Question: What inspired you and Patricia to research the Hossack murder case and write MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN?
TW: Around 1990, Patricia began teaching a Law and Literature course at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and one of the stories on her first syllabus was "A Jury of Her Peers." It was written in 1917 by Susan Glaspell. Patricia knew that Glaspell's story was based on a real murder case, so she decided to find out as much as she could about the case. Patricia turned her research into a law review article, and shortly after that we decided to work together on a book about the Hossack murder.
To me, the story was both a whodunit--with an array of interesting social and legal angles--and a kind of micro history of the farm life in the Midwest a century ago. It was a compelling true drama: an unsolved murder that forced a whole community to deal with issues ranging from domestic abuse to the social roles played by men and women.
Question: Who was Susan Glaspell and what role does she play in the book?
TW: Glaspell was a young reporter for the Des Moines Daily News from 1898 to 1901, and she reported on the first trial of Margaret Hossack in April 1901. Glaspell wrote more than two dozen newspaper articles about the case as it was unfolding, and years later, she based the one-act play, Trifles , and the short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" on the Hossack murder case. Glaspell went on to become one of America's great writers of the first half of the 20 th century. She was accomplished as a journalist, short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and playwright.
In our book, Glaspell is a character who becomes a kind of interpreter--first telling the story as a newspaper reporter and later creating fictional works based on the case. She knew that one important aspect of the story was the difference in how men and women look at the world. She also had doubts that the legal system could truly be fair unless women's voices could be heard in the courtroom--and women were part of the decision making process in the criminal justice system.
Question: How did you decide on a style and structure for MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN?
TW: The book is a nonfiction narrative. We wanted to tell the story as clearly and directly as possible and let the facts come out to the reader just the way the facts came out to the public after the murder. We wanted the book to read like a novel in the sense that a series of events unfold, characters interact, and the narrative moves from the murder to the investigation to various legal proceedings. It is a story full of suspense, mystery, and interesting people. I might add that everything in the book is based on primary sources--newspaper accounts, legal records, memoirs, and interviews. We didn't invent any scenes, characters, or dialogue.
Question: How did you do the research for the book?
TW: We started with the legal records and the newspaper accounts of the crime and trials. Then we looked at local histories and memoirs to gather new facts and get a sense of that era. We were especially interested in the stories of other women who lived in rural areas at this time, and we've incorporated some of those stories in the book. In the last phases of our research, we interviewed descendants of the Hossack family and people who still live in Warren County to see how the story passed down through the generations.
Question: Did you begin your research believing that Margaret Hossack was guilty or innocent?
TW: We tried to keep an open mind. At the start of our research, I was inclined to believe that Mrs. Hossack acted alone, but when we considered the evidence and uncovered new facts, I developed serious doubts. A broader story emerged. If I had been on the jury, I would have voted for her acquittal. And I don't think it's giving too much away to say that we don't solve the crime at the end of the book. This ambiguity occurs in many criminal cases. What really happened just can't be known. We trust the reader to weigh the evidence and decide whether or not Margaret was guilty of killing her husband.
Question: This book--like Capote's In Cold Blood --has all the ingredients of true crime, but MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN also explores what it was like to work on farms in the late 1800s, gender issues, and how communities dealt with problems like domestic abuse and mental illness. How did you combine these elements?
TW: The crime, investigation, and trials provided the framework of a true crime narrative. The fact that Mrs. Hossack had repeatedly gone to her neighbors to report the abuse and threatening behavior of her husband--who seemed to suffer from some form of mental illness--opened the door for us to bring in these other issues. All of it was relevant to the larger story of the murder and what led up to it.
Question: How did the newspaper portrayals of Margaret Hossack influence the conduct of the trial?
TW: The newspaper coverage was often very sensational--remember there was no television or radio, no court TV, so people relied on newspaper stories and illustrations in the papers to get a sense of the people involved. The newspapers wanted to hook their readers with the story of this gruesome event and keep readers clamoring for more information and details. This case took place just eight years after the trial of Lizzie Borden, but it was still very unusual for a woman to be charged with killing her husband, so the case attracted a lot of attention. Margaret Hossack was a large woman and reporters described her in masculine terms, suggesting that she was not appropriately feminine in appearance or behavior. The implication was that she might be capable of murder. The prosecutor played up this characterization in court. In fact, the newspaper coverage foreshadowed much of the courtroom drama--and it certainly must have influenced potential jurors. One of the questions the prosecutor raised in court is whether or not Margaret Hossack had the appearance of a "normal woman" and whether or not she acted as a good wife and mother should act. In many ways, she was judged on what kind of woman she seemed to be.
I might add that I think Susan Glaspell picked up on this attempt to prove Mrs. Hossack's guilt by calling attention to her perceived shortcomings as a wife and homemaker. Anyone who has read Trifles or "A Jury of Her Peers" will recognize Glaspell's suggestion that women are often judged by these criteria.
Question: What did you think of the performance of the lawyers in the case?
TW: Berry and Clammer were very good attorneys and gave powerful closing arguments. Each of them spoke passionately for four or five hours at the end of the first trial. Lawyers of that era had to be articulate and extremely skilled at oral presentation. The courthouses were jammed with spectators--in the courtroom and in the corridors--who came to hear them speak. Both were remarkable performers. They were the best show in town.
Question: Margaret's family--her children and sons-in-law--supported her throughout the legal process. Did they believe she was innocent?
TW: They certainly acted like it. If they knew a different story, they didn't divulge it--either at the time of the trials or any time after that, as far as we know.
Question: And yet, after the end of the second trial, the family dispersed. Many of the Hossack children had very difficult lives. Why do you think this was true?
TW: A father slain in the middle of the night, a mother accused--what could have been more traumatic for a family? The murder of John Hossack, the legal proceedings that followed, and the public scrutiny of the Hossacks had a deep and long-lasting effect on those family members. Except for Ivan, the youngest child, none of the children had a very happy or fulfilling life.
Question: What was it like writing the book with Patricia? Was it an easy process? Did you have any trouble aligning your opinions and writing styles for the book?
TW: Patricia and I shared a fascination with the story. In the beginning, we tried to agree on the structure of the book. We worked on parts of it independently, then shared drafts, and rewrote each other's chapters. First draft writing is pretty much a solitary adventure, but in the latter stages of composition--revising, rewriting, editing--there's room for cooperation, and compromise is necessary. We worked hard at giving the narrative a single voice.
Question: What surprises or revelations did you have during the writing of the book?
TW: I was struck by the isolation of farm families at this time--before cars and phones. It was sixteen miles from the Hossack farm to the county seat, and it took the authorities several hours to get to the farm after they heard about the murder.
Question: What lessons can we learn from the Hossack case?
TW: The story of Margaret Hossack's life is both mysterious and meaningful. We need to be careful not to judge people too quickly or on the basis of how they look. Family life is complicated. The facts can sometimes be difficult to assess. It is hard to assign blame and arrive at justice. We need to listen to people's stories--not just the stories told in courtrooms, but the full stories of people's lives.