ostensibly they were for experiments in Hyde’s office. After the nurses raised suspicions, the bacteriologist checked Hyde’s laboratory and found tubes of typhoid cultures had been disturbed, as if bacteria had been removed.

Family members recalled that the Hydes brought bottled water for themselves when they dined at the mansion the Sunday before Thanksgiving 1909. Suspicion arose that Hyde had planted typhoid in the family water or in the family’s food. Typhoid typically took at least seven days to show symptoms, and the timing fit.

No autopsies had been performed on Thomas or Chrisman Swope. Because the ground was frozen, Chrisman’s coffin had been kept in a holding vault at Mount Washington cemetery. Now a specialist from Chicago tested the body and found no evidence of meningitis, but he did find traces of strychnine in the man’s liver.

Thomas Swope’s body was retrieved in early January. His organs were transported to Chicago, where on Jan. 31 it was announced he had been poisoned.

Investigators learned that on at least three occasions from mid-September through December, Hyde had bought cyanide of potassium from Brecklein’s Pharmacy at Ninth Street and Grand Avenue. The substance typically was used only by jewelers and dentists as a solvent for gold. Also curious: Hyde wanted it prepared in capsules. He told the pharmacist he wanted to kill some troublesome dogs.

As the accusations mounted, Frances Swope Hyde vigorously defended her husband.

A coroner’s jury ruled Swope died of strychnine poisoning. Hyde was arrested and charged with murder.

Next came a grand jury, which indicted Hyde on 11 counts ranging from murder in the cases of Thomas and Chrisman Swope, to manslaughter in the bleeding of Hunton, to poisoning Chrisman’s sister Margaret and seven others.

Prosecutors decided to try Hyde for only the murder of the senior Swope. If they could convict him, they thought, Hyde would be hanged or imprisoned for life, and no further prosecutions would be needed.

When the trial began, it riveted the country. A nurse testified that, after Hunton’s death, Hyde asked her to help persuade Swope to make Hyde his new executor.

Hyde’s lawyer, Frank Walsh, pecked away at each prosecution witness and then called his own set of experts to try to raise the possibility that Chrisman Swope could have died of meningitis.

Frances Swope Hyde contradicted almost everything the prosecution witnesses said. Finally, Hyde testified, confident at first and later showing worry as prosecutors bore down on his acquisition of bacteria and poisons.

After three days and two nights, the jury convicted Hyde on May 16, 1910, of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

In spring 1911, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the verdict, saying that despite much circumstantial evidence the prosecution had not proved that any of the Swope family members had been murdered. Also, it criticized the trial judge for allowing prosecutors to present evidence about the other deaths and poisonings.

In the middle of a second trial, a sequestered juror lost his wits — or seemed to — and fled the hotel. The judge declared a mistrial.

After a third trial, jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict. They had stood 9-3 in favor of acquittal.

In 1914, the charges were dismissed.

In 1920, citing abuse of herself and their two children, Frances Swope Hyde won a divorce. She continued, however, to proclaim Hyde’s innocence.

Hyde moved back to his native Lafayette County, Mo., where he practiced medicine until he died in August 1934 at age 62.

When: 1909 | What: Mysterious deaths in a prominent family. | Where: Independence | Outcome: Accused physician freed after his conviction is overturned.