This detective short story was adapted from Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles (1916). It is based on a murder story Susan Glaspell covered as a reporter.
When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away–it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.
She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too–adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.
“Martha!” now came her husband’s impatient voice. “Don’t keep folks waiting out here in the cold.”
She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.
After she had the robes tucked around her she took another look at the woman who sat beside her on the back seat. She had met Mrs. Peters the year before at the county fair, and the thing she remembered about her was that she didn’t seem like a sheriff’s wife. She was small and thin and didn’t have a strong voice. Mrs. Gorman, sheriff’s wife before Gorman went out and Peters came in, had a voice that somehow seemed to be backing up the law with every word. But if Mrs. Peters didn’t look like a sheriff’s wife, Peters made it up in looking like a sheriff. He was to a dot the kind of man who could get himself elected sheriff–a heavy man with a big voice, who was particularly genial with the law-abiding, as if to make it plain that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals. And right there it came into Mrs. Hale’s mind, with a stab, that this man who was so pleasant and lively with all of them was going to the Wrights’ now as a sheriff.
“The country’s not very pleasant this time of year,” Mrs. Peters at last ventured, as if she felt they ought to be talking as well as the men.
Mrs. Hale scarcely finished her reply, for they had gone up a little hill and could see the Wright place now, and seeing it did not make her feel like talking. It looked very lonesome this cold March morning. It had always been a lonesome-looking place. It was down in a hollow, and the poplar trees around it were lonesome-looking trees. The men were looking at it and talking about what had happened. The county attorney was bending to one side of the buggy, and kept looking steadily at the place as they drew up to it.
“I’m glad you came with me,” Mrs. Peters said nervously, as the two women were about to follow the men in through the kitchen door.
Even after she had her foot on the door-step, her hand on the knob, Martha Hale had a moment of feeling she could not cross that threshold. And the reason it seemed she couldn’t cross it now was simply because she hadn’t crossed it before. Time and time again it had been in her mind, “I ought to go over and see Minnie Foster”–she still thought of her as Minnie Foster, though for twenty years she had been Mrs. Wright. And then there was always something to do and Minnie Foster would go from her mind. But now she could come.
The men went over to the stove. The women stood close together by the door. Young Henderson, the county attorney, turned around and said, “Come up to the fire, ladies.”
Mrs. Peters took a step forward, then stopped. “I’m not–cold,” she said.
And so the two women stood by the door, at first not even so much as looking around the kitchen.
The men talked for a minute about what a good thing it was the sheriff had sent his deputy out that morning to make a fire for them, and then Sheriff Peters stepped back from the stove, unbuttoned his outer coat, and leaned his hands on the kitchen table in a way that seemed to mark the beginning of official business. “Now, Mr. Hale,” he said in a sort of semi-official voice, “before we move things about, you tell Mr. Henderson just what it was you saw when you came here yesterday morning.”
The county attorney was looking around the kitchen.
“By the way,” he said, “has anything been moved?” He turned to the sheriff. “Are things just as you left them yesterday?”
Peters looked from cupboard to sink; from that to a small worn rocker a little to one side of the kitchen table.
“It’s just the same.”
“Somebody should have been left here yesterday,” said the county attorney.
“Oh–yesterday,” returned the sheriff, with a little gesture as of yesterday having been more than he could bear to think of. “When I had to send Frank to Morris Center for that man who went crazy–let me tell you. I had my hands full yesterday. I knew you could get back from Omaha by today, George, and as long as I went over everything here myself–“
“Well, Mr. Hale,” said the county attorney, in a way of letting what was past and gone go, “tell just what happened when you came here yesterday morning.”
Mrs. Hale, still leaning against the door, had that sinking feeling of the mother whose child is about to speak a piece. Lewis often wandered along and got things mixed up in a story. She hoped he would tell this straight and plain, and not say unnecessary things that would just make things harder for Minnie Foster. He didn’t begin at once, and she noticed that he looked queer–as if standing in that kitchen and having to tell what he had seen there yesterday morning made him almost sick.
“Yes, Mr. Hale?” the county attorney reminded.
“Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes,” Mrs. Hale’s husband began.
Harry was Mrs. Hale’s oldest boy. He wasn’t with them now, for the very good reason that those potatoes never got to town yesterday and he was taking them this morning, so he hadn’t been home when the sheriff stopped to say he wanted Mr. Hale to come over to the Wright place and tell the county attorney his story there, where he could point it all out. With all Mrs. Hale’s other emotions came the fear now that maybe Harry wasn’t dressed warm enough–they hadn’t any of them realized how that north wind did bite.
“We come along this road,” Hale was going on, with a motion of his hand to the road over which they had just come, “and as we got in sight of the house I says to Harry, ‘I’m goin’ to see if I can’t get John Wright to take a telephone.’ You see,” he explained to Henderson, “unless I can get somebody to go in with me they won’t come out this branch road except for a price I can’t pay. I’d spoke to Wright about it once before; but he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet–guess you know about how much he talked himself. But I thought maybe if I went to the house and talked about it before his wife, and said all the women-folks liked the telephones, and that in this lonesome stretch of road it would be a good thing–well, I said to Harry that that was what I was going to say–though I said at the same time that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John–“
Now there he was!–saying things he didn’t need to say. Mrs. Hale tried to catch her husband’s eye, but fortunately the county attorney interrupted with:
“Let’s talk about that a little later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk about that but, I’m anxious now to get along to just what happened when you got here.”
When he began this time, it was very deliberately and carefully:
“I didn’t see or hear anything. I knocked at the door. And still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up–it was past eight o’clock. So I knocked again, louder, and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Come in.’ I wasn’t sure–I’m not sure yet. But I opened the door–this door,” jerking a hand toward the door by which the two women stood. “and there, in that rocker”–pointing to it–“sat Mrs. Wright.”