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A Day That Began with Death: The Hoskins Family Murders of 1919

On a cold January morning, John Hoskins slaughtered three members of his family.

For Allen Taylor, January 15, 1919 was just another day on his farm near Prescott, Iowa. That is, until his 15-year-old neighbor Irene Hoskins came stumbling down the lane with a gash in the side of her head. 

Young Irene told Allen that her father, John Hoskins, had murdered her stepmother, Hulda, and her two stepsiblings, Roy and Gladys. 

Allen raced to the telephone and called for help. Chester Wood, another close neighbor, arrived soon thereafter. Together they rode to the Hoskins farm. The men had known John for some time, and wouldn’t have thought him capable of something like this. 

John Hoskins was a widower with two children, Merlin and Irene. In 1915, he had married Hulda Campbell, a widow from nearby Nevinville, Iowa, with two children—Roy, 12, and Gladys, 18. John and Hulda had appeared happy together, and the family was well liked in the area. 

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When Wood and Taylor arrived at the Hoskins farm, they could see Hulda’s bloodied body on the back porch. John stood nearby, grasping a straight razor. He told them not to come any closer, or he would attack.

Frightened, the two men fled. 

hoskins family murder
  • John Hoskins (far left) with Gladys (center, standing), Irene (far right), and Roy (center, sitting)

  • Photo Credit: Courtesy of John Brassard Jr. / Adams County Free Press

By the time law enforcement arrived, John had slit his own throat, as well as one of his wrists. He lay in a pool of blood, just inside the back door of the house. One of the responders, a doctor, inspected the wounded man, declaring him beyond saving. 

But then, John began to twitch. They lifted him up and carried him inside the house to treat his wounds. 

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A horrific sight awaited the responders once they entered the back door into the kitchen. On the floor were the bodies of Roy and Gladys. Blood covered the room in a grisly red mosaic. Merlin was nowhere to be found.

The doctor kneeled down to more closely examine John. It became clear that his wounds were superficial; the damage to his wrist was minor, and his throat had been cut too high to cause any fatal injury. The sheriff ordered Hoskins to be treated and then transported to the county jail in Corning, Iowa. 

hoskins family murder
  • John Hoskins (left), Hulda Campbell (right)

  • Photo Credit: Courtesy of John Brassard Jr. / Adams County Free Press

With John Hoskins in custody, the investigation commenced. At the coroner’s inquest, several of those who had been present that day were called to testify. A grim timeline emerged, based largely on the testimony of Irene and Merlin—who, it turned out, had witnessed some of the bloodshed before fleeing to his uncle’s house.

Irene said that she and Gladys had slept in until nearly 6:30 that morning, which was much later than John had wanted. The family planned to go see John’s parents that morning. 

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The delay apparently put John in a foul mood; he soon began arguing with Hulda. According to the children, this was far from an isolated event. Indeed, earlier that same year, an enraged John had grabbed Roy by the throat and began strangling him. When Hulda and Irene tried to break it up, John attacked them, too. 

The quarrel subsided without further injury then. Nevertheless, it told of violence to come. 

As John argued with his wife, the children sat down at the kitchen table and began eating breakfast. Soon John joined them while Hulda went outside to the separating house to get some lard. 

In the middle of the meal, John stood up and walked to the back door. He reached outside and grabbed a piece of wooden buggy axle that he used for mixing hog feed. 

Without a word, John then walked over and clubbed Gladys in the head. She crumpled to the ground. John swung again, this time striking Roy. Irene and Merlin both ran, afraid for their lives. 

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John ran after Irene, catching her easily in the front yard. She begged her father to stop, but John swung the axle. Blood seeped from the gash left in her head as John turned away from his bleeding child. 

He next spotted Merlin running across the yard, and called out to him. The boy froze in place. John ordered Merlin to take his horse and ride to his uncle’s farm. He wanted Merlin to tell his uncle what had happened that morning. 

Petrified, Merlin obeyed. He ran to the barn, saddled up his horse, and prepared to off to his uncle’s house.

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John then returned to the kitchen, where he finished off Gladys and Roy with additional blows to the head. It was at this point that Hulda returned to the main house. Upon entering, she discovered her children dead on the floor. John then struck her in the face with the axle. Hulda stumbled out the back door and into the yard. John followed her, smashing her in the head, then leaving her for dead.

Meanwhile, Irene had come to her senses. The first thing she saw was her stepmother in a heap in the back yard. She staggered over to the injured woman. Hulda was badly hurt, but still alive. She told Irene to run away and find help. Irene complied, and went straight to Allen Taylor’s farm. 

With the last of her strength, Hulda crawled onto the porch, and died. 

hoskins family murder
  • The Hoskins Family home

  • Photo Credit: Courtesy of John Brassard Jr. / Adams County Free Press

By the end of the inquest, the entire region knew what John Hoskins had done. He showed absolutely no remorse about his crime, even relating details of that day to his jailers. 

Local authorities brought Hoskins to trial almost immediately, and by March 1, 1919, he had pled guilty to murder. He was sent to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa, to serve out a life sentence. Irene and Merlin were sent to live with their grandparents in Nevinsville. 

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In 1959, forty years after the murders took place, a 78-year-old John Hoskins was granted parole after his original sentence was commuted. Surprisingly, he went to stay with Irene, who was now living in California. Life outside prison didn’t suit John, however, and he asked to be returned to Iowa. The state obliged, and a parole officer escorted Hoskins back to Fort Madison. 

He died there in 1963. John’s headstone is plain, and makes no mention of the heinous crimes he committed on a cold January day in 1919. 

About the author:

John Brassard Jr. is an author and historian from Eastern Iowa. He is the co-author of Scott County Cemeteries, and the author of Murder & Mayhem in Scott County, Iowa, which was released in February 2018. More information on John and his work can be found at his website, www.jbrassardjrcom.wordpress.com

All photos courtesy of John Brassard Jr. and the Adams County Free Press 

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