Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”

Glaspell

Susan Glaspell

I included Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” in our course for a few reasons. First, I really love hearing what students have to say about the ethical dilemma that Glaspell explores in her short story – what does Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters’ choice to conceal the dead canary say about the inadequacy of the law? Second, you may have noticed a theme connecting the past four short stories, that of women and confinement. (Jacqueline remarked in Discussion Board 5 last week how we are seeing many female protagonists experience a period of isolation.) Finally, I think Glaspell does an incredible job playing with different points of view, which characters are able to identify and read the clues of Minnie’s story.

Source: The Trial of Margaret Hossack

Glaspell drew on the murder trial of Margaret Hossack, which she reported on in 1901, for the inspiration of “A Jury of Her Peers.” HossackIn December of 1900, John Hossack was killed while asleep in his bed by two powerful blows to his head. His wife of 33 years, Margaret, claimed to have been asleep through the entire incident, only to wake as the murderer was leaving the house. She maintained her innocence; however, when the murder weapon, an axe, was found, she was arrested and charged with the crime.

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The trial quickly gained notoriety and is considered one of the most sensationalized court cases in Iowa’s history. People became fascinated with the case for a couple of reasons: first was Margaret’s alibi of having slept through her husband’s violent murder, and second was the stoic demeanor that she kept throughout the trial.

A notable aspect of Hossack’s trial was the question of spousal abuse. Hossack had told neighbors that she feared for her life. However, at her trial, it was the prosecution who presented the abuse that Margaret suffered at the hands of her husband, arguing this was evidence of her motive to kill him. Her attorney did not attempt to argue the abuse as a mitigating circumstance. At this point in US jurisprudence , there was not really a way of talking about domestic abuse, which was considered a private, not public matter.

On April 19th, 1901, Margaret was found guilty. Yet the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial, which resulted in a hung jury (9 for conviction, 3 for acquittal). A third trial was never held.

As you can probably tell, Glaspell altered some of the details of story when adapting it for “A Jury of Her Peers.”

1) While Minnie is childless, Margaret had nine children. Glaspell may have made this change to emphasize the isolation that Minnie’s husband, John, keeps her in.

2) Rather than being bludgeoned with axe, Wright is strangled with a rope.

3) While Margaret’s motivation was brought out during trial, the evidence of Minnie’s motivation is concealed by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale.

What Glaspell saw in the trial of Margaret Hossak was the gender inequality endemic to the legal system. First off, women were prohibited from serving on Margaret’s jury. (Look up Taylor vs. Louisiana.)  As became apparent through Margaret’s trial, the legal system was a realm of male authority, leaving women with no legal standing or voice. The question that this trial raised for Glaspell was how could a woman hope for a fair trial when jury members were unable to empathize with her situation.  This separation of empathy and the law becomes the predominant theme in her fictionalized adaptation of the Hossack’s trial, “A Jury of Her Peers.”

(Here’s a link to Glaspell’s articles on Margaret Hossack’s trial. This is also the homepage to a book about Margaret Hossack’s trial, Midnight Assassin.)

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“For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law.”

The plot of “A Jury of Her Peers” is relatively simple: Mr. Hale, a local farmer and the one who discovers John Wright strangled in his bed, goes with Mr. Peters, the sheriff, and Mr. Henderson, the county attorney, to the Wrights’ house to gather evidence of motivation for Minnie Wright, nee Foster. Both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters accompany the group of men to pick up some clothing for Minnie, who is currently in custody at the Peters’ house. While the men go about search the home, the women discover evidence that tells the story of abuse that Minnie suffered at the hands of her husband. Knowing the full story now and knowing Minnie may not be able to receive a fair trial, both women decide to conceal the key piece of evidence that would indicate Minnie’s motive for the crime.

What most interesting about Glaspell’s short story is how she makes her reader question whether Minnie could receive justice under the law. There is a very stark division between her male and female characters perceive the law. Let’s start with the men. Each male character is a representative of the legal system – a witness, the sheriff, and the prosecutor. From their point of view, the purpose of the law is retribution – their goal in searching through the Wright home is to discover evidence to assign blame for the crime. However, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are the ones who actually discover why Minnie might have committed the murder. (The irony is palpable when Mr. Hale remarks, “But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” [672])

The story almost entirely is set in Minnie’s kitchen, a place that the sheriff quickly dismisses as insignificant. While gathering items to make Minnie feel more comfortable, both women are able to see the signs of abuse that Minnie endured and piece together the complete story. First, Mrs. Hale finds the sugar that is only half put away. Then she notices the poor quality of the stove, thinking “what would it mean , year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with” (675).  The women’s attention turn next to Minnie’s quilt, which appears expertly done except for the last piece that “looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!”(676). Mrs. Peters begins to wonder what made Minnie so nervous at that point in her sewing. A huge piece of evidence in the form of the empty birdcage, whose door has been torn of its hinges, raising the question of what has become of the bird. broken birdcage

Finally, the key to the mystery of Minnie’s motive is discovered in her quilting bag, the bird with its neck broken.  The women construct the story of the isolation and psychological abuse that John Wright, whose personality Mrs. Hale compares to “a raw wind that gets to the bone” (677), inflicted on his wife. (Don’t forget that the reason Mr. Hale went to visit Wright initially was to convince to allow a phone line to put to his house, something that Wright refused to have.)

What allows the women to see and understand the clues is their ability to empathize with Minnie. In this way, Glaspell presents them as being better suited to act as Minnie’s jury, from which they are excluded by the law.  If the men, who represent the law, don’t know what to look for and are unable to appreciate what Minnie has gone through, then how can they possibly act as her judge?* Glaspell through her short story questions the value of the law as objective, rational, and unfeeling.

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Finally, I want to draw your attention to the remark that Henderson makes to Mrs. Peters, “For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law.” While this may seem at first as just an off-handed comment, Henderson’s remark reveals the gender inequality when it comes to the legal system. The law, as Henderson implies, is something that Mrs. Peters, as woman, does not get to participate in – her only legal identity is as the sheriff’s wife. This exclusion of women from the legal system sheds light on why the women chose to hide the dead canary from the men. The only way for Minnie to receive justice is for the women to act outside of the law.

Note: Glaspell adapted her short story for the stage in a one-act`play, entitled Trifles. (You can find the play on pages 1383-1393 in your Norton Anthology) I found a youtube video of a production of the play.

*Bendel-Simso, Mary M. “Twelve Good Men or Two Good Women: Concepts of law and Justice in Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Studies in Shirt Fiction 36 (1999): 291-97. Print.
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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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