It was early on a Saturday morning on September 16, 1922, when the bodies of Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall and his lover Eleanor Mills were discovered side-by-side under a crabapple tree in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The Hall-Mills Murders, as they would become known, proved a fascinating case. The wife of the minister, along with several family members were acquitted of committing the murders four years later. Did they get away with murder? Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the intriguing case.
The Final Night
On the evening of September 14, 1922, Eleanor Mills left her home at 49 Carman Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She hadn’t told her husband James or her two children, Charlotte and Daniel, where she was going but they all saw her leave at around 7:30 pm. Eleanor was in fact on her way to a meeting she had arranged earlier that day to discuss a payment she was due to make.
She was to meet Reverend Edward Hall at her local church. The previous year Edward Hall had loaned Eleanor Mills the money to pay for surgery she and her husband couldn’t afford (she had a kidney removed).
At around the same time, Reverend Edward Hall shared a meal with his wife Frances Hall and his brother-in-law William Stevens before leaving his home at 23 Nichol Avenue, New Brunswick to head to the church where he was a minister. Unlike Eleanor Mills, Edward informed his family where he was going before leaving, saying he wouldn’t be long.
Later that night, at around 2:30 am Frances went to get her brother William to tell him Edward had yet to come home. She asked if her brother would go with her to see if he was at the church.
On arrival at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church they found the church in darkness. As they knew he had met with Eleanor Mills that evening the brother and sister headed to the Mills home. Seeing the home in darkness too they decided to leave it until morning before continuing there search if Edward hadn’t turned up in the meantime.
Edward didn’t return and by the following afternoon, Frances Hall reported her husband missing.
Under The Apple Tree
At 10 am on September 16, 1922 Raymond Schneider, 23, and Pearl Bahmer, 15, were walking along De Russey’s Lane. There pleasant stroll soon turned to a frightful one when underneath a crabapple tree the couple saw two bodies.
The bodies laid on there back side-by-side, both fully clothed. The man’s face had been covered with a Panama hat and his right arm placed under the females head. The female’s left arm was placed resting on the gentleman’s right knee.
At the feet of the male, a business card was found. It belonged to Reverend Edward Hall. A wallet containing the same mans driving licence was located nearby. The woman was quickly identified as being Eleanor Mills. Also found scattered around the bodies were scraps of paper. These were the remains of ripped up love letters. Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills had been lovers.
The couple, it was estimated, had been killed at around 10 pm on the evening of September 14, the last night both had been seen. Reverend Edward Hall had been shot once, the bullet entering his skull just over his right ear and exiting through the back of his neck. The killer had been more brutal with Eleanor, she had received three shots to the face. Eleanor’s throat had also been slit, ear to ear, almost decapitating her head. There was evidence the bodies had been placed in the position they were discovered after death.
The Early Investigation
The investigation was almost immediately hindered by groups of morbid souvenir hunters. Not only was the crime scene trampled all over but in the days and weeks following ghoulish murder fans took whatever items they could lay their hands on. By the end of October, even the crabapple tree where Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall were found was nothing more than a stump.
Police didn’t find the murder weapon at the crime scene (though there is a possibility it was there but taken by one of the souvenir hunters). The business card found at the feet of Edward Hall was also of little use, as it had been handled by so many people at the scene.
Nonetheless, the torn love letters found at the crime scene gave investigators some pretty obvious early suspects. Eleanor Mills husband James and Edward Hall’s wife Frances.
Despite the affair seemingly been common knowledge among the locals, especially the church parishioners, both of the victim’s partners denied any knowledge of the affair. Police, however, found this difficult to believe. As well as Frances Hall the investigation began to focus on the possible involvement of Frances brothers William, a man with a known short fuse, and Henry Stevens.
William owned a .32 calibre revolver, he insisted that he hadn’t used the weapon in over a decade but police examined it thoroughly. They soon found William seemed to be telling the truth and found the gun didn’t even work.
Henry Stevens was the older of the two brothers and according to some accounts a millionaire, he was certainly a wealthy man. He was also well known for his expertise with firearms and had in fact been an exhibition marksman before retiring. This led police to ponder the idea that he was the shooter. Henry lived fifty miles away in Lavallette, New Jersey and for the night of the Halls-Mills murders, he was able to provide what seemed a solid alibi backed up by several witnesses.
Nearly three weeks after the murders took place police discovered a peculiar act undertaken by Frances Hall. Less than a week after her husband Edward Hall had been killed Frances sent several items of clothing to Bornot’s in Philadelphia. She wanted the items cleaning and then dyed black. Although certainly a little strange it still wasn’t enough evidence of any wrongdoing.
Jane Gibson – The Pig Woman
Despite been frustrated in the early investigation by the end of October police would be given fresh hope thanks to Jane Gibson. On October 24 Gibson, who was a pig farmer which led to the media calling her “Pig Woman”, told police she had witnessed the Hall-Mills Murders.
On the night of September 14 at around 9 pm her dogs began furiously barking. She assumed someone was trying to steal her corn and so went to investigate. Gibson spotted someone in the distance so she got on her mule and went to track down the dark figure.
As she approached Gibson was surprised to see a group of four people near the crabapple tree on De Russey’s Lane. No sooner had she arrived near the scene that she suddenly heard the sound of a gunshot. One of the group fell to the ground in a heap before a woman could be heard to scream:
Further gunshots could then be heard before Jane Gibson saw a second person drop to the floor. Gibson stunned and afraid fled the scene before anyone saw her but as she did she heard one final scream from a female voice,
A Changing Tale
Police were weary of the tale Jane Gibson told. They strongly believed that Reverend Edward Hall had been executed whilst lying on the ground unlike the description detailed by Gibson.
Gibson also seemed to add extra details or slightly alter her story each time they spoke. Despite initially saying she only saw silhouettes in the moonless night sky Gibson soon added seeing a car parked near the location and, thanks to another car passing by, the headlights allowed her to get a good look at the four individuals.
The group consisted of two men and two women. One of the women was wearing a long coat and one of the men had bushy hair and a moustache. Gibson now added that she heard an argument concerning some “notes” before one of the women tried to flee, unsuccessfully. When she was dragged back to the crabapple tree the woman alongside one of the men was then shot dead.
A further addition to the tale was added on a third interview. Jane Gibson stated that at around 1 am she returned to the spot from which she had fled to retrieve an item she had dropped. Under the crabapple tree where the executions took place, she saw a woman knelt beside the body of the male victim crying as if mourning the unfortunate soul. This woman was Frances Hall according to Jane Gibson.
Although there were consistencies within her story, it seemed whether talking to the police or the press some specific within her story always altered.
Another witness seemed to cast further doubt on Jane Gibson’s story. A Mrs Fraley lived nearest of anyone to the location on De Russey’s lane where the murder took place. In fact, the spot was even viewable from an upstairs window after the murder, whether this was the case before all the souvenir hunters took all the shrubs and trees, however, it isn’t certain. What is certain is that when questioned Mrs Fraley clearly stated she heard nothing on the night of the shootings nor did her lodger.
Mrs Fraley also noted she had spoken to Jane Gibson on the morning of September 15 and she had made no mention of such an incident occurring the previous night, which was unfitting of Gibson’s usual talkative and gossipy manner.
Mrs AC Fraley’s story would change before the end of November.
The 1922 Sommersville Grand Jury
In the days following her original statement and her identification of Frances Hall, Jane Gibson would also name the male attacker. She named the male as a cousin of Frances Hall’s named Henry Carpender. Henry Carpender, who lived just two doors down from his cousin, immediately gave an alibi that he was dining with friends and his wife at the time of the murders. The witnesses soon backed up his claims.
On November 20, 1922 prosecutors took there case hoping for indictments before a Sommersville Grand Jury. Over the next eight days, sixty-seven witnesses were called to the stand to give evidence. Strangely amongst them was Mrs Fraley, who cast doubt on Jane Gibson’s tale and said she heard nothing, was now amongst the witnesses. She now stated she heard gunshots at around 10 pm on the night of September 14. However, it was Jane Gibson herself who prosecutors hoped would get them the verdict they sought.
On November 28 Jane Gibson was called to the stand and gave her evidence. Shortly after the jury was convened. After less than an hour of deliberation the foreman came back with their verdict:
“For reasons which to them seem sufficient and controlling, the grand jury took no action on the Hall-Mills murder case and laid the matter over. This does not necessarily mean that the matter cannot be taken up by this or a subsequent jury.”
The prosecution had failed to win an indictment. The Hall-Mills Murder investigation was now at a standstill. This is were the case would remain for almost four years.
Four Years Later
By July of 1926, the Hall-Mills Murders had almost been forgotten about. However, on July 3, it was once more about to be thrust back into the spotlight. On that day a piano tuner named Arthur Riehl filed a petition for divorce from his wife of ten months. Inside the petition was the stunning claims that his wife had taken $5000 from her employer for her assistance and silence about the murders of Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills.
The employer was none other than Mrs Frances Hall.
Arthur Riehl’s wife was Louise Geist who was indeed a former maid of the Hall’s, she had even given evidence in defence of Frances Hall before the Grand Jury in 1922. Riehl claimed his wife had confessed to him that Edward had confided in her his plans to elope with Eleanor. Rather than keep it confidential between the pair as Edward had thought Louise Geist instead took the information to his wife Frances.
Louise informed Frances of the spot Edward Hall and Eleanor was to meet. The adulterer’s wife then apparently ordered their chauffeur Peter Tumelty to drive Frances and her brother William to the same location.
Both Louise Geist and Peter Tumelty furiously denied the allegations against them having any knowledge of the murders. Louise Geist claimed her husband had threatened to implicate her in the murders if she didn’t get back with him but her story mattered little. The tale had now been picked up by the press and eventually made its way before the desk of New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore.
After mounting pressure over the story the governor ordered prosecutors to re-examine the case. On July 28, just over three weeks after the story had made the press, Frances Hall along with her brothers William and Henry Stevens and cousin Henry Carpender was arrested for the murders of Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills.
Before the trial, a new autopsy was ordered by the prosecutors on Eleanor Mills. Shockingly it revealed that Eleanor’s tongue and larynx had been cut out. Quite how this was missed in two prior autopsy’s is baffling to say the least.
The Trial Of Frances Hall, William Stevens And Henry Stevens
On November 3, 1926, the trial of Frances Hall and her two brothers William and Henry Stevens began. At this point, their cousin Henry Carpender had successfully partitioned to be tried separately (in the end he was never tried at all). As before with the Sommerville Grand Jury in 1922, Jane Gibson was once again seen as the star witness by the prosecution.
Jane Gibson arrived at the courtroom on a stretcher. She said she had apparently taken ill in the days prior. Before her testimony could even begin it was interrupted by screams of “Liar!” from the gallery. Oddly this wasn’t from some ardent supporter of Frances Hall and her family but from Jane Gibson’s own mother.
Gibson’s story again was full of contradictions to her 1922 evidence and statements made to the police and the newspapers. One major difference was that Jane Gibson now stated she had seen William and Henry Stevens alongside their sister Frances Hall, not Henry Carpender as she had said in 1922. It’s also unclear from reports which victim was now missing as in her evidence Gibson still maintained she saw four people but if she saw William, Frances, Henry and both victims, Edward and Eleanor, then there were five.
In order to discredit Jane Gibson’s testimony, it was pointed out that she had originally been unable to pick out the suspects, only doing so weeks later after Frances Hall’s picture had prominently been featured in newspapers. George Sipel, a neighbour of Jane Gibson’s, also revealed that the witness had offered him money if he supported her statements. The defence also did there best to paint Jane Gibson as a crazy person who was an unreliable witness.
Other evidence was presented before the jury. The business card found at the crime scene contained a partial fingerprint belonging to William Stevens according to the prosecution. The defence argued that wasn’t the case and even if it was the card also contained dozens of other prints.
Another witness who claimed to have seen Henry Stevens near the site of the murder that night was Ralph Gosline. Gosline, himself a past lover of Eleanor Mills, claimed that on seeing him Stevens fired two warning shots at him which resulted in him fleeing the area. This surely meant one of Gosline or Gibson was lying. Gibson stated she heard four shots, with these supposed warning shots she would have heard six.
A further witness was also easily dismissed by the defence. Henry Dickman was a former state trooper who claimed he was paid $2500 by Henry Carpender in order to drop any investigation into the Halls or Carpenders surrounding involvement in the Hall-Mills Murders. Unfortunately for the prosecution, the defence destroyed his credibility as a witness by revealing Dickman had only just been released from Alcatraz where he had spent time as a military deserter.
For the defence both Frances Hall and William Stevens took the stand. Both were steadfast in there denying of playing any role in the murders. Henry Stevens witnesses to his whereabouts on the night of September 14, all firmly stood by his alibi.
After a month-long trial which included the evidence of one hundred and fifty-seven witnesses the time for talking was now over. On December 3, 1926, and after five hours deliberating the jury returned its verdict. Frances Hall, William Stevens and Henry Stevens were all acquitted.
In the years following the not guilty verdicts, several confessions to the Hall-Mills Murders were made. Each one proved to be false.
In the ninety-plus years since the murders Jane Gibson, the “Pig Woman” and main witness, has been mentioned as another possible suspect. This idea mainly comes from the fact her story was everchanging which led some to believe she told it to throw police off the scent of the true killer… herself.
It’s a possibility but seems unlikely as she had little to gain. Some have mooted the idea she could have killed them accidentally thinking they were trespassers on her land then staged the scene. That is hardly what the evidence suggests, especially with Eleanor Mills throat been slit and tongue removed. Another theory with no proof is that Gibson was possibly a jilted lover of the reverends.
In one of the best books written about the Hall-Mills Murders, author and former attorney William Kunstler offered his own theory. He believed Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills may have been victims of the Ku Klux Klan who at the period were strongly against extra-marital affairs. However, Kunstler himself was quick to confess this was only a speculative theory with little evidence to back it up. Although known for their violence the Ku Klux Klan at that time had never knowingly killed anyone in the New Jersey area.
Others have suggested a jilted lover committed the evil act (other than Jane Gibson, of who there is nothing at all to suggest she ever was a lover). Eleanor was known to have had at least one other lover in Ralph Gosline and it’s possible the reverend had prior lovers too. Could the killer be a jilted partner other than the couples marital partners?
On the subject of marital partners, James Mills possible involvement cannot be totally dismissed either nor can Frances Hall. Were the prosecutors right all along? Did Frances Hall get away with murdering her husband Edward Hall and his lover Eleanor Mills with the help of her family?