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.
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.
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.
The argument that morning had been no different.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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