Breakfast was slightly awkward in the Hoskins household that cold January morning. John Hoskins and his wife, Hulda, had been arguing.
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. Unfortunately, her Clem had died, leaving her a widow with Roy and Gladys to bring up. But, Hulda and her two children were well liked, and had plenty of friends. Her parents helped out, as did Clem’s. Roy and Gladys 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 among 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 and downstairs until half past six. John was livid, 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 had 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. 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 had been 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 and sat down at the kitchen table for breakfast, Hulda took a can and went outside to get some lard from the separator house.
All four of the children – Roy, Merlin, Irene, and Gladys – could tell that John was still upset. He hadn’t even said grace before he sat down with them at the kitchen table, and he always asked the Lord’s Blessing.
He simply sat down and started passing the pancakes.
The children, like their mother, knew that once John’s anger had subsided, than everything would be alright. 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.Merlin noticed that John had taken the length of heavy wooden buggy axle that he used for stirring hog slop from where he kept it on the porch during the winter.
Calmly, he walked behind Gladys, raised the 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 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 door and into the yard, pausing for just a moment to look behind her. 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. As he was running, he heard his father call out to him. Merlin turned and saw John standing on the porch.
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. Merlin, terrified to disobey, went back into the house, got his coat, then went to the barn and and began to saddle his horse.
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 to the ground.
Leaving her there stunned on the grass, John returned to the kitchen once more and set about finishing 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 until he died.
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. 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.
As she made her way over to Hulda, she could tell that her mother was hurt, but discovered she was still able to speak. She told Irene to go and get help. The girl turned and ran toward the road.
Finished with his grisly work, John stepped out into the back yard and stood over his wife for a moment before raising the bloody club high over his head.
About then, Merlin started to ride out from the barn and across the yard. 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.
The Taylor’s could scarcely believe Irene’s story. Still, here she was, bloody and terrified. Both Mr. and Mrs. Taylor went to the telephone and began to call for help. While the authorities made their way to farm, the neighbors gathered and began to make their way to the Hoskins farm.
Chester Wood was the first to arrive. He could see Hoskins through the back door.
John was standing in the house, honing a straight razor. John told him that he had “…lived in hell long enough and was going to quit it.” As they talked, Wood noticed Hulda’s body lying dead in the grass not far from where he stood.
Cautiously, he once again mounted his horse and rode to other farms to gather more help.
A short while later, other neighbors began to arrive. When they approached the house, they were met with the sight of John 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.
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 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. People knew that John Hoskins had murdered his family in cold blood. They were restless as they awaited the outcome. Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait long.
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.
In his section of Adams County, John Reason Hoskins was known by many. 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.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland.
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“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
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3 thoughts on “The Devil You Know”
So hard to believe that a man could murder his own family this way. We tend to think of Iowans as patient and caring people. Thank you for this story.
I agree completely, Barbara. There is a definite stereotype of Midwesterners being patient, kind, and helpful. These kinds of crimes are so much more shocking because they’re not supposed to happen here. Thank you so much for reading!
I am a grand daughter of Merlin Hoskins, great grand daughter of J R Hoskins. I will not give my name as I don’t want bothered with questions. Just a not to the readers though…Merlin grew into a wonderful, loving, caring father to 4 children and grand father to many. Loved by all and missed by so many. From coming such a rough, dark place in his young life, Merlin turned out to be the best person you could be lucky enough to know. He passed away peacefully in his favorite chair, from natural causes, in 1973, at the age of 68 yrs old. I was only 8 when he passed, but I am honored to have known this wonderful man.