A ROPE AROUND HIS NECK

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.

 

Susan Glaspell

American author and playwright Susan Gaspell.

 

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 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;

Extract from A Jury of Her Peers

 

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 women 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.

Image from film A Jury of Her Peers.

A dilemma for Mrs Peters (left) and neighbour Mrs Hale as the truth slowly emerges. (still from the film of the story)

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.

 

 

 

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