Aficionados of the unsolved case may find a delectable example in this retelling of the little-known but gruesome murder of an Iowa farmer.
The authors, a married couple (Bryan a law professor at the University of North Carolina; Wolf a writer), have done amazing spade work to open an intimate window on the Hossack family, mother and father with nine children, five still at home, as they live near the small town of Indianola, Iowa, on December 1, 1900. Neighbors know the marriage as a troubled one and the husband, John, given to fits of violent rage. The long-suffering wife, Margaret, has occasionally reached out in desperation. On the night in question, she claims to have awakened to find John mortally wounded by blows to the head, citing an unknown intruder. He dies within hours. The family’s ax, used occasionally to butcher turkeys, is presented at an inquest during which Margaret denies any serious trouble within the family. As she is arrested and the case brought to trial, the authors, largely through contemporary coverage by the Iowa journalist Susan Glaspell (later to become a feminist advocate), flesh out the life and times of a farm wife at the turn of the century. Attitudes toward women become a feature both of prosecution and defense, inevitably harking back eight years to the celebrated trial of Lizzie Borden, acquitted of the ax murder of her parents in Fall River, Massachusetts. Margaret’s initial conviction by a local jury was overturned on appeal. She was retried at another Iowa venue at age 60 and freed, with the jury hopelessly hung. The result freezes haunting questions—whether she was protecting one of her children, for example—and intrigue in a neighbor’s casual comment: “When a man don’t like a woman there is lots of things that comes up to make them contrary to each other.”
Meticulously but briskly rendered mystery.