Before the review begins, a little bit of historical groundwork must be laid out for readers.
Swope Park is the crown jewel of Kansas City, Missouri’s parks system, as the park’s website immediately tells readers. The site goes on to claim that the over 1,800 acre park is visited by more than two million people annually, and why wouldn’t it be? It is home to Starlight Theater, an outdoor venue attracting musicals and other performances throughout the summer months, the Lakeside Nature Center, with its recently-constructed new facility replacing the ancient limestone structure that smelt inescapably of generations of wild creatures, and the century-old Kansas City Zoo, which after recent renovations has, after decades of near-neglect, become an attractive and entertaining destination once again, even without young children in tow. There are two golf courses, hiking trails, playing fields, and popular fishing spots across the park. But how many of those millions of visitors think of the name of the park, and wonder who this person called Swope was?
One clue is to be found to the east of the Zoo. High on a hillside, above the Zoo’s outbuildings where, before an early 21st century expansion, a road once ran past a boating lagoon and public swimming pools (where your humble author learned to swim, long, long ago), there stands a monument. To reach the memorial, one takes a turning marked for the public golf course and drives up a twisting road to the top of a hill. The club building lays on the right at the road’s end, but behind it to the left, a pathway leads down to a scenic overlook, and a curious, neoclassical structure. The monument is quite large, a horseshoe-shaped space which is guarded by two large stone lions.
A bronze plaque on the rear wall of the classically-colonnaded structure names the Park’s donor: Thomas H. Swope, 1827-1909: “His Wisdom Conceived His Generosity Gave to the People of Kansas City This Noble Expanse of Field and Forest for Their Perpetual Enjoyment.” The plaque bears the profile of a man in relief: balding, dressed in a style which certainly seems of the earliest years of the 20th century, with a moustache and a hooked nose dominating the profile (a photograph of the same profile view of Thomas Swope appears in Giles Fowler’s book, and it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to suspect that the bronze plaque is modeled from the image). The borders of the plaque are an evocation of the nature that is all around: flowers and leaves, and a riot of what look like nothing more than wind-swept sycamore leaves. The mortal remains of the man himself – and this is particularly poignant, in view of what readers learn in reading Deaths on Pleasant Street – are entombed beneath this structure.
The photos accompanying this review were taken in 2008, on a windswept June afternoon. Facing out to the west-northwest, in the tomb’s resident view, as it were, the vista of a fountain and a stone rail frame the riot of trees and, in the distance, other structures in the park. The rocks of the cheetah enclosure in the Kansas City Zoo are visible in the distance, easily discernible through a telephoto lens or with a pair of binoculars. The buildings of Starlight Theatre stand redly in the middle distance and, with still more powerful lenses (or, perhaps, younger eyes) it is possible to make out the pavillion in the far distance which marks the west entrance to the park. If one believed that the late “Colonel” Swope (the title was purely honorary) could enjoy the view from his tomb, one might be quite mad, but at the same time, envious of such a fortunate prospect.
Thomas Huntington Swope was one of the key figures in the the growth and development of 19th century Kansas City. Founded in 1850 on the site of a variety of earlier local settlements, Kansas City rose to prominence when the westward-reaching tentacles of the railways elected to cross the Missouri River at Kansas City, rather than other points, like the nearby town of St. Joseph. Through a combination of haphazard and shrewd purchases, Thomas Swope parlayed his land holdings into a sizable fortune, which, in his declining years, he planned to dispense through a series of gifts both to civic causes, including, at one point, a proposed museum of art and culture (which would instead be donated by local newspaper magnate William Rockhill Nelson, resulting in the impressive Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Instead, Swope’s donation took the form of the lands for the Park that was to bear his name, in 1896 (at that time, the land lay well to the south of the majority of habitations that made up Kansas City proper, south of 63rd Street). The residue of his estate he intended to divide among his sister-in-law’s family, as he had never married, and the poor, needy, and deserving of the city.
The Swope family, including the “Colonel,” Uncle Thomas Swope, lived in a mansion in the nearby town of Independence, Missouri, at that time separated from Kansas City by a distance of several miles, along which a streetcar line ran connecting the city and its older, smaller neighbor. It is at the long-since razed mansion located at 406 S. Pleasant Street (the site is now the Campus RV Park, whose website makes no mention of the impressive mansion which once stood on the land it now occupies, nor the events which occurred there) that Giles Fowler takes up his tale in Deaths on Pleasant Street (melodramatically subtitled “The Ghastly Enigma of Colonel Swope and Doctor Hyde”). The full cast of characters includes the Colonel’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Margaret O. Swope, who was married to Thomas’s brother Logan, the five children still living in the house, and Mrs. Swope’s adult daughter Frances, who had recently eloped with a sweetheart of whom her mother did not approve, the dashing medical man Bennett Clark Hyde. They had married four years before at the home of a family friend in Arkansas, and thereafter presented Frances’s understandably irritated mother with the fait accompli of their marriage.
Hyde was thereafter not well-liked by the Swope family, but his marriage to Frances seemed an immutable fact and it appeared that the family did its best to accept him. It was for that reason that Hyde was called when Moss Hunton, a family cousin who also lived at the Swope mansion and managed Mrs. Swope’s financial affairs, as well as serving as executor of Colonel Swope’s estate, fell gravely ill on the evening of Friday, October 1st 1909. The family doctor, Twyman, deferred to Hyde and his belief that Hunton was suffering an apopleptic fit. In accordance with accepted practise of the time, Hyde elected to bleed Hunton in an effort to reduce his blood pressure and pulse rates (the modern medicines which had similar effects without bloodletting were some forty years in the future at this point). Whether Hyde bled Cousin Moss for too long, as Doctor Twyman seemed to suggest, or whether his “apoplexy” would in fact have killed him regardless, is uncertain. The fact that is known is that Moss Hunton convulsed and died after the bleeding by Hyde, even as the incision was being bound up.
What was to follow Hunton’s death, however, seemed too incredible to be believed: the Swope mansion, despite the improbability of such an occurrence, found itself in the throes of a typhoid outbreak. Typhoid, which remains a scourge of the poor around the world, was known in 1909 to be the work of a bacillus that thrived in areas without proper sanitation and water treatment, where water contaminated with human waste mixed with potable water, or found its way into supplies of milk (at this time, for example, the Swope family kept a dairy cow to provide the household with milk). But, despite searching the likely points of infection, several surveys of the house and its grounds by medical men found no pathways of infection. It was as if, in the words of one medical man who searched in vain for a reason why the Swope mansion was stricken, the disease just walked into the house, infected its victims, and walked out again.
A typhoid outbreak seems like an untraceable way in which to set the stage for eliminating a family, especially if that family stood between a person and a considerable estate. But typhoid is sometimes fatal, especially to the young and old, and the very weak. So when Colonel Swope – already a sick man – died in the course of his treatment, it wasn’t so strange, was it? Perhaps the death would not even have been remarked upon, had it not been for the courageous group of nurses, who saw certain curious, inexplicable, and flatly incomprehensible things happen at the hands of the doctor in charge. The doctor and Swope son-in-law, Bennett Clark Hyde, did and said other suspicious things as well. Hyde cultured typhus, diptheria, and other nasty diseases in his own office. He purchased cyanide at odd times, and in unusual quantities; the times appeared strangely congruent with fits resembling cyanosis at the Swope mansion. He volunteered to take a two-day train journey to New York to collect Lucy Lee Swope, who had been summoned to return from Paris when troubles began chez Swope. Within a week of being given water in a particular cup by Hyde on the train back to Kansas City, Lucy Lee too fell ill with typhoid. And Hyde showed an unusual interest in the disposition of the Swope estate. As circumstantial evidence mounted, the case against Hyde grew quickly in strength. As it did, the course of the trial would fracture relations between Margaret Swope, matriarch of the family, and her eldest daughter Frances. It would also ruin the medical career of Doctor Hyde, and lead to his eventual divorce from his wife and young children.
One of the most brutal passages revolves around the autopsy which necessity dictated be conducted on Colonel Swope. Unfortunately, by the time the autopsy was ordered, winter had arrived, and Swope’s body had frozen solid. Rather than allowing it to thaw, various measures were taken which will require the reader to have a strong stomach to read through. The crudeness of the measures taken reminds us that, despite the scientific pretensions of 1910, in many ways the world which we know and expect today is an extremely recent one, and that a mere generation or two have seen untold changes in standards of medical care, not to mention technology in general. But the brutality of the autopsy would also bring some of the prosecution evidence into question, leaving the reader to wonder not only at the course of justice, but at the truth of the allegations in a trial held a century ago.
Fowler evokes the world of the first decade of the 20th century in Kansas City with vividness, but occasionally the bad habits of a career journalist intrude upon the narrative. The folksy tone, when it emerges, detracts from the effort expended by Fowler to tell a gripping, riveting story, a task at which he largely succeeds. It is evident from his bibliography that he has done a considerable amount of research, spending a lot of time in archives digging out old newspapers and photographs, and he has done the more important thing, which was to synthesize that research into an interesting, readable whole. There are a number of fascinating asides in the book to interest anyone with a curiosity about the past. The notion, for example, of a harvest ball for the city’s “elite,” modeled on Mardi Gras but set in early October, between the late 1880s and the early 1910s, and trading under the evocative name of the “Priests of Pallas” (after Pallas Athena, in an attempt to evoke one of several descriptions of Kansas City as the “Athens of the plains”), is fascinating, and something of which I had never before heard. And the twist in the tale of calling in one of the most renowned pathologists in the Midwest, Dr. Ludwig Hektoen of Chicago, to investigate the deaths, is a thrilling chapter, especially when one considers that all of the events depicted occurred, from the first death to the end of the first trial, with the sure rapidity of early 20th century legal practice, in the space of little more than six months. Those familiar with the Kansas City area will also find a familiar name in a member of the prosecution team, that of James A. Reed, former Kansas City mayor, later Senator, after whom a road in the southeastern part of the city is named.
In the end, Deaths on Pleasant Street is a fascinating look at a story which should be better known, set in a time which gives an important insight into the history of a Midwestern town. It is also a fascinating, and frustratingly unresolved tale of murder and death, of greed and the lengths to which it has driven people. This is a story of which the full truth is unlikely to ever be known, but one which ends tragically for nearly all of the parties involved. In one way or another, no one wins, even though there is no conviction and the mother and daughter are eventually reunited. Whether through the loss of family fortunes, the death of professional reputations, or the end of a marriage, no one emerges unscathed.
Reviewed 10 March 2016.