“Jury selection has been completed, and the trial start date has been set for November 3rd. Folks, set your watches. Let’s see how long it takes for justice to be served!” – 1926 Radio Announcement
Stopping just short of asking the nation to pop a bowl of popcorn, news media across the country publishes and broadcasts juicy stories about the Hall-Mills Murders for a public that readily devoured the shocking and sensational. The spectacle does not end in 1922 when the case initially closes and is marked ‘unsolved.’ Four years after the murders, Frances Stevens, her brothers and cousin Henry Carpender are indicted for the double homicide of Reverend Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills based on a statement brought forth by the husband of their former housekeeper.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie highlight key moments of the trial and how it quickly became a media circus.
Police from Somerset and New Brunswick fight over jurisdiction and a crowd draws around the crime scene. Unfortunately, the crime scene is poorly contained, allowing some members of the crowd to approach close enough to touch the bodies.
In addition to crowd control, police have their hands full with controlling journalists on scene and the woman living nearby who took in the couple that found the bodies. It takes three hours for Somerset County to establish jurisdiction over the case and lock down the crime scene, but by that time, it’s already too late. The crowd has trampled and touched every piece of evidence, ruining all chance of an open and shut case.
Toward the beginning of the investigation, Eleanor’s husband, James Mills, is considered the prime suspect but is soon ruled out when he tells police he was ignorant about the affair. Their only other lead is Jane Gibson, a woman who lives on a nearby hog farm with her son and allegedly witnessed the crime. Jane would become known nationally as “the pig woman,” and she was, during the investigation and trial, prosecutor Joseph E. Stricker’s central focus.
Jane tells Joseph that she went outside to check on her dog around nine p.m. when it wouldn’t stop barking and saw a man standing in the field near the crabapple tree. Curious, Jane hitches up her mule to ride down for a closer look. She sees four people gathered under the tree and hears at least a couple of shots fired and a woman scream.
When one of the four people topples to the ground, Jane flees. She hears more shots fired, briefly turns around and sees a second person fall to the ground. For the rest of the night, she stays locked inside her house, trying to keep her son calm. The only other detail Jane gives about the killers is that one was a woman wearing a grey coat.
Joseph finds it suspicious that Jane didn’t notify the police immediately after, but his primary theory was that Frances Stevens and one or more of her family members conspired to kill Eleanor Mills and Reverend Edward Hall.
Frances responds coldly to Joseph’s questioning of her whereabouts the night of the murders. She tells him that Edward went to visit the Mills around seven to help with their medical bills but she did not know they were having an affair. She had a quiet evening by herself and went to bed. When Frances woke up at two-thirty a.m. and realized Edward hadn’t come home, she roused Willie from bed to help her look for him. She did not know what had happened until she was informed two days later that he had been murdered.
Evidence determines that Edward and Eleanor were both murdered with a .32 calibre pistol, leading the police to believe Willie and Henry Stevens were also involved. At the time, Willie owned a .32 calibre pistol and Henry was a well-known marksman. However, they were never brought to trial, and the case was shelved.
Four years later, Arthur Riehl’s annulment suit against his wife Louise Geist-Riehl, former housekeeper for Frances Stevens, reopened the Hall-Mills double homicide investigation. In a statement, Arthur says Louise received $5,000 from Frances, her brothers and cousin Henry Carpender to keep their murders of Edward and Eleanor a secret.
After an unfriendly conversation with the New Jersey Governor, Philip Payne from the Daily Mirror orders his team to spin the Hall-Mills story with dirty gossip. The Governor enlists Alexander Simpson to take the lead on the case.
Alexander interviews all the old suspects and witnesses. James Mills admits to having known about the affair at the time of the murders and reveals that Frances came the apartment looking for Edward the day after. He says Frances told him she thought Edward and Eleanor ran off together and that both of them were dead.
Jane Gibson also allegedly remembered new details, such as the sound of a woman pleading with a man named ‘Henry.’ This leads Alexander to charge Frances, Willie, Henry Stevens and Henry Carpender with double murder and, this time, the Grand Jury accepts the indictment.
Recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, Jane Gibson is wheeled into the courtroom to testify on her hospital bed, photojournalistic candy for the press. Jane’s mother attends the trial and heckles the proceedings by repeatedly shouting that her daughter is a liar. This and Jane’s inconsistent testimony severely hurts her credibility as a chief witness, which former New Jersey Attorney General Robert H. McCarter exploited in the defense. He also strategically shifted blame from the defense to James Mills and propped Willie Stevens up as the case’s chief witness.
In return, Alexander attacked Willie in court and portrayed him as a jobless, unstable anomaly in the otherwise classy, upper-crust family. Dr. Laurence Runyon, the Stevens’ family doctor, is called to the witness stand, and cleverly characterizes Willie as a “sort of genius”.
Furthermore, Frances employs Charlie Case, an empathetic and talented lawyer, to question Willie for the defense team while he was on the stand. Overall, Charlie successfully paints Willie in a positive light and his story matches Frances’ perfectly.
Alexander tries to get a rise out of Willie by asking difficult questions, picking apart his word choices and making him retell his story over and over to demonstrate whether or not it had been rehearsed. Despite the grueling cross-examination, Willie maintains his cool and is lauded by the newspapers.
In the end, the jury finds all four family members not guilty. Frances follows up the trial with a defamation suit against the Daily Mirror. Willie spends the rest of his days attending sporting events and keeps close company with his firefighter friends. However, although the sensation of the Hall-Mills Murders died down across America, his reputation in New Brunswick was forever tarnished.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter and Wenndy revisit old clues, pointing out that Eleanor’s throat had been slashed, with her larynx ripped out, while Edward was only shot. This symbolic mutilation against the choir singer suggests the killing of Eleanor was very personal.
Carter and Wendy return to the night of the murder. Edward pulls out their love letters for Eleanor to read when Ralph Gorsline and his choir lady friend abandon their hiding spots to confront and kill them. Overshadowed by the juicy stories about scorned spouses and Jane Gibson’s eye witness accounts, Ralph and his companion were barely questioned, certainly a grievous mistake.
But do you think Ralph had it in him to kill Eleanor and Edward? Weigh in on Parcast’s Twitter and Facebook pages with your theories.