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A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell Whodunit Approach

Updated on March 9, 2017
Margaret Hossack Home
Margaret Hossack Home | Source

Wrongfully Convicted

Susan Glaspell based "A Jury of Her Peers" on the true story of Margaret Hossack, a woman helpless to the accusations made against her by incompetent men of power and neighbors who assumed they knew her life-style, and therefore, knew her mind. According to Ben-Zvi, Glaspell, a newspaper reporter at the time, covered the trial (21). During the beginning stages, she contributed to the innuendos of Hossack's guilt (22). But after a visit to the Hossack farm, perhaps with the sheriff and the county attorney, Glaspell's articles instantly began hinting to the possibility of Mrs. Hossack's innocence (25).

In "A Jury of Her Peers," Susan Glaspell intends for the audience to be the jury. This is the reason she ends the story with Mrs. Wright being held for questioning. Subliminal messages sent throughout passages in the story motivate the audience to investigate. She wants these jurors to see beyond what first meets the eye. The presentation of the investigation has many flaws in hope that the audience will come to the realization that the evidence does not substantiate their first impression of guilt. Upon first reading, the audience will naturally assume that Mrs. Wright is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but after looking deeply into the "things half done", the audience will realize the possibility of Mrs. Wright's innocence.

While Glaspell does not reveal who murdered Mr. Wright, she hints that the possibility of an intruder has been overlooked due to the initial presumption of Mrs. Wright's guilt. While Mrs. Wright sleeps, somebody, possibly the "man who went crazy" murders her husband of twenty years. The following morning, Mr. Hale enters Mrs. Wright's home through an unlocked door. He reveals this the next day during the second investigation when he tells the county attorney, young Henderson, "But I opened the door--this door, and there in that rocker sat Mrs. Wright." When young Henderson inquires about how Mrs. Wright felt about his coming, Mr. Hale indicates that she did not respond in her usual manner: "Well I was surprised. She didn't ask me to come up to the stove, or sit down, but just sat there, not even lookin' at me." While in a state of shock, Mrs. Wright lacks her normal hospitality. As a result, her actions are misconstrued as crazy. This misconception, more commonly known as a fundamental attribution error, occurs when people make internal attributions for the behavior of others even though the evidence supports an external influence on the behavior. Furthermore, it is assumed that Mrs. Wright is either crazy or lying when she admits, "I didn't wake up," while her husband was being murdered. However, she may have been in a stage of sleep when brain activity is at its slowest.

Throughout the investigation, Glaspell blatantly reveals how the presumption of Mrs. Wright's guilt led Sheriff Peters and young Henderson to overlook the possibility of an intruder. While Sheriff Peters conducts his initial investigation, he has to send Frank, his deputy sheriff, after the crazy man at the Morris Center. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, because "he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals" Sheriff Peters assumes that Mrs. Wright is guilty. Therefore, he counts on young Henderson to conduct the investigation when he returns from Omaha the following day. As he explains why nobody was left there to young Henderson he states, "as long as I went over everything..." Yet, he had not gone over everything because later in the investigation he states, "We left in such a hurry yesterday," and again, to young Henderson, "We ought to take a look at these windows." Young Henderson replies scoffingly as if to imply that Sheriff Peters did not conduct a very good investigation, "Oh--windows." Sheriff Peters has not checked the windows, which makes it possible for a window to have been shut by the deputy sheriff he had sent there earlier that day. This would explain why only one jar of cherries did not explode. It is unlikely that just starting a fire would have kept this jar on the verge of explosion from exploding, but the combination of a window being closed and a fire might have. As much as Sheriff Peters is certain that Mrs. Wright committed this murder, so is young Henderson. He indicates this when he states, "I guess before we're through with her she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about," and then, when he comments on her housekeeping skills or lack of them, he shows disrespect by kicking some dirty pans under the sink. Because she in not the kind of woman that he expects a woman should be, she is not worthy of his respect. This behavior along with his being young, and because it is "no ordinary thing," suggests that he is not very experienced.

By presenting Martha Hale as an average, upstanding citizen, the audience, as well as, Sheriff Peters and young Henderson tend to accept every assumption that she makes as fact. More specifically, they tend to believe that Mr. Wright was negligent and abusive without requiring any proof. Moreover, Martha Hale is the kind of woman society expects her to be. She gets her work done, drops everything to help others, worries about her son, and feels guilty for not visiting Minnie. However, she will not accept that Minnie Foster has aged and changed: "It came into Mrs. Hale's mind that that rocker didn't look in the least like Minnie Foster--the Minnie Foster of twenty years before." Mrs. Hale insinuates that Mr. Wright caused the changes that Minnie incurred when she states, "No, Wright wouldn't like the bird, a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too." She also insinuates that Mr. Wright killed the bird, but there is no indication that Mr. Wright was a violent man and, in all likelihood, Mrs. Wright had that bird for a year as Mrs. Hale states, "There was a man round last year selling canaries cheap." Mrs. Hale also implies that "he was a hard man." At the same time, she tells Mrs. Peters that "He didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts." In other words, Mr. Wright did have some moral standards.

It is doubtful that Mrs. Wright was mentally or physically capable of murdering Mr. Wright. Because he was not a drinking man, it is unlikely that he slept through that rope tightening around his neck and even harder to believe that Mrs. Wright, this small, timid woman could have had the strength and nerve to overpower and kill him. As Mrs. Hale states, "she was kind of like a bird herself, real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery." In addition, Mrs. Peters states, "she got that feeling some people have about cats--being afraid of them." It is evident that Mrs. Hale does not care very much for John Wright when she states, "But, I don't think a place would be any the cheerfuller for John Wright's bein' in it." However, there is no indication that Mrs. Wright feels the same way. Mrs. Hale assumes that Mr. Wright caused Mrs. Wright's decline; however, the reason Mrs. Wright "kept so much to herself" and "felt she could not do her part" may have been because she did not have any children,and probably couldn't bear children.

Whether Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters hide the truth about the bird because they think Mrs. Wright murdered her husband is unclear. Before the bird was found Mrs. Wright states, "Well, I don't think she did it. Asking for an apron, and her little shawl. Worryin' about her fruit." And, after the bird was found, Mrs. Peters who had "that look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else," states, "we don't know who killed him." One thing for certain is some type of abuse has affected them in the past, when Mrs. Hale states, "We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of same thing! If it weren't--why do you and I understand? Why do we know--what we know this minute?" In addition, when Mrs. Peters states, "When I was a girl my kitten--there was a boy took a hatchet and before my eyes--before I could get there--If they hadn't held me back I would have--hurt him." In the process of imagining that Mr. Wright was abusive and Mrs. Wright murdered him, they justify the anger and thoughts they had when they were mistreated. In effect, their actions may have resulted from their failure to separate personal judgements from their own experiences with the actual experiences of Mrs. Wright.

Similar to "A Jury of Her Peers," Mrs. Hossack was suspected of murder due to circumstantial evidence and hearsay from neighbors who claimed to be her friends (30). In newspaper articles by Glaspell, Ben Zvi found that "Mr. Haines, the primary source about trouble in the Hossack home...had gone insane...(28)". She also found that Mrs. Hossack's defense counsel charged: "...Mr. Haines, 'the insane man,' was the real murderer (31)." Glaspell mentions "the crazy man" in "A Jury of Her Peers" to offer her audience of jurors an alternative to consider. The only material evidence is the bird, whereas, in the Hossack case it was an axe. Both of these items represent the extent to which people are capable of jumping to conclusions. Immediately after the trial, Glaspell quit her position as a newspaper reporter (32). Perhaps she felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for the contributions she made in giving the first impression of guilt to the public. Although Margaret Hossack was convicted, her case went to the Supreme Court of Iowa two years later and she was released due to a hung jury (32). The evidence in both cases leaves much room for reasonable doubt. Glaspell weaved many inconsistencies into "A Jury of Her Peers" while she hinted ever so softly for the audience to uncover the truth piece by piece. In essence, Glaspell did not quilt this story, she knotted it.

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