Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartlandby Patricia L. Bryan
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In 1900, Margaret Hossack, the wife of a prominent Iowa farmer, was arrested for bludgeoning her husband to death with an ax while their children slept upstairs. The community was outraged: How could a woman commit such an act of violence? Firsthand accounts describe the victim, John Hossack, as a cruel and unstable man. Perhaps Margaret Hossack was acting out of fear. Or perhaps the story she told was true—that an intruder broke into the house, killed her husband while she slept soundly beside him, and was still on the loose. Newspapers across the country carried the story, and community sentiment was divided over her guilt. At trial, Margaret was convicted of murder, but later was released on appeal. Ultimately, neither her innocence nor her guilt was ever proved.
Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf examine the harsh realities of farm life at the turn of the century and look at the plight of women—legally, socially, and politically—during that period. What also emerges is the story of early feminist Susan Glaspell, who covered the Hossack case as a young reporter and later used it as the basis for her acclaimed work “ A Jury of Her Peers.”
Midnight Assassin expertly renders the American character and experience: our obsession with crime, how justice is achieved, and the powerful influence of the media.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Meet the Author
Patricia Bryan is a professor of law at the University of North Carolina. She is the author of “Stories in Fiction and in Fact: Susan Glaspell’s ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack,” which was published in the Stanford Law Review.
Thomas Wolf received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is a writing consultant for the Association of American Medical Colleges. The authors are graduates of the University of Iowa. They are married and live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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This book grabbed my attention from the start. The authors have captured the details of a mysterious tragedy, extracting from the historic record the perceptions and experiences and the breathing presence of the participants, and woven a narrative fabric that is compelling and evocative. During the description of the hours and days immediately following the murder, the story line is particularly vivid, and several pages into this section I realized that information derived from witness testimony had been ingeniously interleaved in the real-time hour-by-hour description of who saw and noticed what. For example, the handing around of the family axe among visiting neighbors, and observation of hair and blood on the axe, prior to its being secured by the sheriff, is told with an immediacy that is truly striking in its verisimilitude. This retelling of the witness testimony as it was chronologically experienced by the witnesses prepares the reader for the drama of the courtroom scene, while tightening its narrative. The climactic description of the display of the murder bed by the prosecution lawyer, pulling aside the bloodied covers to reveal the ¿mass of blood showing where John Hossack¿s body had lain,¿ highlights the conviction conveyed by this state attorney, who temporarily persuaded me of the wife¿s guilt, in the heat of his closing statement. The best writing does not depend on surprising turns of plot to carry a tale, but comes to life in the reader¿s re-living the events in empathy with its characters. Rarely have I seen this successfully executed in a book of non-fiction: hats off to Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf! What¿s your next book?
The careful research is painlessly inegrated into an interesting story. The book provides a look into the lives of women in turn-of-the century rural America, where no woman was legally allowed to sit on the juries that would judge the accused wife of the murdered farmer. Did she wield the axe? What kind of defense would her attorneys attempt? Was she covering for one of her children? I enjoyed reading this account, complete with contemporary newspaper reports, that investigates the shocking murder.