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Thomas Wolf '69 Takes a Riveting Look at Turn-of-the-Century Murder

In 1900, Margaret Hossack, the wife of a prominent Iowa farmer, was arrested for bludgeoning her husband to death with an ax while her children slept upstairs.

In Midnight Assassin: A Murder in Americas Heartland  (Algonquin Books), Thomas Wolf '69, a writing consultant for the Association of American Medical Colleges and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Patricia L. Bryan, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina, give readers a chilling step-by-step account of the murder and its aftermath. 

Why did Wolf and Bryan, husband and wife, set out to explore this murder? And why did they do so together?

Knox Magazine had the opportunity to catch-up with Wolf this spring and to ask him a few riveting questions of our own.

Knox Magazine
  What inspired you and Patricia to research the Hossack murder case and write Midnight Assassin?
Tom Wolfe:  Patricia started researching the case more than ten years ago for an article that was eventually published in the Stanford Law Review. The article is titled "Stories in Fiction and in Fact:  Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers and the 1901 Murder Trial of Margaret Hossack." 

Patricia teaches the short story "A Jury of Her Peers" in her Law and Literature class at the UNC School of Law. The story was written in 1917 by Susan Glaspell—a native of Davenport, Iowa—and it is considered to be a classic in American literature. Patricia knew that Glaspell's story was based on a real murder case, so she decided to find out as much as she could about the case. People who read the article—her family, friends and colleagues—thought the story was too good to have such a limited audience. I encouraged Patricia to write a book, and in 1998, we started working together on the project.

To me, the story was both a whodunit and a kind of micro history of farm life in the Midwest a century ago. It was a very compelling true drama and an incredibly interesting case: an unsolved murder that forced a whole community to deal with issues ranging from domestic abuse to the roles played by men and women. We read hundreds of old newspaper articles, all of the existing legal records, personal memoirs. We did dozens of interviews.

The story is certainly tragic, but it also reveals a great deal about the everyday lives of people who lived in the rural Midwest a hundred years ago.

KM: What type of reaction did you receive from people in Iowa while you were researching?
TW:  At first, the reaction was mixed. Some people immediately welcomed us, saying it was time for the truth to come out. But other people were somewhat suspicious of our motives, wondering if we were going to stir up trouble. People wanted to know if we were trying to clear somebody's name or point a finger of guilt at someone's ancestor. One local history buff even warned us that we might be in danger if we got too close to the truth.

Naturally, that just made us more curious. But most people were interested in our work and very cooperative, sharing old photographs, family stories and anecdotes with us. Eventually we convinced people that we were writing a serious book, that we did not want to sensationalize the crime and that we would be fair to everyone involved.

We talked to dozens of people who had heard family stories about the case, including people with relatives who were directly involved in the case. The Hossacks had nine children who lived to adulthood, and we did our best to locate the living descendants. We found descendants of the Hossack family in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Colorado, and we interviewed as many of them as we could. We also interviewed descendants of the lawyers involved in the criminal case and descendants of some of the neighbors who were witnesses at the trials.

KM:  Did you begin your research believing Mrs. Hossack was guilty or innocent?  And did your mind change after completing the book?
TW:  We tried to keep an open mind. At the start of our joint research, I was inclined to believe that Mrs. Hossack acted alone, but as we considered the evidence and uncovered the broader story, I developed serious doubts. It just wasn't possible for me to decide. Readers will have to decide for themselves.

Mrs. Hossack's story that she didn't awaken until the intruder was leaving the house is improbable but not impossible. She may have been telling the truth; that suggests an outsider, some unknown person, committed the crime. I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that we don't solve the crime at the end of the book. This ambiguity is exactly what happens in many criminal cases. What really happened just can't always be known. I think intelligent readers will be forced to think about what went on in that house on the night of the murder.

I'll also add that we think the book is much more than a simple whodunit or true crime story. It is about the way stories are told and repressed in small towns. It deals with age-old assumptions about behavior and gender roles that affect the way those stories are told and heard in courtrooms and communities. The book also portrays the courtroom strategy and ethics of attorneys, as well as the mystery of family relationships.

KM:  Why did you choose to write the book as a joint venture?  And was it an easy process?  Was aligning your opinions and writing styles for the book difficult?
TW:   Patricia and I shared a fascination with the story, but we recognized that we had different perspectives and strengths as writers. We both knew from the beginning by working together we could write a better book than if either of us tried to write it alone.

That said, first draft writing is pretty much a solitary adventure. But in the latter stages of composition—revising, rewriting, editing—there's room for cooperation and compromise is necessary.

In the beginning, we tried to agree on a basic structure for the book. We each worked on parts of it independently, then shared drafts, and rewrote each other's chapters. On chapters or sections that didn't work, we'd turn the chapter over to the other person. With certain chapters—like the section on the coroner's inquest—we'd go back and forth in our approaches. I wrote several versions of that chapter, and so did Patricia. Eventually, Patricia got it right.

The first 50 pages—how to get started and where to place the murder scene in the narrative structure—was the most difficult part of the whole book. We had many discussions about how to do that. The best advice I got was from my good friend, Don Knefel '70, who said a murder story starts with the murder. It took me about a year to realize he was exactly right. And that's what determined how the first fifty pages were written.

KM:  You have completed an author tour promoting the book. Have you enjoyed the tour?  How have people, especially in Iowa, reacted to the book?
TW:  The tour was great fun—intense and tiring, but also very satisfying. The best part was meeting readers who found the story just as dramatic and compelling as we did. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the story, and we got many excellent questions and comments at the end of our readings and presentations.

The response in Iowa was extremely positive. The book tells a very Midwestern kind of story, and people related to the time and events we described. Iowans liked the way we captured the life of their ancestors, the way people lived and farmed a century ago. 

During the tour, we were able to visit with a lot of people who had played a part in the writing of the book, people who had helped us with research, or whom we had interviewed. At several events, we met Hossack relatives. In Winterset, Iowa, for example, a woman came up to me and stated firmly, "My great-grandmother did not commit that murder."  She had a family story to share with us, her sense of what might have happened on that night. It was gratifying that so many Hossack relatives were supportive of our interest in their family history, despite the disquieting fact that we were investigating the murder of one of their ancestors.

KM:  Do you have plans for future joint publications?
TW:  It was a very satisfying experience to write Midnight Assassin together. I think we'd like to find another project where we could work, research and write together. Right now, however, we're working separately on two new books, both nonfiction, but I'm sure we'll exchange drafts and comments throughout the writing process.

Patricia is working on a book about a young boy—an 11 year-old child who weighed just 73 pounds—who brutally killed his parents in 1889. The boy became a model prisoner and wrote many eloquent letters to support his eventual release. It's an intriguing story and raises issues concerning juvenile justice, rehabilitation and the purpose of incarceration.

I'm writing a book that involves the relationship between a prison warden and a murderer and a trip they take to the 1932 World Series in Chicago. Both the warden and the murderer are diehard Cub fans. Together, they saw the famous game in which Babe Ruth hit the "called shot" home run. Franklin Roosevelt was in the stands. The events take place at the beginning of the Great Depression, so the historical context is also fascinating.