Sometimes the law adds 2 and 2 together and gets 5.
Usually it is because the case hinges on circumstantial evidence, which can be sufficient to warrant a conviction, but can occasionally lead investigators and jurors astray.
That’s probably what happened in the case of Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, 39, who was convicted of murder in 1910. Hyde’s conviction for killing his wife’s rich uncle was subsequently overturned and a new trial ordered. Mistrial after mistrial followed and after three subsequent unsuccessful attempts to prove Hyde poisoned Col. Thomas H. Swope, the State of Missouri, never keen to try the case to begin, threw in the towel.
Although he was cleared by the appeals court due to errors by the State and considered by the law to be innocent until proved guilty, Hyde was never exonerated by a jury. This only makes the case even more compelling because, like the case of William Marsh Rice, the death of Col. Swope might not even have been murder at all and thus Hyde was a man falsely accused.
The circumstantial evidence was significant and combined with a possible motive (an inheritance of millions of dollars), made it possible that Hyde poisoned more than a dozen members of the colonel’s family and household and murdered Swope and a couple of others who stood in his way of the money. An equally plausible scenario is that Col. Swope, an elderly man already an invalid due to a fall, caught a bacterial infection and died of natural causes. There was no substance found in his body that could not be traced to an innocent explanation.
In 1909, Col. Thomas Swope was an 82-year-old bachelor with an estimated net worth of $3.5 million (about $70 million in current dollars), who lived in Independence, Mo. In the 1850s, Thomas Swope moved west to Kansas City (known at the time as Westport Landing). A frugal and successful farmer, he began to accumulate land until it took “a half-hour’s gallop” to ride from one side of his property to the other. As time passed and Kansas City grew, the colonel’s land became much more valuable and he sold it off in parcels to accumulate his fortune.
Like William Rice, Swope was a philanthropist and donated much of his fortune and some of his land to the people of Kansas City. One of the city’s most beautiful parks bears his name today (the 1,800-acre Swope Park, location of the Kansas City Zoo, its Conservatory, and historical museum), thanks to a 1896 gift. Even with his desire to share his largess, there was still plenty of money for his heirs, and thus plenty of motive to kill.
Described as a “somber man, gloomy, alone,” which seems more like a description of Scrooge than a philanthropist, Swope lived with his widowed sister-in-law, Margaret Swope, and her progeny in a large mansion on Pleasant Street in Independence. The household consisted of Mrs. Swope and her five children: Lucy Lee, Margaret, Stella, Sarah, and Chrisman, and a cousin, Col. Moss Hunton. Nearby lived Mrs. Swope’s two other children, Tom and Frances, who had each married.
Against the wishes of her family, Frances wedded Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, a physician in Kansas City who was once accused of grave robbery to obtain cadavers for a local medical school. Although “resurrection” is a gruesome crime, body snatchers were quite common and Hyde faced little fallout. He served as a police surgeon, the early equivalent of a medical examiner, but was dismissed from that position for unknown improper behavior. Despite his background, Dr. Hyde was not shunned in the community and had a unspectacular reputation.
In September 1909 Col. Swope fell and sustained an injury that while not life-threatening, confined him to the house. Shortly after the accident, at Dr. Hyde’s suggestion Col. Swope hired a nurse, Pearl Kellar.
That same month, Dr. Hyde, the attending physician for the colonel, spoke with his patient who indicated that he had a will that made generous bequests to his various nieces and nephews. He had also bequeathed to his heirs — 10 in all — his $1.5 million residuary estate in equal shares. However, Col. Swope indicated to Dr. Hyde that he was planning to change his will to reassign the residuary estate to various charities. The net effect of his decision would be to diminish the portion of each inheritance by $150,000 (about $3 million in current dollars). This particularly interested Dr. Hyde, because his wife was to receive only a bequest of $135,000 because of her marriage to the doctor.
Of course, should any of the unmarried nieces or nephews die, their brothers or sisters would receive even more money.
Col. Swope’s cousin, Moss Hunton, was the executor of the colonel’s estate, and was planning to help the colonel revise his will. He never got the chance because Hunton was the first indicator that ill-fortune — either natural or man-made — had arrived to strike at the Swope household.
While at dinner on October 1, Hunton was seized with “a stroke of apoplexy,” and Dr. G.T. Twyman, Mrs. Logan Swope’s family physician, was called in to care for him. Dr. Twyman consulted with Dr. Hyde and both agreed that the proper treatment should be bloodletting to relieve the pressure on the brain. The physicians differed on how much blood should be taken from Moss. Dr. Twyman believed that no more than a pint should be taken, while Dr. Hyde continued to bleed Moss until the patient had lost two quarts — or approximately one-third of his total blood.
However, Frances Swope Hyde would later testify that Dr. Twyman (who died just days before Dr. Hyde’s trial) never disputed the amount of blood taken from Moss. Other witnesses said that Twyman did speak sharply with his colleage.
Nevertheless, the bloodletting proved ineffective and Moss Hunton died that night. The dispute over the bloodletting conflict and Dr. Hyde’s behavior shortly after Hunton’s death were the first pieces of circumstantial evidence that would eventually land him in the dock.
“I was passing in and out of Col. Hunton’s room when Dr. Hyde met me in the hall and said he wanted a private conference with me,” said Nurse Kellar. “Dr. Hyde spoke about what a good man Col. Hunton had been and how awful it was that he had died. Then he said … ‘Well, Col. Hunton is gone now and in a few days he’ll (Col. Swope) make a new will and put a new man in place of Col. Hunton. Now, you have influence with the old man and I want you to suggest me as his administrator.'”
Nurse Kellar said that she refused to do so, but Dr. Hyde continued to pressure her. The defense countered that as the eldest male of the clan, it was not wrong for Hyde to want to handle the estate. It would not do, however, for Hyde to directly campaign for the job, the doctor’s defense team argued.
On October 3, 1910 — two days after Moss Hunton’s death — Dr. Hyde met Nurse Kellar at the breakfast table and asked if the colonel had eaten. When she replied in the negative, he handed her a capsule of Holadin, a digestive medicine made from extract of pancreas and directed her to give it to Col. Swope. Fifteen minutes after she gave him the medicine, Col. Swope went into convulsions.
“Suddenly, a peculiar breathing sound from the bed caused me to look up,” the nurse testified. “Col. Swope’s face had changed. His eyes were set and wild, and the pupils were dilated. Col. Swope began to tremble and the color of his face changed.”
She called Dr. Hyde and within 10 minutes the colonel began to recover. The doctor ordered Nurse Kellar to give the patient a sixth of a grain of strychnine, a common poison which was also used as a recognized stimulant at the time.
“As Colonel Swope composed himself he said, ‘Oh God, I wish I had not taken that medicine. I wish I were dead,'” the nurse recalled.
Shortly after, Col. Swope lapsed into a coma from which he never awoke. By 7 p.m. he was dead. No one suspected anything was amiss. The cause of Col. Swope’s death was thought at the time to have been apoplexy caused by the death of his friend, Moss Hunton.
However, within a few months of the colonel’s funeral, additional odd incidents — all involving in some way Dr. Hyde, began to occur.
On December 2, Margaret Swope — Dr. Hyde’s sister-in-law, came down with typhoid fever, a particularly nasty illness which is caused by bacteria found in contaminated food or water. On December 3, Chrisman Swope, Hyde’s brother-in-law, also caught the disease. In short order, five other members of the family — two under 14 years old — and several servants also were struck with typhoid. In addition to drinking from the same cistern, each of the victims had something else in common: they were legatees of Col. Swope’s will.
Most of them had had direct contact at some point with Dr. Hyde, including 14-year-old Lucy Lee, who contracted typhoid not at the Swope home, but on a train trip she took with Dr. and Mrs. Hyde.
Frances Swope Hyde, one of the legatees, was not affected by typhoid, but she said on the advice of her husband, she did not drink the water at the Swope mansion.
By late December, all of the victims save one had recovered. Chrisman Swope died amid violent convulsions on December 6, 1910, shortly after he took a capsule given to him by his attending physician, Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde.
Confronted with these strange happenings, at the insistence of the elder Margaret Swope police decided to take a closer look at the doings in the Swope family. That investigation centered on Dr. Hyde, and there was plenty more circumstantial evidence that made him look guilty:
- On September 13, 1909, Dr. Hyde purchased four five-grain capsules of cyanide of potash, better known today as potassium cyanide.
- The next day he purchased Holadin capsules — the same kind he gave Col. Swope and his nephew before they died.
- On November 12 — less than one month before the typhoid outbreak — Dr. Hyde procured a culture tube containing typhoid-causing bacteria, and another containing diphtheria germs.
- On November 21 and 25, Dr. Hyde visited the Swope home and dined with the victims of the forthcoming typhoid outbreak, which began December 2. ;
- On December 4, Dr. Hyde purchased another six five-grain capsules of cyanide.
- On December 5, Dr. Hyde gave a capsule to Chrisman Swope, who was suffering from typhoid. The young man went into convulsions, but recovered.
- On December 6, Dr. Hyde gave Chrisman Swope another capsule, and although there was no convulsive fit, Chrisman died that night.
- On December 12, Dr. Hyde gave Margaret Swope (the elder Margaret’s daughter) an injection that resulted in severe bruising, swelling and pain at the injection site. He claimed that the injection was camphor and cottonseed oil, but the nurse said she did not notice the odor of such oil and did not believe any such oil was present in the Swope household.
- On December 14, the physician who gave Dr. Hyde the typhoid and diphtheria germs reclaimed the test tubes and found that about one-half of the germs had been removed.
- On December 17, Dr. Hyde accompanied Lucy Lee Swope on a train trip and gave her water to drink. On December 21, Lucy Lee came down with typhoid.
- On December 18, Margaret was given a capsule by Dr. Hyde and almost immediately went into convulsions, but recovered when Dr. G.T. Tyman, her regular physician administered morphine and induced vomiting.
- Also on December 18, servants observed Dr. Hyde throw out some capsules. Those capsules were recovered and later analyzed. The tests revealed the presence of cyanide.
- The vomit tossed up by Margaret was also analyzed and found to contain strychnine.
- On December 30, the body of Chrisman Swope was exhumed and an autopsy performed. His stomach contained traces of strychnine.
- A later autopsy of Col. Swope’s exhumed body indicated strychnine in his liver.
Based only on those pieces of evidence, the case against Dr. Hyde looked solid. But there was more to the story:
Regarding the strychnine and cyanide, which had legitimate medicinal purposes at the turn of the 20th Century, no witness could be produced to show that Dr. Hyde ever purchased sufficient amounts of strychnine to kill two people and to try to kill a third. Col. Swope apparently was a enthusiastic strychnine imbiber: Several witnesses would testify — including the druggist who manufactured the concoction — that Col. Swope self-medicated with a tonic containing strychnine. To demonstrate the harmlessness of the tonic, the druggist imbibed a dose on the witness stand during Hyde’s 1910 murder trial.
In any event, the amount of strychnine which accumulated in the bodies of Chrisman and Col. Swope was likely insufficient to kill. Just one expert (of three) for the prosecution would testify that the amount of strychnine in Col. Swope’s body was capable of causing death. Experts for the defense were denied access to any of the colonel’s tissue to conduct their own tests.
As for cyanide, there was no cyanide found in Margaret’s vomit, Chrisman’s body, or Col. Swope’s body.
It is not possible, even under the forensic conditions at the turn of the century, for a person to administer a fatal dose of cyanide without signs of poisoning – especially when the pathologist is looking for it.
The symptoms demonstrated by Chrisman and Col. Swope are not consistent with either strychnine or cyanide poisoning. Strychnine normally kills a healthy person within two hours of ingestion, both Chrisman — weak with typhoid — and Col. Swope, an 82-year-old man suffering from Bright’s Disease, lived much longer than that after taking Dr. Hyde’s capsules. Cyanide takes even less time to kill.
At the Swope home, water was taken from a cistern that was within 50 feet of an open cesspool and an outhouse. Such a situation is a textbook breeding ground for typhoid germs.
The autopsy of Chrisman Swope showed “typhoid fever in what the state’s expert…admits might have been a fatal state,” according to the trial record. The lower lobes of his lungs were consolidated in a manner often found in typhoid victims (but not in victims of cyanide or strychnine poisoning). Diphtheria does not result in symptoms matching either typhoid or a pustule infection. It may resemble cyanide poisoning, however.
All of the typhoid victims drank water from the cistern against the suggestions of Dr. Hyde and his wife, who drank bottled water that they brought from their home. In October, while treating Col. Swope, Dr. Hyde strongly cautioned the Swopes from using the standing water from the cistern for fear of typhoid.
The doctor who provided the germs to Dr. Hyde discovered later that the tube he thought contained diphtheria, which the state believed was injected into Margaret Swope, contained pus, which is not a germ at all but is a sign from the body of a bacterial infection, but not the same bug that causes typhoid.
In the spring of 1910, Dr. Hyde went on trial for the murder of Col. Thomas Swope. Interestingly, the cost of the prosecution was not paid for by the State of Missouri, but was instead borne by Margaret Swope, who employed a special prosecutor deputized by the state. On the other side were Dr. Hyde and his wife, Frances, who stood by him throughout his ordeal.
The highlight of the month-long trial was the inability of Dr. Hyde to explain why he bought cyanide, and what he did with it. The state used that red herring to distract the jury from the weakness of the rest of its case and Dr. Hyde’s ability to offer rational explanations for each of his actions.
The diversionary tactic worked and on May 10, 1910, Dr. Hyde was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
An appeal necessarily followed and in 1911, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, opining that the State should not have been able to introduce the deaths of Chrisman Swope and Moss Hunton, as well as the rest of the typhoid outbreak, as evidence against Dr. Hyde. The State had argued that it went to motive, but the high court ruled that a jury should not have been able to infer “from the commission of one crime that the defendant is guilty of another.” The State should not have been allowed to use the deaths of Moss Hunton and Chrisman Swope to prove the murder of Col. Swope.
Thus began a strange adventure for Dr. Hyde. On his second trial, a juror left the trial one afternoon and disappeared. A mistrial was declared. At his third trial, the judge had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. The state began a fourth trial, but dropped the matter before a jury was summoned.
His defense cost the Hydes an estimated $1 million and resulted in Frances Swope Hyde becoming estranged from her family. The estrangement didn’t last long. In 1914, Frances Swope Hyde filed for divorce from Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde.
“He has, by studied words and conduct, tried to estrange plaintiff’s children and friends from her, and has exhibited a sullen, morose, and cruel disposition devoid of any sentiments of affection, which has caused the plaintiff to live in constant fear for the welfare and lives of herself and her children,” her complaint read.
The divorce papers never hinted at whether or not she thought he was a murderer, however.