This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about “A Jury of Her Peers.” After learning about the author, Susan Glaspell, read her story.
After discussing or thinking about the questions, click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Christopher DeMuth about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist, a writer of short stories, and, for a short while, a journalist. She was born in Davenport, Iowa, attended Drake University in Des Moines, and worked for several years as a reporter at the Des Moines Daily News and other local newspapers, but she discovered early on that her interest was in writing fiction. Her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered (1909), became a national bestseller and drew a rave review in the New York Times. Subsequent novels in the early teens did almost as well. Read more
Although the issues it raises are complex, the gist of the story is simple: Law enforcement officials and a key witness, joined by the wives of the sheriff and the witness, search the domestic scene of a crime, seeking clues to why the woman of the house might have murdered her husband. Read more
To better appreciate what Susan Glaspell is doing in her tale, it is helpful to know about the true story that inspired it. On December 2, 1900, one John Hossack, a well regarded farmer, was murdered with an axe while sleeping in bed with his wife, Margaret Hossack. Convicted of the murder, Mrs. Hossack was sentenced to life in prison. But on appeal a year later, she was released for lack of sufficient evidence. The mystery of John Hossack’s death was never solved. Transforming the real case into fiction, Glaspell takes the liberty of supplying the missing evidence and motive, as a result of which the characters, the crime, the search for the evidence, and the judgment rendered appear in a very different light.
More important, the fictional story—with its provocative title—raises large questions about law and justice and about judgment and punishment, questions very much alive today. It also raises questions about the role of gender in relation to law and justice: When the Iowa crime was committed, and even when the story was published, women in Iowa were not yet allowed to vote or serve on juries. For this reason, some people treat Glaspell’s story largely as a political protest on behalf of women’s rights. But in the story itself, the gender issues are much richer and subtler.
The story raises questions less about the justice of the law and more about its proper enforcement, less about the obligation to obey it and more about how—and who is—to judge those who may have violated it. It is commonly thought that we are legally entitled to a trial by a jury of our peers (or “equals”). But the United States Constitution, in its Sixth Amendment, simply guarantees the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where the crime shall have been committed” (emphasis added). And the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution adds only that no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (emphasis added).
The notion of “jury of one’s peers” has its origins in the Common Law; it can be traced back to the Magna Carta (1215), chapter 39 of which states that “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed ... except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (emphasis added). (“Peers” in this context meant members of the same class. Notice, too, that “judgment of his peers” is not the same as our (right to) trial by jury: Judgment by one’s peers is not required if the person has clearly violated the law of the land.) In the United States in recent decades, there has been much controversy about jury selection and jury composition, and there have been famous cases of what is called “jury nullification,” where juries choose to ignore the weight of the evidence and reach a verdict in favor of a defendant for whom they have greater sympathy. With this background, consider the following questions.