Poison mind of Dr. Hyde
Tuesday, March 25th 2008
Miss Frances Swope would not listen to her mother,
uncle, sisters, brothers, or, it seemed, to reason.
Her mother, Mrs. Logan Swope, insisted the man
Frances loved, Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, was no good. Everyone in the
Swope clan, one of the most prominent families in the state of Kansas,
agreed he was not to be trusted.
Their low opinion of the fiancé was based partly upon
a previous scrape with the law, in which Dr.Hyde had been arrested as
the head of a gang of grave robbers, and partly upon his reputation for
cruelty to women.
Frances would hear none of it. In 1905, she secretly
married the doctor.
A good wife, Frances stood by her husband, even when
another woman sued him for breach of promise within days of the wedding.
She stood by him, even when all her relatives,
including her moneybags uncle, Col. Thomas Hunton Swope, shunned the
Frances would continue to stand by her husband, even
as he stood before a court four years later, accused of trying to wipe
out her entire family with cocktails of typhoid, cyanide and strychnine.
Kin fell ill
It was a gradual process. By 1909, Frances and her
husband had wormed their way back into her family's favor, so much so
that it seemed reasonable that Hyde would be called when her kin fell
First came James Moss Hunton, Col. Swope's cousin.
Dr. Hyde was called to tend to Hunton, who had a stomach problem, in
late September 1909. The doctor decided the best treatment would be to
extract the bad blood. Two pints and some pills later, Hunton was dead.
Dr. Hyde listed the cause of death as apoplexy.
A few days later, Dr. Hyde was called to the bedside
of another family member - no less than the clan chieftain himself, Col.
Swope was one of the state's wealthiest and most
influential citizens. He had come to Kansas in 1857, and promptly
started to buy land; by the end of the 19th century he owned big chunks
of the state.
A bachelor, Swope made sure that his relatives were
well provided for. His will promised generous gifts to siblings, cousins,
nephews and nieces, including Frances Hyde. His will also left a good
deal of cash to charity, and donated thousands of acres of parkland to
On Oct. 1, 1909, the 82-year-old millionaire needed
something to soothe his stomach, so he called on his niece's husband.
Dr. Hyde's "digestion pills" didn't make Swope feel
one bit better.
Pearl Keller, the nurse attending him on the day of
his death, said that Col. Swope had been reading the newspaper when she
gave him his capsule. Within 20 minutes, his limbs began to stiffen, he
started groan, then fell into violent convulsions.
His last words, Nurse Keller said, were: "I wish I
had not taken that medicine. I wish I were dead."
His wish came true minutes later.
The death certificate, signed by Dr. Hyde, listed the
cause as "apoplexy."
In December, more misfortune struck the Swope family.
Eight nieces, nephews and cousins - all named in the will - came down
Chrisman Swope died on Dec. 6, three days after he
started to show symptoms that bore a disturbing resemblance to those
suffered by his late uncle.
It was all too much for Frances' mother. Never a fan
of her son-in-law, she was now certain that he harbored murderous
The motive was money, she told police. Dr. Hyde had
seen Col. Swope's will, and was bumping off anyone who stood between him
and the old man's fortune.
The bodies of Col. Swope and his nephew were exhumed
and examined for traces of poison. Investigators found strychnine, but
the concentrations were not high enough to prove that Dr. Hyde had
knowingly poisoned his patients.
But then one of Dr. Hyde's colleagues - Dr. Edward
Stewart - told police he had given Hyde a test tube filled with typhoid
culture on Nov. 10. Hyde told Stewart he was planning to use the
cultures for an experiment.
And a druggist came forth, saying that he had sold
Hyde large quantities of cyanide and strychnine, which the doctor said
he needed to kill rats.
Police arrested Hyde in late December. Frances
declared to the press that her husband was wrongly accused.
Motive to kill
There were fireworks at the trial, which started on
April 11, 1910, as Frances and her mother, brother and sisters clashed
on the witness stand.
"Mother-in-Law tries to hang Son-in-Law," reported
one newspaper after Mrs. Swope's testimony that Hyde had knowledge of
Swope's will, and thus a motive to kill.
Frances' younger sisters gave damning testimony about
Hyde's bedside manner. "Dr. Hyde came into my room and looked over my
medicines," said Margaret Swope. A short time later, a nurse gave her a
capsule. "My convulsions followed." Another sister said that Hyde had
come into her room in the middle of the night and jabbed her arm with a
needle. The arm quickly became infected.
Hyde's defense said that Col. Swope had died of old
age, and the illnesses among the other relatives were all a result of
bad drinking water at the Swope mansion in Independence, where most of
the family lived.
The jury, however, could not understand why Dr. Hyde
needed all that cyanide and strychnine to kill off a few rats. They
found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Frances had one terse statement for the press.
"Clark is innocent and he shall be freed," she said.
She hired the best lawyers she could find. In
September, they filed an appeal, citing 255 errors in the case and
attacking the competence of the poison experts who testified for the
'Walls and eyes around me'
Hyde won a new trial, which started in October 1911,
and, after eight long weeks, came to an abrupt and bizarre halt. Around
midnight on Dec. 11, juror Harry Waldron pried open a nailed transom,
crawled through the space, slipped down a fire escape, and bolted from
the jurors' hotel.
Earlier that day, he had become agitated when he
spotted his children and wife in the courtroom. He missed them so much,
he said, it was driving him mad.
Police caught up with the runaway a few days later,
but he was in no shape for the jury box. "I had been driven almost to
distraction," a wild-eyed and trembling Waldron told the judge. "I
couldn't stand being cooped up. There seemed to be nothing but walls and
eyes around me."
Hyde's second hearing ended in a mistrial. And while
Waldron's lunacy seemed genuine, there were some who suggested that it
was all an act, paid for by Hyde's devoted wife.
A third trial in 1913 ended when the jury could not
agree. Prosecutors talked about a fourth trial, but in 1917, the charges
Three years later, after bearing him a son and a
daughter, Frances Hyde finally saw what her mother had seen in 1905.
In October 1920, charging "repeated and constant acts
of cruelty and violence," she filed for divorce.
His family gone, Hyde moved to a small community,
Lexington, about 40 miles from Kansas City. He set up a modest country
practice, and lived quietly and alone until Aug. 8, 1934.
That day, as was his habit, he had gone to visit the
local newspaper office to get a sneak peek at the news. A few seconds
after he entered the office, he fell down and was dead when he hit the
The cause of death was listed as apoplexy.
Medicine: Murders in Missouri
Monday, Aug. 20, 1934
At Lexington, 40 miles down the Missouri River from Kansas City, the
staff of the Lexington Advertiser-News sluggishly prepared last week's
mid-week edition. Toward midnight, old Dr. Hyde walked into the office.
He was always welcome there, a learned, well-informed "man with a past,"
who lived alone above his. downtown office, who every morning before
breakfast chinned himself 25 times, took a fast walk of several miles.
The Advertiser-News staff heard him say that he wanted to see the
Missouri primary returns. He walked around the office barrier toward the
newspaper files and soundlessly fell dead from apoplexy.
Twenty-five years ago the name of Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde was in the
headlines of every U. S. newspaper as a cold-blooded murderer. A young
practitioner, he had married the niece of rich old Thomas H. Swope of
Kansas City, who lived in a large country place near Independence.
In October 1909 Dr. Hyde was called to Independence
to care for another of his wife's uncles, old James Moss Hunton who was
down with apoplexy. Dr. Hyde took two quarts of blood out of Uncle Moss
and the patient promptly died. Two days later Uncle Tom complained of a
stomach ache. Dr. Hyde gave him a capsule and he, too, promptly died. On
Thanksgiving Day, Dr. Hyde was in Independence for a family reunion.
Within two weeks the entire Swope family was in bed with typhoid fever.
Dr. Hyde returned to his in-laws, gave Mrs. Hyde's brother another
capsule, watched him die in convulsions.
For these three deaths Dr. Hyde was put on trial in
Kansas City. An autopsy showed that the capsule given Uncle Tom
contained strychnine. The State charged that Dr. Hyde had murdered to
reduce the size of the Swope family, increase his wife's share in the
$3,500,000 Swope estate. (She got $118,000.) Dr. Hyde's defense was that
all three had died in the course of ethical medical practice.
The jury found Dr. Hyde guilty of murder and the
judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. An appeal brought a new trial
which broke up when a juror went mad. The third Hyde trial ended with a
jury disagreement in 1913. For four years more the Swopes egged the
prosecutors on, then weary of the expensive procedure they agreed to let
the indictment against Dr. Hyde be dropped. Dr. Hyde took a job loading
sand trucks in Kansas City, later moved to rural Lexington where he had
a small practice.
Mrs. Hyde loyally sided with her husband. In 1915 she
bore him a son, in 1917 a daughter. In 1920 she divorced him for "cruelty
and violence." Last week when Dr. Hyde dropped dead. Mrs. Hyde and her
grown children were en route to Seattle for a vacation.
Dr. Hyde Trial: 1910 - Hyde Escapes Justice
Defendant: Dr. Bennett Clarke
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: R.R. Brewster, M. Cleary, and Frank Walsh
Chief Prosecutors: M. Atkinson, Virgil Conkling, Elliott W. Major,
and James A. Reed
Judge: Ralph S. Latshaw
Place: Kansas City, Missouri
Dates of Trial: April 16-May 16, 1910
Verdict: None. There were three attempts at retrial after a
conviction in the first trial was overturned, but no verdict was ever
sustained against Dr. Hyde.
The Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde trial was a monument to
the power of money in the criminal justice system. Hyde's wealthy wife
hired the best attorneys available to defend him, and despite the
overwhelming evidence of his guilt, he was never convicted.
Bennett Clarke Hyde was born in 1872 in Cowper,
Missouri, the son of a Baptist minister, and grew up in Lexington,
Missouri. He went to medical school in Kansas City, and stayed in that
city to practice medicine after graduation.
From the very start, Hyde's medical career was
tainted with scandal. When Hyde was working for his alma mater as an
anatomy instructor, two men were arrested for grave robbing, and they
confessed that they had been working for Hyde. Charges were filed
against Hyde, but were dropped in March 1899. In 1905, Hyde became the
Kansas City police surgeon, but he was fired in 1907 for alleged
mistreatment of a patient.
On June 21, 1905, Hyde married Frances Swope in a
secret marriage that connected him with the richest family in Missouri.
Hyde's wife was the niece of Thomas Hunton Swope, who was born in 1829
in Kentucky and moved to Kansas City in 1860. Swope made a fortune in
Kansas City real estate, and was now known as Colonel Swope. By 1909
Colonel Swope was 80 years old, and although he was a lifelong bachelor
with no children of his own, he was devoted to his many nephews and
nieces, several of whom lived with him in his Kansas City mansion.
In September 1909, Colonel Swope suffered a minor
injury, and Hyde came to the Swope mansion to take care of him. On
October 2, Hyde gave Colonel Swope a pill, which made him violently ill,
and he died on October 3. Hyde said that the cause of death was "apoplexy,"
but the nurse was suspicious. Hyde stayed in the Swope mansion,
supposedly to look after the other residents, but a mysterious epidemic
of illnesses suddenly swept through the estate over the next few months.
Nine people came down with typhoid fever, and Chrisman Swope died after
being treated by Hyde. By now there were five nurses in the Swope
mansion, and they became afraid that Hyde was trying to kill off the
entire Swope clan to collect the family fortune. The nurses went to the
authorities. After autopsies on the bodies of Colonel Swope and Chrisman
Swope revealed traces of strychnine and cyanide poison, Hyde was
indicted for murder on February 15, 1910.
Dr. Hyde and Mr. Swope
The Kansas City Public Library
May 16, 1910: Doctor Bennett Clark
Hyde is found guilty of murder after philanthropist Thomas H. Swope and
several of his family members die following Hyde’s purchase of cyanide
capsules and test tubes of typhoid cultures.
In one of the most notorious trials in Kansas City's
history, a jury found Doctor Bennett Clark Hyde guilty of murdering
Kansas City real estate developer and philanthropist "Colonel" Thomas H.
Swope on May 16, 1910. Despite strong evidence linking Hyde to the
crime, this verdict would be overturned by a higher court in a few
months time, leaving the city to ponder whether Hyde had committed the
Born in Kentucky in 1827, the Yale-educated Thomas
Swope speculated in mining and real estate in New York and St. Louis
before moving to Kansas City at the age of 30. Once there, Swope
entered into the real estate business and eventually owned more land
than anyone else in the city. One of his most notable real estate
ventures, known as "Swope's Addition," was located at 10th Street and
Swope is best remembered today not for his real
estate activities, but for his gift of Swope Park to Kansas City. The
park's expansive 1,334 acres, located adjacent to the Blue River,
provided a space where eventually the city's residents could enjoy
picnics, a night at Starlight Theater, trips to the Swope Park Zoo (now
the Kansas City Zoo), and golfing. When the park opened in 1896, nearly
18,000 people arrived to celebrate.
Nearly a hundred years ago, however, mention of the
name "Swope" would instantly summon conversations about a string of
mysterious deaths in the Swope family. On October 3, 1909, just two
days after the unexpected death of the executor of Swope's will, Thomas
Swope himself died of an apparent "cerebral hemorrhage." Two months
later, typhoid fever took the life of Swope's nephew.
Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the Swope family's physician,
came under suspicion for the mysterious deaths. Dr. Hyde was the
respected, but widely resented, president of the Jackson County Medical
Society. He also had married Thomas Swope's niece some time before the
deaths. As a confirmed bachelor, Swope had no children of his own, a
fact which placed Dr. Hyde in line for a share of the inheritance of
Swope's fortune of $3.5 million. Prosecuting attorney James A. Reed
therefore had little trouble establishing a motive.
Evidence against Dr. Hyde also seemed abundant.
Investigators revealed that Hyde had purchased cyanide capsules just
days before Swope's death. Surviving witnesses in the family likewise
testified that Hyde had given Swope a pill just before his sudden death.
Hyde had also purchased typhoid samples shortly before the outbreak of
that disease in the Swope mansion. Consistent with the growing
conspiracy theory, the Hyde family had avoided infection even though
most of the Swope family fell ill. A jury accordingly convicted Dr.
Hyde for murder on May 16, 1910.
As in modern times, however, a legal defense team
supported by extensive financial resources could hold a great deal of
sway in court. Dr. Hyde's wife, Francis Hyde, paid for an appeals
process that resulted in the overturning of the first trial's verdict by
the Missouri Supreme Court. A mistrial ensued, and the jury failed to
convict Hyde in a third trial. The evidence against Hyde seemed
conclusive on the surface, but ultimately the courts ruled that it was
merely circumstantial evidence that did not prove his guilt.
After seven years of court battles, Bennett Clark
Hyde was legally cleared of suspicion in the murders. Public suspicion
proved harder to subdue. The trials had ruined Hyde's career, and he
eventually divorced Francis Hyde. In 1934, Dr. Hyde died without ever
confessing to the crimes, leaving the people of Kansas City to wonder
what really happened in the Swope mansion in 1909.
Thomas Hunton Swope (1827–1909) was a real
estate magnate and philanthropist in Kansas City, Missouri.
Born in Kentucky on October 21, 1827, Thomas Swope
was a Yale graduate with money to invest when he came west in 1855 as
the Kansas Territory opened. By age 30, Colonel Swope was a wealthy man,
due largely to his early downtown real estate investments. In 1896, the
seventy year old Swope gave Kansas City one of the largest municipal
parks in America. Swope Park, 1,350 acres (5.5 km2) rolling
wooded lying four miles (6 km) southeast of town, made his name famous.
But Swope’s name is perhaps more famous for the
mysterious circumstances surrounding his sudden illness and demise than
for his incredible gift to Kansas City. Swope was known to be mild-mannered
and self-conscious, and was a lifelong bachelor. He lived alone until
later in life when he moved into the turreted red brick mansion of his
late brother in Independence, Missouri. From his sister-in-law’s house,
home to seven nieces and nephews, the frugal millionaire commuted daily
by streetcar to his downtown Kansas City office in the New England Life
building until the month before his death.
Swope’s last days were preoccupied with how best to
bestow his wealth. His real estate alone was worth three and a half
million dollars. Usually given to self-doctoring, in his last days Swope
allowed himself to be treated by Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, who had married
one of his young nieces. On October 3, 1909, just 18 days short of his
82nd birthday, Col. Swope died suddenly in his sister-in-law’s home with
Dr. Hyde in attendance, the aftermath of a perplexing, brief and violent
illness. Swope's body lay in state at the Public Library where thousands
of mourners paid their respects. Until a tomb could be prepared in Swope
Park where he had requested burial, he lay in a holding vault.
Three months after Swope's death, Dr. Hyde came under
suspicion and was charged with murder by strychnine poisoning in “a plot
for money.” Swope’s body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. Three
trials, seven years and a quarter of a million dollars later, Hyde was
freed, his suspected guilt never proven.
Eight and a half years after his death, Col. Thomas
Swope was laid to rest in Swope Park. On April 8, 1918 he was buried
high on a hill amid a forest of trees, overlooking his gift to Kansas
City. There he lies beneath a Greek temple of white granite, guarded by
a pair of stone lions.