Margaret Hossack endures the harsh and solitary existence of a typical American farm wife at the turn of the last century. Her husband John, at his own whims, has been known to threaten her and their nine children with violence. Few in the neighboring area are surprised when John dies in his own bed of axe wounds to the head. Margaret claims that she slept undisturbed next to John throughout the assault, which must have been carried out by an intruder.
Authors Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf resurrect the principle players and reconstruct the day-to-day events, and thereby the era itself, through court transcripts, diaries, and newspaper accounts. Youthful prosecutor George Clammer, convinced of Margaret's guilt, dramatically uses John Hossack's bloodied deathbed as a courtroom prop. Charismatic Senator William H. Berry offers a spirited defense, doggedly reiterating that the family had reconciled its differences and had lived in peace for over a year. Perhaps most compelling is fresh young reporter Susan Glaspell of the Des Moines Daily News, a female in a heretofore male profession. Glaspell notes the pervasive male presence and influence in the ranks of law enforcement, prosecution and defense, and even the all male jury, and points out that there can hardly be room in such an atmosphere for empathy toward the female perspective. Glaspell later composes two enduring literary works, clearly rooted in the Hossack trial, that place among the earliest stirrings of American feminism.
Bryan and Wolf bring the story and its characters to vivid life. Margaret Hossack is initially convicted, but a second trial results in a hung jury. Neither guilt nor innocence is ever conclusively established. Margaret Hossack and her ill fated family eventually fade into history. But one long term result is that America must uncomfortably confront its neglect of the women who have played so significant a role in its emergence.