A passing neighbor finds Minnie Wright sitting alone at the kitchen of her farmhouse on a cold March morning. Mrs. Wright tells her neighbor, Mr. Hale, that her husband is upstairs in the bedroom — dead. He had been strangled in his sleep by a rope around his neck. Mrs. Wright claims not to know how it happened.
Naturally, Mr. Hale calls the authorities, and Mrs. Wright is brought into town, to stay at the home of Sheriff Peters. The next morning, the district attorney asks Mr. Hale to come back to the farmhouse to testify to what happened. Sheriff Peters has brought his wife to gather some clothes and sundries for Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Peters asks the neighbor’s wife, Mrs. Hale, to come along and keep her company.
Visiting the Wright farm proves difficult for Mrs. Hale, because she had hardly ever visited before. The Wright farm is remote, lonely, shadowed. And Mr. Wright, though “a good man”: morally upright and apparently a model citizen, was also cold and remote. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone,” Mrs. Hale describes him. How lonely it must have been, Mrs. Hale thinks, for the former Minnie Foster, a winsome, pretty town girl who liked to sing and wear pretty clothes. If only Mrs. Hale had thought to come visit, offer comfort and companionship to Minnie….
The men are intent on their important investigation; they are dismissive and patronizing to the women and their concerns. One of the things Mrs. Wright asked the sheriff’s wife to check on was whether or not Mrs. Wright’s preserves survived the evening cold snap. Who would be worried about preserves, while being held for murder? But women, the men decide, are always worrying about trifles. Obviously the men never read Conan Doyle, because it’s the little things that make a case. The women, on the other hand, prove to be excellent detectives. They piece together what must have happened, and they take it upon themselves to be Minnie’s judges and jury.
It’s sobering to think of a time when a woman’s quality of life depended entirely on the whims of her husband. Abuse was no excuse; to prove Mr. Wright’s cruelty towards his wife would be to guarantee her murder conviction. “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on the Hossack murder case of 1900. John Hossack, an Iowa farmer was found murdered in his bed; he’d had his brains beaten out by an axe. His wife, Margaret Hossack, had been sleeping in the same bed. She claimed to have heard nothing. Five of her nine children (also sleeping in the same house) stood by her story.
Susan Glaspell covered the case, and Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, as a 24-year-old reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. You can read her coverage here. The case clearly stuck with her; she later wrote a play called Trifles based on the case, and “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on that play.
You can find “A Jury of Her Peers” here. And do also enjoy this excellent 1961 television adaptation of the story, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.