Friday, April 17, 2015

Deaths on Pleasant Street

by Pa Rock

Three questionable deaths and a series of other near fatal ailments befell members of one of the most prominent families in the Midwest in the fall and winter on 1909, a series of incidents which culminated in a sensationalized murder trial that captivated the people of Kansas City and the nation.

The Swope family is best remembered today for the generous bequest of over thirteen hundred acres of land in Kansas City for its nationally renown Swope Park and Zoo.  (At the time of the bequest Swope Park was the third largest municipal park in the nation.)  The park also contains the mausoleum of "Colonel" Thomas Hunton Swope, the multi-millionaire who bequeathed the park to the citizens of Kansas City in the late 1800's.

It was the deaths of "Colonel" Swope, his cousin, "Colonel" Moss Hunton, and Swope's nephew, Chrisman Swope, all of which initially appeared to be of a standard medical nature, as well as the sudden serious illnesses of other family members residing in the household, that eventually led some to conclude that there were too many unusual medical maladies in the Swope house for it all to be coincidental.   Eventually Dr. Bennet Clark Hyde, a locally prominent physician who was married to the niece of Thomas Swope, became the target of suspicion in the rampage of death and disease that swept through the Swope mansion in Independence, Missouri.  Dr. Hyde was indicted on several counts, including three murders, and eventually brought to trial on the charge of murdering Thomas Hunton Swope.

The book, Deaths on Pleasant Street, by Giles Fowler is a meticulous recounting of the alleged crimes and the trial and its appeals which followed.   Professor Fowler uses family correspondence, newspaper articles of the time, and court records to piece together an exhaustive accounting of the troubles that besieged the Swope family as well as the legal proceedings which ensued.  The book is extremely well written and presents facts (many of them medical in nature) in a way that is accessible to the reader.  The author crafts a careful case in much the same way as the lawyers of the time, both prosecution and defense, had to do in trying to convince a jury of the guilt or innocence of Dr. Hyde.

Professor Giles' work presents essentially three views of this story.  It is examined from a medical perspective with lots of information on the diseases and standard medical practices of the time, a legal perspective with meticulous accountings of how the attorneys prepared for trial as well as a thorough overview of the trial itself, and an intimate view of the inner-workings of one of the more prominent families of the era.   It is medical, legal, and deeply personal.

Deaths on Pleasant Street does, however, have one crippling flaw - it is inexplicably un-indexed.   How a historical tome with so much information could be prepared and sold without an index is as perplexing as it is annoying.  The omission makes it much harder to find specific information and immediately lessens the book's value as a historical reference.

But, index aside, Deaths on Pleasant Street is a tightly-written true crime piece that is worth a read - just don't expect to be able to easily use it for a quick reference.

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