from Harold Schechter’s Murderabilia
Among many other signature events, from Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Roaring Twenties are known for a trio of courtroom melodramas that, thanks to the tabloid press, generated unprecedented levels of media hysteria. Two of them have remained alive in the public memory, thanks to the compelling nature of their central figures: the 1924 sentencing hearing of the college-age “thrill-killers,” Leopold and Loeb, and the 1927 trial of the adulterous Queens hausfrau, Ruth Snyder, and her mousy boyfriend, Judd Gray, the so-called “Double Indemnity” slayers. The third of the major Jazz Age murder trials has been largely forgotten. At the time of its occurrence, however, it was the greatest tabloid sensation of them all, a three-ring media circus the likes of which would not be see again until the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann nearly a decade later.
Though this extravaganza would not get fully underway until the fall of 1926, the case began four years earlier. On the morning of September 16, 1922, twenty-three-year-old Raymond Schneider and his underage girlfriend, fifteen-year-old Pearl Bahmer, were making their way along a little dirt road in New Brunswick, New Jersey, used by trysting couples as a lover’s lane. All at once, they spotted a man and a woman stretched on their backs beneath a crabapple tree. The man was handsomely dressed in a dark gray suit, a white shirt with a stiff white collar, and a white tie. His Panama hat had been placed over his face as though to shield him from the sun. At his side lay the woman, her legs demurely crossed, her head pillowed on her companion’s outstretched right arm, her left hand resting on his knee. She wore a polka-dotted blue dress, the hem tugged as far below her knees as the fabric would allow. A brown woolen scarf covered her throat. Both–as Schneider and Bahmer could tell at a glance–were dead.
Hurrying to the nearest home, they informed the owner, who immediately telephoned the police. Two officers were on the scene within minutes. They had no trouble identifying the victims. Propped against the sole of dead man’s left shoe was his business card. He was the Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall, pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church and a pillar of the community. He was married to Mrs. Frances Hall, née Stevens, seven years his senior and daughter of one of New Brunswick’s most prominent families. The dead woman at his side, however, was not his matronly forty-eight-year-old wife, however. She was Mrs. Eleanor Mills, a pretty thirty-four-year-old who sang in the congregation choir and was married to the church’s sexton.
For years, members of the church had whispered about the suspiciously close relationship between the minister and his comely choir singer. That gossip was now confirmed by some other evidence found at the crime scene: a batch of torrid love letters scattered in the grass around the corpses. “Sweetheart, my true heart,” Eleanor Mills had written in one. “I know there are girls with more shapely bodies, but I’m not caring what they have. I have the greatest part of all blessings, a noble man’s deep, true, eternal love… How impatient I am and will be! I want to look up into your dear face for hours as you touch my body close.”
The pastor’s replies were equally ardent. “Darling Wonder Heart,” he had written. “I just want to crush you for two hours. I want to see you Friday night alone by our road; where we can let out, unrestrained, that universe of joy and happiness we call ours.” He signed himself “D. T. L.,” short for Deiner Treuer Liebhaber (“Thy True Lover” in German). Mrs. Mills, preferring a less formal endearment, referred to the pastor as “Babykins.”
Though their bodies had been arranged in “attitudes of peaceful repose,” both victims had met shockingly violent ends. Autopsies revealed that the Reverend Hall had been shot at point-blank range with a .32-caliber automatic pistol. The bullet that “entered his head near the right temple and came out at the back on the left side.” Mrs. Mills had been shot three times in the head. “One of the bullets entered the woman’s forehead about two inches above the nose,” the New York Times reported, “another ploughed through the right cheek, and the third pierced the right temple.” In addition, her throat had been cut so deeply that her jugular vein, windpipe, esophagus, and neck muscles were completely severed and “her backbone could easily be seen.”
This steaming porridge of lust, murder, and scandal proved irresistible to the tabloids. As one eminent chronicler of the period outs it: “The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needed to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational. It was grisly, it was dramatic (the bodies being laid side to side as if to emphasize an unhallowed union), it involved wealth and respectability, it had just the right amount of sex interest–and in addition, it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve-center of the American press.” The frenzied coverage turned the old Phillips farm, where the bodies were found, into a major tourist attraction. On weekends, the crime scene became a virtual carnival with vendors hawking popcorn, peanuts, soft drinks, and balloons to the hordes of the morbidly curious who arrived “at the rate of a thousand cars a day.” Within a few weeks, the crabapple tree had been completely stripped of every branch and bit of bark by ghoulish souvenir hunters, while one enterprising individual peddled samples of the dirt surrounding the now-infamous tree for twenty-five cents a bag.
Despite one detective’s confident prediction that the crime would be solved in a matter of days–“the case is a cinch,” he declared to reporters–the investigation dragged on for weeks. Two months after the murders, the killer’s identity remained unknown, though the likeliest candidates were the pastor’s wronged wife and her two brothers, one of whom was reputed to be a crack shot. A grand jury was finally convened in November. After five days of hearings, however, it failed to issue an indictment. Mrs. Hall promptly set sail for Europe, and the nation was compelled to seek its titillation elsewhere.
• • •
Four years later, in a bid to boost its circulation, William Randolph Hearst’s fledgling tabloid, the New York Daily Mirror, dredged up some new evidence in the case and plastered the front page of its July 16, 1926 edition with a sensational headline: HALL-MILLS MURDER MYSTERY BARED. Over the course of the following week, the tabloid trumpeted one frenzied charge after another: HALL’S BRIBERY REVEALED. MRS HALL’S SPIES HELD TOWN IN TERROR. HOW HIDDEN HAND BALKED HALL MURDER JUSTICE.
The strategy worked. Not only did the Mirror’s circulation jump, but its strident calls for action forced the governor of New Jersey to reopen the case. Finally, on January 28, 1926, Mrs. Frances Stevens Hall, along with her brothers, Willie and Henry, was arrested for the murder of her husband, Edward, and his inamorata, Mrs. Eleanor Mills.
“The Trial of the Century” (as the tabloids predictably hyped it) began on the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 1926, in Somerville, New Jersey. The courthouse was crammed with hundreds of reporters who would file more than twelve million words during the trial’s spectacular twenty-three-day run. The notoriously stodgy New York Times, which normally sniffed at such lurid matters, not only kept four full-time stenographers on the scene but actually covered the case more extensively than the tabloids. (When asked about the seeming contradiction, publisher Adolph S. Ochs loftily replied, “The yellows see such stories only as opportunities for sensationalism. When the Times gives a great amount of space to such stories, it turns out authentic sociological documents.”) Among the celebrity spectators were evangelist Billy Sunday (whose campaign against “Demon Rum” helped bring about Prohibition); novelist and playwright Mary Roberts Rinehart (creator, among other characters, of a caped figure called “The Bat,” an acknowledged inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman); and legendary newsman Damon Runyan (best known as the author of Guys and Dolls).
The trial offered more than its share of melodramatic moments, including the public reading of the Reverend Hall’s steamy love letters; the questioning of Mrs. Hall (nicknamed “The Iron Widow” because of her stoic demeanor); and–most sensationally–the testimony of a purported eyewitness, a farmwife named Jane Gibson, dubbed “The Pig Woman” because she raised Poland China hogs. Dying of cancer, Mrs. Gibson, attended by a doctor and two nurses, was carried into the courtroom on a stretcher and placed on an iron hospital bed facing the jury box. During her testimony–a gripping (if highly dubious) account of the grisly double murder–her own aged mother sat in the front row of the gallery, wringing her gnarled hands and muttering, “She’s a liar! She’s a liar! She’s a liar!”
For three solid weeks, the dramatic doings in Somerville kept the country in thrall. Every morning, Americans followed the case in their daily papers as though devouring the latest installment of the world’s juiciest potboiler. During the height of the Hall-Mills hysteria, only the most extraordinary news could dislodge the trial from the headlines or distract the public from sensational proceedings, from the Iron Widow’s steely testimony to the Pig Woman’s shocking tale. In the end, the jury believed the former over the latter. Mrs. Hall and her brothers were acquitted (and promptly sued the Mirror for three million dollars).
It is a striking fact that, in the century between 1893 and 1994, our country witnessed three sensational cases of grisly double murders allegedly committed by prominent, respected, and extremely wealthy individuals who, thanks in large measure to the best legal representation their money could buy, were cleared of all charges: those of Lizzie Borden, Mrs. Eleanor Mills and her siblings, and O. J. Simpson. It is as if the jurors in each of these cases simply could not bring themselves to believe that such individuals–seemingly upstanding citizens with no prior histories of criminal violence–could be capable of such atrocities. In any event, in the years since the Hall-Mills case came to its official end, writers have put forth various theories as to the culprit, ranging from Eleanor Mills’ jealous husband to the Ku Klux Klan. Others believe that the prosecutors were right, and that Mrs. Hall and her brothers got away with murder. All that can be said for certain is that the Hall-Mills case remains one of the country’s most notorious unsolved murders.
Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. His most recent book is Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
image: The New York Times, 1926