Many law schools these days offer a course called law and literature, which is immensely popular with students as a welcome break from more traditional subjects, like torts and contracts. The readings encourage students to reflect on complex issues not often raised in other classes, such as cultural images of lawyers, moral dilemmas in legal practice, and the role of storytelling in courtrooms. Classics like Melville's Billy Budd and Kafka's The Trial are often assigned, and one of the most frequently selected works is "A Jury of Her Peers," a story written by Susan Glaspell in 1917.
"A Jury of Her Peers" has always been a favorite of my students. The story is about the investigation into a murder; a man has been killed, and his wife has been charged with the crime. Gradually, clues suggest that the accused woman was a victim of her husband's abuse and acted in revenge. Readers are led to question whether she will be fairly judged in a courtroom that, at the time of the story, was exclusively controlled by men. The story triggers spirited debates among my students, and, as I listened to these discussions, two questions occurred to me: What about this case had led Susan Glaspell to raise such significant concerns about the legal system? Who was the woman in the story?
I decided to play detective. I knew that Glaspell had worked as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News from 1898 - 1901, when she was a young woman in her twenties, and that she'd based "A Jury of Her Peers" on an actual case. During several weeks in April 1901, bold headlines had dominated the front pages with accounts of a murder trial that was said to be one of the most sensational of its day. The defendant was Margaret Hossack, a fifty-seven-year-old farmwife who was accused of the ax murder of her husband, John, as he lay in bed asleep.
From the beginning, Margaret Hossack claimed to be innocent, saying that she had slept through the attack committed by an unknown intruder. Her children--all nine of them--supported her in that claim. Neighbors were initially reluctant to talk to authorities, but they eventually reported that John Hossack had been verbally abusive and threatening to his family. At the trial in Indianola, Iowa, the prosecutor relied on those statements to prove that Margaret Hossack had a motive, demanding that she be convicted of first-degree murder.
I read hundreds of newspaper articles; transcripts from the coroner's inquest, the grand jury hearings, and the trial; legal briefs; probate records; local histories; and private memoirs. But, even with all the facts, much of the real story remained a mystery. In 1998, my husband, Tom Wolf, joined me in the search. We decided to try to find out what contemporary residents knew about the crime by running an advertisement in the local newspaper with the headline who killed John Hossack?
The murder, even after all these years, had not been forgotten. Some of the responses were disquieting. People questioned our intentions, wondering if we were trying to clear someone's name or point a finger of blame at another person. A local attorney claimed to have privileged information that might identify the murderer, but refused to elaborate, saying he didn't want to re-ignite longstanding feuds. And a great-grandchild of John and Margaret Hossack spoke to us only on the condition of anonymity, describing the murder as a family secret. An elderly woman recalled tales from her father, who visited the farmhouse on the night of the murder and couldn't forget the image of Margaret Hossack in her bloody nightgown.
Some in the community even think that the specter of John Hossack remains on his farm. We were told that repeated washings failed to remove the victim's blood from the floorboards and walls of the bedroom, and a subsequent owner of the house described a strange figure that had appeared to him from time to time.
During our years of research, Tom and I were not primarily focused on the question of Margaret Hossack's guilt. Rather, we were fascinated by the community reaction to the crime, the courtroom drama, the media coverage, and the enduring mystery of what happened on the night of John Hossack's murder.
Now, when we discuss "A Jury of Her Peers," I tell my students what we've discovered about Margaret Hossack's complicated life. We discuss what she must have gone through in her marriage. We talk about the obligations of communities and the complex web of emotions and loyalties that exist in families. We debate the issues raised by Glaspell's short story, and we think back to the voices from a country courtroom more than a century ago and consider how those stories, recalled and retold, still reverberate today.