The book is a collection of poetic personal epitaphs delivered by the deceased citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River (which was based on a bunch of different towns that the author grew up in around the midwest). The real truth about every bit of gossip that ever crept around the town is revealed, post-mortem, by the people who were the ones being talked about. Political intrigue, shocking family issues, bad marriages, accidental deaths, murders, ruined lives.... Spoon River Anthology is basically the Peyton Place of the late 1800's. The saddest story in there, to me, anyway, is the story of Minerva Jones, the afflicted, overweight, unattractive daughter of a local carpenter who was known as the town poetess. She was bullied and harrassed her whole life, thought of as a freak and weirdo. One day, a thug named "Butch" Weldy chased her down and raped her. She went to the town doctor for help, which led to a botched abortion that killed her. The doctor was ostracized by the community, and the rest of his life was ruined. His wife, in her epitaph, pleads with the community to judge not, lest ye be judged, after dying of a broken heart.
Here's another tale of intrigue from the book: the story of the Merritts.
At first I suspected something -
She acted so calm and absent-minded.
And one day I heard the back door shut,
As I entered the front, and I saw him slink
Back of the smokehouse into the lot,
And run across the field.
And I meant to kill him on sight.
But that day, walking near Fourth Bridge,
Without a stick or a stone at hand,
All of a sudden I saw him standing,
Scared to death, holding his rabbits,
And all I could say was "Don't, Don't, Don't,"
As he aimed and fired at my heart.
Silent before the jury,
Returning no word to the judge when he asked me
If I had aught to say against the sentence,
Only shaking my head.
What could I say to people who thought
That a woman of thirty-five was at fault
When her lover of nineteen killed her husband?
Even though she had said to him over and over,
"Go away, Elmer, go far away,
I have maddened your brain with the gift of my body:
You will do some terrible thing."
And just as I feared, he killed my husband;
With which I had nothing to do, before God!
Silent for thirty years in prison!
And the iron gates of Joliet
Swung as the gray and silent trusties
Carried me out in a coffin.