Patricia Bryan, Henry P. Brandis Distinguished Professor of Law, recently released her second book based on murders in the late 19th century and the legal proceedings that followed.
“The Plea: A True Story of Young Wesley Elkins and His Struggle for Redemption”, written by Bryan and her husband, Thomas Wolf, is published by the University of Iowa Press.
The book details the murder of Iowa farmer John Elkins and his young wife, Hattie in a remote farmhouse in rural Clayton County, Iowa in 1889. Eight days after the murders, the couple’s eleven-year-old son was arrested and imprisoned for life.
The brutality of the murders did not seem to match the confessed motive that Wesley had to care for his infant half-sister too often. After pleading guilty he was sentenced to life of hard labor in Anamosa State Penitentiary. Thought to be the youngest person to be sent to prison at the time, the community was divided on whether a child belonged in prison regardless of the crime while others felt he deserved death.
While incarcerated, Wesley worked in the prison library and chapel. He educated himself and wrote letters to the media and to the governor requesting a pardon. In 1902, 12 years into his sentence, he was paroled and released.
In “The Plea”, Bryan sheds light on the legal, social and political environment of Iowa and the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“In researching and writing the book, we really wanted to show the reader what the landscape was like during the time of the murder.We wanted to look at the milestones in Iowa history, social attitudes towards child offenders, the legal issues related to the evolution of the prison system and whether there were beliefs that a child who committed such a violent crime could be rehabilitated. Looking at this crime and the aftermath, there were both justice and injustices at play.”Patricia Bryan, Henry P. Brandis Distinguished Professor of Law