Patricia Bryan Article
From Stanford Law Review
Copyright (c) 1997 The Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University
Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack
Copyright 1997, Patricia L. Bryan.
Susan Glaspell's short story A Jury of Her Peers, written in 1917, occupies an important place in the emerging canon of the study of law and literature. Although it was often included in anthologies during the forty years following its initial publication, the story has enjoyed a surge of popularity since feminist scholars rediscovered it in the early 1970s. During the last twenty years, A Jury of Her Peers and the play Trifles, from which Glaspell adapted the story, have frequently been republished in collections of works by female authors depicting women's experiences. Many essays of literary criticism, most of them written from feminist perspectives, have discussed both the story and the play. Referred to as a "feminist classic," A Jury of Her Peers raises significant questions about women's oppression in a society dominated by men, gender differences in perception, and the empowerment of women that comes from consciousness-raising and female bonding.
The story also has obvious connections to the law, since it concerns a woman accused of murdering her husband and the subsequent search of her home for clues to the crime. The accused, Minnie Wright, is already in prison for the crime when the sheriff, the prosecutor, and a male neighbor go to her home to investigate the murder. Two women - the wives of the sheriff and the neighbor - accompany the men. Glaspell contrasts the way in which the male characters, as representatives of the law, look for dry facts with the manner in which the women, who are there only to gather clothes for the accused, are able to piece together and better understand what has happened. When the women discover evidence indicating that the wife has been mistreated by her husband, they know that it will be used in the courtroom to help to convict her by showing that she had a motive for the murder. Empathizing with the accused woman, as well as recognizing their own moral failure in not coming to her aid, the women decide to conceal the crucial evidence from the men. Because of its relevance to questions of criminal responsibility and moral judgments, A Jury of Her Peers has been cited and discussed in many law review articles and included in traditional law school courses, such as civil procedure and criminal law. The story is also one of the most frequently selected works in law school courses that focus on law and literature.
I first read A Jury of Her Peers when I started teaching a seminar in law and literature several years ago. It is a popular story with students, one which generates a broad range of contemporary topics for discussion. From their law school classes, stories in the press, and sometimes their own experiences, students are aware of the prevalence of domestic violence. A Jury of Her Peers typically stimulates discussion about the issue of justifiable homicide by a battered woman--when a single violent act against an abuser might be provoked and possibly excused. Some students are also familiar with the work of feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan, and they perceive the story as another illustration of the "different voice" in which women speak. In the seminar, we talk about the contrasts between the ways in which men and women, even today, analyze problems and assign responsibility. The story is provocative and powerful, and the questions it presents are complex.
My own understanding of the story has changed over the years I have taught it. As I read and reread it, I appreciate its richness - the sense that the issues it raises in connection with the law go beyond the obvious ones related to justifiable homicide and modes of understanding unique to men and women. More broadly, it seems to me that A Jury of Her Peers provokes questions about storytelling in the law, a topic which, in recent years, has generated a considerable amount of scholarship. To me, Glaspell's story raises questions about the stories told and accepted in the courtroom, how they both reflect and reinforce prevailing societal assumptions and expectations. In A Jury of Her Peers, the legal perspective, represented by the men who are in charge of the investigation and who will stand in judgment, is portrayed as narrow and rigid, based on preconceived notions about gender roles that make it impossible for them to recognize or understand the experiences of the accused woman. Accordingly, the story that is relevant to the men, and therefore relevant to the law, ignores or rejects many of the complex elements of the real-life narrative, elements which the women recognize as an explanation for the crime. Readers are left with the overwhelming impression that the stories that would eventually be told in the courtroom would be determined by the underlying biases of the men, who would both tell the stories and interpret them, and that justice could not be done with such a limited and constrained perspective.
In discussing A Jury of Her Peers with my students, I explain that the story was inspired by the actual trial of Margaret Hossack, who was accused of murdering her husband in Iowa in 1900. At the time, Susan Glaspell, a native of Davenport, Iowa, was twenty-four years old and working as a reporter for a Des Moines newspaper. She had graduated from Drake University the previous year with a degree in philosophy. Glaspell was assigned to cover the Hossack case soon after the murder of John Hossack was first reported. She would later become a major writer, the author of nine novels and numerous plays and short stories, and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. But up to this point, her writing had consisted primarily of assignments in her newspaper job, where she focused on statehouse and legislative reports. She had had little exposure to the law or the courtroom. The investigation into the murder of Mr. Hossack, followed by the arrest, trial, and, finally, conviction of his wife, Margaret Hossack, was Susan Glaspell's introduction to the system of criminal justice.
As she observed the legal process at work, Susan Glaspell saw and reported on a system controlled by male figures of authority. The sheriff, the coroner, the trial judge, and the lawyers were all men. Women were not permitted to sit on juries at that time, so the coroner's jury, the grand jury that indicted Mrs. Hossack, and the trial court jury consisted entirely of men. Susan Glaspell was one of the few female reporters who followed the case, describing for her readers the gruesome crime and the long ordeal of Mrs. Hossack and her family.
I started my investigation into the story of Margaret Hossack because I was interested in learning more about what had led Susan Glaspell to write A Jury of Her Peers and understanding what aspects of the trial inspired Glaspell's doubts about the legal system and its ability to do justice. Although the trial took place more than ninety years ago, I discovered that a county clerk of court's office had the original transcripts from the coroner's inquest into Mr. Hossack's murder, as well as the actual warrant for Margaret Hossack's arrest. That same office had original handwritten transcripts from the grand jury proceedings that had led to Margaret Hossack's indictment. The library of the Iowa Supreme Court had the briefs filed on appeal, which included extensive abstracts of trial testimony. One of the county courthouses had the probate records filed after John Hossack's death, in addition to copies of various court papers filed in the case. Local historical societies and museums had newspapers from that time on microfilm, so I was able to read more than a hundred newspaper reports dealing with the crime, the arrest of Margaret Hossack, her trial, and its aftermath. Finally, I was able to contact two direct descendants of Margaret Hossack, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter, who told me what they knew about the history of their family.
As my research unfolded, I became fascinated by the story of the woman whose life inspired A Jury of Her Peers. The story was dramatic and mysterious. John Hossack, a prominent farmer and landowner nearly sixty years old, was killed by two powerful blows to his skull as he lay in bed late one night in December 1900. Almost immediately, suspicions focused on his wife of thirty-three years, Margaret Hossack, also in her late fifties and the mother of their nine children. Although she professed her innocence, her story was almost impossible to believe: She claimed that she was asleep next to her husband when the violent attack occurred, waking in time to hear the door close as the murderer escaped.
Strong evidence existed that Mrs. Hossack had a motive for the murder. Neighbors admitted that they had known for years of Mr. Hossack's cruelty toward his wife and children, and they reported that Mrs. Hossack, often in tears, had told them many times that she was afraid for the safety of her family. Apparently, she often said the family would have no peace as long as her husband was alive. Soon after the blood-stained family axe was found near the Hossack house, Margaret Hossack was arrested on charges of first-degree murder. When she was tried for the crime in April 1901, the prosecution asked for the death penalty.
The circumstantial evidence against Mrs. Hossack was strong, and many members of the community seemed convinced of her guilt from the beginning. Nevertheless, her consistent claim that she was innocent, her calm and stoic demeanor as she listened to the evidence against her and testified on her own behalf, and the loyal and emotional support of her nine children added an aura of drama and tragedy to the proceedings. The trial of Margaret Hossack generated enormous publicity and intense excitement, drawing people from all over the state, crowding the courtroom and the surrounding roads. It was said to be one of the most sensational trials ever in the history of Iowa, one which would long be remembered for its gruesomeness, its mystery, and its "exceedingly great strangeness" that made it "so weird, so hard to understand."
As I learned more about the case, Glaspell's inspiration for A Jury of Her Peers seemed clear. The competing narratives told in the courtroom where Mrs. Hossack was tried for her life seemed limited and incomplete; neither the prosecution nor the defense offered a satisfying description of the Hossack family or a complete explanation of the crime. Just as Susan Glaspell might have been, I was left with the disturbing sense that the stories told in the courtroom about Margaret Hossack were constructed by the lawyers based on assumptions and stereotypes, ignoring the complexity of the actual experiences of Margaret Hossack and the difficult moral questions her experiences presented. Professor James Boyd White has characterized some legal verdicts as "not a judgment about what really happened in the world, but about what happened in court." It seemed to me that the verdict in the Hossack case fit that description, with the verdict then inspiring Susan Glaspell to write her short story in which the women arrive at a different kind of judgment, considering facts and circumstances never fully taken into account in the courtroom.
As I worked on uncovering the full story of Margaret Hossack, a double irony emerged. Even as Glaspell's story suggested a contrast between the simplistic narrative that would most likely be told in the courtroom and the more complex reality outside it, so it became apparent that reality is rarely so uncomplicated, or the real story so straightforward, as that portrayed by Glaspell. Historical narratives are seldom as satisfying as fiction, where the author has the power to tell us all of the relevant facts so that we can solve the mystery and believe we comprehend why the crime was committed.
By contrast, I quickly realized that it was impossible for an outsider to ever actually know the true story of what happened in the Hossack case. Clues to motivations, behavior, relationships, and family dynamics were sparse and often contradictory, and events were described differently by different people. Based on the facts I knew, I could construct alternative versions of the crime, as the lawyers did at Mrs. Hossack's trial nearly one hundred years before. But all of the stories I could tell, just as those told by the lawyers, were only suppositions, possibilities. And as in the trial of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing her father and stepmother almost ten years before the murder of John Hossack, it is that sense of uncertainty, of "eternal doubt," that must account for both the frustration and the fascination of the Hossack case, both to me and to contemporaries of Margaret Hossack, who were enthralled with every detail of the gory crime and its aftermath.
Despite the continuing mystery surrounding the crime, however, I read enough to realize that the true story of Margaret Hossack's life and relationship with her husband was far more complicated than that reflected by the lawyers for either the defense or the prosecution. Both sides portrayed Margaret Hossack in ways that heavily relied on stereotypical views of women and marriage. Thus, for the prosecution, Margaret Hossack's guilt seemed not only to depend on proof that she had wielded the axe, but it also hinged on whether the jury could be convinced that she had otherwise transgressed the norms of feminine behavior shared by the community, a finding which would support the conclusion that she was the type of woman who could murder her husband. For the defense, acquittal seemed to depend on depicting Mrs. Hossack as within the prevailing paradigm of feminine virtue, a model which certainly did not include the capability to commit a violent act against a male figure of authority.
The abuse that Margaret Hossack had suffered was of great significance, if only to the prosecution, because it provided a motive for the crime. The defense lawyers sought to characterize Mr. Hossack's cruelty toward his family as irrelevant, and they objected to the introduction of such testimony at every opportunity. In fact, Mrs. Hossack's acquittal seemed to depend on a denial of the reality of her marriage and the harsh treatment she had endured from her husband, with members of the family brought to the stand to testify to the happiness and stability of the Hossack union.
As she listened to the testimony and legal arguments in the Hossack case, Susan Glaspell must have been struck by the inadequacy of the courtroom stories in conveying the reality of Margaret Hossack's life and experiences. In A Jury of Her Peers, Glaspell presents a different perception of experiences similar to those of Mrs. Hossack, a perception which was absent from the courtroom and the newspaper reports of the Hossack trial. Glaspell suggests that one can understand the story in a way that arouses sympathy for the accused, that provides a justification for the crime, and that raises the possibility that others may in some way share in the responsibility for what happened. In the story, Glaspell suggests that such a perspective is possible for the women characters because they are able to empathize with Minnie Wright and imagine themselves in her situation. In contrast, the men lack a similar empathic understanding of the crime; they appear to base their judgments on erroneous preconceptions and assumptions, leading the reader to question whether they are capable of doing justice.
Susan Glaspell wrote her story in reaction to the first trial of Margaret Hossack. Apparently, however, she was not alone in her sense that the issue of Margaret Hossack's guilt had not been fully and fairly determined. After the first trial, many were to reconsider how Margaret Hossack should have been judged, and her story continued to be retold: by another court, other lawyers, another jury, and members of the community. In a world where family violence was most often viewed as a private matter rather than as a public concern, those who heard the story of Mrs. Hossack must have struggled with their emotions and their reactions. Without a language to discuss domestic abuse, they may have realized only that the conventional stories told about her in court--describing Margaret Hossack as either a good woman who loved her husband or an evil one who hated him--could not begin to capture the complexity of her life and her experiences. The events that followed the jury verdict in the case tell us that many eventually recognized what Susan Glaspell suggests in A Jury of Her Peers: that the patriarchal norms and expectations of those who stood in judgment, both as jury members and as members of the community, prevented the legal system from doing justice.
In his discussion of the relationship between legal narratives and the "ordinary narratives of real life," Professor White has made the point that the legal verdict does not always end the narrative of the crime. In a courtroom, the judge or the jury hears competing stories and then selects one to serve as the authoritative version. That story provides the basis for a collective judgment of guilt or innocence; responsibility and blame are assigned and the punishment is fixed according to that story. A legal judgment speaks in terms of authority, but as Professor White has discussed, the role of any legal judgment ultimately depends on community acceptance and validation. If the sense of injustice is strong enough - the sense that the story told and accepted in the courtroom was not morally or factually complete or fully accurate - the legal version of the story may ultimately be rejected. As Professor White has explained:
[A legal] judgment is always incomplete, for it always depends upon what happens in the other world of ordinary narrative and private life in which it must work and which it cannot control... It is not that the legal judgment has no authority, but that its authority is not absolute and should always be defensible in other terms, in the language of the community itself.
In the case of Margaret Hossack, subsequent events suggest that, in the end, the legal verdict was not so defensible.
In this article, my primary goal is to tell what I have discovered about the story of Margaret Hossack, discussing how her first trial inspired Susan Glaspell to write her classic work A Jury of Her Peers. I hope that a factual account of the case will enrich the understanding of those who read Glaspell's story by providing a detailed consideration of the events that inspired the story. Like Glaspell's story, the case of Margaret Hossack raises questions about the potential narrowness of the legal perspective, how the stories told and the issues addressed in the courtroom may be distorted by the norms and expectations of those in authority. Other stories, those which reflect the experiences of those not in power and which therefore conflict with the conventional accounts of the courtroom, are either believed to be false or never told.
In order to counter the narrowness of the stories that are told and accepted under the law, as well as our own biases and expectations in judging other people, we must learn to recognize and appreciate experiences that are different from our own. Narratives such as A Jury of Her Peers and the story of Margaret Hossack offer that opportunity by extending an invitation to envision an unfamiliar context and imagine circumstances that we ourselves may never encounter. Stories give us the potential to acquire an empathic understanding of other people, an understanding which helps us to recognize the stereotypical notions that may be embedded in the law even though they stand at odds with the reality and complexity of the lives of many people. Hearing and appreciating stories make us better able to work together as a community to define justice in a way that more broadly reflects the diversity of the human experience.
It is, therefore, to the stories that I will turn: first to the fictional one told by Susan Glaspell, and then to the factual narrative of Margaret Hossack.
I. A Jury of Her Peers
Susan Glaspell wrote A Jury of Her Peers in 1917, nearly sixteen years after she reported on the first trial of Margaret Hossack. n44 During those sixteen years, Glaspell completed numerous short stories, several plays, and three novels. She had already begun to explore some of the feminist themes that are evident in A Jury of Her Peers and that would recur in many of her later works, which often concern the struggles of women against inhibiting social conventions to gain self-awareness and a sense of self-worth.
A Jury of Her Peers is, however, unique among Glaspell's work because it also raises questions about the law, questions which were no doubt stimulated by her observations of the trial of Margaret Hossack. In the short story, Glaspell contrasts the approaches of the men and the women in their investigation and comprehension of a crime, revealing differences in how they discover and decode clues at the crime scene. Through that contrast, Glaspell exposes the difference between the story of the crime that would be relevant under the law, the one in which the men are interested, and the story uncovered and understood by the women. It is the women's story that reveals the actual motivation for the crime and that raises difficult moral issues of responsibility. The men, who will stand in judgment of the accused woman, can neither see nor understand the more complex story and fail to recognize the related moral issues. A Jury of Her Peers suggests a conclusion that Susan Glaspell must have reached while she reported on the first murder trial of Margaret Hossack: that justice was not done under the law.
A Jury of Her Peers takes place in the rural Midwest at the turn of the century. The story opens with a group of five people traveling to the Wright farmhouse the day after a farm wife, Minnie Wright, is arrested and imprisoned on the charge of killing her husband of twenty years, strangling him as he lay in bed. Mrs. Wright claims innocence, saying she was asleep next to her husband, John, when the murder occurred. Two of the men - the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney - are visiting the Wrights' house in their official capacity to search for clues. Mr. Hale, a neighboring farmer, is along to tell how he discovered the murder the day before. Mrs. Peters, the sheriff's wife, is with the three men so that she can gather a few clothes for the accused woman, and she has asked Mrs. Hale to accompany her.
The differences between the men and the women become apparent almost immediately. They divide into two separate groups as they enter the Wright farmhouse, but the distance is quickly shown to be more than simply physical; the psychological and emotional reactions of the men and the women differ as well. Throughout the story, the men and the women display different interests, concerns, and priorities. And it is the men who carry the weight of authority, who are charged with the investigation of the murder. The men will decide what is relevant under the law, just as other men, acting as judge and jurors, will be responsible in the courtroom for deciding the fate of Minnie Wright. In the minds of the men in the story, just as in the society as a whole, the women are marginalized, with their abilities perceived to be limited to those necessary for their domestic duties of cooking and housekeeping.
Inside the Wrights' farmhouse, the men take charge at once and begin their attempt to solve the crime. Mr. Hale tells of going to the Wright home on an errand and hearing Mrs. Wright's story that her husband was strangled with a rope while she was asleep in bed next to him. Mr. Hale expresses his disbelief that she could have slept through the murder, a suspicion which is apparently shared by the other men. At one point, Mr. Hale starts to suggest that he has known of some difficulties between Mr. and Mrs. Wright, but the county attorney cuts him off, stressing that he wants to focus solely on the events of the day before.
Although they are searching for a motive for the killing, "something to show anger - or sudden feeling," the men linger only a few minutes in the Wrights' kitchen, the place where Minnie Wright has spent most of her waking hours. They are convinced of its irrelevance to anything important, sure of the "insignificance of kitchen things." The men laugh at their wives and Minnie Wright for their concern over domestic "Trifles," although they are also quick to criticize Minnie for what they judge to be poor housekeeping skills. As they proceed with their fixed plan of investigation, the men seem convinced that the women are incapable of understanding anything relevant to the story of the crime.
The irony of the men's arrogance becomes apparent once they leave the kitchen. The men search for clues upstairs, with their footsteps often audible, reminding the women below of the male presence and authority. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters remain in the kitchen and gradually piece together the real story of Minnie Wright, her life and the killing of her husband. Evidence that appears disconnected and means nothing to the men reveals Minnie Wright's hardship and despair to the women. The women focus on Minnie Wright's shabby and much-mended clothes, the sagging rocking chair, and the broken stove in need of repair. They sense the lonely and desolate feel of the house, down in a hollow out of sight of the road, where Minnie Wright has spent her days alone, without children and friends.
Mrs. Hale speaks of John Wright, Minnie's husband and one companion. In the eyes of the community, he was a "good man," possessing the most important virtues: He "didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most ... and paid his debts." And yet, as Mrs. Hale remembers him, "Just to pass the time of day with him [was l]ike a raw wind that gets to the bone." He was apparently a cold and silent man, miserly and caring little for whathis wife may have wanted. In the small details of Minnie's life, Mrs. Hale recognizes John Wright's cruelty to her, how her marriage to him changed and eventually imprisoned her, destroying her vitality and spirit. Before the women find any specific clues to the crime, they sense the physical and emotional desolation of Minnie's life that could have led to a desperate act of violence.
Then, most significantly, the women discover the very evidence for which the men are searching. They find a clue to what the men would identify as the motive for the crime, the specific event that must have triggered Minnie's violent reaction. From the unfinished tasks in the kitchen and the irregular sewing on one piece of a quilt, the women understand that an event out of the ordinary must have happened to cause Minnie's distress. They discover a broken bird cage that looks as if someone had been rough with it. And then, finally, the women find the dead body of a songbird in Minnie's sewing box, tenderly wrapped in a piece of silk in preparation for burial. The songbird's neck was wrung, the life "choked out of him." Together, although with few words spoken between them, the women infer that John Wright strangled Minnie's bird, her one source of joy. His final act of cruelty led to her violent crime of retribution.
In the story's closing scene, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters silently communicate to each other their mutual decision to conceal the body of the songbird. Mrs. Peters is the first to move, but she is unable to fit the box holding the bird into her handbag. Mrs. Hale takes it from her, hiding it in her large coat pocket just as the men enter the room. The last words of the story are Mrs. Hale's. In response to a question asked "facetiously" by the county attorney as to how Mrs. Wright planned to finish her quilt, Mrs. Hale replies, "We call it - knot it." In that final statement, Susan Glaspell not only calls up the image of Minnie having tied the rope around her husband's neck, but she also reenforces the other two women bonding (or "knotting") together, silently refusing to recognize (saying "not" to) the authority of the men.
While the women never articulate a reason for what they do, they are convinced that the evidence of the strangled songbird will assure the conviction of Minnie Wright. As they have heard the county attorney explain:
It's all perfectly clear, except the reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing - something to show. Something to make a story about. A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it.
The body of the songbird is, of course, exactly the evidence he seeks. It would explain the strange means of the murder - why the woman strangled her husband instead of using the gun that was in the house - and it would also provide the specific trigger for Mrs. Wright's violent rage.
Although the issue of justifiable homicide is often raised in connection with A Jury of Her Peers, it is not clear that the women decide that Minnie was justified in what she did or that her crime should be excused because of the life she had led. It seems more reasonable to explain their action on a different ground: their conclusion that the men, who control the process of the law, are incompetent to determine Minnie's guilt or innocence. Under this reading, the women conceal the crucial evidence in order to prevent a legal judgment they believe would be unjust, founded, as they are convinced it would be, on a limited and narrow comprehension of Minnie's life and circumstances.
The women's understanding of Minnie is based, to a large extent, on a shared context; her domestic world and realm of activities are completely familiar to them. 2 And because they can identify details of their own lives in Minnie's, they are able to imagine not only her circumstances, but also her emotions; they are able to put themselves in her place and feel what she must have felt.
Mrs. Hale, who has known Minnie Wright since they were both young and who is protective of her from the beginning, takes the lead, thinking of what it would have meant in her own life to have worked with a broken stove, to have had only shabby clothes to wear, and to have lived and worked without children or other companionship. Mrs. Peters is at first reluctant to identify with the accused woman, but then, remembering the death of her first child on a lonely homestead, she begins to imagine Minnie's loneliness and despair. Mrs. Peters remembers seeing a boy murder her pet kitten with a hatchet, and she senses in herself the capacity for violence that Minnie displayed. As Mrs. Peters faces her own powerlessness and inferiority in a world controlled and defined by male figures of authority, she more fully comprehends Minnie's subjugation and isolation in a world controlled by John Wright.
As the women empathize with Minnie, imagining her emotional reactions, they are also confronted with constant evidence that those who will judge her under the law will not share their perspective. Minnie will be judged and condemned by men whose views, personified in John Wright, created the very situation that gave rise to Minnie's despair. The women know that the men who are investigating the crime, just as those who will later tell her story and judge her in the courtroom, are incapable of identifying with Minnie in any way, of putting themselves in her position. Not only is the realm of her life totally foreign to them, but as they have shown by their constant belittling comments, they view her concerns as trivial and insignificant.
The women understand how the story of Minnie's life will be retold in the courtroom. Minnie has already been found by the men to be at fault as a woman, condemned as a poor housekeeper who lacked the crucial "home-making instinct." In the ways that matter to the men, John Wright was respected: He was sober, kept his word, and paid his debts. He will no doubt prove to be a most sympathetic victim to the twelve men of the jury who will stand in judgment of his wife. In the courtroom, John Wright's cruelty to his wife will neither justify compassion for Minnie nor serve as a mitigating factor in explaining her crime. Instead, under the law, her husband's cruelty will be used against Minnie, with the body of the strangled songbird providing the proof of a motive and guaranteeing her conviction.
Shared context is obviously of great importance in distinguishing the story understood by the women from the one they expect to be retold by the men in the courtroom. But Glaspell portrays the perspective of the men as too narrowly focused in yet another way. The story they are seeking to uncover is too specific and limited, involving only the particular events of the night of the murder. Their investigation proceeds according to a fixed and logical plan, with their questions seemingly predetermined, defined by the elements necessary to convict under the law. Their perspective necessarily limits the events that are relevant to the story as it will be retold in court, and in the eyes of the women, it ignores difficult moral issues of blame and responsibility.
While the men move in a logical manner to answer specific questions, the investigation pursued by the women proceeds in a more random and unplanned fashion. As other scholars have suggested, quilting is an appropriate metaphor: The women piece together the evidence out of unconnected bits of information, only gradually revealing the pattern of the whole. The story they uncover is more complicated and open-ended, starting many years before the murder, involving more people, and raising more questions than simply that of who killed John Wright.
Mrs. Hale knew Minnie Wright more than twenty years earlier, when she was the unmarried Minnie Foster. She remembers the Minnie Foster of that time, when Minnie was one of the town girls who sang in the choir, lively and wearing pretty clothes. To Mrs. Hale, the full story of Minnie Wright must begin with the girl that she once was. The story must include the changes that occurred after she married John Wright, when she stopped paying visits and singing. As Mrs. Hale describes Minnie Foster to Mrs. Peters, "She - come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and - fluttery. How - she - did - change."
As Mrs. Hale considers the changes in Minnie that led to the crime, she is faced with difficult and unanticipated questions of responsibility. From the beginning, when Mrs. Hale hesitates to enter Minnie's house because she has not done so before, she feels herself partly to blame for the isolation and despair Minnie has suffered. Her sense of her own implication increases as she learns more about Minnie's life and recalls her own aversion to visiting Minnie. 5 When she thinks of Minnie as a young girl, Mrs. Hale is overwhelmed by a sense of her own moral failure in not extending herself to her friend. As she expresses it to Mrs. Peters, she "lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life." Mrs. Hale continues, "Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?"
Of course, Mrs. Hale understands that her failure to help Minnie will not render her culpable under the law. And from her perspective, hers is not the only crime that will go unpunished. In the story that Mrs. Hale would tell, Minnie, the young and pretty girl that she once knew, has died, disappearing under the brunt of her husband's cruelty. Mrs. Hale recognizes Mr. Wright's responsibility for what has happened to Minnie, for creating the circumstances that drove her to violence. As she says to Mrs. Peters after they discover the body of the bird, "No, Wright wouldn't like the bird ... a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too."
In A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell suggests that the women's perspective--their compassionate understanding of Minnie Wright and the questions they raise about the responsibility of others--would be missing from the courtroom where the accused woman would be judged. The stories these men would tell about her would be limited and incomplete, ignoring the complexity of her life and failing to recognize the potential moral culpability of other members of the community. Justice could not be done, Glaspell suggests, because of the lack of empathy for Mrs. Wright on the part of the men who defined the law and who controlled the legal process as they brought it to bear against her.
The legal process that Susan Glaspell described was not solely a product of her imagination. She was reacting to the trial of Margaret Hossack, a woman who, like Minnie Wright, was accused of killing her husband. And it is Margaret Hossack's story that will now be told.
II. The Story of Margaret Hossack
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 Margaret Hossack, his wife of thirty-three years and the mother of their nine children. 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. n92 Medical examiners speculated that the attack might have been done with the two sides of an implement such as a hatchet or an axe.
According to various statements of Margaret Hossack to her neighbors and the sheriff, and later under oath, she was asleep next to her husband when the attack occurred and awakened by a noise she was consistently to describe as the sound of two boards being hit together. She rose quickly from her bed and then heard a door close and saw a flash of light. She also heard her husband, still in bed, making a moaning or choking noise. She left the bedroom and called to her children, five of whom, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-six, lived at home. The two youngest shared a bedroom adjoining that of their parents.
At the coroner's inquest two days later, Mrs. Hossack described these moments:
I went and ran up in the kitchen, opened the stair door, called them, told them that some body had been in the house, and that Pa is hurt, and they said, oh, no, Ma, you are just scared. You go back, there wasn't anybody in. I says, yes there is, didn't you hear them? I came back, I called him [John Hossack] several times and he would not answer, and I went and got the light then and had it by the time Willie got down here; the light was on the stand, which was right out where he [John Hossack] pulled it so as to be close to the stove where he was reading. Willie says, Ma, you can't carry that lamp, you are going to let it fall. He took the lamp.
With her son holding the lamp, Margaret Hossack and her children entered the bedroom and found Mr. Hossack lying in bed, bleeding profusely and fatally injured.
Several of the Hossack children ran to adjoining farms to ask for help. Many of the neighbors gathered at the Hossack farm during the night, along with one of the Hossack sons who lived away from home, two of the married Hossack children and their spouses, and a doctor who tended the dying man. John Hossack, partly conscious and in excruciating pain, lived through the night, with his wife sitting by his bed, responding to his calls for her, bathing his wounds, giving him sips of water, and holding his hand. n106 He died early Sunday morning, with his wife and eight of their nine children at his side. Although Mr. Hossack spoke to several of his friends and family members before he died, he made no statements indicating that he knew the identity of his attacker. Shortly before his death, the Hossack family axe, with fresh blood spots on its handle and several gray hairs sticking to the blade, was discovered under a shed close to the house n109 and identified as the likely murder weapon.
As Susan Glaspell and other reporters described the details of the violent attack, they also began to speculate on possible motives. Burglary was almost immediately discounted, since no evidence of an intruder was found and Mr. Hossack's leather pocketbook containing $ 40 in cash was left undisturbed by the bed. A loaded gun was also found in the bedroom, untouched.
According to family and neighbors, Mr. Hossack had no known enemies in the town. He was a member of two local lodges and dabbled in local politics, having recently lost the nomination for county treasurer by a handful of votes. And yet, even as the neighbors were calling the case a mystery and describing Mr. Hossack as a well-respected and leading citizen of their town, "God-fearing [and] church-going," they were also admitting that they knew a different story about John Hossack. This was a story that many of them had known for years, but that most apparently felt was a secret, something to be "hushed up" because of the "good standing of the family" and not to be discussed publicly while John Hossack was alive.
The "secret" became public knowledge when, on Tuesday, December 4, the Des Moines Daily Capital reported that "the gossip of the neighborhood is that the [Hossack] family did not live in peace, and that the home was the frequent scene of quarrels between the various members." Neighbors had been more specific in telling what they knew about John Hossack at the coroner's inquest, begun on Monday, the day after Mr. Hossack's death, and conducted in the Hossack family sitting room, adjacent to the bloody bedroom where the dead body still lay. The neighbors' testimony revealed that almost all of them knew that Mr. Hossack had been a violent and abusive man, one who had frequently threatened his entire family and who had made his wife and children fear for their lives on numerous occasions. n118
Neighbors, both men and women, described many instances, going back as far as fifteen years, when Mrs. Hossack had spoken to them of her husband's cruel treatment of her and the children, his threats with loaded guns and knives, and his fierce rages directed toward various members of his family. Few specific acts of violence had been reported by Mrs. Hossack, although several neighbors reported that they had heard of Mr. Hossack slapping and whipping his children, hitting his wife with his fists, and throwing a stove lid at her. In fact, almost all who testified said they had known that the threat of violence from her husband had been a constant source of fear in Mrs. Hossack's life.
Neighbors told of Margaret Hossack coming to their farms or running out to them in the road in a desperate state, crying and saying that her husband was "wild" n122 and that he was acting like a "crazy man." Many times she told them that she was afraid for the lives of herself and her children, afraid that John Hossack would kill them as he had threatened to do. Although she asked for their help, pleading with them to come up to "quiet" her husband or convince him to leave the house, she was also terrified that her husband would find out that she was talking to others. She implored her neighbors not to tell him what she had disclosed of her desperate family situation. Mrs. Hossack said that she was often unable to go to sleep at night for fear of her husband and that there would be weeks at a time when she would not remove her clothes. Often in tears, she told several of them that the family would have no peace as long as Mr. Hossack was alive and that it would be a blessing if he were dead. According to one neighbor, who related several incidents of Mrs. Hossack or one of the children coming to his house and asking for help, "It seems as though things were always in a pitiable state of affairs ... and she did not know what she would do nor how it would end, and she always seemed afraid that he would kill some of them."
Testimony of the neighbors at the coroner's inquest made it obvious how widespread and longstanding was their knowledge of Mr. Hossack's violent threats against his family and Mrs. Hossack's constant fear for the family's safety. And yet the neighbors also felt that the Hossack family should have [*1320] kept their troubles to themselves, that family matters should be kept private and not discussed with others.
Occasionally, in response to Mrs. Hossack's pleas for help, one of the neighbors would accompany her home and try to distract Mr. Hossack with the visit or attempt to get him to leave his house to go to town. More often, the help the neighbors extended to Mrs. Hossack consisted of telling her not to worry, assuring her that Mr. Hossack would not hurt his family. Privately, they were not so sure that Mr. Hossack was harmless in regard to his wife and children. 33 Several of the neighbors admitted that they knew that John Hossack had been subject to violent rages, "tantrums" as they called them, and that they could tell by the wild look in his eyes when he was in a "spell," when he was "unstrung and excited," and "how he had left those at home." Although all were reluctant to intervene, the frequency of Mrs. Hossack's desperate pleas for help eventually led some of them to discuss among themselves whether Mr. Hossack should be arrested in order to protect his family or whether he should be committed to the insane asylum. Nothing was done in either regard.
The neighbors seemed reluctant to speculate about the source of Mr. Hossack's rage, 38 although it was thought that the marriage was never a happy one and that Mr. Hossack's temper was often triggered by his disagreement with how his wife was raising the children. Indeed, some serious consideration was given to the possibility of a marital separation. According to reports from neighbors and her children, Mrs. Hossack talked many times about her wish to live separately from her husband. Two neighbors were to testify at her trial that Mrs. Hossack said she would have separated from her husband years ago except for the "disgrace" she knew it would cause for the family. n141 Mrs. Hossack was, of course, economically dependent on her husband: The property was in his name. And although he was a prosperous farmer, Mr. Hossack was not generous with his money, often leaving Mrs. Hossack without suffi- cient funds for household expenses. 43 Nevertheless, Mr. and Mrs. Hossack discussed dividing the farm, with Mrs. Hossack and the children to take all except the west eighty acres, which Mr. Hossack would keep as his own. Mrs. Hossack said she wanted the division, but Mr. Hossack never proceeded with the necessary legal steps.
Talk of a separation became more serious the year before Mr. Hossack's death, when, according to testimony from neighbors and the Hossack children, Mrs. Hossack ran away from home after her husband had tried to force her to stay upstairs, telling her that he wanted her out of his sight. There was some suggestion that she escaped through an upstairs window. Mrs. Hossack fled to a neighbor's house in the rain; when she arrived, she asked for transportation to the home of her married daughter, saying that she "could not stand it any longer."
Aware of the seriousness of the situation, the neighbor gathered several men from the surrounding farms and induced Mrs. Hossack to return home, where two of the men remained to try to work out a reconciliation among the family members. In their testimony, the men admitted that their goal had been to convince the Hossacks not to separate. The men believed that they had been successful in persuading Mr. and Mrs. Hossack to remain together. One of the two neighbors, Mr. Johnston, concluded his discussion with the family by obtaining a promise that they would "let the matter drop and never mention it among themselves, or to me or to Mr. Kellar, and I told them I never wanted to hear anything more about it, nor talk to outsiders." Although Mr. Johnston testified that he believed that all of the conflict had been resolved, he admitted that Mrs. Hossack came to him as he was leaving the house: "[She] begged me to stay all night; she was afraid after we got away it would break out again ...." Mr. Johnston refused: "I would not do it; told her I didn't think it would be the best thing to do under the circumstances; that they had all promised not to mention it again and I didn't think it was advisable for me to do it."
During the year following this intervention by the neighbors and before Mr. Hossack's death, outsiders heard less from Mrs. Hossack and her children about family difficulties. The situation may have improved. It seems equally likely, however, that, given her neighbors' response to the abuse, Mrs. Hossack realized the hopelessness of seeking outside help and was simply less vocal in her fears. It also seems likely that Mrs. Hossack's premonition that the reconciliation was only temporary proved to be accurate. Although they were to change their testimony at trial, several of the Hossack children spoke at the coroner's inquest and the grand jury hearing about continued quarreling between their parents during the final year. Several neighbors also spoke of conversations with Mrs. Hossack during that last year in which she continued to express her fears and discuss her troubles at home. One neighbor testified at the subsequent trial that Mrs. Hossack had said that things were just as bad as they had ever been and that her situation at home would never improve as long as her husband was alive.
While the neighbors were telling the coroner's jury a story of fear and abuse within the Hossack family, members of the Hossack family were more closemouthed about their past difficulties. The two youngest sons, ages thirteen and sixteen, testified at the coroner's inquest that they knew of no trouble in the family. Later, however, sixteen-year-old Jimmie told the grand jury that he had often heard his parents quarrel, including the night his father was killed. The other children were only slightly more forthcoming. Will, who was eighteen years old, admitted in response to a direct question that he remembered his father threatening his older brother with a knife several years earlier. Three of the daughters, ages twenty, twenty-three, and thirty, acknowledged that the family had quarreled, although they volunteered no specifics. Annie, the oldest daughter, reluctantly confirmed that it had "been a pretty bitter time" in their family, but that they had tried to bear their troubles alone. The questioner commended her for being so secretive in the past, stating, "We have found that you as a family done the right thing in trying to keep your quarrels to yourselves," although explaining that the family history was now a focus of the investigation. Annie's husband, E.E. Henry, was even more clear about the family's determination to keep their troubles to themselves. Hesitant to answer questions about family problems, he finally explained that his evasiveness came from his knowledge that the Hossack family had wanted to keep "all these troubles" secret and that, before he married into the Hossack family, he "thought there was not a family in the community got along as squarely, and that it went like clockwork." After his marriage, he apparently learned otherwise.
In asking for help from the neighbors, Mrs. Hossack did much more than anyone else to make her family situation publicly known, although she pleaded with her neighbors not to tell her husband of her disclosures. After his death, she must have expected that her neighbors would testify about her family situation to the coroner's jury. One of the questioners, in fact, was Mr. Fred Johnston, who had gone to the Hossacks' house the previous year in an attempt to work out a reconciliation. Nevertheless, when it was her turn to speak under oath, Mrs. Hossack refused to admit that she had suffered at the hands of her husband. She denied that they ever had any serious trouble, that he ever hit or abused her or the children in any way, that he ever threatened any of them, or that she ever thought he might do them harm. In response to specific questions, she denied ever having the conversations reported by the neighbors, ever discussing the division of property with her husband, or ever running away from her home. According to Mrs. Hossack, "There was not a man who thought more of his family than he did or would do more for them." The worst she would say of her husband was that he "was a hard man to care for when he was sick" and that he could be "a hard man to please," one who sometimes "got out of humor."
Her questioners appeared incredulous as they listened to her testimony. One asked her, "Why in the name of God don't you tell us everything you know about it?" while warning her, "The spirit of John Hossack ... now listens to every question asked you." Nevertheless, Mrs. Hossack was consistent in the story of her life that she chose to tell. She ended her testimony by saying, "Well, gentlemen, I hope you don't think I killed him. I wouldn't do such a thing, I loved him too much."
At eight o'clock on Tuesday evening, after hearing more than twenty witnesses, the coroner's jury retired for deliberation. At eleven o'clock, they summoned the county attorney and told him that they could not agree to implicate Mrs.. Hossack in the murder of her husband. Instead, they issued a simple verdict that Mr. Hossack had been killed by two blows to the head. After the jury's dismissal by the coroner, the county attorney immediately returned to Indianola, where a warrant for the arrest of Margaret Hossack was sworn before a justice of the peace and placed in the hands of the local sheriff for service. This move by the county attorney came as no surprise to members of the community. Not only was Mrs. Hossack's story of sleeping through the attack difficult to believe, but medical testimony also indicated that Mrs. Hossack did not call her children immediately after the attack, as she claimed. Based on the condition of Mr. Hossack's wounds as described by the children when they first saw their father, the doctors found it likely that Mrs. Hossack had delayed waking the children, a delay which would have given her enough time to wash and put away the axe. And certainly, the Hossacks' neighbors understood that Mrs. Hossack had strong reasons to want her husband dead.
Mrs. Margaret Hossack
Accused of the Murder of Her Husband, John Hossack
From the Des Moines Daily Capital, Apr. 4, 1901. On Wednesday, less than twenty-four hours after the coroner's jury was dismissed, Mrs. Hossack was arrested as she left the gravesite where her husband had just been buried. The arrest was made in a dramatic fashion, performed so that most residents of the town were alerted and could watch it occur, causing a "tremendous sensation." The sheriff, his deputy, and the sheriff's wife arrived in town during Mr. Hossack's funeral. The deputy sheriff mingled with the crowd after the funeral services, and then the three of them followed the funeral procession in their own carriage from the church to the cemetery. They stood apart from the mourners, watching the burial from the bottom of a hill. At the end of the graveside service, Mrs. Hossack walked on the arm of her brother back to her carriage, where, surrounded by her nine children and two sons-in-law, she was arrested by the sheriff. According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Hossack put both hands to her face and burst out in "convulsive sobbing," her first public show of grief since her husband's death. Mrs. Hossack was then helped into the back seat of the sheriff's carriage, where she sat with the sheriff's wife during the drive to the county jail, where she was imprisoned.
The Hossack family retained two well-known criminal lawyers--an ex-senator and a former judge--to defend Mrs. Hossack. It was clear from the beginning that the case, surrounding a murder labeled "one of the most cold-blooded affairs recorded in the annals of crime," would be hard fought and would attract tremendous attention. According to the newspapers, public sentiment from the beginning was strongly against Mrs. Hossack, who, along with the rest of her family, had been seen to shed few tears over the death of John Hossack. Ten days after the murder, "hundreds of spectators thronged the streets" of Indianola, hoping to catch a glimpse of Margaret Hossack and her children as they made their way to the preliminary hearing. The large crowd, eagerly awaiting any news, was "visibly disappointed" when the announcement was made that Margaret Hossack and her attorneys had chosen to waive the preliminary hearing. Instead, Mrs. Hossack's case would go directly to the grand jury. In January 1901, as newspapers rehashed all the known facts of the brutal crime, Margaret Hossack, who had been released from prison to spend Christmas with her children at the family home, was indicted by the grand jury on charges of first-degree murder. She entered a plea of not guilty and was committed to the county jail. An application by her attorneys for an order allowing bail was denied by the judge on the basis that the evidence of her guilt "was strong and the presumption great."
[SEE ILLUSTRATION IN ORIGINAL]
As Susan Glaspell reported on the events preceding Margaret Hossack's trial, Glaspell must have speculated about the different stories that would be told about Mrs. Hossack at the trial. It was difficult not to believe the story told by so many neighbors: that Mrs. Hossack had been unhappy and afraid in her marriage, living with a violent and unpredictable husband who made her fear for the lives of herself and her children. And yet, just as it appeared to the Hossack family, it would have been clear to Susan Glaspell that, to the extent that story was told, it incriminated Mrs. Hossack. Testimony about the violence in the Hossack home made it all the more clear that she, more than anyone else, had a reason to want her husband dead: to free herself from the marriage she had been unable to escape by other means. The story of the years of abuse and torment would only be used against her.
And so it was... The trial of Margaret Hossack took place during the first week of April 1901, four months after John Hossack was killed. Jury selection took several days; it lasted longer than usual because many potential jurors were excused due to their definite opinions about the guilt of the accused. Every day the courtroom was packed to capacity while crowds of people outside sought unsuccessfully to gain admittance. Among the many observers, Susan Glaspell listened as the prosecution built its case, calling numerous witnesses to testify that Mrs. Hossack had spoken of her husband's cruel treatment of her and her children and his violent threats against the family. Neighbors repeated what they had said to the coroner's jury and the grand jury: They knew Mrs. Hossack was often desperately afraid of her husband, and they had heard her say the family would have no peace as long as he was alive.
Some of the women neighbors made the strongest witnesses against Margaret Hossack, repeating, sometimes in a tone of animosity, her words to them about her husband and his violent threats. According to one newspaper report, the women seemed either unaware of the impact of their testimony on the defendant or not averse to making a strong case against her. Some of the women witnesses even spoke of their high regard for Mr. Hossack, eliciting reprimands from the judge for expressing opinions on the witness stand. The sheriff's wife, Mrs. Hodson, was one of the few women who seemed to show public sympathy and support for Margaret Hossack. Having accompanied her husband when he arrested Mrs. Hossack and having traveled with them to the county jail, Mrs. Hodson also visited Margaret Hossack in her prison cell. And throughout the week-long trial, Mrs. Hodson sat in the courtroom by the side of Margaret Hossack.
The case against Mrs. Hossack was based on strong circumstantial evidence, which was especially persuasive in the state's attempt to prove that Mrs. Hossack was not asleep in bed at the time of the attack, as she claimed. The prosecutors argued that the location of the blood droplets on the bed covers and Mrs. Hossack's nightclothes was consistent with her having risen before the attack occurred. n207 The Hossack bed, only four feet wide, was placed into evidence to show that it would have been impossible for Mrs. Hossack to have lain in bed next to her husband without being struck by the handle of an axe wielded by an unknown attacker. The prosecution further argued that Mrs. Hossack's claim that she did not awaken until after the murderer fled was contrary to common sense: Since she claimed that she had slept with her back to her husband, she would have had to have slept through two blows rendered forcibly by a person standing only inches from her face.
Nothing in the case clearly proved that Mrs. Hossack was the attacker. But in their closing arguments, prosecutors focused on evidence that seemed to prove that she was lying in certain critical aspects of her story, including her claims that she was in bed when the attack occurred and that she called her children immediately thereafter. According to the state, its evidence could only be explained by finding Mrs. Hossack guilty of the crime.
In addition, the prosecutors relied on testimony of neighbors that, on the morning after the murder, Mrs. Hossack knew the location of the axe, which was the likely murder weapon. As she correctly predicted, it was found underneath the granary instead of in its usual place inside. The chemise Mrs. Hossack was wearing the night of the attack was later found soaking in a pail of bloody water, destroying its value as evidence. Nevertheless, the state produced witnesses who testified that they had seen blood drops on the back of the garment, which, according to the prosecution, might have been caused by Mrs. Hossack holding a dripping axe above her shoulder. And according to one neighbor who testified for the prosecution, Mrs. Hossack was handy with an axe; he had seen her chop wood on numerous occasions. Despite medical testimony at the coroner's inquest that the attacker was most likely a left-handed person, prosecutors argued at trial that a right-handed person, such as Mrs. Hossack, must have struck the fatal blows.
Of course, the fact that Margaret Hossack had a motive to kill her husband was crucial to the prosecutors. She had expressed to others on many occasions her clear desire to be rid of the husband she feared. The prosecution stressed the lack of a motive on anyone else's part, despite clear evidence, recognized by members of the community, that other members of the Hossack family may have had an equally strong desire to see John Hossack dead.
Despite evidence that Mrs. Hossack had the means, the opportunity, and the motive to kill her husband, the prosecution still had a significant obstacle to surmount in obtaining her conviction: the fact that Mrs. Hossack was a woman, a member of the sex which the all-male jury was bound to respect and protect.
In her book Women Who Kill, Ann Jones discusses the cases of numerous women accused of murder. Jones concludes that juries during the time of Mrs. Hossack's trial were particularly lenient with female defendants, especially those who were extremely feminine in manner and appearance and who behaved as women were expected to behave. Lawyers defending women charged with murder blatantly relied on the sense of chivalry and paternalism imbued in the all-male juries, arguing that the jurors, as men, had a duty to protect the female defendant, typically portrayed by her lawyers as helpless, weak, and fragile. A real woman, the defense lawyers often argued, was not capable of such a violent crime. And how could the jury doubt that the weeping, attractive, well-dressed, and well-mannered defendant they saw before them was a real woman?
As Ann Jones convincingly argues, many guilty women went free during this period, with their freedom being "the price society paid to maintain the illusion that women had no reason to hate their husbands or marriage itself." Jurors, all male and most married, were understandably reluctant to believe that a woman was capable of murdering her husband. To believe so was too threatening to their presumption that "women, by nature, loved men" and were dependent on them. Acquittal of a woman accused of murder allowed the men on the jury to ignore the threatening possibility that women might be oppressed in marriage and might act independently, in their own interests, even when that meant striking out against their oppressors.
Without doubt, both Susan Glaspell and the lawyers prosecuting Mrs. Hossack were aware of the difficulty of convicting a woman. "You know juries when it comes to women," laments the county attorney in A Jury of Her Peers, explaining his need for a specific motive for the killing. In Mrs. Hossack's case, where the prosecution was unable to show a specific motive for the attack that particular night, one of the lawyers for the state addressed the bias directly, telling the jury in his closing arguments that it had "no right to acquit her because she is a woman or even because she is an old woman." But the prosecution also addressed the jury's likely prejudice toward women in a more subtle fashion, using a technique tried by prosecutors in other cases. At the least, Mrs. Hossack would be shown not to qualify as the type of woman to whom the jury owed its respect and regard, one who had accepted and acted properly within the role assigned to her by society. At worst, she would be portrayed as a depraved monster - an "inhuman wife and mother" - who had violently attacked a man who would be portrayed as one of the most respected members of the community.
In their portrayal of Mrs. Hossack as unwomanly, the prosecutors were helped somewhat by her appearance and her mannerisms, which displayed strength rather than weakness. Although she hardly looked monstrous or threatening, she was also not the prototype of a "feminine" woman. Margaret Hossack was described as "tall and erect ... well built and muscular," "masculine in appearance," and someone who looked like she had done her share of outside work. She was rarely emotional, never hysterical, and manifested few public signs of grief, a matter of frequent note in the newspapers. Regardless of whether she had killed her husband, she at least appeared guilty of not openly mourning his death. Even when she did shed tears, which she did several times while on the witness stand, it was not done in a properly feminine manner. As one reporter stated, "When the woman does cry, it is like seeing a strong man break down." Another newspaper reporter stated an unfavorable view of Mrs. Hossack that was, in all likelihood, shared by the men on the jury: "There are few women in Iowa who could have endured what she has endured and not be today in a state of utter collapse. It is seldom that a man on trial for his life displays as little emotion as has been shown by Mrs. Hossack in the past week."
Just as Mrs. Hossack's appearance may have worked to her disadvantage, her behavior as a woman, both on the night of the murder and during her marriage, was also called into question. The prosecutors found it incredible that a mother with children could sleep as soundly on the night of the murder as she claimed she had, implying that she was either lying about the night of the murder or not a proper caretaker of her family. Similarly, the prosecutors raised questions about her story that she left the bedroom when she heard the outside door close. According to the prosecutors, the "natural" response of a woman in such a case would have been immediately to turn to her adjacent husband for help and protection, again calling into question Margaret Hossack's honesty or, if she were telling the truth, her behavior as a woman.
As to prior behavior, the prosecution stated in its closing argument that her first son had been conceived out of wedlock and that her marriage to Mr. Hossack had been a forced one. In its immediate objection, the defense argued that no such evidence had been presented. In fact, the prosecution's claim was based on one witness's recollection as to the date of the Hossacks' marriage, testimony which was contradicted by all other evidence on that point. Nevertheless, even the suggestion of such questionable behavior on the part of Mrs. Hossack may have affected her image as a fully respectable woman in the minds of the jury members, making everything she said less credible. If she was guilty of premarital sex, perhaps she was also the type of woman who could have committed an unthinkable crime. In addition, by tracing Margaret Hossack's hatred of her husband to one particular cause, the prosecution offered an explanation to the jury as to why she had attacked her husband, thereby avoiding any suggestion that her experiences in an oppressive marriage could be generalized to other women.
Probably more important in raising questions about her character was the fact that Margaret Hossack had spoken to others about her husband's treatment of the family, telling of his frequent threats of violence and his wild temper. The prosecution portrayed her as constantly seeking to humiliate and disgrace her husband behind his back. The reaction of the jury, composed mostly of married men who were members of the community, was no doubt similar to that displayed by the neighbors to whom she had spoken. Although disturbed by her reports, the neighbors were always reluctant to listen to her stories of what they viewed as private family matters. Clearly, they wanted to ignore the situation as much as possible. To them, even after they heard her stories, Mr. Hossack was a most respected man in the community, one who never contracted a debt without being sure he could meet it, a man devoted "to his friends, his church, his political party and other organizations."
The men on the jury were likely to have felt, as had the neighbors, that John Hossack's treatment of his family should not have been a matter of public concern. To them, Margaret Hossack, who had forced an awareness of her family situation on her neighbors, had behaved in a way that was uncharacteristic of a good wife and mother. Like many other members of society, the men on the jury would have shared a deep-rooted conviction that marriage was the most natural and beneficial state for women. The experiences of Margaret Hossack, who had lived in an oppressive and dependent relationship from which she could not have escaped, must have been threatening to hear. No doubt, the jury members agreed with some of the neighbors, both male and female, who blamed Margaret Hossack for what her marriage had become, faulting her, as the prosecution did, for "never [having] been a loving wife." Most likely, the jurors felt antipathy for her, condemning her as being outside the category of proper women in their society. That kind of emotional response would have made a judgment against her all the more easily reached.
The few times that the prosecution did refer to the womanly characteristics of Mrs. Hossack, it did so only in an attempt to shore up the weakest link in the chain of evidence against her: to prove that she had not only been out of bed at the time of the attack, but that she also must have wielded the axe. In closing argument, one of the lawyers for the state emphasized that the first blow had been made with the sharp end of the instrument. He asked, "Who but a woman would have done that?" And he stressed the lack of blood drops on the sitting room carpet as proof that it was Mrs. Hossack who had carried the dripping axe from the bedroom to the porch; she had unwittingly displayed her "housewife's instinct" by holding it to avoid staining her rug.
Although she failed to display womanly traits in a way that strengthened her case, Mrs. Hossack did not present the appearance of someone who could have committed such a violent crime against the man with whom she had lived for thirty-three years. In their closing arguments, however, the prosecutors argued that her hatred for her husband had finally overtaken her on the night she killed him and that she had lain in bed next to him, thinking only about how much she despised him, knowing that her life would never be any better. That particular night, "a demon in possession of her soul" and "crazed with her evil purpose," she committed a crime "of more hideous nature" than any "since the crucifixion of Christ."
According to the prosecution, John Hossack was not only an innocent victim, but also a great man who deserved the jury's sympathy because no tears had been shed by his family at his death. The same prosecutors had, in their attempt to establish a motive for Margaret Hossack's crime, heavily relied on evidence that Hossack had cruelly mistreated his wife and children. Nevertheless, they were able to speak of John Hossack in the most glowing terms. As one prosecutor stated, "I have known John Hossack all my life. I can say of him as was said of Abraham Lincoln: God Almighty might have made a better man, but God Almighty never did." In his closing argument, in an attempt to portray Mr. Hossack as the most blameless of victims, the prosecutor asked the rhetorical question, "Who in this county knows of any wrong John Hossack ever did?"
To the prosecution, the abuse suffered by Mrs. Hossack and her pleas to her neighbors for help were strong evidence in the case against her to show that she had reason to want her husband dead. In arguing that such a motive did not exist, the lawyers for Mrs. Hossack had to deny the existence or at least the significance of those facts. Although she had testified to the coroner's jury that the conversations described by her neighbors had not occurred and that she and her husband had had no serious difficulties, her lawyers did not elicit such statements from her at trial. Instead, they took the tack of arguing that the neighbors' testimony concerning the relationship between the Hossacks was not relevant to the offense as charged.
Many times, when a prosecution witness was asked to describe what he or she had heard from Mrs. Hossack (or knew from personal observation) about the state of her marriage, the defense strenuously objected, arguing that the events described were too remote in time and unconnected with the charged offense. The court always overruled the defense's objections, holding that evidence of past troubles between the parties was admissible and that it would be up to the jury to decide how strongly it should be weighed. Time and time again, however, Susan Glaspell and other observers at the trial heard Mrs. Hossack's lawyers argue that reports that Mrs. Hossack had suffered at the hands of her husband and that she had gone to her neighbors for aid and protection were irrelevant and should not be considered by the jury.
While the defense did not deny that Mr. and Mrs. Hossack had had troubles in the past, the lawyers for Mrs. Hossack sought to tell a different story about the relationship. Past difficulties should not be considered, they argued, because the couple had reached a total reconciliation more than a year earlier, one which was ongoing when Mr. Hossack was killed. The marriage had changed course and had become happy and stable, so Mrs. Hossack no longer had any reason to wish for the death of her husband. Of course, the lawyers also attempted to cast doubt on the circumstantial evidence against her, arguing that the family axe was never proved to be the murder weapon and debating the prosecution's conclusions based on the location of blood in the room and on Mrs. Hossack's clothes. But a constant emphasis of the defense was its denial that the years of abuse were relevant. Despite conflicting evidence at earlier hearings and from one neighbor at trial, the defense stressed the courtroom testimony of the Hossack children that the conflicted and violent atmosphere of the past had been replaced with one of calm and equilibrium.
In their day-long closing arguments, the defense lawyers made an impassioned plea to the jury that Margaret Hossack be found not guilty. They appealed to the jury's sense of human nature, asking how such a hideous and violent crime could have been committed by the aged and motherly defendant the jury saw before it, a woman who had raised a large family and who, even now, was surrounded by her nine children and several grandchildren. The defense claimed that a woman who had committed "a crime that only a few men could have done" would naturally be "crazed" and "broken" and that only the consciousness of her innocence could have sustained Mrs. Hossack in the calm fashion that she had maintained throughout the ordeal. In an emotional and personal appeal to the jury, one of the defense lawyers stated, "After four months of association with Mrs. Hossack and her family I can stand before this jury and before my God and say I believe her absolutely innocent of this crime."
Since the defense claimed that Mrs. Hossack was innocent of murder, her lawyers could not explicitly ask that her years of suffering be taken into account either as an excuse or in mitigation. But the lawyers did plead with the jury to be compassionate in its judgment and "consider the life of Margaret Hossack, its trials and burdens and those difficulties of wifehood and motherhood." They asked the jury to be merciful, to reach a verdict they would not regret, to remember "as ye would have others do unto you do ye also unto them." As the defense made its final argument to spare Mrs. Hossack, family members broke down in audible sobs; her oldest son, John Jr., sat "with his head bowed while his gigantic frame shook with great sobs and he choked with emotion." Jury members and courtroom observers were moved to tears, and even one of the prosecutors was seen to lower his head in silent weeping.
The jury did not deliberate long. The morning after the closing arguments, the jury returned with its verdict, finding Margaret Hossack guilty as charged of murder in the first degree. Showing some of the mercy requested by the defense, the jury did not agree with the prosecutors that Margaret Hossack should be put to death, but instead recommended that she be sentenced to life at hard labor in the state penitentiary. According to one newspaper report, the scene among the family upon hearing the verdict was "terrible," with the children weeping hysterically and Margaret Hossack giving way to emotion "with utter abandonment." Describing the reaction of the convicted woman, a reporter noted, "Mrs. Hossack has proven at least that she is a woman."
As Susan Glaspell heard the verdict, she probably felt the same sense of disquiet that I feel in reading about the trial of Margaret Hossack. Unquestionably, there was strong evidence that Margaret Hossack was not telling the whole truth in her account, especially in her claims that she was lying in bed asleep when the attack occurred and that she called her children immediately after she was awakened. Given the lack of evidence supporting the presence or motive of an outsider, it is entirely possible that Margaret Hossack planned the crime and wielded the axe herself, taking the time to wash and put away the weapon before she summoned the children.
It also seems possible, however, that one of her children committed the act. They all apparently had reason to hate their father. Mrs. Hossack, regardless of whether she was involved in one of her children's plans, may well have fabricated her story to protect a murderer whom she knew and loved.
Certainly, the lack of candor on the part of those most intimately involved with the case, including Mrs. Hossack and her children, leads to a strong sense of doubt about the circumstances surrounding the crime. All of the family members seemed to be trying to hide the truth of their relationship with John Hossack, and we can only imagine the tensions within that household, both on the night of the attack and during the years that preceded it. Assuming, as seems overwhelmingly likely, that a member of the family did commit the crime, we will never know whether John Hossack did something specific that night to drive his wife or one of his children into a murderous rage. Or was it simply that Margaret Hossack, acting either alone or with the help of her children, had borne the abuse and violent threats against her family for thirty-three years and could finally endure no more?
Although Susan Glaspell may well have felt uncertain about whether and why Mrs. Hossack killed her husband, those doubts were not the only or perhaps even the major source of her uneasiness over the legal system's version of justice in the Hossack case. When she wrote A Jury of Her Peers sixteen years later, Glaspell left little question that Minnie Wright murdered her husband. Also, in the husband's strangling of Minnie's canary, Glaspell provided her with a trigger for the rage that drove her to kill her husband. The question Glaspell sought to raise through her story was therefore not whether or why Minnie killed her husband, but how, considering the life she had lived, she should be judged for that act.
By having the two women discover the story of Minnie's life and the crime she committed, Susan Glaspell raised questions that the lawyers who defended Mrs. Hossack did not and could not raise. These questions - the broader and more complex issues of blame and responsibility - have a focus that Glaspell must have felt was missing from the Hossack case.
In A Jury of Her Peers, the women are able to empathize, due to their own experiences, with the long years of isolation and suffering that Minnie endured. The surrounding circumstances of Margaret Hossack's case suggest, however, that the attitudes of the women in her community were more ambivalent; those who testified seemed to share the dominant societal view that domestic abuse was a private matter. Like the men, they seemed unwilling to admit the possibility that the suffering endured by Margaret Hossack in her marriage might be a mitigating factor rather than evidence used to convict her of the murder of her husband.
And of course, in Margaret Hossack's case, neither the defendant nor her lawyers tried to tell her story in all its complexity. After the murder, Margaret Hossack never spoke of harsh treatment by her husband, denying, when questioned at the coroner's inquest, that she was ever abused in any way. At the trial, she was not asked about her marriage. Instead, her lawyers argued that that part of her past was irrelevant to the crime as charged, knowing, of course, that evidence showing that Mrs. Hossack had lived in constant fear of her husband was crucial to the state in proving the existence of a motive.
Nevertheless, Susan Glaspell must have wondered how the jury should have considered the years of mistreatment endured by Mrs. Hossack in determining her guilt. Might it have been possible that Margaret Hossack was justified in what she did, whether acting as the murderer or an accomplice? Might she or one of her children have finally been driven to respond in kind to the violence her husband had so often threatened against them? If those were the facts, it was not surprising for Mrs. Hossack to deny them, knowing, as she must have, that such a scenario could never have been the basis of a successful defense.
Still other questions were not addressed in the courtroom. How should Mr. Hossack's victimization of his wife and children, which created the conditions that had most likely led to his murder, have been considered in judging Mrs. Hossack's crime? Was the jury's sympathy for him as a great and innocent man, a sympathy that may well have helped them reach a verdict against his wife, warranted in light of the evidence of his cruelty toward his family?
And how should the neighbors have been judged, those to whom Mrs. Hossack went for help on so many occasions? They tried, for the most part, to turn their backs on the situation. When they intervened, it was to convince Mrs. Hossack to remain in a household they knew to be dangerous. Even after recognizing the potential for violence within the Hossack family, they did all they could to ignore it. Should they have borne any responsibility for what finally occurred?
It seems likely that Susan Glaspell concluded that the jury could not have judged Margaret Hossack fairly because neither of the competing stories told in the courtroom fully represented the complexities of her life or raised the appropriate questions. Certainly, the story the prosecution told seems narrow and false in crucial aspects, including its portrayal of John Hossack himself. Glaspell was also likely aware that, in its depiction of Mrs. Hossack, the prosecution appealed to certain prejudices of the all-male jury. And yet the competing story the defense told the jury was also incomplete, insisting on the irrelevance of Mrs. Hossack's experiences with her husband and relying on a reconciliation only partially supported by the evidence and also not entirely credible. Glaspell saw that Mrs. Hossack's lawyers were unable to talk about domestic abuse without hurting their client's case, that they could not address the questions Glaspell perceived.. The idea of justifiable homicide by a wife was unthinkable, and denouncing either Mr. Hossack as a wife abuser or the community as having failed Mrs. Hossack would only have turned the all-male jury more strongly against her. And yet Susan Glaspell's fiction suggests that, without considering those questions in determining responsibility and blame and without a fuller and more empathic understanding of the life of Margaret Hossack, justice was not done.
Susan Glaspell was no doubt in the courtroom on the morning of April 16, 1901, five days after the jury returned its guilty verdict. That morning, the judge overruled the defense's motion for a new trial. Glaspell must have watched as Margaret Hossack, surrounded by her nine children and physically supported by her attorney, stood in front of the judge, held up her right hand, and, in a low and trembling voice, stated, "Before my God, I am not guilty." 01 Glaspell must have noticed the judge's slight hesitation before he delivered the sentence that would send Margaret Hossack to the state penitentiary for life. 02 Margaret Hossack was then taken to prison by the sheriff and his wife, 03 the woman who had sat by her side throughout the trial. 04 According to her companions, Margaret Hossack protested her innocence to the end, with her "grief and despair ... pitiable to see."
For Susan Glaspell, the legal verdict against Margaret Hossack was the end of the story. Soon after the trial ended, Glaspell left her job as a newspaper reporter and, by the summer of 1901, had moved home to Davenport to write fiction. 06 Yet the story of Margaret Hossack and the murder of her husband continued to unfold. Despite its authoritative tone of finality, the legal verdict was only one step in a story that continued to evolve, even from the moment that appeared to mark its end.
Certainly, the verdict against Margaret Hossack came as no surprise to her neighbors. From the beginning, they had predicted her guilt to reporters and each other; many of them had, of course, served as convincing witnesses on behalf of the prosecution. And yet, at some point, it appears that public sentiment, so strongly against her during most of the trial, began a subtle shift. According to the newspaper reports, her neighbors, "so constantly in attendance" during the trial, "gathered around her in large numbers [when her sentence was pronounced] .... attempting to offer some words of consolation." Even the newspaper accounts at the time of the sentencing were more sympathetic than might have been expected in describing the community's reaction to the finding of Mrs. Hossack's guilt. One report, suggesting some disagreement with the guilty verdict, stated, "It is universally believed at Indianola that if Mrs. Hossack did not murder her husband she knows who did."
An editorial in a Des Moines newspaper reported criticism of the verdict. It highlighted Mrs. Hossack's lawyer's rebuke of the county attorney for telling the jury that its duty was to find the guilty party rather than to focus on any reasonable doubts that might have existed as to the guilt of Margaret Hossack. The editorial continued, "Perhaps, the jurors unconsciously determined that, as a crime had been committed, it was their duty to fasten the commission of the same upon some one, and selected the only person it seemed possible to suspect." Others in the surrounding community may have shared these feelings of doubt after the trial, especially as they considered the circumstantial nature of the evidence identifying Mrs. Hossack as the murderer.
It is impossible to know the precise cause of the changing public sentiment in favor of Margaret Hossack. Certainly, some people, such as the sheriff's wife, had sympathized with her all along. But many apparently had second thoughts about the result once the constant attention surrounding the trial diminished and the jury declared Mrs. Hossack guilty under the law. Some, perhaps, were affected by the unwavering support of Margaret Hossack's children, who continued to proclaim their mother's innocence even after the trial was over. Others, even those who had spoken strongly against Mrs. Hossack from the beginning, may have begun to reflect upon the circumstances that they believed had led to the crime - the domestic abuse that had played such a major role in convicting her. Neighbors of the Hossacks may even have begun to acknowledge their own role in what had happened, admitting that they had ignored the dangerous situation that they had known existed within the Hossack household.
In any case, it is clear that the jury's verdict proclaiming Margaret Hossack's guilt did not lay the case to rest in the minds of many members of the community. By the summer of 1901, only two months after the guilty verdict, public feeling had risen to such an extent that a newspaper headline declared "Friends of New Virginia Murderess Ask Parole." The story continued:
[The ex-county attorney] said the bitter feeling entertained toward the alleged murderess had abated to a certain extent and that the aged woman was looked upon more in the light of pity. It is understood that at New Virginia, the scene of the crime, and where the Hossacks have resided for so many years, agitation has begun looking toward a parole for Mrs. Hossack. Some of the prominent residents have signified their willingness to sign such a paper, and it is not unlikely that a move of that character will be made. It is realized that the woman has but a few years to live, and in view of that fact that the guilt was not fully fastened upon her it is believed that a parole is due.
Margaret Hossack was not paroled. But almost one year to the day after she was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the jury's verdict against her, granting her a second trial. In their appeal to the court, the lawyers for Mrs. Hossack raised many issues, including prosecutorial misconduct, but the court rejected most of their contentions. However, despite the lack of strong precedent and without citing many cases in support, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that two technical errors had been made by the trial judge, one concerning expert testimony and the other a jury instruction. After noting that Margaret Hossack had been found guilty solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that she had been unfairly prejudiced by these two seemingly minor errors.
The first basis for the Iowa Supreme Court's decision was its finding that the trial court had erred in admitting certain expert testimony that tended to show that the family axe was the murder weapon. At the trial, the prosecution was unable to establish a "chain of custody" for the hairs that it claimed were taken from the Hossack family axe, so the hairs themselves were deemed inadmissible as evidence. The trial court, however, allowed an expert to testify that at least one of those hairs appeared to be human and was similar to the hairs taken from Mr. Hossack's head. According to the Iowa Supreme Court, that expert testimony should have been found inadmissible, just as the hairs themselves had been. Given that the testimony had helped to show that the family axe was the murder weapon and that this fact had been an important element in the case against Margaret Hossack, the court found the error a sufficient basis on which to reverse the guilty verdict.
A second ground for the reversal related to the evidence of domestic abuse that had been relied on so heavily by the prosecution in obtaining the first conviction. Although Mrs. Hossack's lawyers argued that such evidence was inadmissible, being too remote and unconnected to the crime as charged, the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed and found that the jury was entitled to hear testimony relating to the family's difficulties. But the court agreed with the defense that the jury had been incorrectly instructed as to the effect of the reconciliation, which the defense had relied on to show that Mrs. Hossack had no reason to kill her husband.
At the trial, the judge instructed the jury that if it found as a matter of fact that a good faith reconciliation had occurred between the Hossacks and had been fully observed thereafter by both parties, then prior difficulties between the parties would be insufficient, by themselves, to prove malice on the part of Mrs. Hossack. The defense objected to this instruction, arguing that it implied to the jury that if no reconciliation were found, prior difficulties should be considered sufficient proof of malice. The defense further argued that a jury finding of a reconciliation should have an even greater impact on its deliberations, that such a finding should require the jury to ignore prior family quarrels altogether in establishing the existence of a motive on the part of Mrs. Hossack.
The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the defense. The jury should have been instructed that if it found, as a matter of fact, that a complete reconciliation between the Hossacks had occurred, which had thereafter been observed in good faith by the parties so that ordinary "peace and harmony" had prevailed in the home, then prior troubles, difficulties, or quarrels could not be considered as showing malice on the part of Mrs. Hossack. As the court stated, "If in November, 1899, all previous differences had in fact been forgiven and forgotten, and this state of affairs continued down to Hossack's death, it is difficult to see why the law should resurrect troubles the parties had buried, and allow them any weight whatever."
It is unlikely that the members of the Iowa Supreme Court expected that this change of instructions would affect the outcome of a subsequent trial. While recognizing that all of the Hossack children had testified at trial about the success of their parents' reconciliation, the court referred to other evidence that clearly supported a finding of fact that animosity had continued between the Hossacks. As the court stated, "No doubt the interference of neighbors induced [the Hossack family] thereafter to be more careful in making their troubles known, but the jury may have thought it hardly possible the ill feeling of years was so easily removed." Nevertheless, in approving the proposed defense instruction, the Iowa Supreme Court made the jury's finding as to the reconciliation all the more important. Thus, if new jurors could be persuaded that the Hossacks had reconciled, then the new defense instruction would require them to ignore all of the evidence of prior family difficulties and domestic abuse as establishing a motive for Mrs. Hossack to kill her husband.
Several days after the decision ordering a new trial, Margaret Hossack was moved from the state prison to the Warren County jailhouse. Two months later, she was released on bail after a doctor testified that she was in a serious condition, "suffering from nervous prostration, disease of the spine and base of the brain." The doctor stated that her condition was made more dangerous by her confinement and that "her chances of recovery would be greatly enhanced if she were free to enjoy out door [sic] exercise and change of surroundings and especially such as riding and going to the homes of her children." The court required that a $ 15,000 bond be posted, and a number of people came forward to sign as sureties for that amount. Mrs. Hossack went to live with her daughter and son-in-law, who lived a short distance from the farm where she had lived with her husband.
The story of Margaret Hossack's second trial can be told more briefly than that of the first. At the urging of family members, her defense lawyers moved for a change of venue. They claimed that John Hossack's good reputation in Warren County, the circumstances of his death, the publicity that had surrounded the first trial, and the conviction of Margaret Hossack made it impossible for her to be judged fairly by the members of the community in which she lived. Although it seems unlikely that sentiment against her continued to be as strong as alleged, the court approved the change of venue, requiring that the second trial be conducted in nearby Madison County.
In reading about Margaret Hossack's second trial, I cannot help but wonder how Susan Glaspell would have reacted had she been there. Just as at the first trial, she would have seen a courtroom controlled by men, with male lawyers, a male judge, and an all-male jury. She would have heard testimony much the same as that given at the first trial, with the prosecution using the domestic abuse as evidence of Mrs. Hossack's motive and the defense seeking to convince the jury of the evidence's irrelevance. And yet, without doubt, a different attitude toward Mrs. Hossack seemed to prevail, both within and outside of the courtroom.
From the beginning of the second trial, the newspaper reporters adopted a different tone; the articles were much less sensational, with much less emphasis on the gory details of the crime. Mrs. Hossack was most often described in sympathetic or pitiable terms, as, for example, being "worn and fatigued, pale and sickly from the strain of the past two years." Mr. Hossack, whose respectability and good reputation had been so greatly emphasized by reporters during the first trial, was rarely described except as the victim of the crime. It was reported early on that the state was expected to have more trouble establishing its case, and throughout the second trial, the defense was said to be confident in its ability to win an acquittal.
Certainly, the public's interest in the case was strong; the courtroom was reported to be packed to its utmost every day, with spectators standing in the aisles. Women seemed to make up at least half of the courtroom audience. Even the early articles reported that public sentiment, especially that of the women, was strongly in favor of Mrs. Hossack. No doubt those observing the second trial were aware of the outcome of the first trial, and in all likelihood, they knew the evidence of Mrs. Hossack's motive and the circumstantial evidence that had justified her prior conviction. And yet the same evidence that had been used so successfully by the prosecution to prove her guilt now seemed to arouse sympathy for Margaret Hossack.
The prosecution might have expected that its case would be stronger in the second trial. Despite the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court, the state was still able to present some evidence that tended to show that the family axe was the murder weapon. An important new witness was also produced by the state: Mr. W.F. Haines, a neighbor who had been confined to the insane asylum during the first trial and therefore unable to testify. It was suggested by some that his confinement was a result of his brooding over the Hossack murder. n354 In the second trial, he told the jury of the many conversations he had had with Mrs. Hossack in which she had complained about her husband and had asked him to come over to the Hossack home to "settle her husband" or, another time, "to finish him."
Perhaps, however, Mr. Haines, who had reportedly refused all of Mrs. Hossack's requests, telling her that "there is a law" for a man who abuses his family, was not as credible as the prosecution wished. Given his history of insanity, the jury may have been persuaded that his conversations with Mrs. Hossack had been imagined or misinterpreted by him. Or perhaps observers agreed with Mrs. Hossack's attorneys, who argued that many things had been said by her "in haste and out of the anguish of her heart." For whatever reason, the new testimony, reported by the prosecution as enough to remove every doubt from the minds of the jurors concerning the guilt of Margaret Hossack, seemed to be given little weight in public opinion.
"It is generally conceded that the women have great sympathy for Mrs. Hossack, regardless of the former trial or the statements of the prosecution," reported an article during the early days of the second trial, and that support seemed to continue throughout the course of testimony. In court, Margaret Hossack continued to be surrounded by her loyal children, but now, according to one newspaper report, she was "talked to by women and girls, who shake hands with her, consoling her and expressing their sympathy." Near the end of the trial, after Mrs. Hossack took the stand, reports were that "public sentiment is strong for the defendant and if she is convicted the community will be disappointed." During closing arguments, reporters told the public, "The general opinion prevails here that the state has not made so strong a case as in the former trial and that Mrs. Hossack is likely to be acquitted.." Newspaper headlines declared "Sentiment Strong for Her" and "Sympathy of People Now with Mrs. Hossack." Even while the state's attorney was making his closing argument to the jury, Mrs. Hossack was reported to be assuming "a more confident air than she has at any time since the murder was committed."
Certainly, the change of venue and the passage of time contributed to the changed attitude surrounding the second trial. The grisly details of the crime were less fresh in the minds of those reading about the trial, despite the prosecution's production of the bloody undergarments worn by Mr. Hossack at the time of the attack, the axe with which the murder was allegedly committed, and a human skull showing the location of Mr.. Hossack's wounds. And after two years, Mr. Hossack's reputation as an upstanding citizen was less overpowering, especially to those in Madison County who had had no personal acquaintance with him; perhaps the stronger picture to observers of this second trial was that of a violent and cruel man, the picture which Mrs. Hossack had revealed to her neighbors. And it seems that the testimony of the neighbors was different in tone than it had been in the first trial. Whereas in the first trial neighbors had seemed eager to testify against Mrs. Hossack, now they were described as more reluctant to talk, less willing to volunteer details of what they knew.
Mrs. Hossack's defense lawyers would certainly have been aware of the shift in public sentiment in favor of Margaret Hossack. No doubt, they hoped the emotions of the jury would also tend toward sympathy for the aged defendant. And the defense produced some new evidence in the second trial that may have significantly contributed to the ultimate outcome.
In the first trial, the defense attorneys suggested in their closing arguments that Mr. Haines, the neighbor who had been committed to the insane asylum, was a possible suspect who had been ignored by investigators. Aside from his confinement, however, they had little on which to base that claim. In the second trial, the defense produced a new witness who testified about a "mysterious horseman" who had ridden furiously past his house soon after the time of Mr. Hossack's murder. According to this witness, "The horse was blowing from nostrils and [the] man was whipping him at every jump." Although the state produced other witnesses who said it was a common occurrence for country boys to ride horses on that road while returning from town late at night, the unknown rider, clothed in a "white hat ... pulled down over his eyes," at least offered the jury the possibility of a suspect other than Mrs. Hossack.
Perhaps most significantly, the defense took a different tack in its questioning of Mrs. Hossack herself on the witness stand. In the first trial, neither her lawyers nor the prosecutors asked her a single question about her relationship with her husband or their alleged reconciliation. Given her testimony at the coroner's inquest, her own lawyers would have expected her to deny that she and her husband ever had difficulties. It seems likely that they feared that, in light of the numerous contradictory reports from the neighbors, such testimony would hurt her credibility as a witness, making her entire story less believable. Although her lawyers did not call the neighbors' testimony into doubt, they did heavily rely on the statements of her children to support the claim that all dissension had ceased a year before the murder.
In the second trial, however, the fact of the reconciliation was more important: The jury was instructed that if it found that the reconciliation had been successful, they were to ignore all of the evidence of prior difficulties between the Hossacks as establishing a motive for Mrs. Hossack to kill her husband.
When Mrs. Hossack took the stand in her own defense at the second trial, she was reported to be "feeble," answering in monosyllables and a voice so low that the court reporter frequently had to ask her to repeat herself. The first question put to her by her lawyers concerned the reconciliation that had allegedly occurred the year before the murder. Did she remember when the neighbors had come to her house the previous year? Yes, she replied. "State whether or not at that time it was agreed between you all that you would let bygones be bygones; that you would forget the past, and all try to live without trouble in the future?" Yes, she replied, affirming that there was no quarreling between herself and her husband from that day forward. He was, she said, a good provider for his family, and he treated his children kindly. In answer to questions from her lawyer, she denied specific reports from her neighbors that she had complained about her husband's behavior or that she had talked to others about her fears or her unhappiness in her marriage.
Margaret Hossack then described the day and night of the murder, telling her story just as she had throughout the previous two years. No, she replied, she did not strike John Hossack with an axe. No, she never struck him with anything else. No, she did not know and did not see the person who struck her husband.
Of course, the prosecution attempted to show that Mrs. Hossack continued to harbor animosity toward her husband after the "reconciliation," with several neighbors testifying to that fact. Although all of the children now spoke of the success of the reconciliation, the prosecutors produced the testimony of one of the daughters from the coroner's jury inquest when she admitted that the quarrels of her parents continued long after the intervention of the neighbors. And yet, by all accounts, Mrs. Hossack was a convincing witness whose account could not be swayed on cross examination. Perhaps her avowals that she had reconciled with her husband, as well as her generous statements about his character, were sufficient to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of some members of the jury or at least provoke their sympathy for Margaret Hossack in a way that was not done before.
Compared with the reports during the first trial, the newspapers gave few details of the closing arguments of either the prosecution or the defense when Mrs. Hossack was tried the second time. We cannot know whether or how the characterizations of the parties changed, what images of Mr. and Mrs. Hossack were painted for the benefit of the jury. And it is, of course, impossible to know the substance of the second jury's deliberations, what factors they emphasized in trying to convince each other of Mrs. Hossack's guilt or innocence.
We do know, however, that the twelve men deliberated for thirty hours and that they were unable to agree on a verdict. From the beginning, nine of them were in favor of her conviction while three stood firm for acquittal. As soon as the hung jury was announced, newspapers reported predictions, including one by the judge in the case, that it was unlikely that Margaret Hossack would be retried.
At least one reporter attributed the hung jury to the changed instruction on the effect of the reconciliation, assuming that some of the jury members must have felt themselves bound to ignore the prior marital difficulties in establishing a motive. Certainly, that seemed to be the result the defense was hoping to achieve through Mrs. Hossack's testimony. It is possible, however, that the three jurors who would not vote for conviction made their decision on other grounds. Perhaps they shared the public sentiment described by several newspaper reporters, a sentiment that seems to echo what Susan Glaspell apparently felt during the first trial. As one reporter wrote, "The age of Mrs. Hossack and the unhappiness of her married and home life has awakened favorable sentiment among those who believe her guilty, but hold the circumstances of the crime to be extenuating." Perhaps she killed her husband, but perhaps she was justified in doing so.
Margaret Hossack was not retried. Two weeks after the second trial ended, the Board of Supervisors of Warren County, where the Hossacks had lived, passed a resolution that it would not further aid in her prosecution, stating its desire that the case be dismissed. The county attorney of Madison County, where the second trial was held, stated in a writing to the court that he believed Mrs. Hossack to be guilty of the crime, but he knew of no new or additional evidence that could be produced against Mrs. Hossack, making the "result of another trial ... very doubtful." A year later, he amended his earlier statement to the court, strongly requesting that the case be dismissed, citing the lack of new evidence, the difficulty and cost of getting witnesses to testify yet another time, the publicity surrounding the two earlier trials, and the "advanced years, and enfeebled condition and appearance," of Mrs. Hossack. According to his petition, the case against Mrs. Hossack should be dismissed "not because of the innocence of the defendant, but because it will be impossible to secure her conviction."
Margaret Hossack lived for thirteen years after her second trial ended. According to one of her grandchildren who lived nearby, she was "very cold, very withdrawn." I could not locate any family accounts indicating that Margaret Hossack ever spoke about the murder of her husband. When she died, her obituary ignored the fact that she had been accused in his death. Margaret Hossack was described only as a "loving indulgent mother, a faithful Christian woman loving her church and ... attentive to its services so far as her health would permit." Margaret Hossack was buried in the New Virginia Cemetery in a small family plot. She lies in front of her husband's parents and one of her children, who died in infancy, and next to John Hossack, her husband of thirty-three years.
My investigation into the Hossack case continued for several years. At the time of the coroner's inquest, past quarrels were reported between the Hossack children and their father, suggesting that one or more of the Hossack children may have been involved in their father's death. However, none of the children were ever publicly accused. I found no report that any of the children ever admitted to having any specific knowledge about their father's murder, though they all seemed unwavering in their belief that their mother was innocent of the crime. No one other than Margaret Hossack was ever arrested or publicly named as a suspect in the murder of John Hossack.
I was interested in how later generations of the family understood the story of Margaret Hossack. Information discovered at an Iowa historical society enabled me to contact her great-grandson, who was working on the family genealogy. He was surprised and pleased at my interest in his family's history. He told me that the accepted story within the family is that Margaret Hossack killed her husband after years of being abused and dominated by him. He sent me a privately published memoir written by his great-uncle, who was living near the Hossacks at the time of the murder and who was a close friend of the youngest Hossack son. Without describing the source of his information, the author writes:
Although I don't know about either Will [the eldest Hossack son living at home at the time of the murder] or Mrs. Hossack's abilities to kill someone, I will say that I am pretty sure Mrs. Hossack swung the axe and Will held the lamp for her to swing it by.
Whether Margaret Hossack acted alone or with the help of her children, the view seems to prevail that she was driven to murder because of her husband's cruel treatment of her and the family and her inability to obtain help and protection from others.
I learned, too, that at least some members of the Hossack family view the story with a sense of shame. When I initially spoke to the great-grandson about my work, he said he was glad "all of this" would finally "come out into the open." Later, however, he requested that his name not be included in any published description of his family's history and told me that his mother, Margaret Hossack's grandchild, had spoken of the murder as a "family secret." She said her father, Margaret Hossack's son-in-law, had warned his children never to speak about it. A great-granddaughter, who also requested anonymity, wrote to thank me for my investigation into the Hossack family history, explaining that her mother had "always been haunted by the thought of her tainted blood."
At one point during my investigation, I thought I would be able to find, both for myself and for the Hossack relatives with whom I had been in touch, a definitive answer to the question of whether Margaret Hossack killed her husband. I read a cryptic "editorial note" included in a history of Warren County published in 1953. In a section on crimes, the murder of John Hossack is described. Explaining how Margaret Hossack was tried twice for the crime, one of the authors, identifying himself only by his initials, D.L.B., added the following footnote:
As a young newspaper reporter I covered the first trial of Margaret Hossack for the Des Moines Register. While the testimony did not prove her "not guilty," to my mind it fell short of proving her guilty. In the years passed since the trial, evidence has come to me still further casting doubt on her guilt; but I cannot repeat it here without casting a shadow on another party, now dead and against whom the evidence is not conclusive. However, I cannot allow this permanent record to go to press without saying more in defense of the name of Margaret Hossack than simply that the second jury disagreed. I do not believe she was guilty of the murder of her husband.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the reporter's personal papers to see whether he had recorded the clue he had discovered. And yet, even as I began to make the appropriate contacts, I realized that I was narrowing my vision in that I had begun to focus my attention primarily on the question of who killed John Hossack. In a certain way, I was repeating the mistake Susan Glaspell attributes to the men in A Jury of Her Peers, who seem to focus solely on the facts of the crime, ignoring the more complicated story that surrounds it. And it is the fuller story I want to tell, including not only what Margaret Hossack must have endured during her marriage, but also how others reacted to her and how she was ultimately judged under the legal system and by members of her community.
The story of Margaret Hossack raises questions about stories and storytelling in the law, questions which are provoked by Susan Glaspell's work, but which have also, in more recent years, been the subject of much scholarly attention. Many legal scholars have focused on the importance of narratives in the law, specifically on the fact that much of what lawyers do is listen to stories and then retell them ways that will persuade another lawyer, a judge, or a jury. n410 Substantive legal rules and rules of evidence determine what facts may be included in the story told, and legal conventions often determine the particular style the narrative takes. When a judge renders a decision, the facts are typically related in the form of a narrative, with the story structured so that the legal conclusion selected by the judge appears necessary and inevitable.
As many scholars have noted, the narrative form corresponds to the way we understand the world. We make sense of our experiences through stories, which provide explanations, predictions, and interpretations. Stories tell us about how people act, how and why specific events occur, and how certain events lead to certain consequences. The stories we use to give meaning to the world reflect a background of assumptions and expectations. Some of these expectations derive from our personal experiences while others develop out of a shared culture and are passed on to us as common knowledge. These are the stories that help us to decide what other stories to believe. We tend to trust those stories that satisfy our expectations. As we see the facts fit into a familiar story line, the conclusion comes as no surprise.
Inevitably, the stories told and accepted in the law - the stories that underlie established legal doctrine - are based on certain background norms and expectations. Increasingly, scholars have questioned those underlying assumptions, suggesting that they may represent only the dominant patriarchal culture. When society accepts one group of competing stories as the definitive truth in every case, other stories that challenge the accepted narratives are either rejected as lacking credibility or never told. Therefore, as the law develops, it reflects the norms and expectations of those in power rather than considering the full diversity of human experiences. n419
In the case of Margaret Hossack, the defense and the prosecution told competing stories to the jury. The arguments of both sides appealed to the underlying preconceptions they expected those twelve men would hold. By portraying Margaret Hossack as either a virtuous and submissive wife or a depraved monster, the lawyers sought to shape the facts into one of the stock stories they knew the jurors would rely on in reaching their decision. Because they appealed to the jury's preconceptions, the lawyers' arguments reinforced the prevailing ideology on which those stock stories were based - the idea that a woman was either a model of feminine virtue or hardly human. Neither the defense nor the prosecution developed the complex story of Margaret Hossack's life, her relationship with her husband, or her interactions with her neighbors.
Despite this failure, many people eventually realized the limitations of the stories the lawyers told. Because society largely ignored or tolerated domestic violence, no public discourse on the issue existed; members of the community had no language with which to articulate why they felt that the conviction of Margaret Hossack was unfair. And yet, as many came to support Margaret Hossack, they may have recognized that none of the courtroom versions of her story came close to capturing the reality of her life. The stories told in the second trial, as Mrs. Hossack continued to deny what seems to have been the reality of her marriage and the lawyers continued to debate the relevance of the domestic abuse, were not necessarily any closer to the real-life story that surrounded the crime. But members of the community and at least some members of the jury seemed to recognize that there was a different narrative than the one that emerged in court, one in which the issue of her guilt was more complex, both factually and morally, than many initially thought.
Without doubt, Susan Glaspell also felt that justice was not done in Margaret Hossack's first trial. Like the historical narrative of Margaret Hossack, A Jury of Her Peers invites questions about how stories are told in the courtroom as we, the readers, consider how Minnie Wright's life will be depicted by the lawyers and judged by the members of the jury. As Glaspell tells the story, we can imagine the life that Minnie Wright lived and feel her isolation and despair. And then, like the two women in the story, we are confronted with the arrogance of those who will judge Minnie Wright under the legal system and their inability to empathize with her experience. We are led to question whether the men, with their preconceived assumptions and biases, are capable of doing justice in the case of Minnie Wright and whether the law, as it developed, ever took into account experiences such as hers.
A Jury of Her Peers and the story of Margaret Hossack together illustrate a narrowness of vision that, even today, frequently determines the stories told in the courtroom and the decisions rendered under the law. On a more personal level, I recognize that the same narrowness of vision too often affects our own judgments about other people, which are frequently based on assumptions, biases, and expectations that may or may not be consistent with the reality of the lives of others.
And yet, even while the two stories, one fictional and one historical, suggest the limitations of our ability to understand other people, they also suggest the possibility of expanding our perspective. Both A Jury of Her Peers and the story of Margaret Hossack are narratives, stories that invite our participation in worlds unknown to us. Narratives enlighten us in different ways than other forms of discourse: They offer an imaginative experience rather than a specific message, and they appeal to our emotions rather than to our rational thought.
As such, narratives can be transformative. By allowing us to step into the shoes of another person, they help us to overcome our isolation and self-centeredness, to realize that our experiences and expectations might not be shared by everyone. In reading stories about other people, we learn that other people, just like us, are multifaceted and multimotivational, and we come to appreciate that simplistic explanations for behavior and reactions are often impossible. We begin to empathize with people unlike ourselves, to feel the pain of a harm - whether it be domestic abuse, racial discrimination, or sexual harassment - that we may never experience. Reading certain texts, as Professor White has said, does "not merely add to one's stock of information but [can] change one's way of seeing and being, of talking and acting." Stories allow us to expand our sense of the human experience beyond our own, to enlarge our perspective to include realities that would otherwise remain foreign and unfamiliar.
Stories, whether fictional or historical, allow us to acquire an empathic understanding of the experiences of others. By reading and listening to stories, we can begin to perceive more accurately how other people live and why they behave as they do. We can become more aware of our own biases and expectations, which affect the way we see other people, as well as the biases and expectations that influence the stories lawyers tell and the way judges and juries interpret them. We can begin to achieve a more realistic sense of community, appreciating our similarities to other people, as well as our differences. We can, I believe, enrich and expand our perspective in a way that contributes to our ability, as a society, to define and achieve justice.
Read the annotated article including footnotes