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Release: Nov. 22, 2000

Visiting UI law professor to speak about 1901 Iowa murder case

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In 1901 a jury of 12 men found Margaret Hossack, a 57-year-old wife and mother in Indianola, guilty of murdering her husband, John. The trial inspired Des Moines Daily News reporter Susan Glaspell to write a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," which has since become a classic and was selected by John Updike for inclusion in "The Best Short Stories of the Century."

The short story inspired Patricia L. Bryan, a visiting professor of law at the University of Iowa, to follow her fascination with law and literature and seek more details about the Hossack murder and trial.

Bryan will share details of her research in a free public lecture on Friday, Dec. 1, at 4 p.m. in Room 204, Jefferson Building. Her presentation, "The Trials of Margaret Hossack: Murder in an Iowa Farmhouse in 1900," is part of the UI American studies department Floating Friday lecture series.

Bryan, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina, has taught courses in tax law since 1982 and a seminar on law and literature since 1990. Soon after she began teaching the seminar, in which she assigned her students to read "A Jury of Her Peers," she decided to try to find out more about the lives of Margaret and John Hossack, the circumstances surrounding the murder and the subsequent legal proceedings.

"I was drawn in by the brief facts I knew of the case -- a woman accused of killing her husband at the turn of the century, with evidence of prior domestic abuse," she said. "I was also interested because of the connections to Iowa, a place where my husband and I had both lived and gone to school."

Bryan graduated first in her class from the UI College of Law in 1976. Her husband, Tom Wolf, earned his M.F.A. from the UI Writers' Workshop in 1975. They are collaborating on a book about the Hossack murder and trials.

After Margaret Hossack was found guilty of murdering her husband, largely on the basis of the prosecution's assertion that she wanted him dead because of his threats against her and their children, she was sentenced to life in prison. A year later, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned her conviction and granted her a new trial. This time, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision, and Hossack was freed.

"The more I learned about this case, the more interested I became," Bryan said, "not just because it inspired Glaspell's work but also for the many other issues it raises, including domestic violence, the community's reaction to what they knew was happening in the Hossack family, and the experiences of rural women at the turn of the century. Given my background as a lawyer, I was especially interested in issues of legal storytelling, specifically the stories about Margaret Hossack that were told by both the prosecution and the defense at her two trials."

Linda Kerber, a UI history professor and one of the leading scholars of American women's history, praised Bryan's efforts to uncover new details in this chapter of Iowa history.

"Patricia's deep detective work has much to teach us about doing research in Iowa, about the relationship between literary texts and lived experiences, about early twentieth century understandings of domestic violence, and of social history of Iowa," she said.