"Usually a woman convict is considered one of the lowest of God's creatures -- if, in truth, she is supposed to belong to Him at all -- for it is a well-known fact that society always considers a fallen woman a thousand times more depraved and contemptible than the self-same character of the masculine gender."

--from "Prison Work Among Women: Can They Be Reformed?" by Mrs. A.M.Waterman, Matron of the Female Department at the Anamosa Penitentiary, 1901
(quotation courtesy Tom Wolf)

"What could cause a man and woman who had agreed to love and cherish each other, who lived in a community all those years, who raised up a family of children, what cause could make them hate each other so terribly, as is shown in this case? I have conjectured; I have wondered if it might not be some secret cause; something unknown away back in their early lives. I have wondered over and over upon this…Was it a loveless marriage? Did something arise between these parties in their early acquaintance which caused them after to loathe each other?"

--Prosecutor, Hossack murder trial


"A Direful Tragedy" -- The Lenihan Women

"A Jury of Her Peers" -- Margaret Hossack

On the night of February 11, 1882, Lyon County farmer John Lenihan returned to his home on the Little Rock River, after attending a meeting of the Farmers Club. He decided to read, and sat with his back to the window, creating a perfectly-framed target for any assassin who might be lurking outside.

A single gunshot rent the night, and John Lenihan fell from his chair, dead. Death was instantaneous. Lenihan's wife, Anna, and his three daughters (Maggie, Anna, and Bridget) sounded the alarm, and soon help arrived in the form of neighbors and a doctor from nearby Sibley, who extracted the slug from John Lenihan's head.

The deameanor of the Lenihan women during the ensuing investigation roused suspicion against them. A letter was eventually uncovered, written by Anna, age 17, to family friend Herbert Berch. Anna claimed in the letter that her father had thrown a cup of hot tea into her mother's face and that if she, Anna, had had a revolver at the time, "he never would have thrown another cup of tea into the face of her mother or anybody else." The letter went on to quote sister Maggie, age 24, as saying that if her father kept on as he had done, he would have to be shot "if she, Maggie, had to do it herself."

When confronted with the letter, Anna broke down and confessed, claiming that Maggie had shot John Lenihan because of his brutality toward the family, that she used a revolver belonging to Berch that her mother had concealed in her bed for some time, waiting for an opportune time to shoot her husband. Anna claimed that Maggie had shot her father in the room; the girls then went outside and broke the window to create the impression that the shot had originated from outdoors.

Although first denying her sister's allegations, Maggie eventually confessed, as did the mother, who admitted that the murder had been under consideration for six months.

Anna Lenihan and her two daughters, Maggie and Anna, were charged with murder. The ensuing trial proved expensive, as a jail had to be constructed to house the women at a cost of some $10,000. The trial itself added $5,000 to that tally, a princely sum in those days.

Eventually, however, the women pleaded guilty to Murder in the Second Degree. Judge C.H. Lewis passed sentence to a packed courtroom, filled with curiosity-seekers, during an 8 pm. session of the court. The elder Lenihan's face was concealed behind a thick veil, any emotions she was feeling were hidden from view. Maggie, however, was especially emotional, and seemed to show considerable remorse for her actions. Young Annie aroused considerable sympathy from the spectators, and some expressed the wish that she go free.

Defense counsel Mr. A. Van Wagenen rose to address the court to plead for mercy for his clients. He was reported to have said: "of the prisoners at the bar, two are young girls, fostered by a loving mother, and early in life made antagonistic, by his own acts, to a father who knew no law but his own brutal will; no justice save that secured by violence."

But Judge Lewis was not moved. While pronouncing sentence he stated:

"The father, at the dead of night, is murdered! Murdered by whom? By a stranger? No! By whom? By a neighbor? No! By whom? By the daughter, by the wife -- by the two daughters and the wife! There may have been much in his life, much in his character, and much in his disposition that was wrong, but it was no justification for the act done on the that night of February 11th, 1882."

The mother and daughter Maggie were eached sentenced to life imprisonment; young Annie received a sentence of ten years. All were returned to jail to await transport to the Penitentiary at Anamosa.

On December 21, 1882, the women arrived at Anamosa. Anna, Maggie, and Annie became Numbers 951, 952, and 953 respectively.

During sentencing Judge Lewis had encouraged the women to petition the Governor for a pardon if they were so inclined. They must have followed his suggestion, as young Annie was pardoned on November 24, 1884, after serving less than two years of her sentence. More noteworthy were the pardons of Anna and Maggie on March 31, 1886, only three years and three months into their life sentences.

Were the quick pardons a tacit acknowledgement that the women's crime was at least partially justified by John Lenihan's abusiveness? Did sympathy for their cause grown in their home county, and compel the Governor to act? Research continues into the case, but at this point, the answer, and the ultimate fate of the women, is unknown.


John Hossack was a successful and well-respected farmer in Warren County, Iowa. He and his wife were the parents of nine children.

On December 2, 1900, John Hossack was murdered as he slept, his head laid open by blows from an axe. He died nine hours later.

His 57-year old wife, Margaret, immediately fell under suspicion. Her claim of having slept through the killing, even though she lay next to her husband as he was brutally murdered, was too hard for most to believe.

Additionally, Margaret and John Hossack's long marriage was known to be an unhappy one. It was later alleged that John Hossack was an abusive husband and father, that he and his wife fought often and earnestly, that he had threatened both her and the children.

Mrs. Hossack had shared her marital problems with neighbors. Her disclosures were not well received. She was encouraged to reconcile with her husband and keep their troubles private. John Hossack's behavior was dismissed as "tantrums." Public sentiment clearly favored the husband, as was common in that era.

One of the most damning pieces of testimony would come from witnesses who claimed that Margaret Hossack had expressed a desire to see her husband dead.

In any event, Mrs. Hossack was arrested just as funeral services for her husband ended at the cemetery in New Virginia. From the December 6, 1900 Des Moines Capital:

"The scene at the grave of John Hossack yesterday afternoon was dramatic enough for the most striking portrayal on the stage. Hardly had the words "Dust to dust and ashes to ashes" been uttered and the sexton had thrown in the first shovelful of dirt on the pine cover when the crowd broke from the scene of the interment and started for the cemetery gate to secure a good view of all that might happen."

"This is not a matter of my choosing," said the sheriff [Lewis Hodson], firmly putting one hand on the arm of the weeping woman."

Mrs. Hossack was escorted to a waiting carriage and transported to the Warren County Jail in Indianola.

Despite being represented by two prominent Iowa attorneys, Mrs. Hossack was found guilty of First Degree Murder. Her stoicism during the trial hardened public opinion against her, and was viewed as "unwomanlike." The prosecution, not the defense, raised the issue of violence and abuse in the home, in order to establish her motivation to kill. Nowadays the defense might introduce such information in order to mitigate the guilt of the accused husband-killer. It is noteworthy that all nine of her children supported her completely before, during, and after the trial.

On April 11, 1901, the jury returned its verdict, and Margaret Hossack was transported by Sheriff Hodson to the Anamosa Penitentiary a week later. Her parting words as she was led away, as reported in a Des Moines newspaper:

"Sheriff Hodson, tell my children not to weep for me. I am innocent of the horrible murder of my husband. Some day people will know I am not guilty of that terrible crime"

The newspaper article concluded with:

"It is universally believed at Indianola that if Mrs. Hossack did not murder her husband she knows who did."

Mrs. Hossack's life sentence, however, was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court a year later. Her second trial resulted in a hung jury (the jury favored conviction by a vote of 9-3; however, a jury's verdict must be unanimous). Margaret Hossack was freed, never tried again, and died in Indianola, Iowa on August 25, 1916. She never confessed and maintained her innocence until her death.

The murder trial of Margaret Hossack attracted widespread attention at the time. One newspaper reporter, Susan Glaspell (originally of Davenport, Iowa, and later a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright), covered the first trial and later wrote a play titled Trifles, and a short story called "A Jury of Her Peers," based on the case. Additionally, a book by authors Patricia Bryan and Tom Wolf, devoted entirely to the Hossack saga, was released in 2005, "Midnight Assassin.".