Silencing a Songbird
One case from the early 1920s probably aced all others of its time for strangeness.
Not the strangeness of the murders themselves but for lurid headlines, tabloid sleaze, and histrionic courtroom antics. One eccentric prosecution witness gained the immortal nickname “The Pig Woman”.
This is the lasting legacy of the Hall-Mills Murders.Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011
The Decade That Roared
The Twenties: jazz, bathtub gin, Flappers, "The Charleston", the movies. Celebrity scandals raged through the tabloids, gaining the lurid momentum they still hold today. Elsewhere in society, women were finally granted the right to vote (under the 19th Amendment in 1920), and they also shed many of the shackles of Victorian prudery. Corsets were banished, hair cut short, sexuality was freer to explore, and in the wake of The Great War women entered the job market in significant numbers for the first time. Slang language and fads were very popular across all social strata.
There was a dark side to all the fun, however. The misguided Volstead Act (Prohibition) forbidding all sales, possession, and manufacture of alcoholic beverages (except for “medicinal purposes” with a doctor’s prescription) brought with it a level of criminal activity never seen in this country. The ethnic street gangs in the largest cities suddenly had a huge revenue stream enabling them to gain power (politically through payoffs and physically through violence) they would never have achieved if not for Prohibition. Bootleg booze sales, smuggling, and racketeering were all fueled by the millions generated from illegal alcohol transport and sale. The Volstead Act, in effect, created organized crime as it exists today. Without it, these gangs (all previously engaged in penny-ante criminal activities) that organized into a national force would never have made it beyond the few blocks of city turf each called its own.
The 1920s also spawned some of the most sensationally bizarre crimes, lurid in details, splashed across every front page in the country, lingering in the public’s mind. The plethora of these “classic” murders is a matter of perception. There were not more murders per capita; the murders committed, rather, were publicized more heavily in mass media. Murder sold newspapers. The nascent radio business boomed (people wanted to hear all the gossipy details of the latest case). The 1920s saw big headline murder almost every year: Leopold and Loeb; the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders; the Snyder-Gray Case; and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to name but a few.
The Hall-Mills murders fell right into the media spotlight effortlessly. The murder victims were both adulterers, having an ongoing affair with each other; the man in the murdered pair was an Episcopalian minister, no less. His wife, several years his senior (a dowdy frump bordering on butch) was a community scion, with wealthy family and political connections in town. Her mildly retarded middle-aged brother lived in the family manse with the Reverend and the missus.
The female victim was a choir member of the church where the Reverend preached. She was married to a nebbishy school janitor ten years her senior, and she wanted more out of life than what he provided. She was a favorite of the Reverend who called on her home many times. Her cuckolded husband, although he clearly suspected an affair between the two, did nothing.
The Corpus Delicti
On the Saturday morning of September 16, 1922, two people strolled casually along what was locally known as a lover’s lane area of New Brunswick, New Jersey. The 15-year-old girl Pearl Credit: Sep 16, 1922Bahmer was accompanied by her beau, 23-year-old Raymond Schneider [apparently congress with an underage girl was not critical in 1922 as police would make nothing of this relationship at the time]. They ambled toward an abandoned farm, locally used as an assignation place, about 10 AM that brisk morning.
The pair crossed a low embankment off an isolated driveway. As they approached a small crab apple tree in a slight clearing Pearl spotted something odd lying on the ground nearby. She nudged her boyfriend Ray and told him there were two people lying near the tree. Initially, the two believed they had interrupted another couple’s activities.
They drew closer; the people prone on the ground, a man and a woman, were not breathing. They were both lying face up, both fully clothed, but there was evidence of violence on them. A brown silk scarf, soaked in blood, was wound around the woman’s throat. The man’s Panama hat was placed over his face, but Ray Schneider could see beneath the rim to spot blood and eyeglasses on the man’s face. He insisted they leave, and he and Pearl ran to a nearby house where police were contacted.
Patrolman Edward Garrigan and Officer James Curran arrived but did not adequately secure the area (much as would happen in California at the Black Dahlia crime scene 25 years later). However, a cursory examination showed both victims had been shot in the head (by what was later determined to be a .32-calibre pistol). The man had been shot once (over his right ear; the bullet came out through the back of his neck, as if shot from above). The woman was in worse shape. Her three gunshot wounds seemed to be vicious overkill. She had been plugged under the right eye, over her right temple, and over the right ear (the same as the man).
The bodies appeared to have been posed side by side after death. The feet of both pointed toward the nearby crab apple tree. The woman’s head rested on the man’s right arm. She Credit: 1922, print dust from policewore a blue dress with red polka dots, black silk stockings, and brown Oxfords. Her blue velvet hat was dumped beside her to her right. Her left hand rested on the man’s right knee. The man’s face was covered by a boater, but the officers could see, like Schneider had, the male victim wore glasses, which were spotted with what appeared to be blood.
The victims’ clothing appeared in good order with no immediate indications of a struggle or of sexual assault on the woman. Scattered pieces of torn paper (which turned out to be letters and cards) lay between the bodies. A small calling card was propped against the heel of the man’s left shoe, obviously placed there. The grass around the dead pair was trampled
There was some initial confusion about jurisdiction, however. The crime scene was near the Middlesex/Somerset County border. New Brunswick (Middlesex County) police arrived first; the crime scene was actually in Franklin Township (Somerset County). Curiosity-seekers wandered over the scene, uncontrolled by police, trampling the grounds and taking souvenirs as the jurisdictional issue was being settled.
Officer Curran left the scene to call in their find. Officer Garrigan made a closer scan of the scene. He inspected the woman’s body (without touching her) and saw maggots swarming on her throat from ear to ear (indicating her throat had been cut, and she had been dead at least 24 hours. A .32-caliber cartridge case was discovered near the bodies, as well as a two-foot piece of iron pipe. Garrigan found a wallet lying open on the ground; inside was a driver’s license belonging to Edward Wheeler Hall, 41, of 23 Nichols Avenue, New Brunswick.
Albert Cardinal, a reporter with The New Brunswick Daily Home News showed up at the scene. The calling card at Hall’s foot hadn’t been touched by police at this point. Cardinal asked if he could pick it up. Surprisingly, Officer Garrigan let him. This would be the first of many crime-scene contamination issues in this case. The business card was that of Reverend Edward W. Hall, the pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick.
Identification of the bodies was problematic. The woman was unknown at the scene. Although police had the driver’s license and a business card identifying Edward Hall as the male victim, certainty was required. Officer Curran returned to the scene and hailed a passing motorist. He asked this passerby if he knew who Edward Hall was. The driver, Dr. E. Leon Loblein, said he did. He walked to the crime scene with Curran to take a look, and the doctor positively identified the dead man as Reverend Hall.
By this time, more spectators arrived, and Officer Garrigan could not control the scene. Souvenir hunters soon had stripped the little crab apple tree of much of its bark. The underbrush was trampled, and even Reverend Hall’s card was passed around.
About 2:00 PM, almost four hours after Pearl Bahmer and Ray Schneider found the bodies, the Somerville undertaker arrived (since the bodies were just over the county line in Somerset, rather than Middlesex, where Reverend Hall lived). The undertaker did a quick field examination; he found sixty-one cents in change in Hall’s pockets and two handkerchiefs.
The bodies were removed to his hearse. A time of death estimate placed the murders about 36 hours earlier. Despite the locale, known as a lover’s lane with people in and out, the bodies were undiscovered during the elapsed day-and-a-half. This struck police as odd, since the lover’s lane would have been busy on the preceding Friday night, as it always was. They believed someone probably had already stumbled upon the dead pair and had stolen money and other articles before leaving them (it was later determined Hall had carried $50 in cash in his wallet and he always carried a gold watch).
Who’s That Girl?
Once at the morgue initial preparations began for post-mortem examinations of Hall and the unknown woman. Hall’s coat was taken off and a bullet fell to the floor. Hall also had a discoloration on his right hand (most likely a defensive wound from a blow). There was a small bruise on the tip of his ear, and abrasions on his left pinkie and right index finger. He also had a wound about 5” below his kneecap on the calf of his right leg.
The woman’s cut throat (from ear to ear) was more fully noted at this time. [An autopsy four years later showed her tongue had also been cut out.] She had a small cut on her upper lip, and one of her arms was bruised. An undertaker from New Brunswick arrived to pick up Reverend Hall later in the evening and took him away. The unknown woman was left.
Police began with the torn letters and cards they found at the crime scene. They were written in pencil by a woman, and were preciously wild in their romantic proclamations. She promised Reverend Hall her love forever, and wrote, “Oh, honey, I am fiery today. Burning, flaming love.”
It was learned the dead woman found with the reverend was Eleanor R. Mills, aged 34. Her corpse carried no personal papers or identification of any kind. It was a reporter, in fact, named Frank M. Diener, of the Daily Home News who finally positively identified Eleanor. He knew both her and her husband, and said Mr. Mills was a school janitor. They had two children, Charlotte, 16, and Daniel, 12. She was a choir singer in Hall’s church, and her affair with Hall was a rather “open secret”. Most of the people in Hall’s parish knew who the female corpse was before it was made official; the Hall-Mills love affair had been rather obvious over the past four years. The authorities believed this case would be quickly solved – an optimistic stance for them, to be sure, as the case lies today in the twilight world of unsolved murders.
Eleanor Reinhardt Mills
The police pieced together a picture of the dead woman through interviews and canvasses. Eleanor Reinhardt was married to James E. Mills, and they lived at 49 Carman Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They had two children, Charlotte E. Mills (1906-1952) and Daniel Mills (1910-1992). Small, slender, and pretty, Eleanor was described by people she knew as “a passionate soul” that was “not satisfied by the frugal way” she was forced to live with her unassuming husband (who was ten years older than she).
Eleanor was the star of the St. John the Evangelist church choir. Her singing voice was spectacular; good enough to draw the envy of other women in the choir as the Reverend Hall seemed quite taken by Eleanor (who, compared to the mannish Mrs. Hall, was very pretty and vivacious).
In those good old days a house call by the local clergy was considered by most people as an honor. The Reverend took an aggressively active interest in Eleanor. She, starved for attention and needing some excitement in her drab life, welcomed his advances with open arms. Millie Opie, a nosy neighbor of the Mills, reported to police that The Good Reverend and Eleanor trysted regularly at Eleanor’s apartment almost every afternoon. Her husband, of course, was at work, and her children in school.
Eleanor’s husband, James (45 years old) was acting sexton at Reverend Hall’s church. He was also a full-time janitor at the Lord Stirling Elementary School in New Brunswick. He was characterized as “hard-working, but unambitious” and of limited intelligence. He had married Eleanor when she was only seventeen [given the fact her oldest child was born in 1906, it is almost certain the two married, not for love, but because Eleanor was pregnant with her daughter, Charlotte].
The Mills lived in a tumble-down apartment five blocks from the Hall manor. The Reverend was a frequent visitor; Eleanor was flattered by his attentions. James feigned ignorance of the affair between his wife and Hall. His first statement, when confronted with the information, was the affair wasn’t possible as Reverend Hall was “too good a friend of mine.”
Hall’s friendship with the couple seems beyond the call of duty. He had paid for major surgery (condition unknown) for Eleanor when the down-in-the-heels James Mills was financially strapped. James cooperated unreservedly (except for his dissembling about the Hall-Mills sexual relationship) with the initial interrogation. He claimed belief that robbery had been the motive.
On the day authorities fixed for the murders (Thursday, September 14, 1922) James Mills’ movements were confirmed. He swept up at St. John’s at 5:45 PM. He was late for dinner, however, arriving home at about 6:15 PM. Afterward, he went out on the porch and fiddled with some flower boxes while Eleanor left the house to make a phone call; she said she was calling Reverend Hall.
Eleanor came back and announced she was heading out again. James claims when he asked where she was going, she replied, “Follow me, and find out.” This statement supports James’ knowing of the affair between his wife and the Reverend, and of Eleanor’s knowing James knew about it and not caring, almost defying him to stand up for himself and her.
James kept working on the porch flower boxes until 9:45 PM (verified by a neighbor who saw him there and chatted briefly). He then read a newspaper. He finally decided to go look for Eleanor, and at 10:30, he went to the church. En route he stopped for some soda, and got to the church around 11:00. Eleanor was not there, so James went back home and turned in. He rose at 2:00 AM to find Eleanor still had not returned. He dressed, went back to the church, and did not find anyone there.
On the next morning James went to work as usual. He did not report his wife missing (he later explained this by saying she was wont to leave sometimes for days without notice and always came back). At 8:30 AM, he took a break and went to the church. There he found Frances Hall (the Reverend’s wife). In conversation she mentioned Hall had not come home the previous night. James (further indicating he knew of the Edward-Eleanor affair) asked Frances Hall if she thought the two had eloped. [This simple statement goes toward opinions of James Mills' limited intelligence – married people cannot “elope”. Any resultant solemnized union would be bigamous].
James reported Frances responded, “God knows. I think they are dead and can’t come home.” [A very bizarre statement to make about people who had been missing for a little over 12 hours]. Frances contacted James Mills several times during the course of that Friday to find if he’d learned anything of Eleanor and Edward. He advised her they had not returned yet, and again, according to James, Frances said, “They must be dead.”
James noticed a page of newspaper on the rector’s desk (which had been missing from his own newspaper of the previous night). It contained an article about a prominent minister’s opinions about divorce. Mills’ daughter, Charlotte, confirmed her mother had clipped the article from the newspaper; Eleanor said she was taking it to Reverend Hall. [This might show clearly that Eleanor was dissatisfied with the transient nature of her relationship with Hall and was seeking a bigger commitment from him].
James followed his normal routine of work for the rest of that Friday and went home, hoping Eleanor would turn up. After lunch on Saturday, he learned his wife’s body had been found. James went straight to the Hall home.
Eleanor’s movements the evening of her disappearance (after she left James on their porch) were noted by locals. A trolley motorman said she had boarded on Thursday night, and was the last passenger off and she walked toward De Russey’s Lane (the area of the abandoned farm where the bodies were found). Another acquaintance, Agnes Blust, and her children also saw Eleanor on Easton Avenue; she was carrying a small parcel. Mrs. Blust had also passed Reverend Hall on the same street; he was going in the same direction as Eleanor. Mrs. Blust reported no one had followed the two, however.
Edward Wheeler Hall
Hall was a Brooklynite, and had received his theological degree in Manhattan. Although many people who knew him, including some of his parishioners, called him by the honorary title of “Doctor” he had no doctoral degree.
Hall left New York and settled in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He transferred to his latest parish, St. John’s, in New Brunswick. On July 20, 1911, he married Frances Noel Stevens (a woman of wealth from a prominent family) who was seven years older than he.
Frances Noel Stevens (1874-1942) by the standards of her day was a “spinster”, an “old maid”. Her father died the year of her birth, and at the ripe age of 27 she was still living with her mother, MaryCredit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011 (died in 1919) and her odd-duck brother, Willie (two years older than Frances). Edward Hall married Frances, no doubt because of her family wealth and connections. An upstart pastor in a new state certainly needed a leg up in the community. Marriages of convenience or for gain were very common in turn-of-the-century America. Frances was a very masculine looking old maid with no romantic prospects; Hall was a fresh face who needed credibility with the locals to build a parish. It is almost certain, given his philandering (and Eleanor Mills was not the first extra-marital relationship he had, although she was his last), that he found his wife of no comfort to him in any physical way.
When Frances’ mother Mary died in 1919, she and Willie inherited about $2 million from her estate (she was related to the Johnson & Johnson medical supply founders). This windfall (although Frances and Edward were not impoverished by any means) certainly would have led Edward to be more discreet; he definitely would not want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Although a $2 million inheritance may not do much in today’s economy, in 1919 it was an astounding fortune.
The Reverend’s home life with Frances held one more variable, her strange brother, Willie. Although 50 years old at the time of the murders Willie lived with his sister and brother-in-law as he was unable to care for himself. He wore thick glasses and had a heavy walrus mustache. He was socially retarded, given to sudden fits of pique, impulsive, explosive, and somewhat reckless, but usually had a sunny disposition. In today’s terminology (based upon characteristics reported at the time) he would probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. The disorder, in Willie’s case, left him incapable of holding a job. He spent most of his time hanging out at a local firehouse, playing cards and running errands (since he could not fulfill his ambition of being a fireman he lived the life vicariously).
Police interviews led to Frances’ claims that she trusted her husband and did not know of his affair with Eleanor [This is probably partly truthful; at least, she was unaware of the relationship until shortly before his murder]. Other sources reported no dissension between France and Eleanor (who was well-know to Frances). Frances had visited Eleanor often during her recovery from her surgery, and it was Frances who had driven Eleanor home from the hospital. All of this occurred just eight months before the murder (a clear indicator that Frances, indeed, did not know of the affair yet).
On Thursday afternoon, September 14 (the day of the double murder) Frances made preserves in her kitchen. She received a call from Eleanor Mills to leave a message for Dr. Hall. Frances reportedly gave him this message at 6:30 that evening. Another call from Eleanor came in to the Hall home at 7:00. About 7:40 PM, Hall said he was “going out to check on Mrs. Mills’ medical bill”. Frances played Solitaire for the next two hours. Willie came out of his room during that time and said goodnight to her. Then she, too, went to bed (roughly around 10 PM). She woke at 2:30 AM to find the reverend not in bed, so she dressed and went to the church. Willie went with her. The church was dark, no one was about, so they walked past the Mills apartment. It, too, showed no signs of activity.
Frances went home, and called the police the next morning. She learned no casualties had been reported to the department. She did not leave her name with police or her reason for calling, however. She continued to search for her Edward.
On Saturday (the day the bodies were discovered), a reporter called on Frances (which is how she found out her husband was dead). She speculated that robbery was the motive, since Hall’s gold watch was missing, and he had carried about $50 in his wallet [the teenage girl Pearl Bahmer had originally told police she had seen a gold watch near the rector’s body, but then had withdrawn her statement].
Willie’s alibi was similarly mundane. He was in his room on Thursday evening (going to bed between 8:30 and 9:00) but was later awakened. He walked with Frances to the church at 2:30 AM., then past the Mills house, then back home with Frances and returned to his room. He admitted owning a .32-caliber revolver, which he allegedly hadn’t shot in over ten years, and whose firing pin had been filed down so it wouldn’t work.
The Hall maid, Louise Geist, was queried. She remembered the call from Eleanor at 7:00, and had seen the reverend leave the house. She confirmed Frances Hall had sat around playing Solitaire the evening of the murder. However, she told police on the Friday morning after the murders she saw Willie. He mysteriously mentioned to her, “Something terrible happened last night, and Mrs. Hall and I have been up most of the night.” He did not elaborate on this oblique statement.
Investigative work netted a student who saw the church’s windows lit up at 1:15 AM the night of the murder. The night watchman at the nearby New Jersey State College for Women saw lights on in the Hall house all night. He also saw a woman go in at about 2:30 AM (his timing is slightly off, but this would be Frances coming back from her nocturnal search).
Almost immediately police focused, rightfully, on the most obvious suspects. That would be the injured parties, Frances Hall and James Mills. Mills was cleared soon enough – his sheepish demeanor, his lack of caring about his wife’s extra-marital activities (he reported her being often gone without notice) removed him fairly early as a person of interest. Frances Hall, police theorized, while not the actual killer, having finally discovered the affair had either hired someone or managed to coerce her mentally challenged brother to kill.
Even the two people who found the bodies, Ray Schneider and his baby girlfriend Pearl Bahmer, came under suspicion. Shortly after the investigation began in earnest, Pearl Bahmer’s father (jailed for incest) leveled the allegation that Pearl’s boyfriend, Ray Schneider, was the killer. Then Pearl was jailed for "incorrigibility" (a quaint vestigial Victorian euphemism for “underage town tramp”). Ray Schneider however was never considered a serious contender for the murders.
Two bloodstained handkerchiefs were anonymously then turned in to the police. One had no identifying marks; the other was initialed with the letter “S” in one corner. Charlotte Mills, Eleanor’s daughter, found a package of love letters from Hall to Eleanor. She also found a diary in with Eleanor’s things. These items were sold to the New York American for $500. The paper printed excerpts from the letters and diary soon enough, fueling the sensationalism surrounding the murder.
Another of Frances’ brothers, Henry Stevens, 52, was a retired exhibition marksman who lived in Lavallette, New Jersey. He was dragged into the investigation because of his firearms expertise [expert marksmanship was not required here as the victims were both killed at close range]. Interrogations were set up for Frances, Willie and Henry Stevens, and Charlotte Mills. Henry admitted the handkerchief with the “S” on it was his. Frances was asked to put on the coat she had worn the early morning of September 15th and to stand for the scrutiny of a strange, unnamed woman.
Finally, the State of New Jersey felt it could move forward with indictments against Frances Hall, Willie Stevens, and Henry Stevens. Indictments were sought for several reasons: Willie’s fingerprint was found on the Reverend’s calling card at the crime scene (tenuous since Willie lived in the same house as the Reverend) and he owned a .32-caliber weapon (even though it didn’t work); Henry was a former marksman; and Frances clearly had motive. The District Attorney's office also had an eyewitness. Her name was Jane Gibson, and she became known in the press as “The Pig Woman”.
The Pig Woman
Jane Gibson (1870-1930) lived in an old barn converted into living space off De Russey’s Lane, near the crime scene. Her adult son lived with her. The place was a disaster; ramshackle, dirty. Jane and William raised hogs: this earned her the nickname “The Pig Woman” in the press.
Jane told investigators that her dog was barking loudly about 9:00 PM on the night of the murder. She claimed she saw a man standing in her cornfield. She rode her mule toward the man. As she approached she saw not one, but four people standing near a crab apple tree. She then heard gunshots and one of the figures fell to the ground. She testified she heard a woman scream, “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” She said she turned her mule away from the scene and heard more gunshots. Upon looking back she saw a second person fall down. She also heard a woman shout out the name, “Henry!” She claimed she tried to tell police what she had seen at the time but “they were too busy to pay attention.”
At the Grand Jury hearing The Pig Woman said she’d seen an open touring car approach the murder scene (the Halls owned both such a car and a sedan). It was when she turned around on the mule to cut across a field down a small lane that she saw two men and two women standing near a crab apple tree. They were arguing. A car coming into the lane behind her illuminated the group; Jane saw a woman in a long grey coat, and a man with a dark mustache and bushy hair. They walked together toward the abandoned farm. A little later, she then heard a woman’s voice ask, "How do you explain these notes?"
Jane then added another dramatic element. Apparently, after Hall was shot, Eleanor had tried to run away from the scene and was dragged back and shot three times. Then Jane remembered something else. She had lost a moccasin on her trek, and at 1:00 AM she retraced her mule ride to look for it. She said as she came upon the crab apple tree, she heard a woman sobbing. She said it was Frances Hall kneeling next to Edward's body, crying. Jane described her as “big lady” with “white hair.”
A woman who lived right across the street from Jane Gibson and who boarded roomers, however, contradicted Jane’s story. She had heard none of the gunshots or raised voices Jane claimed. Nor had any of her boarders. In fact, she had seen Jane right after the murders, and Jane hadn’t mentioned anything about the situation at all.
Although Jane vigorously defended her story to any who would listen, newspaper reporters soon developed information that would call both her credibility and mental health into question. Jane, as part of routine expository material, said that her deceased husband had been a minister. The truth was her husband was neither dead, nor had he been a minister. He was a toolmaker named William Easton. He was located but had no comment except to say Jane had “a brilliant mind”. Jane, bizarrely, denied that Easton was her husband.
The Grand Jury, based upon the morass of The Pig Woman’s ever-changing stories, and compromised physical evidence (from an unsecured crime scene), failed to issue indictments against any of the primary suspects. Frances Hall went off for a European vacation and the case went stone cold in 1923.
The Grander Jury
The case lived on in the newspapers, though. Continued speculation raged in the New York Daily Mirror. Any story to keep the case alive in the press ran: a state trooper, Henry Dickman, who was independently investigating the case, disappeared in June 1923. Some believed he was spirited away or paid off to drop his activities.
On July 3, 1926, Arthur S. Riehl (who had married Louise Geist, the maid who had worked for the Hall family) filed for annulment. He said Louise had withheld knowledge about the activities of the Hall clan. He claimed Louise had been privy to the information that Edward Hall was planning on leaving Frances to run off with Eleanor. Arthur said Louise then relayed this bit of incendiary intelligence to Frances Hall on September 14, 1922, the day of the murders. Allegedly, according to Arthur, Louise went with Frances and Willie Stevens that night (driven by the chauffeur) and received $5000 for keeping quiet about what she knew. Louise, of course, claimed this tale was a pack of lies.
The newspapers picked up the story and scrambled to one-up each other on sensational details. Based on the new material from Arthur Riehl warrants for the arrest of Frances Hall, Willie Stevens, and Henry Stevens were issued. The prosecution interviewed Jane Gibson and announced intentions of proceeding to trial. It was very soon after this that James Mills admitted that he had indeed known about the affair between his wife and Reverend Hall, and he had threatened divorce. But, he had not had the time or money for it.
Breaking Henry Stevens’ alibi became the focus of the second investigative effort. Henry had claimed he’d been fishing 50 miles away at the time of the murders, and had produced three witnesses who placed him in the fishing scenario
Testimony was obtained from St. John’s vestryman, Ralph Gorsline (rumored to have once had an affair with Eleanor). He admitted that he had been in De Russey’s Lane the night of the murder. He said he had turned his car around there at about 10:20 PM and started backing out when he heard a shot, a woman’s scream, and then three shots. The scream dwindled to a moan and then ceased. Testimony included a report from a man who had seen scratches on Mrs. Hall’s face on the day of her husband’s funeral. A woman placed Henry Stevens in New Brunswick on Friday, September 15th. Members of the St. John’s choir reported that Ralph Gorsline had threatened Eleanor to give up the Reverend; Gorsline had been spying on her, as was another woman who wanted Edward Hall for herself.
The Grand Jury this time produced indictments. Frances, Willie, Henry Stevens, and Henry de la Bruyere Carpender (a cousin of the Stevens’ whom The Pig Woman had previously, tentatively identified as the shooter) were all accused of the murders of Reverend Hall and Eleanor Mills. Each entered “not guilty” please; only Frances (on substantial bail) was allowed free pending trial .
The “missing” trooper Dickman (who had investigated the murders in 1922-1923) was found doing hard time in Alcatraz. He had been locked up for “desertion”. When extradited to New Jersey for his testimony he reported he’d been paid to drop his investigation and to leave the state.
Carpender’s case was severed from the main body as the charges against him were tenuous at best and evidence against him was significantly different. This motion was granted. Henry de la Bruyere Carpender’s case was later dropped before the regular trial started. A trial date was set for November 3rd, 1926.
Both Eleanor’s and the Reverend’s bodies were exhumed for more forensic work before the start of the trial. Although Eleanor’s cut esophagus had been noted upon her original autopsy, this time it was also discovered her tongue had been cut out. It was also deduced at this time that Hall had been either kneeling or bending over when shot.
The Pig Woman was taken out-of-town for safe keeping as a star prosecutorial witness.
The trial was a major media sensation, reported globally. Reporters swarmed over Somerville, New Jersey; Western Union was forced to hire more telegraphers to keep up with the news feeds from the court.
Jury selection (all married men) took all of an hour. All three defendants were actually on trial for the murder of Eleanor Mills (since killing Hall would make no sense for the three). Primary evidence included Willie's fingerprint on Hall’s calling card found at the scene; Frances’ anonymous call to the cops asking about “casualties” and her brown coat she had dyed black after the murders; and the fact that one of her privately hired detectives tried to bribe a key witness (Jane Gibson).
Charlotte Mills, now a 20-year-old young woman, was the second witness in the box. She identified the letters Eleanor had written to Hall. She said the last time she’d seen her mother was when she had gone to make a phone call to Hall. She also identified letters from Hall to her mother that she had found and that had been sold to the press.
The trial moved on with Ralph Gorsline (the man who had allegedly had a “thing” for Eleanor and was jealous of her relationship with Hall). He repeated he’d been out to the scene in his car, had heard shots, but added that Henry Stevens had spotted and recognized him and had fired two shots into the ground to warn him away. Gorsline’s female companion on that night, another choir member (who, as learned earlier, wanted Hall for herself) corroborated his testimony on the stand. Both of their statements contradicted the many witnesses who claim they heard only four shots that night.
And then the courtroom histrionics began. A fingerprint expert (testifying that Willie’s left index print was found on the crime scene calling card) was interrupted by news of the “sudden failing” health The Pig Woman. Her personal doctor rushed into the arena; he said her blood pressure and rising temperature would make any public appearances harmful to her health. The judge and other court officers then adjourned to her hospital room. They discovered she was not at death’s door; the trial would resume, and they would await developments on her health issues.
Eleanor’s husband James took the stand. The defense tried to make it seem that he might have been the murderer. Defense counsel had discovered that Mills had not made any sincere or serious efforts to find his wife (inquiries among her relatives in town, hospitals, or the police). Mills defended his position by saying what he’d averred before: his wife sometimes left for a day or two without saying where she was going, and he simply didn’t bother about it.
Anna Bearman, a casual witness, testified that she had seen the coat that Frances had sent out to be dyed black, and there had not been a spot on it. This took away suspicion the brown coat had been dyed black to cover any bloodstains. [Frances would testify that she had not worn the brown coat that night, anyway; she had worn a grey one. The grey coat is what Jane Gibson reported on Frances as well].
The Alcatraz inmate, ex-trooper Dickman was next up. He talked about his interview with Henry Stevens in early 1923. He said Henry had been evasive, although he had cooperated and answered all of Dickman’s questions. Dickman claimed he’d left the state because he was paid $2500 (by a Stevens family lawyer) to get out-of-town. Dickman’s credibility was poor – he was a known drunk, and he was a convict.
The Pig Woman was still “ailing”. The court moved her to a hospital in Jersey City. Upon examining her there, a different diagnosis for her “condition” was reached. She was not dying but probably ought not leave the hospital for several weeks. Jane Gibson’s mother, however, became a shoe in the prosecution’s gearbox. She ranted to any and all who would listen that Jane was nothing but a liar. The prosecution team, however, still needed Jane as their star witness.
The main piece of physical evidence (Reverend Hall’s calling card) came under defense attack. Experts on both sides could not conclusively claim it was Willie’s print on the card (there was an insufficient point-match). Also, it was pointed out the card had been exposed to the elements for about 36 hours and had been passed around by spectators at the crime scene. It was a contaminated piece for certain.
The doctor who performed the most recent autopsies hypothesized that in all likelihood Hall had struggled to get the gun when it went off. The doctor said that Eleanor’s tongue and larynx had both been cut out. He made note of a cut on her abdomen, but this was learned to have come from the first two undertakers who had handled her body. Without consent from anyone, they had opened her womb to see if she was pregnant.
Incidental, inconsequential, irrelevant, unverifiable testimony was also given after the doctor’s. A milkman said he’d seen the Hall’s back door open the morning after the murder. A delivery boy claimed Willie had given him a suit that day to be dry-cleaned (which had spots on it). He turned the suit in to the police, but no one knew what had become of it. [The spots could have been anything; it is uncertain why counsel wasted court time presenting such a witness as this one and the milkman].Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011
And then the drama level reached the absurd. Jane Gibson, The Pig Woman, was called as a witness. In a highly charged moment she was wheeled in, prone, on a hospital bed. Defense counsel, knowing of Jane’s mother’s shenanigans, seated her purposefully at the front of the gallery so she could see Jane. He also wanted to see if Jane might react badly to her mother’s close presence.
The instant Jane was wheeled in her mother shouted, “She is a liar! Liar, liar, liar!” Jane went ahead and testified, though, and claimed Frances, Willie Stevens, and Henry Stevens were at the murder scene near her pig farm that night. [This, of course, contradicts her earlier statements that she’d only seen two people on site with the victims]. She said Henry Stevens (not Carpender) and another man wrestled with a gun that went off. She said one of Frances’ hired private detectives had told her to keep her mouth shut about what she’d seen.
The defense undermined Gibson’s testimony as it related to Henry Carpender (whom Jane had once identified as the shooter). Jane reported hearing a woman call out the name “Henry!” at the time. Henry Carpender was known to relatives as “Harry”, so Frances Hall would not have called out “Henry” to address him.
The defense had produced enough witnesses to confirm Henry Stevens’ alibi of being away fishing at the time of the murders. It was also established that he’d only been named as a suspect in the first place because someone had foolishly decided it would have taken an expert marksman to shoot the victims. Since Jane had heard the name “Henry”, and Henry Stevens was a marksman and a relative, the defense’s posture was Henry had been railroaded into the arena.
Willie Stevens took the stand in his own defense, and despite his quirky mental condition he acquitted himself gracefully under cross-examination by the prosecution. He was received well by both the gallery and the jury.
Then it came out when Jane Gibson had seen the defendants for the first time she was asked to identify them and was unable to do so. Then a local farmer claimed Jane offered him money to say he had seen her out that night on her mule, riding on De Russey’s Lane. She also wanted him to say he had seen two men and two women by the cars she claimed had been parked there.
Frances Hall was next. Her statement to James Mills about the cheating spouses possibly being dead was addressed. She claimed her response had seemed obvious when the missing pair had not returned home by the next day when she’d seen James Mills at the church.
By the time the jury was given the case for deliberation 157 people had taken the stand (and in Jane Gibson’s case, a hospital bed). Surprisingly, the two people who started the ball rolling, the people who found the bodies, Pearl Bahmer and Ray Schneider, were never called as witnesses. The trial at the time was a record-breaker; the New York Times devoted 90 front page articles to it (versus the 62 front-pagers in 1922).
The jury spent about five hours (on three votes: 10-2, 11-1, then unanimous) reaching their verdict of “not guilty” for all defendants. The major prosecution problems were their star witness, The Pig Woman (whose story seemed to change with every telling), and the lack of concrete physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime (the solitary fingerprint was questionable).
From her hospital bed, upon hearing the verdict, The Pig Woman stated, “Well, can you beat that?”
Eventually, Frances Hall, Henry Carpender, and Willie Stevens sued the New York Daily Mirror (the leading tabloid) for libel. The case was settled out of court.
Jane Gibson, “The Pig Woman”, died of cancer in February 1930.
Frances Hall, in poor health and having suffered several heart attacks, died aged 68 on December 19, 1942. She was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Edward. Henry Stevens died of a heart attack on December 3, 1939, in Lavallette, New Jersey. Henry Carpender, the cousin, died on May 26, 1934, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, New Brunswick. Willie Stevens, aged 70, died from heart disease on December 30, 1942
Eleanor’s daughter, Charlotte Mills, died on February 3, 1952. She would have been only 46. Her place of death at the time was recorded as the Middlesex Nursing Home, in Metuchen, New Jersey. Why she was there is unknown. It is likewise presumed, given the recording of her surname as "Mills”, she never married. On November 8, 1965, James Mills, Eleanor’s husband died. Eleanor, James, and their daughter Charlotte were all buried in Van Liew Cemetery, New Brunswick.
The other Mills child, Daniel Mills, did not figure in any way in the murder case. He was born in 1910 and died in 1992.
The Hall-Mills case parallels the Snyder-Gray murder (a few years later) in many respects. Both cases involved a couple of adulterous people; in the Snyder-Gray case, however, the adulterers were the killers, not the victims. In both celebrated cases, too, the woman in the illicit scenario was abjectly miserable at home (for Ruth Snyder her much older husband was a dispassionate “old crab” as Ruth called him; for Eleanor Mills her husband lacked panache and was similarly apathetic to her). Both women, in short, were looking for relief from their mundane existence.
The Snyder-Gray case was closed as both Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Judd Gray were electrocuted for the murder of her husband, Albert Snyder. There is no closure in the Hall-Mills case, however. The case is technically classified as “unsolved”. No one else was ever accused of these crimes. The specific .32-caliber gun used to shoot both Eleanor and Edward at close range was never found.
Many theories about the “actual” killers have been presented over the years. Some make sense; others, of course, are borne of ignorance. One of the stupidest theories actually came from the pen of one of America’s best known modern–era defense attorneys. This lawyer wrote a book about the case naming the Ku Klux Klan as the killers! There is no excuse for this kind of hyperbole. His “theory” is absurd in many ways. In the first place, the premise upon which he lays the claim is faulty. If he knew anything at all about the Klan of the 1920s (an unfortunately, hugely politically powerful and influential organization in America then) he would realize just how plain dumb his hypothesis is.
The Ku Klux Klan was rumored as the killers because their genteel, delicate, tender “Southern sensibilities” about morality were offended by the adulterous affair between Hall and Eleanor. This is chokingly laughable – the Klan of the 1920s would no more have cared about an affair between two white people than they would about an affair between two black people. The only circumstances under which the Klan would have bothered to kill Eleanor (the white female) is if her lover happened to be a black man and if they believed she was consensually having sex with him. This is traitorous to white womanhood in their tiny brains. The only other scenario is if the man happened to be black, and the Klan thought he had raped Eleanor. Then, only the man would have been lynched – Eleanor would have been coddled by them and actually used as a propaganda tool to show how virtuous and heroic they were by saving her from the black animal. No, there is no rational way the Klan was involved at all.
The histrionics of The Pig Woman, her mother, the prosecution, and defense in this case are incredible. One cannot imagine this kind of clownish atmosphere in a courtroom today. No self-respecting modern judge would have allowed the melodramatic moment of wheeling Jane Gibson into the courtroom to give her testimony from a hospital bed. The defense should have moved for a mistrial. Certainly, when Jane Gibson’s mother began screaming at her daughter as she was wheeled into court, decrying Jane’s credibility immediately, and calling her a liar loudly, the prosecution should have immediately moved for a mistrial, as well.
None of the behaviors exhibited would have been allowed in a modern court, and most of the court officers would have been found in contempt. The phrase “media circus” probably came into being because of this trial. Evidence was mishandled, the crime scene was bungled, testimony conflicted and conflated. The Pig Woman’s testimony, read in its entirety, has no credibility at all. The only thing certain is that she lived in the area. Everything else she said about the case could have easily been absorbed from the constant media barrage. She could read. She had access to radio broadcasts. She was capable of internalizing facts and embellishing them. Her story differed each time in its telling. Her motives for bringing attention to herself with her saga of the Hall-Mills murders can never be known except that, maybe, as her husband said, “She has a brilliant mind” (by which one can divine that perhaps he meant she either had a fertile imagination or that she was completely round the bend).
The word “unsolved” unfortunately applies to this case. What it really means here, however, is the case was not legally proven. The Hall-Mills double homicide is no more “unsolved” than two other recent “unsolved" high-profile murders: the O.J. Simpson case (his ex-wife nearly beheaded, her male friend butchered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the Casey Anthony case (her two-year-old daughter “disappeared” and later was found dead in a Florida swamp area).
Rational, intelligent humans can apply deductive reasoning and creative thinking to reach reasonable solutions in both of the above noted cases: O.J. Simpson slaughtered his ex-wife in a rage, her friend was collateral damage; Casey Anthony killed her baby daughter, perhaps inadvertently, then concocted an elaborate scheme to distance herself from the killing.
So, too, without stretching one’s brain overly much one can apply the same sensibilities to the Hall-Mills murders. The most likely scenario that probably can explain the sordid mess involves the Hall’s maid, Louise Geist; Willie Stevens; Henry Stevens; Frances Hall; and tangentially Ray Schneider and Ralph Gorsline (the vestryman who had a yen for Eleanor).
The affair lasted for four years. Eleanor’s husband, James Mills, knew all about it at some point during that time but did not care. He was vicariously benefiting from their affair – Hall had paid for Eleanor’s surgery eight months before her murder; the Reverend gave Mills cachet in the community by deigning to visit his honored presence upon the humble Mills home; and it is almost certain Hall made Eleanor happy in some ways, thus keeping things quieter on the Mills home front. This would be especially true if for some reason Eleanor thought she was "getting one over on" James. Her oblique statement to him (“Follow me and find out”) seems to tell another tale – that she knew he knew of the affair and was openly defying him to do something about it. In other words, “If you love me, you’ll fight for me.” He did not fight for her, and she died.
Louise Geist’s husband, although smarting from whatever caused him to seek an annulment, made one statement that rang true: it is almost certain Louise is the one who blew the affair open to Frances. The help in the Hall household (as in any household in America: butlers, cooks, chauffeurs, gardeners, maids, it doesn’t matter) knew everything that went on under the roof, even if Mrs. Hall did not (as she claimed, and it is reasonable to think she did not know of the affair as she would have divorced Hall in a heartbeat. He needed her much worse than she needed him).
Louise, probably through her housekeeping duties, either discovered the love letters to Reverend Hall from Eleanor or knew about the affair anyway. For whatever reason she finally decided to tell Frances Hall. Perhaps she even handed her the letters from Eleanor (later found torn up at the crime scene). Maybe she thought Frances would reward her loyalty. It doesn’t matter. Armed with this information, Frances probably would have sat around and brooded about it, trying to decide what to do. Her brother Willie was handy. She probably unburdened herself on him; maybe she showed him Eleanor’s letters. Given his childlike need to please (as he did his fire department pals by running their errands for them) he probably got in touch with his older brother, Henry, and told him what was going on.
It doesn’t seem clear if there was an actual intent to murder Hall, though. What is more likely (catching Hall out alone) the brothers intended to probably thrash him (protecting the family name, their sister’s honor, etc.) as a warning to stay away from Eleanor and to stay home where he belonged. When the phone call drew Hall away from home (clearly telling Frances that he was going to visit Eleanor Mills), Willie probably sneaked out and followed at a discreet distance (his story of talking to Frances before going to bed at 8:30 PM has a phony air about it). He and Henry together confronted Hall at the crime scene – hence the piece of two-foot iron pipe found at the scene. Henry probably had a gun, marksmanship or no marksmanship: Edward Hall was several years younger than he and in better physical shape, why take chances? Willie, living in the more dramatic corners of his mind, brought the love letters with him to confront Edward.
At about 10:30 PM as Ralph Gorsline was turning his car around, the flashing headlights would have been enough for him to see Henry Stevens. He saw the gun in Henry’s hand and simply left, later saying Henry had taken shots to scare him away rather than look cowardly. In reality, Henry probably never saw Ralph, let alone recognized him. He would have been too preoccupied with Hall, and seeing a car’s headlamps he would not have intentionally gone out into the light to confront Ralph. He would have tried to stay hidden.
What neither Henry nor Willie counted on was Eleanor’s presence. Having tracked Hall, obviously in the lover’s lane area intent upon a good time with someone, the Stevens brothers confronted him. They argued in Eleanor’s presence, Willie perhaps tearing up the letters dramatically and throwing the pieces in Edward’s face while Henry held Hall and Mills at bay with the gun.
At this point it seems likely Hall was due for his beat down. Henry kept the two lovers covered while Willie kneecapped Hall with the iron pipe (found at the scene), hence the injury to his leg just below the knee. This would have either forced Hall to bend over grabbing the injured area, or would have brought him to his knees where he took another blow to the head above the ear. By now Eleanor had to have been in hysterics, and she may even have charged either Henry or Willie to make it stop. Henry, overreacting and flying on adrenaline, shot her three times at close range. Because there was no alternative, he shot Hall once as well. No witnesses.
Henry, with shots having been fired, certainly wanted to get away from there as fast as possible. He likely left the scene at this time, leaving Willie behind. It is most likely Willie was responsible for the staging and the later mutilations to Eleanor Mills. He would have cozied them up to each other as they were found, placing their hands on each other as recorded. He pulled Hall’s business card out of Hall’s pocket, propping it on his shoe. Apparently wanting to really send a proper message and to please his sister Frances (to whom he would probably tell this story later) he could silence the beautiful songbird by cutting out her larynx and tongue as a form of poetic, twisted justice for her adultery with his sister’s husband.
Willie then went home, making it quietly to his room. It would be there that Frances would roust him at 2:30 in the morning to go help her search for Edward Hall. They would get home later and go to bed. On the next morning, Friday, it is probable that Willie told Frances what happened. She found her way to the church either to keep up the pretense of looking for her husband or to see if there was any damning evidence lying around his office. There is where James Mills got the “they might be killed” possibility from Frances.
On Saturday morning, when Ray Schneider and Pearl Bahmer found Hall and Mills out in the lover’s lane there is no doubt Schneider checked the body for identification, stealing Hall’s $50 from his wallet, and his gold watch for good measure. Only then did he and Pearl run to call for the police. Schneider's theft of the money and watch set the tone for a wrongfully guessed at motive. It is also certain his actions displaced evidence (starting with Hall's wallet).
Frances Hall may not have engineered her husband’s demise but it is almost certain she had guilty knowledge of it after the fact. Willie’s mental defects would almost have compelled him to tell her, to get the “atta boy” and “thank you, so much, Willie” for the killing. He almost blurted it out to the maid on the Friday morning after the murder! Knowing this, Frances simply kept her mouth shut and waited to see what would happen. What happened is at least one killer and one corpse mutilator went free.
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