It was the dawn of the Jazz Age in the United States. And on September 14, 1922, in the town of Somerset, New Jersey, a strange and dramatic murder of two ill-fated lovers would soon attract the gaze of the entire nation.
Join Brianna as she delves into the murder case of Edward Wheeler Hall, an Episcopal priest, and a member of his choir, Eleanor Mills in what would be known as the Hall-Mills murder.
In this episode
Welcome back to the dark side. I’m excited to take you away from Forest City and go even further back in time. Last week I said this episode would be different and maybe a touch more light-hearted, but I lied.
It’s 1922: The legendry Betty White was born, Gummy Bears were invented, people were listening to Fats Waller, fangirling over Babe Ruth, and watching Nosferatu. Fun fact: In Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1897, sunlight isn’t fatal to Dracula it just drained a lot of his powers. It wasn’t until the 1922 film Nosferatu that sunlight was first depicted as being deadly to vampires. The discovery of King Tuts’ tomb in 1922 influenced Art Deco and re-popularized the use of eyeliner in the West. All telephone service in Canada and the US was silenced for one minute on August 4th, 1922, to mark the funeral of Alexander Graham Bell.
F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term “The Jazz Age”. You know I love me some F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Today I’m going to tell you about a case that is widely believed to have inspired parts of The Great Gatsby.
On September 16, 1922, the bodies of an episcopal reverend and a member of his choir were found dead in a field in Somerset County, New Jersey. The reverend had been shot once in the head and the choir member had been shot 3 times in the head and her throat was slashed ear-to-ear. The pair were positioned side by side after death underneath a crab apple tree and their love letters were torn up and scattered between their bodies. The trial was a tabloid sensation with wild characters like the star witness nicknamed Pig Woman and a suspect with a walrus mustache.
Buckle up for the Hall-Mills murders.
It was around 10 am on Saturday, September 16, when 15-year-old Pearl Bahmer and 23-year-old Raymond Schneider decided to go for a walk in the countryside of New Brunswick, New Jersey. They turned onto De Russey’s Lane, an undeveloped road near an abandoned farm, in hopes of finding some privacy.
They walked a short distance when Pearl noticed something at the edge of the road. She pointed out to Raymond what she thought were 2 people lying underneath a crab apple tree, but as they walked closer, they realized the couple was dead. They ran to a nearby home to call the police.
New Brunswick Patrolman Garrigan and Officer Curran were ordered to investigate. They arrived on the scene and discovered 2 dead bodies lying on their backs underneath a crab apple tree with their feet pointing toward it and the woman’s head was resting on the man’s right arm. She was wearing a blue dress with red polka dots, black silk stockings, and brown oxfords, with her blue velvet hat next to her body on the right. Her left hand rested on the man’s right knee, and a brown silk scarf, soaked in blood, was wrapped around her neck. The man’s face was partially covered by a Panama hat and he was wearing blood-spattered glasses. Their clothes were perfectly in order. Scattered pieces of torn paper lay between them. There was a small, blood-stained business card perfectly placed against the man’s left shoe, and the grass around the bodies was trampled.
They also noticed that the bodies were right at the city limits.
Curran went to call in the murder while Garrigan took a closer look at the scene. He saw that the woman’s neck was covered in maggots. He found a wallet lying open on the ground and inside was a driver’s license belonging to Edward Wheeler Hall of 23 Nichols Avenue, in New Brunswick. The business card at the man’s feet belonged to Reverend Edward W. Hall, pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick. He also found a .32 caliber cartridge case and a two-foot piece of iron pipe near the bodies.
Curran and Garrigan regrouped and waited for more officers to arrive. They were with the New Brunswick police department (Middlesex County), but the crime scene was actually in Franklin Township (Somerset County), so as everyone was talking logistics, onlookers trampled the scene, took “souvenirs”, and passed Edward’s business card around. Any physical evidence was completely compromised, and the police had no control over the scene.
Since there was conflict over jurisdiction and no one could come to an agreement, the undertaker from Somerset was ultimately called to take the bodies since that’s where they were found. Around 2 pm, he examined the victims and noted there was 61 cents and 2 handkerchiefs in Edward’s pockets and that his watch was missing.
He took the bodies to his hearse and estimated the time of death was approximately 36 hours ago, which meant they were murdered around 2 am on Friday morning. It also meant that no one had noticed them in a day and a half but that was considered odd since they were found on a lover’s lane on the weekend.
Once the bodies were moved, investigators determined the torn papers were love letters and romantic cards.
At the morgue, as the undertaker removed Edward’s coat, a bullet fell to the floor. The undertaker from New Brunswick arrived to pick up Edward’s body since that’s where he had lived, but the woman was still waiting to be identified. She would ultimately be identified by a reporter from a local paper that recognized her.
Most people from Reverend Halls’s parish already knew who the woman was, though. Her name was Eleanor Mills, and the affair between the reverend and choir singer had been obvious to everyone around them for years.
Eleanor Reinhardt Mills was born in 1888. She was married to James Mills, who was 10 years older than her, and they were married when she was just 15. They had 2 children together – Charlotte, 16, and Daniel, 12. The family lived at 49 Carman Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey in a rundown home only five blocks from Edward Hall. She was described as small, slender, and pretty with a passionate soul. It was widely known that she wasn’t satisfied with her marriage. James used to be a shoemaker but became the sexton at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church and a full-time janitor at the Lord Stirling Elementary School. He worked hard but had no ambitions and didn’t make much money – apparently, the most he’d make is $38/week. So, Eleanor found solace in romantic novels and church activities. She went to St. John’s almost every day where she was very active in the church and had been a soprano in the choir since she was 14. There were tons of rumours about other women involved with the church and the choir was jealous of her because she was head of the choir and Reverend Hall paid special attention to her.
Edward Wheeler Hall was born in 1881 to a middle-class family and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He received a degree in Liberal Arts from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and attended General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. After graduation, he moved from New York to Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and then to St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, where he met his wife, and they were married on July 20, 1911. Frances was born into a wealthy family on January 13, 1874, making her 7 years older than her husband. People gossiped about their marriage and that Edward only married her for her money and status. Edward, Frances, and her 50-year-old brother, Willie, all lived together at 23 Nichol Avenue. Frances and her brother inherited the house along with two million dollars after their mother died. Willie lived with them because he couldn’t live on his own, most likely due to some form of intellectual disability. It’s speculated that Willie’s personality was consistent with high-functioning autism, but at this time that wasn’t something, people were diagnosed with. Because Willie wasn’t very responsible and was unemployed, Edward assumed the role of monitoring the weekly allowance for Willie.
The police still couldn’t agree on where the murders happened, so Middlesex County put up a $1,000 reward for information that helped prove the murder had taken place there. Remember, the bodies were found in Somerset County.
Random items were being turned over to police, like bloodstained handkerchiefs. Charlotte Mills, Eleanor’s daughter, found a package of love letters from Edward to Eleanor along with Edward’s diary, and apparently, James Mills sold it all to the New York American for $500.
The two county prosecutors were chaotic and competing to interview people. Judges in both counties were rushing and assembling grand juries and urging them to begin hearings on the case before they even had anything concrete.
Meanwhile, Frances had barely been questioned by police, and now she’s in the background hiring her own lawyer to privately investigate her husband’s death. So, two weeks pass and there are still no leads, and the Governor decides to intervene and demands the two-county prosecutors cooperate with one another.
Finally, both counties are working together, and they began talking to eyewitnesses.
Next, they talked to the prime suspects and people associated with them: the spouses.
They start with James Mills, who cooperated and believed the motive was robbery. He claimed he didn’t know about the affair, even though Edward was over at their place all the time, which neighbours and people in the church all confirmed, but James said it’s because they were friends and they worked together. Edward had even paid for a major surgery for Eleanor 8 months before the murder when James was unable to and was driving her to and from the hospital when she needed checkups.
Police continued interviewing him to construct a timeline that starts at 5:45 pm.
James had been cleaning at work until 5:45 pm, witnesses confirmed, and got home at 6:15 pm and ate dinner. After dinner, he went out on the porch to do some woodworking and Eleanor left to make a phone call to Reverend Hall. She came back briefly and left again. Apparently, when he asked where she was going, she said “follow me and find out”. He said he didn’t follow, probably because he already knew, and kept working on the porch until 9:45 pm when he decided to read the paper and noticed someone had cut an article out of it. At 10:30 pm, he went to the church to look for his wife, stopped for some soda on the way, and arrived at the church around 11 pm, but she wasn’t there, so he went home and went to bed. At 2 am, he got up again, realized she still wasn’t home and went to check the church again, but she wasn’t there.
The next morning, Friday, he went to work at the church without reporting his wife as missing. At 8:30 am, he encountered Frances Hall, Edward’s wife, who mentioned that her husband had not come home the night before. He asked her whether she thought that they eloped and claims she replied, “God knows. I think they are dead and can’t come home.” She asked him several times that day if he heard any news and each time, he said no. He claimed that she repeated that they must be dead multiple times.
While James was making his rounds, cleaning the church, he went into Edward’s office and noticed a newspaper clipping on the desk that he thought was from his own paper, and it was an article on a prominent minister’s views on divorce. James and Eleanor’s daughter would later confirm that her mother had clipped the article from the newspaper and had said she was taking it to Edward.
The next day, Saturday afternoon, James heard that his wife’s body had been found and he went directly to the Hall’s house.
Investigators concluded that his alibi was pretty tight and didn’t believe he murdered Eleanor and Edward. They determined James was simple but that he knew about the affair even though he denied it. They figured he put up with the affair to take advantage of the money Edward contributed to the household.
Next on the suspect list was Frances Hall.
She claimed that she trusted her husband and didn’t know about the affair.
On the day of the murders, Frances made preserves in her kitchen. She received a call from Eleanor and gave Edward the message at 6:30 pm. Eleanor called again at 7, and around 40 minutes later, Edward said he was going out to check on her medical bills. Frances played solitaire for the next two hours. Her brother Willie came out of his room to say good night and she went to bed too. At 2:30 am, she woke up and realized her husband still wasn’t home, so she woke up Willie to go with her to the church and look for him. The church was dark, so they walked past the Mills home, which was dark too.
But a night watchman at the local college saw the lights on in the Hall house all night and saw a woman enter the home at 2:30 am.
Frances admitted to anonymously calling the police on Friday morning to ask if anyone was found hurt or dead, which no one had been at that time. She claimed after the call she continued to search for her missing husband all day. This contradicts James’s story, who said he saw her multiple times that day, asking him for updates.
A reporter called her on Saturday, which is how she heard the news of the murders. Like James, she believed that robbery was the motive, since Edward’s gold watch was missing, and he only had 61 cents in his pocket when she said he usually carried about $50 in his wallet.
Investigators spoke to the Halls’ maid who corroborated the 7 pm call from Eleanor, Edward leaving the house 40 minutes later, and Frances playing solitaire for a couple of hours. But she added something else that was suspicious. In the morning, she saw Willie, and he told her that “something terrible happened last night, and Mrs. Hall and I have been up most of the night.”, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
Amidst talking to eyewitnesses, investigating the spouses, and establishing a timeline, investigators learned that no autopsies had been conducted on Edward and Eleanor, so both bodies were exhumed so one could be performed.
It was determined they had both been shot with a .32-caliber pistol which matches the cartridge found at the scene and the bullet that fell from Edward’s coat.
Edward was shot above his right ear with an exit wound in the back of his neck, it was surmised someone had shot him from above. He had abrasions on his hands, particularly on the back of his right index finger and left pinky. There was a small bruise on the tip of the left ear, and a cut on the calf of his right leg.
Eleanor’s death was more brutal. She was shot 3 times – under her right eye, above her right temple, and above her right ear, with an exit wound in the back of her skull. Her windpipe and esophagus were severed, there was a small wound on her upper lip, and her arm was bruised.
Then a twist in the case:
This entire paragraph is from an essay written by Mary S. Hartman called The Hall-Mills Murder Case: The Most Fascinating Unsolved Homicide in America:
“…Others were being questioned… in particular, the fifteen-year-old factory worker Pearl Bahmer and her sometime twenty-two-year-old boyfriend who had found the bodies. The boyfriend, Raymond Schneider, stated that on the night of the murders a second young man had been with him and that they had followed his girlfriend and her father, who were walking together in the neighborhood of the killing. The boyfriend maintained that his companion, who had also dated the girl, suspected that the father was guilty of incest and intended to do away with him. He swore that this young man, called Clifford Hayes, had killed Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills in a case of mistaken identity. Amazingly, Hayes was arrested and charged on October 9. Of course, the story did not explain the love letters, the slit throat, or a multitude of other things; but clearly, the need for an instant suspect was great, given the pressure from the state and the press. Then too, the suspect conveniently came from the right class, while Mrs. Hall and her brother were highly respected citizens. James Mills was grudgingly left alone for the time being since neighbors had seen him within an hour of the alleged killings and had heard him doing woodwork, pounding nails, throughout the whole period in question. Soon, it was clear that only the Somerset prosecutor had wanted an arrest; and Middlesex citizens protested that it was no accident that wealthy folks from Somerset should want to pin the crime on a New Brunswick lad. Hundreds from the town called the boy’s home to express sympathy, and a justice fund was created to pay for Hayes’ defense. Many of these people knew that Schneider was an inveterate liar. And sure enough, a couple of days later the young man confessed to the lie, and Hayes was released. The prosecutors were again empty-handed. Then Pearl was interviewed and said she was out that night, but the “other man” was her drunk father trying to sober up, and then Schneider confessed to having lied about the whole thing, so everyone was released and the charges against Clifford Hayes were dropped.”
Investigators were empty-handed again. A State Supreme Court judge was unhappy with the botched investigation and turned it over to the State Attorney General’s office in late October. Unlike the local prosecutors, the newly appointed state prosecutor took the testimony of a local eccentric woman very seriously. She had come forward in mid-October after the Hayes accusation to say that she had been an eyewitness to the crimes and couldn’t let an innocent person suffer. Local investigators ignored her story because it didn’t match up with the autopsy reports and local residents ignored her story because she was a notorious liar, but when the state prosecutor got involved, he believed the story she told, calling it “the most valuable evidence” because if she saw the crime, she could identify the killers.
Jane Gibson, known locally as the “Pig Woman”, lived with her son William in an old barn that was converted into a living space, just off De Russey’s Lane, where they raised hogs. She said that Frances, her two brothers Willie and Henry, and their cousin, also named Henry, were all at the scene the night of the murder and she saw Brother Henry murder Edward and Eleanor.
She told the investigators that her dog was barking around 9 pm on that night so she went outside and saw a man standing in her cornfield. She got on her mule, Jenny, to approach the man because she thought he was the thief that had been stealing her corn. As she got closer, she saw 4 people standing near a crab apple tree. She heard gunshots and one of the people fell to the ground and a woman screamed “Don’t!” 3 times. She said she turned around and headed back to her house, heard more gunshots, and when she looked back at the tree, she saw a second person fall down. She said she heard a woman shout the name “Henry”.
Her story continued to grow:
She had noticed a touring car parked on Easton Avenue, which the Halls did own. It was when she turned around and cut across a field down a small lane that she saw two men and two women standing near a crab apple tree, arguing bitterly. A car coming into the lane behind her illuminated the people and she saw a woman in a long gray coat and a man with a big mustache and bushy hair. A little later, she said she heard a woman ask, “How do you explain these notes?”. Her story changed from a person getting shot and falling to the ground, to seeing Eleanor run away after Edward was killed, but the group caught her, dragged her back, and shot her 3 times.
At 1 am, she realized she lost a moccasin, so she rode back to look for it. As she approached the crab apple tree, she heard a woman crying and saw Frances kneeling next to her husband’s body, sobbing.
Pig Woman was a weirdo, and her story changed each time she told it. Several people who knew her came forward about her unreliability, claiming she was known around the neighborhood as a liar. She said that her husband was dead but when he was alive, he was a minister, but he was actually alive and was a toolmaker, and the man she called her son was actually her husband. She also admitted to telling reporters one story and authorities another.
Mrs. Fraley, who lived directly across De Russey’s Lane, contradicted Pig Woman’s story. She had heard no commotion, gunshots, etc., that night, nor had any of her boarders. In fact, she had seen Pig Woman right after the murders and she didn’t mention anything.
The Pig Woman always stood by her story, and by the time her story was taken seriously by the state prosecutor, there was enough testimony that raised doubts about where Frances, her brothers, and their cousin had been, and it added “credibility” to the Pig Woman’s story, at least in the eyes of the state prosecutor.
So, in one account of Pig Woman’s story, she mentioned having seen Frances Hall, who we’ve met, and her brother Willie, who I talked a bit about, but let’s learn some more. He was born on March 13, 1872. He was described as “impulsive, explosive, and somewhat reckless, but usually had a sunny disposition”. He wore thick glasses and had a walrus mustache. Most of his free time was spent at the fire station, where he played cards and ran errands since he wasn’t employed and couldn’t fulfill his ambition of being a firefighter.
He owned a .32-caliber pistol, but the firing mechanism was allegedly filed down for safety reasons plus he said he hadn’t shot the gun in over 10 years.
His alibi for the night of the murder was Frances, whose alibi was conveniently mustache.
Pig Woman also mentioned seeing Frances’s other brother, Henry, who was born on November 10, 1869. He was a retired exhibition marksman who lived 50 miles away in Lavallette, New Jersey, and wasn’t close with his sister.
His alibi was that he was on a fishing trip miles away from the crime scene.
Lastly, Pig Woman said she saw Frances’s cousin, Henry, born May 15, 1882. He lived with his wife 2 doors down from Edward and Frances and worked as a Wall Street stockbroker.
His alibi was an early dinner with his wife at the home of some friends and they left together around 10:30 pm.
The state prosecutor was eager to bring murder charges on the Hall-Stevens-Carpender gang, so a Grand Jury convened. They heard 67 witnesses over a 5-day period, but no charges were laid in the end, and everyone got on with their lives.
And that’s where we’ll leave it. The case is far from over, so be sure to join us next week for the conclusion! Thank you everyone for tuning in to the first of two episodes on the Hall-Mills Murder. If you like the show please rate, review, subscribe, follow, all that jazz. Be sure to visit our website, darkadaptationpodcast.ca where you can further support the show by buying us a coffee if your lovely little heart’s desire, follow us on Instagram @darkadaptationpodcast, share the show with the spooky bitches in your life. Thank you for the support and kind words. Thank you for joining us, Steph, and we’ll catch you on the dark side.