Who Really Killed John Hossack?

An Analysis of Glaspell's Renditions of the Hossack Murder Trial

By Satchel Victory, Gerrod Mozeik, and Matthew Becker

John Hossack's grave (Becky Pennington)

Susan Glaspell's short story "A Jury of Her Peers" and her play "Trifles" were inspired by the murder of John Hossack and the subsequent trial of his wife Margaret. While this murder trial was not extremely famous, it was intriguing for many, including Glaspell, because the murderer was a woman. These events were covered by Glaspell during her stint as a reporter in Iowa in the early 1900s with the Des Moines Daily News. Glaspell herself played a role in the trial, as she was able to persuade the town's people one way or another with her articles, their primary source of information regarding the murder.

Looking back, it is important to determine where Glaspell's coverage begins to diverge from the truth and becomes, rather than the true story of a man murdered supposedly by his wife, several different types of literature expressing the basic idea of conflict between men and women. As a journalist, it was Glaspell's job to inform while entertaining readers. As a playwright and writer, Glaspell's primary task was to entertain with the ability to inform readers simultaneously. Therefore, the transmutation from articles to fiction occurs when Glaspell drops the actual characters and events of the Hossack murder for a similar, but fictional, setting, while still maintaining the same message.

The Hossack Murder

Patricia L. Bryan, professor of law at the University of North Carolina, quickly summarizes the events of the evening of December 1st, 1900:

"From Flashlight Photograph of the Dead Man": Sketch of John Hossack after his killing ("Mrs. Hossack May Yet Be Proven Innocent")
On Monday, December 3, 1900, the local Iowa newspapers reported the "foul" and "revolting" murder of John Hossack, a fifty-nine-year-old farmer, which occurred around midnight on Saturday at the Hossack family home near Indianola, Iowa. Hossack was a prosperous and well-respected member of the rural community where he lived for more than three decades. He was attacked while he slept, lying next to the wall in the bed he shared with... his wife... The assault was particularly violent: John Hossack was struck twice in the head with powerful blows. His skull was first cut deeply with a sharp instrument and then crushed with a blunt instrument. ("Stories in Fiction and in Fact" 1313)

The brutality of the murder was contrasted by the strange testimony of Margaret Hossack, who, as she claimed, was sleeping next to her husband as he was killed. Suspicions immediately rose at the fact that Margaret had not awakened as her husband was bludgeoned to death next to her. Though John survived for several hours after the assault, conscious and speaking, he said nothing as to who had attacked him ("Stories in Fiction and in Fact" 1316). With his death, a coroner's inquest was opened, the questioning of which revealed some of the marital problems that existed in the Hossack household before John's death, as John was known to be abusive to both his wife and children. The coroner's jury, however, merely declared the cause of death, forcing the county attorney to attain a warrant and have Margaret arrested ("Stories in Fiction and in Fact" 1316-1326). The subsequent trial raised many questions: that of guilt, the status of women, the fairness of jury trial - all of which were analyzed to some extent by Glaspell in her coverage of the trial.

The Trial

"Sketched From Life": Sketch of Mrs. Hossack as she sat at the preliminary trial ("Murder, She Wrote", 147)
While the murder of John Hossack might not have been as famous or well-known as other murders, the investigation and trial did gain a significant amount of publicity. Since the woman was the murderess, the juridical attitude and the prosecution of women, in this case Margaret Hossack, was under strong surveillance by many. Glaspell herself was a key contributor to the shaping of the public opinion on the trial, as she was the reporter in charge of covering the case.

Mrs. Hossack’s case was taken directly to the grand jury, and she was given bail until the date of the trial. In the months leading up to the trial, Glaspell wrote several article discussing new evidence and gaining the attention of the people, leading them on each article so as to build up the anticipation leading to the actual trial. Held at Polk County Courthouse on April 1st, 1901, the trial lasted the next ten days (not including Sundays). Glaspell’s articles garnered the trial a lot of interest, as over 1,200 people showed up the first day, and over 2,000 on the last. Glaspell herself stated that the “conspicuous feature so far is the large attendance of women in court. Over half of the spectators present today belong to the gentler sex. The bright array of Easter hats lent a novelty to the scene, giving it much the appearance of some social function.” ("Hossack Trial on in Earnest", para. 16 )

Although originally there was a fear that an impartial jury would not be able to be found, eventually 78 witnesses (53 for the prosecution and 25 for the defense) were eventually gathered for the trial along with a full court. The trial had seven main questions/goals that were focused on:
  1. John Hassock, according to the report, took two blows to the head: one with a sharp axe head and the second with the blunt handle. Was it possible for him to be able to talk to his family?
  2. Was the blood on the axe and later the hairs found nearby human or from the turkey the family claims to have killed two days previous for Thanksgiving?
  3. Why was a bloody axe found under the corn crib and not in its usual spot, where the youngest son claims to have placed it?
  4. Was any of the evidence, like the axe and clothing, washed to remove blood stains?
  5. Why didn’t the dog bark when strangers appear like it usually does? Was it actually drugged, as the family claims?
  6. Were there standing domestic troubles in the Hossack household, or were they resolved a year ago as claimed?
  7. Is it reasonably possible for an intruder to sneak into the house, strike John Hossack twice with an axe, and leave all while Mrs. Hossack was sleeping?
(“Murder, She Wrote”, 149)

As explained later, many of these details of the murder were later changed by Glaspell in her literary renditions of the Hossack murder. Because there were no actual witnesses to the crime besides the accused Mrs. Hossack herself, the entire prosecution was based on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence. The trial was very emotional, as both Mrs. Hossack broke down in tears and even “the jury without exception was moved to teas. Strong men who had not shed a tear in years sat in their sear mopping their eyes and compressing their lips…” (“Murder, She Wrote”, 150). The Hossack's previous marital issues were used as the primary motive for the killing. As a prosecutor stated in the trial: ""What could cause a man and woman who had agreed to love and cherish each other, who lived in a community all those years, who raised up a family of children, what cause could make them hate each other so terribly, as is shown in this case? I have conjectured; I have wondered if it might not be some secret cause; something unknown away back in their early lives. I have wondered over and over upon this…Was it a loveless marriage? Did something arise between these parties in their early acquaintance which caused them after to loathe each other?" (Direful Tragedies). The last day of the trial, the County Attorney and court were convinced she was guilty and spread this idea onto the audience, and within the next day, the jury found Mrs. Hossack guilty as charged. Her sentence: life in prison with hard labor.

A year later, however, Mrs. Hossack's sentence was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court and she was freed. She never confessed through the rest of her life, and died in late August of 1916. (Direful Tragedies)

Glaspell's Coverage

As the local reporter, Glaspell was charged with covering the Hossack case from the events of the murder through the trial. Ben-Zvi tells us that Gl
Sketch of Margaret Hossack from her trial ("Stories in Fact and Fiction")
aspell published twenty-six articles related to the case from December 3, 1900, shortly after the murder, to April 11, 1901, about the results of Margaret Hossack's trial (Susan Glaspell 42). This series of articles, showing Glaspell's bias and spin and "incorporating lively use of hyperbole, invention, and supposition... invites the reader to share privileged information, intriguing rumor, and running assessment of the case and of the guilt or innocence of the accused" (Ben-Zvi 42). As clear from this quote, Glaspell was not solely interested in reporting the mere facts of the case; instead, she took the opportunity to, within her articles, comment on it and the people involved in it.

Glaspell's of Margaret Hossack, for example, began with a "cold, calm, and menacing" woman who, within days, became "older, frailer, and more maternal" after Glaspell's visit to the Hossack's farmhouse (Ben-Zvi 43). Her journalistic research somewhat resembles modern tabloids, relying on hearsay, rumors, and second-hand sources. In her third article on the case, published on December 5th, Glaspell says, "Friends of Mrs. Hossack are beginning to suggest that she is insane and that she has been in this condition for a year and a half under the constant surveillance of members of the family" ("Sheriff after Mrs. Hossack," para. 4). However, by December 11th, when the case was brought before a grand jury. Glaspell began to portray Hossack as a more sympathetic character, reporting that "Sheriff Hodson says that within the past few days she [Hossack] has begun to show signs of weakness and at different intervals he has noticed red and swollen eyelids indicating that she has been weeping" ("Now Before Grand Jury," para. 4). Further on into the trail, Glaspell further spins Hossack's behavior as more womanly and grief ridden, describing how "Mrs. Hossack, who occupied a seat by the sheriff's wife, surrounded by three of her daughters and all but one of her sons, broke completely down and wept bitterly" ("Hossack Begged Wife to Aid Him," para. 15). Glaspell's attempts to win her readers over to a particular side are certainly obvious, especially if it is considered that Glaspell was unhappy with the male-dominated court trying Hossack and wished to try to use her influence to sway the outcome of the case, following the example of the case of Lizzie Borden, who was apparently acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother after her defense attorneys captured public sympathy by portraying her as a stereotypical docile woman.

After the case was decided in April 1901, Margaret Hossack being found guilty, Glaspell wrote her last article on the case and shortly thereafter moved away from Iowa. In this short article, published on April 29th, Glaspell quotes Hossack's innocent plea, "Sheriff Hodson, tell my children not to weep for me. I am innocent of the horrible murder of my husband. Some day people will know I am not guilty of that terrible crime" ("Mrs. Hossack's Parting Plea," para. 1) but does not add any of her traditional commentary. She was not, however, done with the ideas she had considered in writing about the Hossack case, taking them and transforming them for use in future fictional works.

"A Jury of Her Peers" and "Trifles"

"Trifles" was written in 1916 and is believed to be loosely based on the events Glaspell covered in the Hossack Murder. It was adapted into the short story, "A Jury of Her Peers", in 1917. Both involve the murder of a man in his bed, while his wife (supposedly) slept beside him.
It is apparent from critical writings and analysis of Glaspell's work, especially in Trifles and "A Jury of Her Peers", that her writing is heavy in opinions of gender in society. Referring to the condescending remarks made by the male characters, Ben-Zvi claims, "Gender transcends class here, as it did in the original trial, in which the farmers, jurors, and lawyers all had a common connection: they were male, and as such they were in control of the court and direction of the testimony." This appears to be a common concern of Glaspell's as its relative eminence originated in her coverings of the trial and were thus transmuted into the themes of her fictional work. She transferred her emotionally influenced written ideas of society that were literally based on reality into powerfully entertaining and intellectually stirring realistically fictional expressions of these ideas. (Ben-Zvi, 36)

Parallels and Consistencies in Style and Apparent Intentions

The differences between Glaspells journalistic writings on the Hossack Murder and her fictional depiction of the episode in "Trifles" and "A Jury of Her Peers" are quite obvious. Of course the genres are different, one being journalistic accounts of actual events in article form, and the other being realistic fiction based on actual events. Traditionally, this difference in genre, especially of two as different as these, would suggest a difference in style, voice, and intentions within the actual writing.

When reading Glaspell’s newspaper accounts of the Hossack murder trials, one cannot help but sense the interjection of Glaspell’s personality in the writing. Often, readers are thrown aback by its evocativeness, being a muddle of “fact, rumor, and commentary, with a superfluity of rousing language and imagery” (Ben-Zvi qtd. in Gainor, 38). Perhaps we have grown accustomed to the modern notion of good journalism; that is strictly delivering the facts in an unbiased, un-personalized manner. Perhaps Glaspell held her informed inferences to be quite valid and significant to the public’s interest in the coverage. Making a comparison to her future novelistic writing style, her diction and “impassioned descriptions” characteristic of the climax of her fictional writing are present in the climax of the trial. Presumably the climax of the play, an excerpt from the closing lines of Glaspell’s Trifles bears a striking resemblance to her descriptions of the climax of the trial, in terms of style, as Ben-Zvi claims.

“It is said to be the master effort of his life…at times the jury without a exception was moved to tears. Strong men who had not shed a tear in years sat in their seats mopping their eyes and compressing their lips in a vain effort to suppress the emotion caused by the Sentor’s eloquent pleas."(Glaspell, De Moines Daily News, April 9).

“SHERIFF. We'll be right out, Mr. Hale. 
(Hale goes outside. The Sheriff follows the County Attorney into the other room. Then Mrs. Hale rises, hands tight together, looking intensely at Mrs. Peters, whose eyes take a slow turn, finally meeting Mrs. Hale's. A moment Mrs. Hale holds her, then her own eyes point the way to where the box is concealed. Suddenly Mrs. Peters throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the bag she is wearing. It is too big. She opens box, starts to take the bird out, cannot touch it, goes to pieces, stands there helpless. Sound of a knob turning in the other room. Mrs. Hale snatches the box and puts it in the pocket of her big coat. Enter County Attorney and Sheriff.)” (Glaspell in Roberts, 400).

Hyperbolic diction used to intensify the message of the author is normally attributed to fictional writing, in which the author's ideas and thoughts are indeed the subject matter of the work. In Trifles and "A Jury of her Peers", the literal subject is the murder of a man, presumably by his wife and the ensuring investigation that takes place. However, the real subject matter, the intentions of Glaspell, lie beneath the literal meanings of the words and must be inferred from her tone, diction, and choice of detail. A different approach is traditionally utilized in absorbing a work of journalism. Journalism, as the chief provider of information in our society, has a certain duty to uphold that is not necessarily expected of fictional, novelistic writing. Thus its content should be direct in its conveying, highly comprehendible even to the most modest of intellects, and free of perspective swaying stylistic inclusions. We see this unusual straying in Glaspell's extensive use of hyperbole and emotionally charged insertions of her own opinions in the excerpt included above and in the following excerpts of her coverings of the trial:

"His repeated declaration that the gray haired mother, sitting there with bowed head in the midst of her children, is a murderess, must constitute a fearful ordeal but through it all, neither the defendant nor her children have betrayed the least sign of emotion." (Glaspell, De Moines Daily News, April 10).

"She was surrounded by her friends whose sobbing could be heard through the hall and into the open court yard, continuing until Sheriff Hodson led the prisoner back to the jail awaiting final judgment. Senator Berry announced that he would move for a new trial."(Glaspell, De Moines Daily News, April 11).

"The aged prisoner sat looking helpless and in a sort of dazed condition at the clerk. Then, suddenly seeming to realize the meaning of the verdict, she sank back in her chair and for the first time during the long and trying ordeal, gave completely away to her feelings."(Glaspell, De Moines Daily News, April 11).

"[Mrs. Hossack] sat calmly in her seat, the rigid expression which she had carried all through the trial, changing to that of earnest expectation of either good or evil news. Slowly the twelve men filed to their seats in the jury box. The foreman delivered the verdict to the bailiff, who handed it to the clerk. The latter stood erect. A death-like silence pervaded the room."(Glaspell, De Moines Daily News, April 11).

Plot Differences between real Hossack murder and Glaspell's literary renditions:

  • Killed with an axe, not hung
  • Minnie Foster doesn't have kids while Mr. Hossack does

Works Cited

Ben-Zvi, Linda. "'Murder, she wrote': the genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles." Theatre Journal 44.2 (1992): 141+. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3208736 >.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Essays on her Theater and Fiction. United States of America: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. Oxford: Oxford University, 2005.

Bryan, Patricia L. "Stories in Fiction and Fact: Susan Glaspell's 'A Jury of Her Peers' and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hassock." Stanford Law Review 49.6 (1997): 1293-1363.

Direful Tragedies: Abuse and Murder in the Heartland. Web. 3 Dec. 2009. <http://www.asphistory.com/murderesses/women.htm>.

Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics, 1915-48. United States of America: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics, 1915-48.United States of America: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Glaspell, Susan. A Jury of Her Peers. Annenberg Media, 2009. <http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html>.

Glaspell, Susan. "Hossack Begged Wife to Aid Him." Des Moines Daily News 3 April 1901. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News15.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Hossack Trial on in Earnest." Des Moines Daily News 2 April 1901. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News14.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Mrs. Hossack May Yet Be Proven Innocent." Des Moines Daily News 12 Dec. 1900. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News9.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Mrs. Hossack's Fearful Ordeal." Des Moines Daily News 9-10 April. 1900. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News22.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Mrs. Hossack's Parting Plea." Des Moines Daily News 19 April 1901. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News24.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Now Before Grand Jury." Des Moines Daily News 11 Dec. 1900. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News8.html>

Glaspell, Susan. "Sheriff after Mrs. Hossack." Des Moines Daily News 5 Dec. 1900. <http://www.midnightassassin.com/News3.html>

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Writing about Literature. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. Vol. 11. Pearson Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 2006. 392-400.

The Hossack Case reports. Des Moines Daily News 3 December 1900-13 April 1901.

Makowsky, Veronica. Susan Glaspell's Century of American Women: A Critical Interpretation of Her Work. Oxford University, 1993.

Pennington, Becky. "John Hossack." Find A Grave. 2005. 29 Nov. 2009 <http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12058610>.