Thomas H. Swope and Kansas City
Colonel Thomas H. Swope was a prominent figure in the history of Kansas City, Missouri. Born in Kentucky in 1827, he came to Missouri in 1856 and became a successful real estate land owner and philanthropist. Swope’s influence on Kansas City was vast, and his legacy still lives on today, but his life was marred by a mysterious death that remains shrouded in controversy and intrigue.
Swope’s Kansas City Generosity
Swope was a man of many interests and talents. Although a Yale graduate of Law Studies, Swope was more interested in real estate, thus began life as a land owner and a prominent figure in the development of Kansas City. He played a key role in land development as the largest land owner in early Kansas City. Swope was generous, and his contributions to the city included the Swope’s Addition located at 10th and Grand, the donation of a 4.5-acre tract of land at 23rd and Cherry for a new hospital, General Hospital, which opened in October 1908, offering 600 beds and free municipal healthcare for the indigent; one of the only cities in the country to do so and the donation of land for the creation of Swope Park, one of the largest urban parks in the United States
Death of Thomas H. Swope
Despite his many accomplishments, Swope’s life was not without controversy. In the early 1900s, he became embroiled in a bitter dispute with his nephew, J. Moss Hunton, over the distribution of his estate. Hunton accused Swope’s personal physician, Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, of attempting to murder Swope for financial gain. The allegations were shocking, and the ensuing trial became one of the most sensational in Kansas City’s history.
The trial lasted for months and involved numerous witnesses and complex medical testimony. The prosecution argued that Hyde had poisoned Swope with a lethal dose of strychnine, while the defense maintained that Swope had died of natural causes. The jury ultimately found Hyde guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Still, later, Bennett Clark Hyde was legally cleared of suspicion in the murders and went to his grave never telling any more of the story.
Despite the verdict, many questions about Swope’s death remain unanswered. Some have suggested that Hyde was made a scapegoat for the failings of the medical profession at the time and that Swope may have died of natural causes. Others have suggested that Swope was the victim of a conspiracy involving his nephew and other family members.
Whatever the truth may be, the legacy of Colonel Thomas H. Swope continues to shine brightly in Kansas City. His philanthropy and his contributions to the city’s growth and development are still celebrated today, even as the mystery surrounding his death remains unsolved. The Swope case serves as a reminder of the complex and sometimes dark history of the American justice system (but that’s another article altogether!).
Colonel Swope’s body initially remained in a holding vault until his wish for a Memorial was built in Swope Park. Granting his wish, his remains were moved to the Thomas H. Swope Memorial in Swope Park, where he was buried under the floor of the memorial’s main chamber.
The Greek Doric-style U-shaped colonnade is made up of twelve 14-foot columns that support an entablature, upon which an inscription is carved. Eight bronze medallions depicting various species of trees found in the park adorn the structure. A decorative lantern featuring intricately carved lion heads and feet sits atop the colonnade. The central bay projects outwards and features a bronze plaque with a bas-relief portrait of Mr. Swope facing right. The colonnade rests on a stone court, at the center of which lies Mr. Swope’s burial site marked by an inscribed stone. The court is accessible via eight stone stairs, flanked by two large recumbent guardian lions and two stone urns. Additionally, a balustrade was later added 84 feet westward, overlooking the bluff, which borders a semi-circular pool fountain.
Swope’s Legacy to Kansas City
Colonel Thomas H. Swope’s legacy survives today in what is known as Swope Park. The park covers a vast 1300 + acres and is home to the Kansas City Zoo (circa 1909 & covering more than 200 acres), Starlight Theater, a popular outdoor entertainment venue (circa 1950 & also boasts beautiful fountains), and the Swope Memorial Golf Course (circa 1934) one of the oldest public golf courses in the United States, as well as the site of the Kansas City Open in 1949, making it the only public golf course in the Kansas City area to have hosted a PGA Tour event.