The Feminist and the Axe Murderer

Susan Glaspell was just 24, working her first job out of college as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News when she was called to the scene of a grisly crime that would shape her artistic destiny. Late on the night of December 1, 1900, John Hossack had been bludgeoned to death with an axe as he lay in bed. Margaret, his wife of 33 years, slept on beside him during the murder, or so she claimed.

Despite her children’s protests, she was arrested and charged with murder. The trial became a sensation, and Glaspell’s reporting on the case and its surprising outcome was eagerly devoured well beyond Iowa. To say that the case became a referendum on domestic abuse would be to rewrite history, but the sympathies aroused by the stoic Margaret Hossack were indicative of a gradual change in the popular understanding of women’s rights and legal status.

In years to come, Glaspell would go on to become a popular novelist, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, and a key figure in modern American theatre. She co-founded the groundbreaking experimental Provincetown Players where, due largely to her influence, Eugene O’Neill was first produced. On the same night of his theatrical debut in 1916, Glaspell’s own best know play – Trifles – was performed as well. It was the story of a woman accused of murdering her husband in bed, for reasons that perhaps only other women in her community could fully understand.

The following year, Glaspell would re-write the play into a short story entitled A Jury of Her Peers, which remains her best-known literary creation. It is a haunting story of women who are silenced, repressed, cribbed and confined, and also of our tragic inability to connect with others, despite the fact that, as Glaspell writes, “we all go through the same thing – it’s just a different kind of the same thing.” On top of all that, it is a gripping work of psychological suspense.

Come hear a live reading of Glaspell’s A Jury of Her Peers at Story Time for Grownups, at Third Place Books, Seward Park on Sunday, May 20 at 7 p.m.: drop by early and brace yourself with a Bloody Mary from the bookstore’s bar. There will be an encore presentation at Ravenna Eckstein Community Center at 1 p.m., Wednesday, May 23. You’ll find some of Glaspell’s plays, including an audio production of Trifles, in our catalog. Both of these events are part of Library Lounge, combining literature and libations at locations across the city.

      – Posted by David W.

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