Each of my fellow bloggers here at Murder Books has stories about the many and varied ways in which humans have displayed either their depravity or their stupidity. Stories come with the jobs. Frequently when I was a prosecutor, I’d run across a set of facts that gave me pause. I’d think to myself that if I’d read this story in a novel, I’d immediately dismiss the author as having too vivid an imagination. It is the fact patterns which make the practice of criminal law fun and challenging.
I was reminded of this when, as often happens, on the way to looking something else up, I was waylaid by a story of the “Trial of the Century” for 1926. The title, TOC (Trial of the Century) subsequently passed to Bruno Richard Hauptmann and the Lindbergh kidnapping and later to a succession of other cases. In 1926, however, the TOC was held by the Hall-Mills Murder.
In the early morning hours of September 16, 1922, a young couple out for a walk in the New Jersey countryside, stumbled upon a man and a woman stretched out beneath a crab apple tree. The two people lay side by side, their feet carefully pointing towards the tree. The man had his hand under the woman’s neck while she had her hand resting upon his knee. His glasses sat perched on the end of his nose, and a Panama hat covered his eyes. She, meanwhile, had a scarf around her neck. They were both dead. He had been shot one time in the head while she had been shot multiple times. Her throat had been cut, her larynx and tongue removed.
Beneath the tree, Reverend Edward Hall, the pastor of the New Brunswick Episcopal Church lay alongside Eleanor Mills, the wife of the church’s janitor and a singer in the choir. No question existed as to the identity of the deceased. The man’s calling card had been propped against his feet. Love letters Eleanor had written to the minister had been torn up, the confetti scattered over the bodies.
Spectators descended upon the scene and the police failed to secure the area. The minister’s calling card was passed around for all to see and handle. The area was trampled; pieces of the crab apple tree were carved off and carried away as souvenirs.
Speculation pointed to the Reverend’s wife, along with her brothers as likely suspects. Many in New Brunswick assumed at the time that Reverend Hall had married Frances Stevens for her money. Heiress to a considerable family fortune, she was older than Reverend Hall and a reporter’s most flattering description of her appearance was that she was “not wholly unattractive.” No tangible evidence, however, linked her or her brothers to the crime.
Then, Jane Gibson, a pig farmer who lived in a shack near the crime scene came to the police. On the night of the murder, she reported being awakened by a noise. Fearing that someone intended to steal the corn she used to feed her pigs, she saddled Jenny, her mule, and rode out to find the thief. Instead, she came upon a car. Hidden by the darkness, she saw two men and a woman with white hair, like Reverend Hall’s wife. Gibson overheard an argument in which a woman’s voice cried, “explain these letters.” Next, Gibson heard gunshots. At this point she fled. The details of her account, however, varied with subsequent retellings.
Political grandstanding and prosecutorial mistakes resulted in confused and misplaced evidence. A grand jury originally declined to indict. The New York Mirror, however, kept the case before the public eye and four years later the widow, Frances Hall and her brothers were charged. The case was tried in November 1926.
The prosecution’s evidence hinged on the testimony of Jane Gibson, dubbed by the press, “The Pig Lady.” By trial time, she lay in a hospital bed, stricken with cancer. The prosecutor had her bed dramatically wheeled into court for her testimony. Inconsistencies and her eccentric nature, however, undermined her credibility. According to reports, her mother sat on the front row of the courtroom, shaking her head and muttering “liar”.
In the end, the jury acquitted the defendants. For all the media attention at the time, this TOC quickly faded into obscurity. Yet, it has never completely disappeared. Years later, acclaimed defense attorney William Kuntsler wrote a book concluding that the killing had been perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. He theorized that the KKK committed the crimes in retribution for violations of the sexual morality which the secret organization sought to impose.
Sex, religion, money, politics, social climbing, police and prosecutorial ineptitude, staged crime scenes, suggestions that a sinister secret organization actually committed the crime, and the Pig Lady riding atop Jenny, the mule, the story is crammed with details. If the case appeared in a novel the reader might well cast the book aside, decrying the author’s over-active imagination.
Perhaps the truth needed to be toned down for fiction. One writer argues that the Hall-Mills murders became part of the inspiration for The Great Gatsby. Sarah Caldwell writes in her book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby that F. Scott Fitzgerald borrowed the themes found in the killing of the lovers, while stripping away most of the facts.
The Pig Lady, I suppose, couldn’t ride Jenny all the way to West Egg, Long Island. No one would believe that.
She, however, helps to make the Hall-Mills murder my trial of the month for November.