The Devil You Know: The John R. Hoskins Family Murders of 1919

Breakfast was slightly awkward in the Hoskins household that cold January morning. John Hoskins and his wife, Hulda, had been arguing.

While that wasn’t necessarily unusual, it didn’t make things exactly comfortable. All four of the children – Roy, 12, Merlin, Irene, 15, and Gladys, 18 –seated at the table could tell that John was still upset. He hadn’t even said grace before he passed the pancakes, and he always asked the Lord’s Blessing.

Hulda, as she usually did, had eventually stopped arguing with her husband, just letting him yell and scream on in his anger. They had only been married a few years, and the union definitely had its ups and downs.

First Marriages, Second Marriages

Her first marriage hadn’t been this dramatic. But, unfortunately, her Clem had died, leaving her a widow with Roy and Gladys to bring up. But, she had grown up around Nevinville, Prescott, and Corning in southwest Iowa.

She and her two children were well liked, and had plenty of friends. Clem’s parents also helped out. Roy and Gladys were both popular, were very helpful, and stayed out of trouble.


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Hulda Hoskins, mother of Roy and Gladys Cambbell. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


Hulda Cambbell had probably known John Hoskins for a while. John was from a well- respected family, and was also well-liked amongst the community. Like her, John was a widower with two children. He was a kind, thoughtful man who worked hard and went to church every week. It seemed like an ideal match and, for the most part, it was.

But John had a temper. Sometimes he would argue over things that didn’t really matter. He would rant and scream, and refused to see things from Hulda’s point of view. This was especially ironic from a man whose middle name was Reason.


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John Reason Hoskins. Hoskins murdered his second wife and two step-children on January 11, 1919. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


The argument that morning had been no different.

Anger Issues

The family was going to take the car over to Greenfield, Iowa, that morning to visit John’s parents. They were happy to go, and all the plans for the trip had been made the night before. Unfortunately, things that morning had not gone according to John’s timeline.

Gladys and Irene had woken up late, not getting out of bed until half past six. John was livid, demanding first that the girls get out of bed and then yelling at Hulda for allowing it to happen. He had wanted to leave much earlier than that.

It was unbelievable how angry he got. He would not listen to Hulda at all. John even said that he should kill them all and be done with it. Hulda just stopped talking. She didn’t want to waste her breath. He had threatened this before, but they were just words. Or at least she hoped they were.

John had been getting worse and worse lately. His temper was severe, and he began to threaten them all the time. Gladys’ fiancée had noticed and was concerned, but Gladys kept him away from it. He had seen John’s temper, but he didn’t know everything.

The children were afraid of him, and, to tell the truth, so was she a little.

Just that past year, John had completely snapped, striking Roy to the ground. He then jumped on top of his son and began choking him. When Irene and Hulda tried to interfere, he struck them, too. John had stopped, but things hadn’t been quite the same since.

But, that was the worst of it. Hulda hoped that he would stop and go back to being the kind, thoughtful man that she thought she had married. The children adored one another, acting as if they had been brother and sister their entire lives instead of just for a part of it.

When John had finished his rant, Hulda took a can and went outside to get some lard from the separator house.

A Killing Time

The children, like their mother, knew that once John’s anger had subsided, than everything would be alright. Mother and Father always worked things out. They continued to eat in silence.

John finished chewing a bite of pancake, set down his fork, and stood up. He opened the back door, leaning out to grab something from outside.

The children noticed that John was holding a length of heavy wooden buggy axle that he used for stirring hog slop from where he kept it on the porch during the winter. They didn’t think much of it and continued to eat.


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Gladys Campbell. A pretty eighteen year old, she was engaged to be married later in 1919. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


Calmly, he walked behind Gladys, raised his club, and swung it hard at the girl’s head. She went down hard, falling off her chair. John immediately swung again, this time striking little Roy, sending him sprawling to the floor next to his sister.


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Roy Campbell. Roy, like his sister Gladys, was well-liked by the other boys in the area. He was friendly and worked hard, earning him many friends. Some of them would serve as pallbearers at his funeral. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


As soon as she saw John strike Gladys, Irene got up and ran. She went through the front door and into the yard, pausing for just a moment to look behind her as she neared a tree. To her horror, she saw her father standing right behind her.


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Irene Campbell. Irene was only fifteen years old when she was struck down in her front yard and left for dead by her father. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


Irene pleaded with him to stop, that he had done enough. But her pleas fell might as well have fallen on stone ears. With a wild and savage look on his face, John struck her hard on the side of the head, and then walked back into the house, leaving his young daughter motionless on the front lawn.


Merlin, meanwhile, had run out of the house at almost the same time as Irene. He had run out of the house and into the back yard. As he was running, he heard his father call out to him. Merlin turned and saw John standing on the porch, bloody club still in hand.

John told him to saddle his horse and ride to his Uncle Charlies’ farm. John wanted his son to tell Charlie what he had done to his family. Merlin, terrified to disobey, went back into the house, got his coat, then went to the barn and saddled his horse.

Finishing the Job

John went back inside to finish his grisly task. First, he began to strike Gladys in the head with his club, smashing in her skull. She never woke up. Roy, however, was not so lucky. He came to and tried to resist, but he was only twelve and was severely wounded on top of that. Savagely, John shrugged off the boys feeble attempts and hit Roy repeatedly in the head.

By now, Hulda had come back toward the house. She suspected nothing as she walked onto the porch and into the kitchen. Hulda saw her children lying on the floor, and felt a bitter cold worse than the January weather outside seep into her heart right before her husband stuck her across the face.

Surprised and stunned, Hulda stumbled onto the back porch and fell down. John stood over her, full of rage.


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The Hoskins Family home north of Prescott, Iowa. Irene made it about as far as the tree on the right before being struck down by her father. Her step-mother, Hulda, was beaten in the back yard to the left, then crawled onto the porch where she died. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


In the barn, Merlin saddled his horse and rode out through the yard. As he did, he saw his father standing over his stepmother, club raised high.

He must have felt helpless as he realized that there wasn’t anything that he could do. He kept riding out onto the road, and hurried to his uncle’s farm.

In the front yard, Irene slowly stirred. The blow her father had dealt her was a severe one, but it hadn’t killed her. She tried to stand, but fell back down. Irene took a deep breath and tried again. Once more, she fell into the cold grass.

Irene knew that she couldn’t stay there, so she summoned all her strength and this time managed to rise to her feet. She reached up and touched her head where John had struck here. It stung, and when she looked at her fingers, they were covered with blood.

Irene took a few tentative steps forward, finding her footing through pain and dizziness. As she did, she saw her mother laying in the back yard.

Irene made her way over to Hulda. As she did, she could see through the door into the kitchen were her brother and sister were. There were sounds coming from inside, like things being moved.

Her mother was hurt, but was still able to speak. She told Irene to go and get help. The girl turned and ran toward the road. She didn’t stop until she got to her closest neighbor, a farmer named Allen Taylor.


Word Travels Fast

News spread quickly. Taylor got on the telephone and contacted everyone that he could. While the authorities made their way to farm on the bad rural roads, the neighbors gathered and began to make their way to the Hoskins farm.

Chester Wood and Allen Taylor were among the first to arrive. When the men approached the house, they could see Hulda lying on the porch, a pool of blood near her prostrate form. They presumed her to be dead.

John was standing on the porch, honing a straight razor. He told the men not to come any closer. If they did, he explained that he had a loaded shotgun just inside the door and would kill them. John went on to say that he had “…lived in hell long enough and was going to quit it.” He wasn’t going to rot in prison for his crimes, and had determined to commit suicide with the razor.

The men, not wanting the seemingly insane John to kill them too, left the farm to wait for the authorities and more people to come.

A Horrific Scene

A short while later, other neighbors began to arrive. When they approached the house, they were met with a different sight. John was now lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen doorway. He had slit his own throat and cut one of his wrists. He did not move. Most thought that he was dead.

A doctor present at the scene even stated that John when past saving. When he did so, however, John’s hand and leg began twitching. The people gathered there knew then that he was still alive.

They carried him into the house, where the doctor began to treat his wounds.

In the kitchen, a gruesome sight met those present. The room was splattered with the blood of the poor, innocent people lying dead on the floor. Hulda was dead on the porch, only a few yards from her children. One man took a blanket and covered her corpse.

Shotgun shells were scattered across the floor, and the gun itself was loaded and propped in the corner near the door. One man, T.M. Johnson, unloaded it.

It was soon apparent that, despite first appearances, John’s wounds weren’t much more than superficial. He had cut his throat too high to do any significant damage. It was the same with his wrist. John would soon recover. Authorities, having no sympathy for him, got permission from the physician to move him to the jail in Corning. The man readily agreed.


A coroner’s inquest was held, where several neighbors, family, and friends were interviewed. It was revealed that while John Hoskins seemed fine to all of his neighbors and people in town, those who were closer to him saw a different side of him. All of the stories of his temper, his threats, and how he had attacked his family that past spring were brought into the light.

His mother and father, who were loved and respected in the community, were beside themselves with grief. They couldn’t understand how their beloved son had committed such a terrible crime.

John himself showed no remorse whatsoever. He readily confessed to his jail guards what he had done and why.

Hoskins was rapidly brought to trial. Initially, he entered a plea of Not Guilty. There was speculation that he would claim that he was insane. The prosecutors took their time, carefully building up their case against Hoskins.

There was some outcry that they were taking too long. The region was still experiencing the aftershocks of the Vilisca Ax Murders almost seven years prior. No murderer had been caught in those killings, and the hunt for the culprit was still very much on.

People knew that John Hoskins had murdered his family in cold blood. They didn’t want another killer to go free. The public was restless as they awaited the outcome. Thankfully, they didn’t have long to wait.

Hoskins’s defense attorney paid him a visit one day at the jail. After a long talk with his client, a decision was made. John Hoskins pled guilty to first degree murder. It was later thought that once Hoskins’s attorney had seen the strong case built up by the prosecution, he was able to convince John to change his plea.

John Hoskins was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was taken to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa, to serve out his sentence.


Iowa State Penitentiary, where John R. Hoskins was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in 1919.


In Plain Sight

Hoskins was seemingly a loving and caring family man to many of those who knew him. He was hard working and successful, and he went to church often. His family was loved and respected throughout the region. John was seemingly a man who had it all.

But, to those closer to him, John had a dark side. He had a nasty temper, and he regularly threatened to kill his family. He resented and hated them, and, after one attempt in 1918, finally carried through with his threats almost a year later.

People in Southwest Iowa were terrified by the brutality of the murder of the Moore family in Vilisca in 1912 partly because they didn’t know who had done it. Try as they might, there was never enough evidence to convict anyone. In the void of the unknown, speculation ran rampant. That speculation tore apart lives and ended careers.

The killer could have been anyone.

But in Prescott, John Reason Hoskins was known by everyone. He had grown up with them, played with them as children. As a man, John worked beside them and sat next to them in church. He was one of them.

Not knowing the identity of a murderer is bad enough. But when you know one, know what they did and the people that he did it to, it can be worse. It’s worse because you waved to him in the street and welcomed him into your home.

Sometimes the devil that you know is the worst one of all.



Triple Murder Near Prescott.” Adams County Free Press, 1/15/1919

Bad Murder at Prescott.” Adams County Free Press, 1/18/1919

Hoskins is Indicted.” Adams County Free Press, 1/23/1919

Jurors are Drawn.” Adams County Free Press, 2/12/1919

His Attorney Here.” Adams County Free Press, 2/13/1919

J.R. Hoskins Pleads Guilty.” Adams County Free Press, 2/22/1919

Hoskins Pleads Guilty.” Adams County Free Press, 2/26/1919

Hoskins Case Testimony.” Adams County Free Press, 3/1/1919

Iowa, Consecutive Registers of Convicts, 1867 – 1970

U.S. Census Records

State of Iowa Marriage Records

12 thoughts on “The Devil You Know: The John R. Hoskins Family Murders of 1919”

  1. Well, that was an interesting post, as usual, but unlike your post about Mrs. Scott, who at least survived her horrific wounds, the ending was horrible for pretty much everyone. I don’t think John Hoskins was insane – to me he sounds like the textbook case of an abuser who went too far; if they couldn’t act personable sometimes, then no one would ever get close to them in the first place – so I’m glad he wasn’t able to get away with an insanity plea. Do you know what ended up happening to Irene? It can’t have been an easy life afterwards, even if she survived.

    1. First of all, thank you for the compliment. I agree with your assessment of John Hoskins. He was one of those guys that was alright amongst the neighbors, but the closer you got to him – outside of his parents, apparently – the weirder and more violent he got. He tried to blame the crime on a vicious fall that he took a few years prior where he fell on his head, and then another fall shortly thereafter where I believe he fell down a well. I don’t think that anyone was buying his brain damage defense, Matter of fact, there was one man who moved Hoskins on the porch who was asked why he wanted to save him. The man replied, “So I can watch the son of a bitch hang.”
      And I definitely know what happened to the family. You’re going to love this.
      John Hoskins goes to Iowa State Penitentiary in 1919. Merlin and Irene move in with their grandmother back in Nevinville, Iowa. Merlin grows up, becomes a farmer, and has a nice little family.
      Irene gets married a year or two later when she’s seventeen to a man named Carl Vernon Martin. They have one son, and she becomes a cosmetologist, eventually working at a beauty parlor. Life is grand.
      Flash forward to 1959. John Hoskins has been in prison for forty years, and has been a model prisoner the entire time. He’s so trusted that they let him drive the mail truck between the prison and the city of Fort Madison four times a day. Lot’s of people got to know him, and he was really well liked.
      Well, through some legal magic, the governor of Iowa commutes his sentence, and makes John eligible for parole. And in 1959, he was.
      And where does a 78 year old family murderer go on parole? Why, to sunny Long Beach, California, to live with his only surviving daughter, Irene.
      Well, I can’t find any details about exactly why, but I do know that John was unable to adjust to life outside prison walls and wanted to return to Iowa. The prison system obliged him, and an officer was sent to collect him.
      Personally, I don’t care how nice Irene was for even considering doing this to begin with, it could not have been agreeable to live with the man you watched murder your family.
      So there you have it. That’s the entire, sordid story as I know it. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I have trying to wrap your brain around the whole parole thing.

      1. Wow. Yeah, Irene was a far better person than I would have been. I would have gone to his parole hearing to make damn sure he was never allowed out, and if he got out anyway, I would have changed my name and moved where he couldn’t find me. I know it was her father and all, but still. For some reason I missed that Merlin survived too – on re-reading now I see that he wasn’t even injured, but he had to witness some horrific things for sure. Thanks for the additional info – I was not expecting that outcome!

  2. I was wondering if you had any photos of old Nevinville. I purchased the 1856 homestead of Joseph Loran Ellis housein July 2015. Havent had much luck with any photos of the house of Nevinville, but did acquire a copy of the book he wrote in 1901. Any help would be greatly appreciated

  3. I was wondering if you had any photos of old Nevinville. I purchased the 1856 homestead of Joseph Loran Ellis housein July 2015. Havent had much luck with any photos of the house of Nevinville, but did acquire a copy of the book he wrote in 1901. Any help would be greatly appreciated

    1. Ms. Grimes – I’m so sorry for not getting back to you sooner! I’ve been looking for photos, and I honestly don’t have any photos of Nevinville itself. I couldn’t find any, either. The best that I did was one or two pictures of Joseph Loran Ellis and (I believe) his wife. If you like, I can either tell you where I found them or send you a copy. I’ll keep an eye out, and if I find any, I’ll try to let you know!

  4. Do you know where the house sat? I was told it still stood today. I checked land records and went searching. I found a house in area it might have stood, but looks slightly different. My great-grandfather was a sibling to Hulda.

    1. I do know where it is, actually. It is definitely still there. It looks almost exactly as it did in the photos on the blog, so if you saw one like that in the area, then you found it. Actually, seeing as how you’re part of the family, would you mind IM’ing me on my Facebook page, The Kitchen Table Historian, or sending me an e-mail off the site? I’d like to discuss something related to Hulda with you. We can talk more about the house, too.

  5. John Hoskins was my great grandpa.intresting article as his grand daughter, my mom never told me much about it.also I was glad to see the pictures as I had never seen any of him Hulda or her two children.

    1. Mr. Nelson – I’m very, very pleased to hear that you enjoyed the article, and that you were able to see pictures of them. Would it be possible for me to contact you about your family sometime? I would like to know better about what happened to them after this awful event. What I’ve found has led me to believe that they recovered and went on to lead very productive lives. Thank you so much for commenting here! I hope to talk to you again soon.

  6. TnT Milwaukee.
    Very interesting case. Could not find book?
    Irene taking in father not uncommon.
    Ron spent 10 years in Wis. Nut house for killing two hunters for no reason.
    Released, married, purchased home in Green Bay, had two girls.
    Fell in love with two young 15 year olds, killed his wife.
    Years later convicted for her murder – no body – no real evidence. Claimed she got out of car with suitcase on freeway, during shopping trip.
    Died in Wisconsin prison serving life.
    Daughter visited regularly, and became a prison correctional officer.
    He was a large ghoulish guy and murdered 3 people in a 11 year span of time. Totally opposite to actor Joe Don Penny who play him in the movie.
    Unreal and Chilling. TnT.

  7. TnT
    Trying to write a whodunit unsolved 1987 family murder, here in Milwaukee. Need a ghost-writer, or co-author.
    10 different suspects – No arrests. No. 1 suspect never questioned by investigators.
    Retired, 70, hope to publish before I meet my maker.

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