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Dr. Hyde Trial: 1910

Hyde Escapes Justice

Defendant: Dr. Bennett Clarke Hyde
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.

SIGNIFICANCE: 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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917