Ghosts, the Limitations of Time Travel, and Johnny Depp: An Interview with Giles Fowler
July 12, 2010
I recently had the chance to interview Giles Fowler, author of Deaths on Pleasant Street. Mr. Fowler's Deaths on Pleasant Street focuses on one of Kansas City' most notorious famous trials of the last century, the Swope murder case of 1909. Colonel Swope, benefactor of Swope Park, died under suspicious circumstances while under the care of Dr. Bennett Hyde, the husband of Swope’s niece.
As a retired professor of journalism, have to ask, do you still ascribe to the journalist's creed?
Yes, I hope so. I tried to define the mission in my preface to the book: "The experienced journalist knows that the complete truth can be as elusive as fairy dust, but that doesn't excuse him from looking for it."
I've read that you wish you could interview the ghosts of those involved with the case, both in an interview you gave with the Examiner and in the text itself. Now we can debate the validity of testimony given by phantasms day and night, (justice should never be left in the hands of ghosts) but on the other hand if I told you that I had access to time travel technology and had made provisions for you, the author of this great book, to go back in time and speak up to up five people related to the Swope murder case, in a setting of your choice, who would the five people be and where would you meet up with them?
I'm afraid time travel wouldn't turn up anything new--I fear my subjects would simply repeat what they'd just told the jury. So let's
stick with the ghosts, who may be more candid now, after a few decades of sober reflection in the grave. Here are my five:
(1) First, of course, Doctor Hyde. What's he got to lose?
(2) Nurse Kellar,to see if she's as sure of her testimony today as she was in the witness chair.
(3) Frances Hyde, in the (possibly vain) hope that she's gained a little good sense since her demise and is now ready to face facts.
(4) Lawyer John Paxton, to ask whether or not he's still wavering a bit (and why) over the question of Hyde's guilt or innocence.
(5) Finally Frank Walsh, to determine how fiercely he'd champion Doctor Hyde in light of 21st century advances in forensic science.
What challenges did the absence of Swope Mansion present when working with the text?
I was saddened by its absence, but not greatly handicapped. I would like to have learned the entire floor plan (I could only assemble key parts of it), and I'd have loved a nice walk through those Victorian chambers to soak up atmosphere.
By all accounts the Swope Mansion seems to have been an incredible structure. Unfortunately it was destroyed in 1960 to essentially make room for a parking lot. Historically, many of Kansas City area's most beautiful pieces of architecture have been razed for one reason or another. Is this a uniquely Kansas City trait? If not, what larger or sociological trends contributed to the destruction of palatial settings such as the Swope Mansion?
It's one of the sins of 20th century America, largely a result of the "urban renewal" craze, which too often meant urban destruction. It certainly did awful harm to Kansas City, and I suspect this zeal to destroy our architectural heritage has been more common in the Midwest. If you tried that stuff in more aesthetically favored places--New Orleans, Natchez, Charleston, Santa Fe, Savannah, San Francisco and much of New England--you'd probably be hanged by a mob of preservationists.
If Deaths on Pleasant Street were turned into a movie who would play Dr. Hyde?
I keep thinking of Johnny Depp.interviews