Montclair writer takes on a 1922 crime and its tabloid coverage
It was the stuff that tabloid dreams are made of.
One morning in New Brunswick in 1922, a man and woman were found shot to death near a footpath. One of them was the Rev. Edward Hall, the rector of St. John the Evangelist Church. The other was Eleanor Mills, a member of his congregation.
The details of the investigation – including rumors of an extramarital affair between the two and whispers about whether Hall’s wealthy, influential in-laws might have been suspects – provided ample fodder for the burgeoning tabloid industry, including the recently founded New York Daily News.
The Hall-Mills murder case, and the media circus that whirled around it, are the subject of a new book by Vanity Fair senior media correspondent and Montclair resident Joe Pompeo.
“Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double-Murder That Hooked America on True Crime” was published by William Morrow on Tuesday, Sept. 13, just three days before the 100th anniversary of the murders.
“I’ve always been drawn to dark history,” Pompeo said, citing Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in London’s slums, and the many rumors about who the Ripper may have been, as an example.
“Blood and Ink” combines two stories in one. On one hand, it is the story of the two victims, their families and the murder investigation. On the other, it is the story of the newspapers covering the case and the rise of tabloid culture, the story of Phil Payne, one of the senior editors at the Daily News, and Julia Harpman, one of the paper’s first female journalists and the paper’s lead crime reporter.
Pompeo was considering the idea of a book that combined the two themes of murder and media coverage, a high-profile historical crime and the way the newspapers of the time covered it. Some of his studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism included the history of the penny press, the cheap newspapers that were prevalent in the United States in the early to mid-19th century.
Pompeo found himself talking one day with journalist and author Andie Tucher, who was one of his professors at Columbia, about different sensational legal cases over history, and the Hall-Mills case came up.
Hall and Mills were found shot to death beneath a tree in the early hours of Sept. 16, 1922, near a footpath that was a favorite with local couples.
The investigation revealed that Hall and Mills, both married to other people, had been having an affair for some time. Hall was married to Frances Stevens, a member of one of New Jersey’s oldest families, with ancestors going back to the Revolutionary War. Mills, by contrast, was married to local janitor Jim Mills, had a teenage daughter, Charlotte, and was a member of the church choir.
The Daily News — at that time, a new paper that was rapidly becoming one of New York’s leading news outlets — was on the investigation from the beginning. The case made headlines across the country.
Not only did the media cover the investigation and legal proceedings, they actually inserted themselves into the investigation. In one of the more bizarre moments of the case, Payne and the News staff worked with police to stage a mock seance with Jim Mills to see if he would confess to killing his wife and Hall.
The investigation eventually went cold, but in 1926, the Daily News tried to bring it back to the forefront. Interestingly, Pompeo said, the Hall-Mills case has faded from public memory over the decades, while other 20th century crimes, like the Lindbergh abduction in 1932, remain widely known.
The process of writing the book, from concept to publication, took roughly four years, by Pompeo’s estimate. “Doing the book was, essentially, a full-time job,” he said.
He went to work researching the case, going through archives at Rutgers and the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. At one point, he was permitted to handle some of the physical evidence, which was still in the prosecutor’s office archives after nearly a hundred years.
The New Brunswick Public Library had a treasure trove of its own: Pompeo learned that it had an extensive collection of documents related to the case, including the witness statements, something he had not been able to locate through the prosecutor’s office.
And by chance, a conversation with another author in Ohio put Pompeo in touch with someone who had an extensive collection of vintage crime magazines — in Montclair.
For the stories of Payne, Harpman and the other journalists, he had to do some additional digging, through court documents, 1920s trade publications and biographies.
Pompeo is a longtime New Jersey resident; he grew up in Montvale and attended Rutgers. Before joining Vanity Fair, he wrote for Politico and the New York Observer.
Recent projects at Vanity Fair included a profile feature on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and coverage of the recent corporate turnover at CNN.
Pompeo’s wife is Jessanne Collins, the director of newsletters for The New Yorker, and they have two children: 6-year-old Ada and 3-year-old Austin. The family moved to Montclair from Jersey City around the time Ada was born.
Pompeo has been involved as a parent volunteer with the Montclair Kids News project, which began last year as a newspaper by kids and for kids, with articles published in Montclair Local.
As for his thoughts as a journalist on the state of the news media in general: “I never feel like I have a good answer for this,” he said. Ten years ago, one of the biggest challenges to the news industry might have been the relationship between print and digital.
Now, he says, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of a collective truth, a general consensus on what is real and what is false.
“I think people in the industry view the decline of local news as a five-alarm fire,” he said. A lot of communities in America do not have a designated local newspaper, and there has been a lot of recent consolidation by major news conglomerates.
“Montclair, I think, is a bright spot in what is a pretty dark portrait,” he said. Montclair is fortunate that it has a strong media presence, with two local newspapers covering the town, a rarity in the present news climate, he said.
“What other town in America has that?” he said.