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Central Standard

The Mysterious Death Of Kansas City's Thomas Swope

A memorial for Thomas Swope inside the golf course at Swope Park, which comes from land that the philanthropist donated to the city.
Patrick Quick
A memorial for Thomas Swope is in the golf course in the Kansas City park that bears his name.

If you lived in Kansas City when the 20th century began, you knew the name of Thomas Swope. If for no other reason, you had heard of the massive park he gave to the city. Probably, you had picnicked and played in its 1,300 acres. If you kept up with the city’s moneyed elite, you knew that the multimillionaire Swope stood in the top rank.

When Swope died in 1909 at age 81, Kansas Citians by the thousands paid their respects as his body lay in state in the rotunda of the public library. They lined the streets to watch the funeral procession to Grace Cathedral.

Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
Thomas Swope was one of Kansas City's most prominent citizens at the turn of the 20th century.

Foul play?  

But instead of ending the story of Thomas Swope, his death marked only the beginning of a tale that would shock Kansas City and make headlines across the country. Slowly at first, and then in a flood, a story unfolded pointing to foul play -- in Swope’s demise and also in a stunning rash of sickness and death that spread through his family.

Accusations centered on one man, Bennett Clark Hyde, a doctor who had spent hours by Swope’s bedside and who also had treated several members of the Swope clan. In fact, Hyde himself was a member of the family, having married one of Swope’s nieces.

A private man

Despite Thomas Swope’s renown, rare was the Kansas Citian who really knew him. An intensely private person and a lifelong bachelor, Swope shunned the spotlight and confined himself mostly to his office in the New England Life Building and his room at one hotel or another in the city. He had begun acquiring property in the area before the Civil War, buying land cheap and holding it until he could sell or lease it for large returns. Through the second half of the 1800s, Swope quietly amassed a fortune.

In his early 70s, at the turn of the century, he had moved in with relatives, taking a spot in a 26-room mansion in Independence. In the last decade of his life, he commuted from there to his office downtown by streetcar.

The supposed plot

In that mansion, officials would charge, Dr. Hyde devised a plan to bump off Swope and other members of the family. The motive, they said, was to reduce the number of heirs to Swope’s fortune, and thus to enlarge what his wife and he might receive.

First to die in early October 1909 was a cousin, who also lived in the family mansion and who was an executor of Swope’s estate. Within days, Swope himself lay dead. Hyde had sat at the bedside of both and declared both victims of cerebral hemorrhage. In the case of the cousin, Hyde bled the victim of more than a third of his blood supply. In the cast of Swope, he provided capsules that Swope took and went into convulsions.

Two months later, one after another of the other relatives fell ill from typhoid, and one of them died.

Nurses grew suspicious of Hyde, whose practices they believed were unconventional, if not harmful. They spoke to another doctor, who then conferred with a local lawyer. Swope’s body and that of another victim were exhumed. The evidence uncovered led to a coroner’s jury and grand jury that accused Hyde of murdering Swope and his cousin, and of infecting nine more members of the family with typhoid. One of them died, too.

Hyde’s case was argued by preeminent Kansas City lawyers of the day and when the long and much-discussed trial ended in spring 1910, the doctor stood convicted of murder. That conviction, however, was overturned on appeal and two more trials followed. One ended in a mistrial and another in a hung jury.

Unsolved mystery

By 1914, the state dropped all the charges against Hyde. His wife, who defended him throughout, divorced him in 1920. Hyde died in 1934 in Lexington, Missouri. As the years passed, most of the rest of the Swope family left the Kansas City area.

The Independence mansion that had been home to death, sickness and indications of foul play was demolished in the early 1960s. 

Central Standard history