On September 16, 1922, illicit lovers Reverend Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills are found murdered in a field between Somerset and New Brunswick, New Jersey. The killer poses their bodies under a crabapple tree, invoking imagery of a disgraced modern-day Adam and Eve.
The national media circus that followed cemented the Hall-Mills case as the most sensationalized and widely covered murder investigation in American history up to that point. It wasn’t eclipsed until the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in 1930s.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie begin their investigation by examining the lives of the lovers, their betrayed spouses, enraged family members, jilted ex-lovers and scandalized neighbors.
Raymond Schneider and Pearl Bahmers discover a dead man and woman posed next to each other under a crabapple tree. The killer covered the man’s face with a Panama hat, positioned a business card against his foot and scattered shredded love letters between them.
The episode flashes back to an earlier time at a nearby Episcopalian church in New Brunswick called St. John the Evangelist, where James Mills, the caretaker, welcomes Reverend Edward Hall to the congregation. Frances Noel Stevens, the public face of a wealthy and well respected local family, stops by to talk to Edward about her brother Willie. She flirts with him and shares her concerns about Willie’s lack of maturity. Hall eagerly offers to help by inviting himself to dinner – an alleged ploy to better understand Willie’s troubles without being obvious.
At dinner, Willie dominates the conversation by questioning Edward’s intentions toward Frances. Edward doesn’t deny he has an eye for Frances, but points out that, unlike Catholic priests, Episcopalian clergy can marry. Willie continues to make backwards comments.
During dinner, Edward also meets Frances’ eldest brother Henry and a cousin from the Carpender side of the family by the same name – the former being an outdoorsman and the latter a Wall Street stockbroker. Henry Carpender teases Henry Stevens about his lifestyle and then Edward and Frances about their affection for one another.
Despite Edward not fitting into the family very well, Edward and Frances marry on July 20th, 1911. Life appears to be looking up until Edward finds out that Willie is living at home with them.
While observing a church choir practice, Edward notices Eleanor Mills and afterwards compliments her solo part. She coyly introduces herself as James Mills’ wife.
Dissatisfied by her quiet life in New Brunswick and her husband’s lack of common interests, singing in St. John’s choir is Eleanor’s only reprieve, which she enjoyed more for social reasons than religious ones. Ralph Gorsline, a local bachelor and reputed libertine, flirts with her and Eleanor teases back. Two fellow choir members gossip quietly amongst themselves and whisper unkind words to each other about Eleanor’s character.
Ralph is upset when Eleanor’s interest wanes, and she breaks off their short-lived affair. She finds Reverend Edward Hall far more appealing, who in return, sees her as an attractive escape from his suffocating new family.
News of their affair quickly becomes an open secret, but Willie is one of the last to know. He learns of the affair while hanging out at the firehouse with a few of his firemen friends. Extremely upset, Willie runs to find his sister.
As soon as he tries to bring the affair up, they get into an argument that doesn’t end well.
Spurned lover-turned-stalker Ralph spies on Edward and Eleanor during their secret rendezvous. He mutters to himself harsh words and a threat.
On the night of September 14, 1922, Edward lies to Frances about his purpose for going to the Mills’ house. Meanwhile, Ralph waits outside Eleanor’s house with another woman from their choir group. They witness Eleanor and James fighting about her whereabouts at night. Eleanor leaves but James does not follow her.
However, Ralph and his companion do follow them and end up at De Russey Lane on the border of New Brunswick and Somerset, a reputed meeting place for secret lovers. Eleanor and Edward both express their hatred for sneaking around and talk about making their love public. As they walk towards the crab apple tree, Eleanor is startled by a sound, but Edward brushes it off. Neither have any clue they are about to be murdered.