Sunday, June 13, 2010

Time Travel Weekend: A Gothic Melodrama

What did I do this weekend? I attended "The Trial of the Century" that occurred one hundred years ago, a reenactment of the trial put on by the Jackson County Historical Society.

Was it Murder? Centennial Commemorative Re-Enactment of the TRIAL OF THE CENTURY: Swope v. Hyde. Saturday, June 12, 2010. 2-4 p.m. at the Truman Memorial Building (corner of Truman and Pleasant Street). Thank you in advance for your continuing support of our organization! This event brought to you in partnership with the Independence Parks & Recreation Department

Here's the story: In October of 1909, one of Kansas City's wealthiest families, the Swope Family, was headed by a spinster uncle named Charles who was a real estate mogul who had acquired and then sold, some of Kansas City's prime real estate in the downtown area. At the age of 82, since he was a bachelor, he lived in a mansion with his widowed sister Margaret, and seven of her grown children on Pleasant Street in Independence, Missouri. One of those nieces of his, Francine, had just married a young doctor from Lexington, Missouri, a divorced man whom the family didn't like or approve. The couple had moved to a nearby mansion that Mr. Swope had bought for them in Kansas City.

One fall night in 1909, Mrs. Swope had traveled out of town, and one of the nephews, Chrisman, became deathly ill, along with a cousin. Dr. Hyde was brought in to treat the ailing relatives, but they mysteriously went into convulsions and died, along with Mr. Swope, the wealthy uncle, and both were said, by Dr. Hyde, to have had strokes. Many of the other younger nephews and neices became ill with what was believed to be Typhus, though the convulsive symptoms weren't consistent with that illness. It was noticed by the attending nurses that every time Dr. Hyde gave them pills to take, and he treated a patient, they became much worse and died. Only when Dr. Hyde was banished from the home did the patients improve and eventually everyone became well again.

It was later learned that Dr. Hyde had been buying cyanide pills from a local pharamacist and claimed he was buying the poison "to kill cockroaches and some annoying dogs." They became suspicious and he was charged with murder. It was rumored that he wanted to kill several of his wife's siblings as well as the elder Mr. Swope because he hoped to ensure and increase his wife's inheritance, when he heard rumor that Mr. Swope was about to change his will and give most of his wealth to charity and to reduce the amount willed to his relatives.

Thus the "Trial of the Century" ensued only months after the deaths, and it became a Victorian age media frenzy. Media coverage went on for 10 years as Dr. Hyde was tried and retried seven times in total.

Yesterday, the public was invited to attend the reenactment of the trial and it went on for an extra hour - from 2:00-5:00. The reenacters did a fabulous job. The whole crowd sat is rapt attention for 3 hours, with only a brief bathroom break to stir the spell.

I'd already read the book, Deaths on Pleasant Street by Giles Fowler, but the trial was still fascinating to me and so well done! My grandmother, who is 94, still remembers the old mansion, which was torn down in 1960. She remembers going inside and wishing it weren't demolished.

Though the mystery of the deaths will probably never be resolved, speculation is still buzzing.


Dorothy said...

That sounds so interesting! Much better than a movie.

Madame Purl said...

Wow that is really interesting. Too bad the house was torn down. Can't you see murder mysteries and events being thrown there.