American authors Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf’s non-fiction historical mystery, Midnight Assassin
(2005), examines the unsolved murder of Iowa farmer John Hossack, who was bludgeoned to death in his bed in 1900. His wife, Margaret, quickly became suspect number one, but she denied the murder and her initial conviction by a jury of local men was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. As well as retelling the story, Bryan (a writer) and Wolf (a Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina) use the Hossack case to examine the development of the American legal system, the experience of women in rural America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the beginnings of American feminism. The book was well received by critics and academic readers alike: “Aficionados of the unsolved case may find a delectable example in this retelling” (Kirkus Reviews
Much of the story is told with the help of documentary evidence: court transcripts, journals, and newspaper reports (particularly those of Susan Glaspell, one of America’s first female journalists). However, the authors use this evidence as a basis for their own observations, reconstructing the process of research. They reveal that the inhabitants of modern-day Indianola still feel close to the events of 1900. The authors even report being warned by one resident that they might find themselves in danger if they discovered the truth.
The Hossack family—John, Margaret, and their nine children (four have already left home)—live on a small farm outside Indianola, Iowa. Everyone in the community knows that the marriage is unhappy. Although well-liked and respected, John is known to be a man of violent temper, and Margaret has several times begged her neighbors to shelter her from his rage. He is also known to threaten the children with violence.
On December 1, 1900, John is bludgeoned to death with an ax during the night. Claiming that she slept through the murder, Margaret suggests that an intruder must have it carried out. However, her neighbors are unconvinced; Margaret is arrested by local law enforcement and charged with John’s murder.
At the inquest hearing, the family’s ax (used to butcher turkeys) is presented as evidence. Margaret denies that there has been any trouble in her marriage in recent years, although many locals know this to be a lie. In other ways, too, her story doesn’t add up. She claims to have heard an intruder, but instead of waking her husband (who slept with a rifle by his bed), she woke her children. Some locals note that Margaret shows little emotion at either the death or her own arrest. It is also observed by neighbors that the Hossack family dog—much given to nighttime barking—was silent on the night of the murder.
The community and a nationwide newspaper readership are horrified: how could a woman be so violent? Comparisons are drawn with the notorious case of Lizzie Borden (acquitted of the murder of her parents in Massachusetts). Only Margaret’s children rally around her, insisting that she is not capable of violence.
The case is tried at the local court. Young prosecutor George Clammer indulges in courtroom theatrics, dragging the bloody marital bed before the jury. He argues that the silence of the family dog suggests that he had been drugged by Margaret. In defense, Senator William H. Berry insists that John and Margaret had been happy together for more than a year. He suggests that the dog wasn’t drugged: he was heartbroken at the death of his master.
Reporting on the case is a young reporter from the Des Moines Daily News
, Susan Glaspell. One of America’s first female journalists, Glaspell’s articles point out that Margaret faces an all-male ensemble of law-enforcement officers and lawyers, and that her jury is also entirely male. She argues that such a jury can hardly be expected to empathize with a woman’s experience.
Building on Glaspell’s arguments, Bryan and Wolf paint a picture of women’s lives in turn-of-the-century rural America. Domestic abuse was both commonplace and ignored. A code of silence reigned in rural communities, where abuse was considered a private matter, not to be spoken about in social settings. Confined to isolated homes, many women had little contact with anyone outside their families. Even those who did not have to endure violent abuse lived hard lives of manual labor and relentless, life-threatening childbirth.
During the course of the trial, it becomes clear that many witnesses—including some of Margaret’s children and some of the neighbors—have lied. One neighbor has a nervous breakdown before he can testify (causing some observers to wonder if he is the murderer).
Ultimately the jury’s decision comes down to factors that seem absurd to a modern readership. They observe that Margaret is too big and unemotional for a woman and that her husband had been a man of good standing in his community, while Margaret was not well-liked. Margaret is found guilty.
However, Margaret’s lawyers appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, where her conviction is overturned, with the jury hung. Susan Glaspell goes on to write two important works of literature based on the trial, a play called Trifles
(1916) and the short story “A Jury of Peers” (1917).
The book closes with some speculation about the identity of the murderer. The authors incline towards the theory that one of Margaret’s sons was to blame: Margaret’s story doesn’t add up because she was protecting her child.