Autodidactic Rabbit Trails: Susan Glaspell, Random Online Reading Recomendations, and the Pardon of a "Boy Murderer"

Autodidactic Rabbit Trails: Where I meander around the web, bring back links of things that are oddly interconnected in some way, and in theory we all learn interesting things.


I was having one of my usual online days of wandering around via google - but I'll only share a few links before getting to the murder part. Er, the murder mentioned in the title that is. Because there are two murders in this post.


First I really wanted to run down a copy of Susan Glaspell's novel, Fugitive's Return (1929). If you've heard of Glaspell (and her wikipedia page makes for interesting reading itself - more bio here) it's possibly from the excellent short story Jury of Her Peers, about a murder and the accused, and how the women see things differently than the men. The story was rediscovered by various literary historians/authors and is now often used in anthologies and women's studies classes. If you haven't read it before here're some links:


Wikipedia page: Jury of Her Peers

Full text of story: Jury of Her Peers (and also here)


It's a fairly quick read, and I remember enjoying Glaspell's style. So when I bumped into a reference to her online, I found myself wanting to read Fugitive's Return, which is a novel that's somewhat autobiographical in covering the time when Glaspell and her husband left the US to go live in Greece. (Details on this bio page, where it's called "what many consider to be her greatest novel.") (Also, scroll down on this page for, randomly, a photo of Glaspell and her husband in Greece, with him wearing traditional Greek garb for some reason.) But nope, it's out of print. Sad reader moment. But this happens a lot when I'm looking up old books.


Then I spent a bit more time reading about Glaspell - and specifically the murder in Jury of Her Peers. I had no idea that it was based on a real murder (see the above wikipedia link for the short story), or that Glaspell had covered it in a series of articles for the Des Moines Daily News:


Glaspell articles on the Hossack Case


That particular page is part of a website for the book Midnight Assassin (by Patricia Bryan and Thomas Wolf), which chronicles the murder. (And I've had it on my wish list but has yet to go on sale, sigh.) Because I'm a greedy reader, I did peek at the "what the authors are up to next" page (I can never resist those), and Patricia Bryan has a few paragraphs on her research of the case of John Wesley Elkins, "an eleven-year old boy who was arrested for the murder of his father and stepmother in an isolated Iowa farmhouse in 1889." And of course I had to know more.


Bryan doesn't have a book out about it yet, but there's the next best thing - a 48 page long article she authored, and that's the meat of this recommendation post, because it's a good read:


John Wesley Elkins, Boy Murderer, and His Struggle for Pardon
Patricia L. Bryan, University of North Carolina
State Historical Society of Iowa: The Annals of Iowa, Vol 69 No 3 (Summer 2010), pps 261-307


Most of the footnotes are to primary source documents too, so this is not material you'd bump into elsewhere. Warning, I'm now going to launch into book review mode, even if it is 48 pages, because it's interesting history.


The article is more than just the story of this case - it combines some history of prison reform and Iowa politics - so be prepared for a bit more local and cultural history than you'd get in a true crime retelling. It also concerns the concept that (once upon a time) if a person was determined to be a criminal/moral degenerate then they should be locked up, and definitely not allowed to reproduce. And that you were doomed if your parents were criminals because it was thought to be hereditary. Yes, even in the 1900s. Unfortunately this sort of thinking did play a part in legal decisions. (The Nazis weren't the only ones who liked the idea of eugenics - there's a history of philosophers and politicians who felt some people should be removed from the population in all meanings of the term. Criminals shouldn't be allowed to have children and thus clutter up the population with more criminals, so the state should prevent it. Meaning, sterilization.)

Eklins' mother had tried to murder his father - to some this was a child who was destined to be a criminal, no matter what semblance of reform he made. That mother then ran off with and married another man - while pregnant with Elkins. Though this paper doesn't make much of it, I noted that when his mother died Elkins was passed back to his biological father, who'd never met him. Without warning, Elkins just showed up on the doorstep, having been sent there by his stepfather. Probably not much documentation left, but there's a story just in that journey - how the child traveled there alone. Not to mention what he felt like after being sent away like that.

What struck me were the feelings of his former defense lawyer, a man who was (supposed to be) his advocate in the court case yet who never made any argument for lenience due to Elkin's age (11) at the time of the murders:

p. 278-279, bolding is mine:

"Proof of this conclusion was offered by a man referred to as “one of Clayton County's most distinguished residents” who claimed expertise because “he knew the young criminal well [and] had conversed with him often relative to the crime.” Although this individual asked not to be publicly identified as the source, he agreed to a lengthy interview, in which he described incidents that were not part of the record and expressed his strong negative impressions of the boy. Two years later, when the Republican* changed its position to support Elkins, the editor identified the earlier anonymous source as the lawyer charged with defending Elkins in 1888, implying that both the additional details he offered and his personal assumptions about Elkins almost certainly came from confidential communications with his young client that should not have been disclosed to the public.

The lawyer recalled the boy’s planning and execution of the “diabolical deed,” provoked only by a “mild scolding” from his parents, and then his reaction when his lies were discovered: he admitted what he had done in a tone of “supreme indifference, never displaying a single sign of sorrow... [or] any human feeling whatever,” and “without a shadow of remorse.” The lawyer claimed that Elkins had displayed an uncontrollable impulse to violence even before the murders."

p 280:

"...Elkins objected to the account of the “anonymous” Clayton County citizen, characterizing it as “one mass of falsehood, from beginning to end, brought out by prejudice and passions with hardly a word of truth in it.” Elkins refuted the specific charges said to prove his violent nature, denying reports that he had been feared or avoided by his schoolmates, and that he had ever attacked a fellow prisoner. Prison officials and guards, he said, would confirm his exemplary record. Elkins also disputed that he had struck out against his parents as retribution for a “mild scolding,” as stated by the Republican. He offered a different account of his childhood, one he had previously confided to Warden Barr. “If my father and stepmother had treated me in any degree kindly, I would not be behind these walls today. . . . They were cruel in the extreme; many a night I have been sent to bed, with my back so sore from a whipping, that I could not lay on it; ...goaded on by such treatment, which I did not deserve, I committed the rash deed [and I] shall always deplore it to the end of my days.” Elkins asked the newspaper to print a retraction. It did not do so; it neither acknowledged receipt of the letter from Elkins nor admitted any mistakes in its story."


Without several advocates in his favor (a newspaper editor, a professor/vice president and later president of Cornell, etc.) it's not a foregone thing that Elkins would have been released - or not until many more years later. It was interesting to read of various politicians and ministers who were very much against Elkins release until they met and spoke with him, and then became a lot less antagonistic about it. But there was continuing, vehement opposition in the county where the crime occurred, mainly on the grounds that he was sure to reoffend, because his criminal tendencies were inherited from his mother. (Further reminding us why a change of venue in trials is a good idea.)


The section where the Iowa Senate and House debate on paroling Elkins has some good speech-making drama by the way, and worth reading up to (p 298 on.) just to see how the politicians make their arguments. Not to mention a twist to how the final voting goes - that's worthy of something out of Hollywood, not reality. Down to the "sudden, last minute vote" drama.

In real life, Elkins did have a happy ending, especially in the fact that he was never noteworthy in the newspapers again. Even his obituary didn't mention his prison years.


Now I'm off to read those Glaspell articles, and then I have a couple of old books I had to check out from Open Library after I bumped into them. Which didn't fit neatly into this chain of links, so I'll leave them for later!




* Republican here refers to the Cedar Rapids Republican, the name of the newspaper. Despite all you may hear about the newspapers in the US having a standard for being fair and balanced, showing both sides, etc., this was never really the case. In the days when every town had a newspaper locals always knew which favored a certain political party. Larger towns had multiple papers often to cater to particular parties. In fact, it was normal (and not even remarked on) that newspapers had Republican or Democrat in their names.


If I was really on my game I'd link here to some newspaper 101 texts, but nah, I'm antsy to get back to my online books! (Expect me to get around to doing that later, though!)