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Right around midnight on a moonlit night between Saturday, Dec. 1, 1900 and Sunday, Dec. 2, prosperous Warren County, Iowa farmer John Hossack was murdered in his bed by two blows of an ax to his head. Four days later, Hossack’s wife of 32 years, Margaret (Murchison) Hossack, was arrested at her husband’s funeral and charged with killing him in the couple’s home sometime around 12 a.m. while he slept.
The vicious assault stunned and divided the close-knit rural community. Margaret Hossack claimed to be innocent, but stories of domestic troubles and abuse provided prosecutors with a motive for the crime.
Neighbors and family members were reluctant to talk about what they knew concerning the couple’s troubled marriage.
Margaret Hossack claimed she’d been sleeping next to her husband at the time of the murder but that she had not heard a thing.
Despite her claims of innocence, the murder case against her moved forward in what became one of the most sensational murder trials in Iowa history.
Shep, the Hossacks’ 10-year-old dog, figured prominently in the trial, especially in the argument for the defense. During the first trial, one newspaper headline proclaimed, “DEFENSE HOPES REST UPON HOSSACK DOG.”
Shep was reputed to be an active dog with a tendency to bark at stray cattle and strangers.
On the night of the murder, Margaret Hossack testified that she had heard Shep barking vigorously between 9 and 10 p.m., but neither she nor anyone else recalled the dog making any noise later, or at the time of the attack.
Several family members and neighbors who saw the dog after the murder thought he was quiet and uncharacteristically listless, fueling speculation that the assailant had drugged the dog with chloroform. When the defense made that argument in court, the prosecution countered by claiming that Shep had witnessed Margaret Hossack killing her husband and that the dog’s demeanor expressed shame and sorrow.
On April 11, 1901, after five days of testimony before an all-male jury, Margaret Hossack was found guilty of her husband’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her conviction was overturned one year later and she was released on bail to await a retrial. The second trial in adjacent Madison County ended with a hung jury verdict; nine jurors voted to find her guilty, while three held out and voted “not guilty.”
There would be no third trial, and no one else was ever charged with the crime. Margaret Hossack refused to discuss the murder after the second trial.
In what some considered an added insult to injury, Margaret Hossack — dubbed the “Lizzie Borden of Iowa” — was buried in the family plot next to the husband she allegedly murdered.
Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf researched the Hossack case for almost a decade — combing through legal records, newspaper accounts, government documents and unpublished memoirs — before depicting the murder and trials in their book, Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland (Bur Oak Book), published by the University of Iowa Press in August 2007.
The Midnight Assassin website has this to say about the book:
MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN takes us back 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 classic one-act play, “Trifles”, and the acclaimed short story, “A Jury of Her Peers.”
The book is described as 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.”
The comprehensive website includes a page listing the Hossack family members, neighbors, lawyers, judges, witnesses and observers as well as a Reading Guide, a page dedicated to Susan Glaspell, an excerpt from the book, and much more.
Co-author Wolf describes the book as a nonfiction narrative, and says in an author interview included on the book’s website:
To me, the story was both a whodunit–with an array of interesting social and legal angles–and a kind of micro history of the farm life in the Midwest a century ago. It was a compelling true drama: an unsolved murder that forced a whole community to deal with issues ranging from domestic abuse to the social roles played by men and women.
John Hossack was born on May 26, 1841, in Ross Shire, Scotland. His family emigrated to Canada in 1842. Later, he made his way to Illinois, and in the spring of 1866 he found work on the farm of Alexander Murchison, in Stark County, Illinois. At this time, Hossack, who was one of several hired hands living on the Murchison farm, met his future wife, Margaret — the youngest child of his employer — as well as Margaret’s siblings: Alex, a Civil War hero who had returned home after serving in the war; Donald, a farmer; and Jane, who still lived with her parents.
John Hossack worked on the Murchison farm through the spring of 1866, left the farm for a short period, but returned a year later.
In the fall of 1867, Hossack traveled to Iowa to look for land, and he purchased 120 acres in Warren County, paying $480 in cash. He returned to the Murchison farm in November or December. It was later reported that he had been interested in Jane Murchison, but “circumstances prevailed” and he married Margaret instead. Their wedding was held on January 29, 1868, in the living room of Donald Murchison’s house.
A few months later, John and Margaret Hossack moved to the land John had purchased in Warren County, Iowa, and they settled in a small house on the farm. John Hossack’s elderly parents joined them and lived there until they both died a few years later.
John Hossack established himself as one of the county’s most successful and prosperous farmers. To his family, Hossack could be moody and argumentative — he often clashed with his wife and children over how the household was run and what the children were allowed to do — but he was well-respected by his fellow farmers. He took a leadership role in his church, ran for political office, and served as a trustee of the county.
On Thanksgiving Day 1900, the Hossacks hosted a party at their farm for more than twenty people.
John Hossack was murdered two days later, attacked in the middle of the night while he slept in his bed. His violent death shocked the county.
The couple raised nine of 10 children, including sons Alexander (Alex) Hossack, Donald Hossack (died in infancy), John C. (Johnnie) Hossack, William D. (Will) Hossack, James (Jimmie) Hossack, and Ivan Hossack, and daughters Anna Jane (Annie) Hossack Henry, Margaret Lucretia (Louie) Hossack Kemp, Catherine (Cassie) Hossack, and Martha May Hossack Coulter. Son Ivan, the Hossack’s last child, was born when Margaret was almost 40 years old.
John Hossack was buried in the New Virginia Cemetery in New Virginia, Iowa, Warren County.
Margaret died August 25, 1916, at age 72, and was buried next to him. At the time of her death, Margaret had more than 20 grandchildren.