How ‘Blood & Ink’ explores a 100-year-old murder and tabloid frenzy

One hundred years ago, in September 1922, two murder victims were found lying under a crabapple tree in a New Jersey field, their bodies staged in a strange tableau with torn love letters strewn around and their lifeless hands reaching out to each other. The victims were a prominent Episcopal minister named Edward Hall and a member of his church choir named Eleanor Mills, both of whom were married to other people.

The grisly crime and rumors of scandal became fodder for New York’s tabloid newspapers, which fought to break fresh details and build readership with lurid headlines, aggressive reporting and outrageous stunts, including a fake seance that aimed to scare a confession out of one of the suspects. Plus, the real-life characters connected to the story — the orphaned flapper, the oddball man-child who spent his days at firehouses, the witness known as the Pig Woman, and the widowed heiress with ties to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, among them — all presented powerful angles to explore and exploit.

RelatedSign up for our free newsletter about books, authors, reading and more

For journalist Joe Pompeo, the author of “Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime,” the story of the bizarre Hall-Mills double homicide and its tabloid aftermath had a bit of everything.

“It’s part wild Jazz Age murder-mystery and part creation story of American tabloid culture and the emergence of the New York tabloid press. The book really is about how those two arcs collide pretty spectacularly,” says the New Jersey native Pompeo, who is senior media correspondent for Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Politico and Columbia Journalism Review.

“I knew the area very well, I had this personal connection to it, and I was very interested in the time period and the emergence of this new type of newspaper, which I’ve covered as a media reporter,” says the author. “They were these over-the-top, just completely outrageous, just shocking, lurid publications, and I was really interested in learning more about that. And I saw how those two threads would fuse together to make what I thought would be a good book.”

Pompeo talked about the book, his research and the true crime genre in a Zoom call. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you first learn about the case?

A. I learned about it from a former graduate school professor who’s a journalism historian and scholar, and I was just kind of picking her brain when I was looking for a book in this genre, which is historical true crime and maybe ideally something that had a newspaper angle to it, which a lot of the stories from those old days often did. She mentioned this one, and it pricked up my ears — especially because I’ve gone to Rutgers and lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where the story takes place.

Q. What’s it like reporting on a story that’s 100 years old?

A. I love the research aspect. It feels completely escapist getting lost in these worlds. There’s some reporting that went into this that involves talking to a number of amateur crime buffs, Hall-Mills buffs, scholars, or people that are alive today that had some tangential connection to the crime, to the story.

The main characters, the victims, and the people who ended up being the accused and the main suspects, none of them have a direct lineage of descendants, none of them had children, so all the main characters died off. So there’s reporting, but this is really a research-intensive project, which is different than what I have done professionally for the past more than 20 years. And I found it completely fun and also a little liberating in the sense that you’re not dealing with sources or people who are going to care how they come across in a book.

Also, it’s more challenging because you can dig as deep as you possibly can into what exists in the historical record on a particular character, but there’s always going to be some question you can’t answer, and as a reporter, you want to just pick up the phone and confirm it and you can’t. You are stuck with what you can piece together from the historical record. So it’s a little bit frustrating, but in the end, I just fell in love with this sort of research.

Jim and Charlotte Mills, the husband and daughter of one of the murder victims in “Blood & Ink,” pose with a copy of the Daily Mirror. (Courtesy of Joe Pompeo / William Morrow)

Q. You write vividly in the book’s opening about handling the crime scene materials, which are still held in evidence: The reverend’s eyeglasses, a handkerchief found at the scene, the victim’s stockings. Can you talk about connecting with objects so closely related to the murder?

A. Yeah, and I even had a new experience with this. The other day, I did an event at the public library in the town next door where the crime scene was, which also has a strong historical connection to this case. And that library actually has a display of artifacts from the case: They have the eyeglasses of Willie Stevens, who’s one of the main characters and suspects. And they’re actually in great shape. I was like, I need to hold these.

I picked up the eyeglasses that were once on the face of this long-dead person that became this major part of my life for four years, and it’s just, you can’t really describe it, you’re holding something that had a physical connection to these people that you never met, are never going to meet, you’re never going to hear their voice.

Short of ever being able to conjure them in a seance — which is a joke, because there actually is a seance in the book — you know, the best you’re gonna get is holding their articles of clothing. It went a long way in terms of just making me feel connected to the story.

Q. There are so many memorable characters involved in the story. Was there one that you felt a connection to?

A. The character I connect most closely with is Phil Payne, who is the tabloid hero or antihero from the book. In his heart, I think he’s a good-natured, genuine guy, albeit mischievous and kind of cocksure. He grew up in New Jersey, actually not far from where the murders occurred, just like I did. He got his start writing for these little small-town newspapers like I did, and then kind of rose up in the New York media world, and I felt like I identified with him the most because our stories were similar, though separated by a vast period of time.

Q. What do you think really happened?

A. In broad strokes, I think that there was a confrontation that wasn’t necessarily meant to be deadly and things got out of hand.

Q. Why are we so interested in true crime?

A. On a very simplistic level, people love a good mystery. In my case, you want to understand what could drive someone to commit a crime whether it’s a murder or a fraud, I think you want to try to get an understanding of how that happens and how a person can be driven to that.

The case I make in the book is that people have been fascinated by crime stories as long as they could read, and certainly the tabloids in the 1920s were not the first to really have a ball with that sort of story. But they were the first papers that presented themselves unabashedly, full-throatedly as entertainment. The Daily Mirror, which is the tabloid that revives this case, its slogan was 90 percent entertainment, 10 percent information.

I think that there’s a throughline between this case and how it was covered by this new form of media in the 1920s to the way we’re still devouring true crime today, and these forms that at the end of the day, entertain us, even if there’s something unseemly about that. I think the key for the people who tell these stories is to do it in a respectful and sympathetic way.

Related Articles

Books |

This week’s bestsellers at Southern California’s independent bookstores

Books |

Erika Hayasaki explores an adoption that separated twins in ‘Somewhere Sisters’

Books |

The Book Pages Q&A: ‘Blood & Ink’ author Joe Pompeo on true crime and classic mysteries

Books |

14 highly anticipated books we want to read in 2023

Books |

Things to do in the San Fernando Valley, LA area, Dec. 22-29

These murders involve this cast of eccentric wild characters that give you a little bit of comic relief, but at the end of the day, these people were all going through something very, very horrible. So I think you can strike that balance between being respectful and really trying to paint the richest picture of these characters that you can and also tell a good story that’s gonna entertain people.

Share the Post:

Related Posts