Susan Glaspell wrote A Jury of Her Peers in 1917. It is one of the most powerful short stories I have ever read. The three female characters have remained in my heart and mind since I first came across this early piece of feminist literature over twenty years ago.
Initially I had no idea Glaspell had loosely based the work on a murder case she had covered as a reporter in 1901. It is about women living in a rural, highly patriarchal society at that time, and the difficulties they faced; loneliness, repression, and domestic abuse. Sadly, it still has relevance today. In the 1901 case, a woman was tried over the axe-murder of her violent husband. She was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. In a subsequent trial the jury was unable to reach a verdict. There was no third trial.
THE PLOT OF ‘A JURY OF HER PEERS’.
Two women, one the Sheriff’s wife and the other a neighbour, Martha Hale, find themselves in a moral dilemma when farmer’s wife Minnie Wright is arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband John. With Minne in gaol, they accompany the Sherriff, the county attorney and Mr Hale to the homestead.
Bizarrely, the victim died by strangulation in his own bed. His wife had barely spoken when Mr Hale called unexpectedly the previous day, except to say that her husband was dead;
When a shocked Mr Hale asked who did it she stated she didn’t know; that she was a sound sleeper and had heard nothing.
Sheriff Peters and county attorney Henderson arrive at the farm looking for evidence that would clinch their case against her. It is particularly important that a motive can be established.
The two wives have been brought along to collect a few personal items for the prisoner. Intuitively, they see subtle clues amid what their menfolk dismiss as ‘kitchen things’ . These clues reveal a great deal about Minnie’s life and disturbingly, point to her guilt.
The above quote refers to a telling remark by the county attorney. Left unsupervised as the men examine the upstairs bedroom, the women quietly uncover the final piece of the puzzle. In America at that time, as in most countries, juries were all male. Minnie was certain to be convicted and sentenced to death if the pair were to reveal their knowledge. Mrs Peters in particular wrestles with an internal conflict between legal responsibility and duty to her husband against an understanding of the terrible situation Minnie Wright found herself in. The neighbor, Mrs Hale, is consumed with guilt and remorse. Both have deep empathy for the prisoner.
It is impossible not to be affected by this story. The problem of justice seemingly conflicting with the law is a situation that continues to test the moral judgement of us all, but particularly those who find themselves in a position to influence outcomes.
A Jury of Her Peers was first written by Susan Glaspell in 1916 as a one act play called Trifles. It was later adapted for the screen (the dead man’s name was changed to John Burke). Click HERE if you would like to see a YouTube video of the short film.