The New Jersey murders that transformed American media

“BLOOD & INK: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime,” by Vanity Fair correspondent and New Jersey native Joe Pompeo, is an account of the notorious killings at the center of the book, timed to the 100th anniversary.

Pompeo sheds new light on the Hall-Mills case, a Roaring Twenties mega-scandal that electrified the nation and fueled the rise of American tabloid culture.

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For decades, the unsolved Hall-Mills mystery has captivated true crime buffs and enthusiasts of New Jersey lore. The centenary is even being marked this fall by a theatrical residency at the historic church in New Brunswick, New Jersey that served as the backdrop of the saga. Now, “BLOOD & INK” will elevate the story to a national stage.

Based on Pompeo’s exhaustive archival research—which draws on recently unearthed prosecution documents, grand jury transcripts, and witness statements—”BLOOD & INK” is the definitive book about one of the most sensational and consequential murder cases of the twentieth century.

Pompeo also chronicles how America’s emerging tabloid press fed the frenzy surrounding the violent deaths of a prominent minister and his married choir singer lover. Pompeo reveals how New York’s original three tabloids endeavored to revive the case after it went cold—and how one of them actually succeeded. These lurid, photo-driven periodicals not only fueled the rise of modern celebrity culture—they transformed true crime with their fusion of news and entertainment, essentially laying the groundwork for the murder podcasts and Netflix documentaries of today.

Author Joe Pompeo

As Pompeo writes: “The minister and the choir singer have been dead for a hundred years, but the themes of their sordid tale still resonate. It’s a story about dark secrets upending a community. About the media and the public’s interaction with scandal and crime. About class, privilege, morality, love, betrayal, power, and the collision of these forces. It’s also a story about ambition—triumphant at its best, but sometimes deadly. The beginning of the story is simple: four gunshots and two corpses. The way it ends is anything but.”

The Crime

On September 16, 1922, the bodies of a man and a woman were found on a lonely lovers’ lane next to an abandoned farm, carefully arranged under a crabapple tree on the rural outskirts of New Brunswick, New Jersey, a small manufacturing and university city about an hour from Manhattan.

The dead man was Rev. Edward Hall, a popular Episcopal minister married to a proud older matron from an illustrious family. Beside him lay Eleanor Mills, an unhappily married working-class homemaker who sang in the choir at Hall’s church, St. John the Evangelist, where Eleanor’s husband was the parish sexton.

There was a single gaping bullet wound just above Hall’s right temple, but Mills had been shot in the face three times, her throat slit from ear to ear.

What most intrigued the authorities was the meticulous staging of the scene. The bodies were on their backs, side by side, about a foot apart. Hall’s outstretched arm cushioned Mills’s head, while her hand rested on his right thigh. Her legs were neatly crossed at the ankles, her head and neck covered by a scarf. A Panama hat had been discreetly placed over the reverend’s face.

As if to dispel any doubt about Hall’s identity, his calling card (later to become a key piece of evidence) was propped against his left heel. The most telling detail of all had been placed between the bodies: a stack of steamy love letters. (Not that any of this evidence was properly secured by the responding officials, whose handling of the crime scene was a forensic travesty even by 1922 standards.)

The Hall-Mills case shocked the community—and the nation—and set off a feverish effort to identify the killer or killers. Hall’s widow, Frances Stevens Hall, was a daughter of old money with distinguished colonial ancestors and ties to the Johnson & Johnson dynasty. Frances and her two brothers—childlike oddball Willie Stevens and rugged outdoorsman Henry Stevens—certainly had motive to kill the victims. (As did Eleanor’s cuckolded widower, the meek and simple- minded Jim Mills, except he had a decent alibi.)

But Frances steadfastly denied any knowledge of the murders or the longstanding affair. Instead, authorities circled back to the local youths who had found the bodies, Ray Schneider and Pearl Bahmer. Investigators steamrolled Ray until he cracked under pressure and claimed, implausibly, that the murders had been committed by his friend, Clifford Hayes. Hayes was promptly charged. But a public outcry and the intervention of lead detective George Totten, who got Ray to come clean about his lie, exonerated him.

Back to square one, the authorities turned their attention to Frances and her brothers. Amid a torrent of juicy leads and a furiously churning rumor mill, the prosecution relied primarily on the wild testimony of an eccentric female pig farmer named Jane Gibson,who had come forward claiming to have witnessed the murders. After two months, a grand jury was finally convened to consider charges. But prosecutors failed to secure any indictments, and despite an enduring swirl of rumor and intrigue, the case went cold.

The Tabloid War

The Hall-Mills saga fueled a bitter circulation war among the infant tabloids of Jazz Age New York, which did not hesitate to try and revive the investigation. In an exuberant era of excess, innovation, and rapidly changing social mores, the Hall-Mills case—rife with violence, sex, scandal, and class conflict—was ideally suited to the new and groundbreaking tabloid genre. In turn, the tabloid format—with its wild headlines, fast-paced copy, eye-catching photos, and compact size—was catnip for the nation’s growing population of urbanites seeking a quick fix of news and naughtiness.

As Pompeo vibrantly recounts, a brash and talented young editor named Phil Payne was determined to exploit the Hall-Mills case to boost his upstart tabloid, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror. The Mirror was locked in a fierce rivalry with Payne’s former employer, Joseph Medill Patterson’s pioneering New York Daily News—the very first American tabloid—which Payne had turned into an enormous success before he and Patterson had a falling out and Payne got the axe. (Hearst wasted no time in offering him a job.)

These tabloids and a third, the New York Evening Graphic, founded by the bizarro publishing tycoon and fitness buff Bernarr Macfadden, would stop at almost nothing to try and break the case wide open. One of Payne’s most outrageous stunts, while he was still editor of the Daily News, was to stage an elaborate séance in an attempt to get Eleanor Mills’s gullible widower to confess to the murders. (It didn’t work, and Payne cast his suspicion elsewhere.) Notably, some of Payne’s best reporters were women, including early tabloid luminaries like Julia Harpman and Bernardine Szold, whom Payne championed at a time when newsrooms were still overwhelmingly male.

While establishing himself at the Mirror, Payne went wild with other circulation-boosting sensations, like a crusade against Harry Kendall Thaw, the freed killer of famed architect Stanford White; and an exposé about a debaucherous late-night party thrown by the Broadway impresario Earl Carroll at his midtown theater, where a naked showgirl bathed in a tub full of wine.

But Payne had unfinished business down in central New Jersey, where he secretly dispatched one of his best reporters to dig up fresh dirt on Frances Hall.

The Trial

In July of 1926, following an eight-month Daily Mirror probe, Payne took his tabloid’s Hall-Mills dossier straight to the Democratic governor of New Jersey, who re-opened the case as the Mirror went to press with a bombshell story that would reignite the media circus of four years earlier. The Mirror’s “evidence” was circumstantial but titillating, including a shocking allegation that one of the Hall’s former maids, Louise Geist, and their erstwhile gardener, Peter Tumulty, had been paid for their silence after witnessing the killings.

Payne and the Mirror aligned themselves with New Jersey’s Democratic political machine, key members of which were appointed to helm the renewed investigation at the behest of the governor and his close ally, notorious Hudson County party boss Frank Hague. Before long, murder charges were brought against Frances Hall, her brothers Willie and Henry, and a stockbroker cousin, Henry de la Bruyere Carpender. They retained powerhouse lawyers to spearhead their defense, but this time a second grand jury didn’t flinch: all four suspects were indicted.

That fall, hundreds of journalists from all over America descended on small-town Somerville, which assumed a carnival-like atmosphere as the Hall-Mills trial commenced inside the imposing Somerset County Courthouse. Among the 178 witnesses who took the stand during the four-week spectacle were Charlotte Mills, Eleanor’s feisty flapper daughter; Felix De Martini, a shifty private eye employed by Frances; an array of notable congregants from St. John the Evangelist, laid bare as a hotbed of gossip and intrigue; and Payne himself, who sparred hilariously with lead defense attorney Robert McCarter.

Once again Jane Gibson, the infamous “Pig Woman” from the 1922 case, now hospitalized with cancer, became the prosecution’s star witness, despite glaring questions that emerged about her background and credibility. In one of the most dramatic moments of the proceedings, Gibson was wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital bed, from which she relayed her moonlight tale of the murder night.

Willie Stevens, whose fingerprint, it was revealed, had apparently been discovered on Hall’s calling card from the crime scene, surprised everyone with a highly competent and entertaining testimony. And Frances stunned the room with a surprise of her own, finally conceding, amid a vicious grilling from pint-sized prosecutor Alexander Simpson, that Edward had clearly been unfaithful.

In early December, after a month of suspenseful testimony, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty.

It was a blow to Payne and the Mirror, whom the defendants promptly hit with a libel suit. But it was not the end of the Hall-Mills story, and before long, Payne would captivate the nation with yet another audacious circulation stunt.

Flight Fever and a Tragic End

Bruised by the outcome in Somerville and under pressure from Hearst to match the one-million circulation of the Daily News, Payne seized upon the latest sensation that had captured the world’s attention: transatlantic flight. Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight from New York to Paris in May 1927 turbocharged the post-war aviation craze and created a new super spectacle for the American media. As a growing number of glory-seeking daredevils lifted off on dangerous, and sometimes fatal, missions over the seas, Payne saw yet another opportunity to advance the fame and fortunes of his tabloid.

He convinced Hearst to sponsor the first nonstop flight from the United States to Rome, and he added a bold twist: Payne himself would accompany the pilots, chronicling the flight for the Mirror. Hearst began to sour on the plans after several other aerial contests ended in disaster. He tried to convince his tabloid general to call the whole thing off, but Payne wouldn’t hear of it. On September 6, 1927, on the sand-packed natural runway at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Payne stepped into the fuselage of a single-engine monoplane, christened Old Glory. The plane struggled to gain altitude, before lifting off at the last possible moment.

Payne expected worldwide fame when Old Glory was scheduled to touch down some 24 hours later in Italy, where Mussolini and the Pope awaited him. Payne did achieve worldwide fame, but not in the way he wanted: hours into the flight, Old Glory sent out a frantic SOS before plunging into the stormy waters of the North Atlantic.

It was a tragic spectacular end to a career that helped transform American media. What Payne didn’t know was that the murder case that defined his legacy had one twist left.

The final chapter of “BLOOD & INK” is a page-turning reconstruction of this one last probe into the Hall-Mills murders, in which an ambitious detective named George Saloom set out to investigate Bolyog’s shocking claims, determined to solve the mystery once and for all.

 

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