The Devil You Know: The John Hoskins Murders

I have always loved Adams County.

Located in the southwestern portion of the state, Adams county is the least populous county in Iowa, containing just under 3700 people. It’s very rural, and is comprised of rolling hills and rich green fields.

People still wave to you in the street, or raise an index finger in the ‘farmer’s wave’ as they pass by on a secondary road. Going there is like travelling back in time about thirty years and catching the scent of my youth, before the cities began to swell and grow out into to the country areas I used to roam.

In Adams County, the towns are smaller, more intimate. Many of the people there grew up together. They know each other; are familiar with one another. While in the modern era this might not be such a big deal, in pioneer times people relied heavily on each other for mutual aid and support.

Pioneers often found themselves on the very edge of civilization. There were no cities or towns; the pioneers were there to build them. Sometimes the nearest settlement was several hours away, and travel could be difficult, to say the least. Your fellow settlers quickly became your best option.

Your neighbors could give you a hand if you or one of your family got sick or hurt. They could provide companionship when you tired of talking to either your corn or your cow. You could barter items and labor back and forth when you couldn’t travel to town. Very rapidly, complex and close relationships formed between settlers in these frontier areas.

The frontier could be a dangerous place, especially on farms. People got burned, cut, gored, trampled, and caught in machinery. A doctor had to be summoned in person, which meant that someone had to ride to town to bring them back, all the while hoping that they weren’t out tending to someone else.

In the meantime, the injured person would have to wait. In an emergency, time is of the essence. You might need help right now, not three hours from now. In cases like this, your neighbor could help take care of you until the doctor arrived.

As time passed, new innovations and technology began to find their way into rural households across Iowa. One of the most important of these was the telephone. Neighbors still relied on each other, but now they were able to place a call to someone year-round from the comfort and privacy of their own home.

As she ran down a frozen Adams County road in 1919, fifteen-year-old Irene Hoskins probably didn’t care about any of this. The only thing that she could think of was to get as far and as fast from her house as she could possibly manage.

Irene’s head pounded and ached with every heartbeat. Her lungs burned with exertion and with the cold January air. None of that mattered, though. She needed help. More importantly, her family needed help, and she was determined to get it for them. On she ran, shoes pounding on the road as she made her way steadily toward the home of Allen Taylor, her nearest neighbor.

The Taylors must have been shocked to see the girl stumble up to their door. Young Irene was bleeding from a gash in her head, and she was obviously terrified.

Catching her breath, Irene told them something that chilled their blood faster than the January air outside. Her family needed help, she said, because her father had just tried to kill them. After a few more quick breaths, Irene began to tell her story.

     Things had been slightly awkward in the Hoskins household that morning. John Hoskins and his wife, Hulda, had been arguing all morning long.

John Hoskins
John Hoskins. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press
Hulda Hoskins
Hulda Hoskins. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press


The family had been planning to drive to Greenfield, Iowa that morning and visit John’s parents. Everyone was happily looking forward to the trip, and all the necessary plans and preparations had been made.

The next morning, John’s previously jovial mood had quickly soured.

His stepdaughter, Gladys, 19; and his daughter, Irene, 15, had woken up late. They had dressed quickly, but still hadn’t managed to get downstairs and seated at the breakfast table until about 6:30 am. The only reason they had managed that was because John had screamed up the stairs at them to wake up and get moving.

John, his stepson Roy, 16; and son, Merlin, 12, had not only been up early but had managed to take care of all the farm chores. John had wanted to leave early that day, and when he found out Gladys and Irene were still asleep, he was livid. Almost right away, he blamed Hulda for the problem and began to yell at her.

It was unbelievable how angry he got. Hulda argued back for quite a while, but, after a while, she stopped. This was the way that their arguments usually progressed, with Hulda arguing hard in the beginning, and then eventually just not talking. She let John’s anger run its course, knowing that, sooner or later, he’d stop.

John had a temper. Hulda knew that, and, perhaps, if he had only gotten angry occasionally, might have understood it better. But sometimes he would argue over things that didn’t really matter. He would rant and scream, and refused to see reason.

And John was so intense when he was upset. He didn’t lose his temper as much as he flew into a rage. His temper was like an inferno, consuming everything it touched.

When he got like this, John had said that he should kill them all and be done with it. He had threatened this before, but they were just words. Or at least she hoped they were.

Just that past year, John had completely snapped, striking Roy and knocking him to the ground. He then jumped on top of the boy and began choking him. When Irene and Hulda tried to interfere, he hit them, too. John had, thankfully, stopped.

The incident had scared them all. They still felt a little of that fear when he lost his temper, things hadn’t been the same for all of them since the strangling incident with Roy.

Hulda and John had gotten married in 1915, just a few years before. Both of them had been married before, and both of their spouses had passed away.

Hulda’s first marriage hadn’t been this dramatic. Hulda had grown up around Adams County, and she and the children were well liked. They had plenty of friends who were willing to help out, not to mention her in-laws. Both Roy and Gladys were both popular, helpful, and stayed out of trouble.

Hulda and John had probably known each other for a while. John was from a well- respected family, and was also well-liked in the community. He was a kind, thoughtful man who worked hard and went to church every week. It seemed like an ideal match and, in the beginning, it was. Time had changed that.

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

Hoskins Children
From left: Roy Campbell, Merlin Hoskins, Gladys Campbell, Irene Hoskins (seated center). Courtesy of Adams County Free Press

The others sat themselves around the breakfast table, helping themselves to the pancakes Hulda had prepared for everyone. There was an awkward silence in the air after all of the arguing. John sat, anger radiating from him in waves.

The children were silent. The only sounds that came from the kitchen were the sounds of people chewing and the tell-tale click of silverware on plates. Normally, John would say grace over the meal, but it was obvious he was far too upset for that. Instead, he sat and fumed.

The children knew that John’s anger would eventually pass. It always had before, and, like a summer storm, all they had to do was put their head down and wait for it to pass. Everything was going to be alright.

As they sat in awkward silence, John carefully set down his fork, stood up, and walked over to the back door. Opening it, he leaned out and grabbed the piece of broken wooden buggy axle that he used to mix the hog feed.

Calmly, he stepped behind Gladys, and swung it hard at the girl’s head. It connected with a sick crack, and her whole body went slack. Gladys fell off her chair, her body hitting hard against the kitchen floor. John immediately swung again, and with another dull crack, connected with Roy’s head.

Irene and Merlin got up, their chairs making screeching marks as they slid across the floor. Both of them ran out of the kitchen as fast as they could.

Irene sprinted around the furniture in the living room, threw open the front door, and ran out into the front yard. She stopped for just a moment, looking behind her. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw, to her horror, John standing right behind her.

Irene told him that he had done enough, and pleaded with him to stop. Her father ignored her.  With a wild and savage look on his face, John struck her hard on the side of the head. She fell to the cold grass, bleeding from a large gash from where he had struck her. Without a word, John turned and walked away

   While Irene had gone out the front door, Merlin had left the house and made his way into the back yard. As he ran, he heard his father call out to him. Merlin stopped, then slowly turned around.  John was standing on the porch, staring at him with wild, hateful eyes.

John told his son to leave. He told Merlin to go and tell his Uncle Charley what had happened that morning. Merlin had already known that it was a bad idea to disobey his father. After what he had just seen, he was probably too terrified not to.

Merlin went back into the house, got his coat, then went to the barn and saddled his horse.

About then, Hulda came back toward the house, suspecting nothing of what had happened. As she came through the kitchen door, she saw Gladys and Roy, her two beloved children, lying motionless on the kitchen floor.

Her mind had just begun to process what she was seeing when she suddenly felt a searing pain above her eye. John had been waiting for her, and struck her hard as she stepped into the kitchen. Hulda’s vision swam, and she stumbled out onto the back porch. She tried to take another step, but lost her balance and fell off into the yard.

Smiling with savage glee at having finally hitting his wife, he looked over at the prone forms of his stepchildren. John wasn’t finished with them yet. He walked over and stood over Gladys, taking the axle into both hands.

Raising the club high above his head, he brought it down into the girl’s head. He did this again and again, smashing Glady’s skull into a misshapen mass.

Satisfied, he walked over to Roy. As he set his feet, ready to swing the axle again, the teenager regained his senses. Feebly, he reached up and grabbed at John, trying his best to fight back. But Roy was just too injured and John was just too strong.

Shrugging off his stepson’s last, desperate attempts to defend himself, John swung again. Up and down the axle went, each hollow crack spraying blood and brain around the room. Finally, mercifully, Roy died.

   While John was murdering her stepbrother, 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 a wave of dizziness and nausea washed over her. She fell to her knees, breathing hard. Taking a deep breath, she tried again, but with the same result.

Irene’s own father had just tried to kill her. Irene knew that she couldn’t stay there. Summoning all her strength, Irene braced herself against the pain and managed to rise to her feet. Taking a few tentative steps forward, looking around to see if John was anywhere to be seen. As she did, she saw Hulda laying in the back yard.

As she made her way over to her stepmother, Irene could hear sounds coming from inside the kitchen. It sounded like someone was moving around a lot, or maybe moving furniture around. What she didn’t know, what she couldn’t know, was that the sounds were probably the exertions of her father murdering her stepsiblings.

Irene knelt next to Hulda, and could see that she had also been attacked. Hulda was hurt, but was still able to speak. Gasping, she told Irene to run, to go and get help. Irene nodded, then ran across the yard and down the road toward her nearest neighbor, Allen Taylor.

John, finished with his grisly task inside, stepped out into the yard, looking down at his wife.  Looking him in the eye, Hulda told him, plainly, that he had killed her two children. John, eyes still full of wild, savage fury, responded that yes, he had killed them. Now he was going to kill her, then commit suicide.

As he was saying this, Merlin rode out of the barn on his horse. He must have felt helpless as he saw his father, standing over Hulda, raises the bloody axle over his head. Young Merlin must have known exactly what John was going to do, but was powerless to stop it. He looked away and began to ride quickly towards his uncle’s farm.

   When Irene had finished, Allen Taylor was stunned. He had known the Hoskins family, had been on the farm. It was almost too much to believe. Taylor could sort through all of that later, though. Hulda and her kids needed help, and he had to make sure that they got it.

Walking over to the telephone, he picked it up and called the doctor and the sheriff. They said that they would make their way out right away. As Taylor went to put on his coat, his wife began to call other people in the farm neighborhood to let them know what was going on.

One of these individuals was Chester Woods, who had saddled his horse and ridden to the Taylor farm. Allen met him at the front gate, and told him what Irene had told him. After they had finished talking, Woods decided to ride up the road to the Hoskins’ and see for himself what was happening.

Hoskins Farm
The John Hoskins House. Courtesy of Adams County Free Press

A short while later, he rode into the Hoskins’ yard. Woods dismounted, tied his horse, and walked to the kitchen door. As he approached, Hoskins stepped outside, holding a straight razor. When he saw him, Woods back away, keeping his distance from John.

Woods asked John what had happened, and Hoskins said plainly that he and his family were going to head to Greenfield that morning, but he had killed them all instead. He continued, telling Woods that he had been living in hell for the past three years, and was through with it. John was going to kill himself and be done.

As John talked, Woods noticed the still form of Hulda Hoskins lying in the grass just a few feet away.

Pausing for a moment, Hoskins produced a checkbook. He told Woods that he owed someone for corn, and asked him if he would take his check to that person and settle the debt.

Woods told him that he didn’t want any part of it. He had confirmed at least part of what Taylor had told him. Woods got on his horse and left, passing Allen Taylor on his way out.

As Taylor began to approach the house, Hoskins came out to the yard gate, holding the straight razor. He told Taylor the same story that he had told Woods: he had murdered his family and was going to kill himself. He added that he wasn’t going to go to prison.

Hoskins also tried to get Taylor to take the check for the crop payment, and also gave him five dollars to pay for some work that Mrs. Taylor had done for the family.

Taylor noticed that although Hoskins spoke normally, he seemed very nervous. As he watched, Hoskins went to Hulda’s body and picked up her arm, letting it fall back down to the ground. With that, he went back into the house.

Taylor left, making his way back home to wait for more help.

As the day passed, other neighbors came and spoke with Hoskins as well. He gave them the same story, and he also warned them that he had a loaded shotgun just inside the door, and he would use it on them if they attempted to detain him.

More and more neighbors showed up at either the Taylors farm or went directly to the Hoskins’.  When one man made to approach the kitchen door at the Hoskins place, someone warned them that if they tried to go inside, then they would be shot.

The man told them that he wasn’t afraid, and another man agreed with him. Together, they approached the home, where they were met with something unexpected. John was lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen doorway, unmoving. He had slit his own throat and cut one of his wrists. By all appearances, he was dead.

By this time, a doctor had joined the mob of neighbors outside the house, and he was called to examine John’s body. After a cursory examination, he stated that John when past saving. When he did so, however, he noticed that John’s hand and leg had begun twitching. John Hoskins was still alive.

They carried Hoskins inside, where the doctor began to treat his wounds. As he worked, the other men stared in disgust at John’s grisly handiwork.

The kitchen was a charnel house. The room was splattered with the blood of the poor, innocent people lying dead on the floor. Hulda was dead outside, only a few yards from her children. Blood formed a pool on the grass near her body, and a smear of red stained the corner of the house. 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 opened it and carefully unloaded it.

As he examined John’s wounds, it soon became apparent to the doctor that his wounds were mostly superficial. Neither cut had done any significant damage, and certainly not enough to threaten his life. Looking at the sheriff and the other assembled men, the doctor told them that John would soon recover.

These men had just been standing in the blood-soaked kitchen, bearing witness to the aftermath of Hoskins’ terrible crime. No doubt some of them were disappointed to hear that Hoskins was going to live. He was promptly arrested and taken to the Adams County Jail in Corning.

   A coroner’s inquest was held soon after. Officially, a coroner’s inquest was a hearing in which the coroner could determine an official cause of death. This would usually include an examination of the corpse and extensive interviews of people who were involved, including responding doctors, police officers, and eye witnesses.  At the conclusion of the proceedings, the coroner’s jury would make a ruling on the cause of death and whether or not a trial should take place.

Unofficially, it was a way to gather everyone together while the crime was still fresh in their minds and be interviewed by authorities. In murder cases, it could be an important first step at either finding an unknown culprit or convicting a known murderer.

Although he had already admitted to several people that he was the killer, John Hoskins would still have to stand trial. If he pled guilty, then he would be sentenced and go to prison for a length of time to be determined. But if he pled Not Guilty, then it would be the burden of law enforcement officials and the county prosecutor to prove that he had, indeed, committed the crime he was accused of.

In that eventuality, evidence would have to presented, and a good amount of it could be produced during a coroner’s inquest.

Several neighbors were called to testify as to their actions and movements that day. A physician who had examined the bodies stated to the assembled people that Hulda, Roy, and Gladys had all been beaten to death, their skulls crushed by multiple blows to the head from a blunt instrument. Gladys had been attacked so ferociously that her brains had literally been beaten out of her head.

Perhaps the hardest testimony to listen to was that given by Irene Hoskins, who was forced to recount the events of that awful morning once again.

Very quickly, a picture of the life of John Hoskins began to emerge. Although he had seemed fine to all of his neighbors and people in town, those who were closer to him saw a different side of him. He was a man capable of violent mood swings and possessed a fearful temper who had, on multiple occasions, threatened to kill his family.

At its conclusion, the coroner’s jury found that Hulda Hoskins and her two children, Roy and Gladys, had been beaten to death by John Hoskins.

Hoskins was immediately brought to trial. Surprisingly, he entered pled Not Guilty to the murder of his family. This came as a shock to some, seeing as how he had already confessed to the murder on multiple occasions, even recounting the grisly crimes in vivid detail for his jailers.

Many people, including the prosecutor, expected that he would try and convince the jury he was insane. If Hoskins was deemed to be insane, that would automatically mean that he was incompetent to stand trial, being completely unable to understand the difference between right and wrong.

His motivation for the murders would have been driven by an inherent mental illness, and wouldn’t have been the conscious choice of a sane individual. Hoskins would avoid the death penalty and would be sent to a secure mental hospital until he was deemed sane enough to stand trial.

It was a logical defense. After seeing the crime scene, or just hearing about it, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to believe that Hoskins must be insane to do something like that.

Most people didn’t believe it. They felt that Hoskins was perfectly sane, using his suicide attempt as proof.

They claimed that if he would have been insane and wanted to kill himself, then Hoskins would have kept cutting at his wrist or neck until he had died. Because the marks were non-life threatening, that meant that he hadn’t really meant to commit suicide.

The prosecutors, for their part, were determined to get a solid conviction and get justice for the Hoskins family. From the moment the case began, both law enforcement and the county attorney took their time, gathering every scrap of evidence available to them. In fact, they took so much time that people began to complain that they were taking too long, and they needed to convict him immediately.

Most, if not all, the critics believed that John Hoskins was perfectly sane and guilty as sin. They believed that the longer the prosecution took, the more money that it was going to cost the county. Why spend so much for such an obviously guilty man?

But convictions take time. One tiny loophole or detail gone unnoticed could mean the difference between a successful conviction and John Hoskins either going to a mental hospital or walking away a free man.

So, they took their time, methodically calling witness after witness, sparing the assembled jury no detail of the horrific murder of Hulda Hoskins, Roy Campbell, or Gladys Campbell.

Merlin was called to testify, describing what he had seen, and the conversation he had with John before riding off out of the farm yard. Once again Irene talked about how her father had attacked her, leaving her for dead. Neighbor after neighbor was called to give their testimony, each one filling in more and more details of that horrible day.

John Hoskins had a lot of time in jail to think about his situation. As the evidence began to mount, he must have begun to feel less confident of his chances of winning. Not only that, but he must have started having second thoughts about dying.

If he was convicted and found sane, as seemed more and more likely, then he would be hanged. The hangman would make sure he was dead this time; there would be no missed arteries or second chances.

John sent for his attorney, and told him that he wanted to change his plea to Guilty. He may have to spend the rest of his life there, but he would still be alive.

John wrote a confession to murdering Hulda, blaming his behavior on a series of injuries that he had sustained, starting in about 1914. He claimed that in that year, a large wooden pole had fallen out of its storage place in his barn loft, striking him on the head. Allegedly, it caused him to have pains in his head for years afterward.

In late 1918, shortly before the murders, John stated that he had suffered a bout of the Spanish Influenza, a deadly disease that burned its way across the globe that year, killing millions. The high fever that he had must have done something to his mind.

In essence, Hoskins’ confession claimed that he had been temporarily insane, but now he was clear-headed and understood what he had done and the gravity of those actions.

The judge was notified of the plea change, and court was called into session. John was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, accompanied by his father and Merlin. His attorney officially entered John’s plea, handing over the written confession.

The prosecutor asked that the death penalty be given, while the defense reiterated John’s claims of temporary insanity and asked that he be spared a death sentence and be given a prison term instead.

Throughout the entire process, John stood by without an ounce of emotion. He showed no regret, no sadness, no guilt. When the judge asked if he had anything to say, John simply replied, “No.”

John Hoskins was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.

   Irene and Merlin went to live with relatives, and grew up to have families of their own. Merlin became a farmer, while Irene was a beautician. While Merlin stayed in the area, Irene and her husband eventually moved to California.

John settled well into prison life, and became a model prisoner.  He earned a great deal of trust with the prison guards and staff, and earned reasonable rights and privileges because of it. This eventually included being allowed to drive a prison truck between the prison and the city of Fort Madison, presumably under guard.

Over the next several decades, Hoskins tried to earn parole a few times, but was denied. In the late 1940’s, about thirty years after the murders, Hoskins and his attorney attempted to have two indictments for the murders of Roy and Gladys Campbell removed from his record.

These indictments had been filed against John in 1919 by the assembled grand jury, but were ignored after his guilty plea and official confession to Hulda’s murder. However, they were still active and pending, simply having rested dormant in the three-decade interim.

Hoskins was driven back to Corning to stand trial for these two murders by an Iowa State Penitentiary guard. Several locals turned out to see the proceedings, including many who had been present at the original trial.

Ultimately, Hoskin’s attempt backfired. He was found guilty on both counts of the first-degree murder of Roy and Gladys Campbell. John was sentenced to two more life sentences and was immediately returned to the state prison after the trial was over.

In late 1958, his original life sentence was commuted to a term of years served. The following year, John Hoskins was granted parole at the age of seventy-eight, having spent forty years in prison.

Before his release, people asked him where he would go. Shockingly, he told them that he was going to stay with his daughter, in California.

Irene, the same daughter who had watched John attack her family on a cold January morning forty years before, and who had nearly become one of his victims herself, had agreed to allow him to come to California and stay with her.

And he did – for a time.

John had become accustomed to his life in prison, and didn’t want to live in California anymore. He begged to be returned to Iowa, and the state obliged, sending an official to pick him up.

John Hoskins died in Fort Madison, Iowa in 1963. He was buried alone with a simple headstone that gave only his name, his birth date, and his death date. Looking at it, no one would know anything about the horrible murders he had committed in western Iowa.

In 1919, people in Adams County relied on each other; depended on one another for help. They were their own best support network, and gave freely of their skills and abilities.

More importantly, they knew and trusted one another.

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.

But, to those closer to him, John had a dark side. He had a nasty temper. He resented and hated his family, and even threatened to kill them. Unfortunately, John also proved himself to be a man true to his word.

People were shocked by his actions. He had grown up with them, worked beside them in the fields, and even sat next to them in church.

But he had fooled them all. They couldn’t see the seething darkness underneath his smiling façade. In January 1919, John Hoskins let that darkness come through. Looking at the horrible aftermath of the crimes committed by the man they had known for so long, so many friends and neighbors realized what a devil he truly was.

And sometimes, the devil you know is the worst one of all.

4 thoughts on “The Devil You Know: The John Hoskins Murders”

  1. Gladys and Roy Campbell were my second cousins. I discovered their sad story several years ago while working on family genealogy. I had read the news articles I could find, but how you pulled the story together and recorded the podcast was very helpful.

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