Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland

Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland

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by Patricia L. Bryan, Thomas Wolf

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On a moonlit night in December 1900, a prosperous Iowa farmer was murdered in his bed—killed by two blows of an ax to his head. Four days later, the victim's wife, Margaret Hossack, was arrested and charged with the crime.

The vicious assault stunned and divided the close-knit rural community. The accused woman claimed to be innocent, and some in the… See more details below


On a moonlit night in December 1900, a prosperous Iowa farmer was murdered in his bed—killed by two blows of an ax to his head. Four days later, the victim's wife, Margaret Hossack, was arrested and charged with the crime.

The vicious assault stunned and divided the close-knit rural community. The accused woman claimed to be innocent, and some in the community supported her, refusing to believe that a woman could be capable of such a violent act. Others thought she was guilty, because she didn't cry or show emotion—her overall lack of femininity suggested to many that she was capable of violent murder. And when neighbors spoke of abuse within the Hossack home, the prosecutors had what they needed: evidence that Margaret Hossack had a motive to kill her husband.

Midnight Assassin takes us back in time—to the murder, the investigation, and the trials of Margaret Hossack. The book introduces us to Susan Glaspell, a young journalist who reported the story for the Des Moines Daily News and, fifteen years later, transformed the events into the acclaimed short story, "A Jury of Her Peers."

Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf researched the Hossack case for almost a decade, combing through the legal record, newspaper accounts, government documents, and unpublished memoirs. The result is a vivid portrait of life in rural America at the turn of the century and a chilling step-by-step account of the crime and its aftermath.

Midnight Assassin is about the ways that prejudice and fear can influence justice and how people's preconceptions inform the legal process. It is about a woman tried for a crime but punished for her character.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historical whodunit devotees who have devoured all the literature on famous real-life mysteries will delight in this stirring and evocative account of an obscure turn-of-the-century Iowa murder. Law professor Bryan and her husband, Wolf, a writing consultant, vividly bring to life the baffling events of the night of December 1, 1900, when a well-to-do farmer named John Hossack was fatally attacked with an ax while sleeping in his bed. Suspicions soon focused on his long-suffering wife, Margaret, who claimed to have been asleep by her husband's side when the assault took place. A history of domestic strife convinced the local authorities that she had finally snapped after years of threats and verbal abuse. As the evidence against her was only circumstantial, her guilt was a matter of dispute, even after her conviction (eventually reversed on appeal). Alternate theories of the crime, accusing the Hossacks' children, disgruntled neighbors or a "mysterious horseman," should have been a little more fleshed out by the authors. Nonetheless, they vividly portray the era's attitudes toward women (indicated by a tolerance of domestic abuse) while crafting a tale that reads like a good novel, complete with clues-like a dog that failed to bark-that feel straight from Perry Mason The tale is given heightened immediacy by the authors' description of how alive the case still is in the minds of local townspeople even a century later-Bryan and Wolf were even warned they might be in danger if they got too close to the truth. Agent, Gary Morris at David Black Literary Agency. (Apr. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bryan (law, Univ. of North Carolina) and coauthor Wolf present a true-life, turn-of-the-century courtroom drama set in Iowa farm country. On December 1, 1900, Indianola farmer John Hossack was axed to death in his home. The initial investigation pointed to Hossack's wife, Margaret, as the attacker. She was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted of murder and imprisoned. However, the conviction was overturned on a technicality, and the second trial ended in a hung jury. Throughout the process, Margaret denied murdering her husband. However, it was common knowledge in the region that John was an abusive man who had threatened to harm his family and that Margaret feared for her life. Though she was never retried, much of the evidence points to Margaret as the culprit. The authors use trial transcripts and period newspaper accounts to tell this story, offering not only an interesting trial drama but also a look into social attitudes of rural America at the beginning of the 20th century, especially toward women. Recommended for academic and public libraries.-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Lib., Parkersburg Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 casualcomment: "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. Author tour

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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