Friday, May 13, 2011

The Hossack Murder

Susan Glaspell (1876–1948)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

Susan Glaspell is remembered primarily for her role in cofounding (with her husband, George “Jig” Cook) the Provincetown Players, a theater troupe that showed its first plays in 1915 at the avant-garde Massachusetts summer resort. The Players incorporated the following year in New York City, converting the first floor of a Greenwich Village townhouse into a theater before moving in 1918 to its famous Playhouse location at 133 Macdougal Street. The company showcased works by such writers as Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Reed, and Wallace Stevens, but it is most remembered for launching the career of Eugene O’Neill, staging fifteen of his early plays in just seven years.

In addition to managing the company, Glaspell was a dramatist in her own right—and the Players would perform eleven of her plays before the original group folded in 1922. She would go on to win the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Alison's House), but perhaps her best-known play today is Trifles, which was first staged in Provincetown on August 8, 1916—with Glaspell and her husband playing the lead characters. The following year she turned the play into a story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” which has been her most widely read work since its “rediscovery” in the 1970s.

Elaine Showalter, who borrowed the title A Jury of Her Peers for her recent literary history of American women’s literature, writes that Glaspell “turned the drama of marital loneliness . . . into a parable of crime and justice.” Both the play and the story are based on the trial of Margaret Hossack for the murder of her husband. Glaspell herself covered the trial in 1900–01 during her previous career as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. Patricia Bryan, coauthor of a recent book on the murder, reviewed the original transcripts and materials (including Glaspell’s original series of newspaper articles) and wrote in a 1997 Stanford Law Review essay: “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.” Bryan also points out a cruel irony, “The abuse that Margaret Hossack had suffered [from her husband] was of great significance . . . because it provided a motive for the crime.” In fact, the stronger the evidence for domestic abuse (and, likewise, the more inhumane the abuse committed by her husband), the stronger the case against her.

For this week’s Story of the Week selection, then, we turn to the original series of articles that the 24-year-old Glaspell wrote between December 1900 and April 1901. In them, the reader can see her style change dramatically, from the purely “police blotter” entries of the initial investigation to the more far more socially engaged and troubled report published on April 9, before summation and jury deliberations. By the trial’s end, it becomes clear why the case haunted Glaspell for the next two decades.

Special note: Readers who prefer not knowing the outcome of the trial while reading the selection should postpone reading the introduction that accompanies the story in the PDF. Also, on page 187, “the celebrated ‘crowbar’ case” refers to a famous accident in 1848 involving Phineas Gage, who lived twelve years after a crowbar passed completely through his cranium.

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Indianola, Dec. 3.— (Special.)— A foul murder was committed Saturday night near Medford, fifteen miles southwest of Indianola. A farmer named Hossack was struck over the head and killed by unknown parties, at his home a few miles out from Medford. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.