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Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland

Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland

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by 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


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.

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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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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Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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?
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago