Trifles

About Trifles

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Susan Glaspell wrote Trifles in 1916, basing this brief, one-act play on the murder of the sixty-year-old John Hossack, which she had covered extensively during her stint as a journalist with the Des Moines Daily News after her graduation from Drake University. She traveled to the scene of the crime in Indianola, Iowa, where the farmer John Hossack was murdered after midnight on December 2, 1900. According to Margaret Hossack, who had been married to John Hossack for thirty-three years, she was sleeping beside him and awoke to the sound of an axe twice striking something that turned out later to be her husband's head. In her testimony, she leapt out of bed and ran into the living room, where she saw a light and heard the door closing. She returned to her bedroom with her children and discovered him to be mortally injured.

Upon investigation, no items were missing from the farmhouse, and the coroner's inquest divulged no new information. The local sheriff eventually arrested Margaret Hossack during her husband's funeral, based on the discovery of the murder weapon in the corn granary and on neighbors' suggestions of discontent within their marriage. Glaspell provided thorough coverage of the case, from the news of the murder to the results of the April 1901 trial, and she often made use of a lurid combination of gossip, rumor, and truth to report her stories. Glaspell's descriptions of Margaret generally painted her as an insane murderer until her visit to the farmhouse in mid-December, after which her depiction softened Mrs. Hossack into a meek, elderly woman.

Mrs. Hossack's trial occurred in early April, drawing audiences of between one and two thousand people to the Polk County Courthouse each day. The lack of witnesses made circumstantial evidence especially important, and although Mrs. Hossack appeared too calm to be insane, evidence of a child born out of wedlock prior to their marriage led the jury to consider that she could not be trusted. By April 11, the jury had found her guilty and sentenced her to hard labor and life imprisonment. Glaspell resigned after the end of the trial to enroll at the University of Chicago for her graduate degree, but appeals made by Mrs. Hossack's lawyers later led to a second trial that reached no verdict, and Margaret Hossack was released.

Margaret Hossack's trial revealed that because she had behaved in such an "unfeminine" and non-domestic manner as to display her marital troubles to members outside of the home and to have a child before marriage, her initial conviction was essentially inevitable unless she provided evidence of physical abuse, which neither the prosecution nor the defense had wished to cover. The men of the jury had all known John Hossack to be a good man and an honest citizen, and Trifles stems from an attempt to readdress the Hossack case from the point of view of the women, who might have a different outlook on the nature of marital discord and domestic unhappiness.

Without retaining any names or specifics, Trifles nonetheless allows the fictionalized Margaret Hossack - in the form of Mrs. Wright - to regain her dignity by giving her a motive for murder which is sympathetic and understandable, if not entirely moral. In the first Provincetown Players presentation of Trifles at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Susan Glaspell played Mrs. Hale, the woman who empathizes with the plight of the suspected Mrs. Wright and who convinces Mrs. Peters to hide the evidence so that Mrs. Wright will be acquitted in trial. In the year after her August 8, 1916, performance of Trifles, Glaspell adapted the play into the short story "A Jury of Her Peers." This title reflects the sense that women have a better comprehension of Mrs. Wright’s dismal domestic situation than do the men who dismiss female opinions and difficulties.