"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 5, 2016

Murder in De Russey's Lane

"Next the devil adultery,
Enters the devil murder."
~John Webster, "The White Devil"

Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills


They both looked so peaceful. That only made the sight of them all the more chilling.

Around ten in the morning of September 16, 1922, 23-year-old Raymond Schneider and his 15-year-old girlfriend, Pearl Bahmer, were walking along De Russey's Lane, a popular "lovers' lane" in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Whatever romantic plans the couple may have had were instantly dashed when they came across a man and a woman lying under a crabapple tree. At first glance, it looked as though the pair was affectionately napping together. They lay on their backs, with the man's right hand under the woman's shoulder and neck. The man's face was partially covered by a Panama hat; the woman's was veiled by a scarf. It only needed a second glance, however, to realize they were very, very dead. The man had been shot once through the head. The woman's murder was notably more savage. She had been shot three times, and her throat was deeply cut from ear to ear. The autopsy would reveal the macabre detail that her tongue and larynx had been severed. The stunned young couple raced off to summon police.


Policeman standing at the crime scene.


Officers found a scene that looked oddly staged, like the main setting for an amateurishly-directed theatrical production. Aside from the obviously posed position of the bodies, a calling card was propped against the dead man's left foot, and a collection of handwritten letters and notes were scattered around the corpses.

The card revealed that the dead man was 41-year-old Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall, rector of New Brunswick's Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. The correspondence proved that the dead woman--soon identified as 35-year-old Eleanor Mills, a singer in Saint John's choir--had been conducting a passionate affair with Hall. They were her love letters to him, featuring breathless dime-novel lines such as "I know there are girls with more shapely bodies, but I do not care what they have, I have the greatest of all blessings, a noble man, deep, true, and eternal love."

The minister and his choir singer were both very much married to other people. However, they--particularly Eleanor--did little to hide the affair. In fact, some of their acquaintances believed the lovers planned to elope to Japan. It was said they planned to run off on the very night they were murdered.

Their respective spouses told police that neither had been seen since evening of September 14. Hall's wife Frances, a wealthy, socially-prominent woman who was seven years older than her husband, told police that when Edward failed to return home that night, she and her brother Willie--who lived with the couple--made a fruitless search for him. The following morning, when she saw Eleanor Mills' husband James, she learned that his wife was also missing.

Although both Frances and James later insisted they had no idea their spouses were romantically involved, Mr. Mills asked Mrs. Hall, "Do you think they eloped?"

"God knows," Frances replied. "I think they are dead and can't come home."

Frances Hall


Mrs. Hall's words were curiously prophetic. It was believed that Edward and Eleanor had been killed on the night of the 14th. It appeared that they had been murdered where they had been found. As De Russey's Lane was a well-traveled site near a number of houses, it was strange that the bodies could have lain there for some 36 hours before being discovered. It was just possible that the calling-card and love letters were not, as was assumed, deliberately placed around them by their killer(s), but accidentally scattered by ghouls who came across the bodies earlier and sought to rob whatever valuables they had on them.  (Edward's watch was missing, and his wallet empty of cash.)

Spouses are normally the first to be suspected when their loved ones meet an untimely end, and the particular circumstances of this double murder made it inevitable that police would focus their investigation on Frances Hall and James Mills. (The Mills' 16-year-old daughter, Charlotte--who reacted to the tragic news of her mother's ghastly murder by selling the "New York American" a packet of Edward's love letters to Eleanor for $500--also came in for her share of attention.)

Willie Stevens


Frances' fifty-year-old brother, Willie, was, for a time, everyone's favorite suspect. He was a highly eccentric, excitable man who adored his sister and was noticeably lukewarm towards her husband. Although he was scholarly and highly intelligent, Willie was mentally and emotionally unable to live on his own--he was “regarded as essential to be taken care of in certain things,” in the words of a contemporary. Willie's doctor once summarized his nature with "He may not be absolutely normal mentally, but he is able to take care of himself perfectly well. He is brighter than the average person, although he has never advanced as far in school learning as some others. He reads books that are above the average and makes a good many people look like fools." (Today he would probably be diagnosed as autistic.) With his impulsive and childlike nature, it was thought that if he had learned of his brother-in-law's adultery, Willie would have been capable of reacting in a reckless and highly violent manner. He owned a gun, and knew how to use it. The Hall's maid reported that the morning after Edward disappeared, Willie had told her that "something terrible happened last night, and Mrs. Hall and I have been up most of the night."  He told some acquaintances that "Something big is going to pop. You'll hear about it later." Was Willie merely talking about Edward's mysterious disappearance, or something far more sinister? Frances' other brother, Henry Stevens, was also brought under suspicion. He was an excellent marksman.

James Mills, the very obviously cuckolded husband, was an excellent candidate for the killings, and if he was the killer, it would explain the fact that Eleanor was treated in a much more brutal fashion than the reverend.  However, James--an impecunious handyman with an unmistakable air of "loser"--seems to have been dismissed from official suspicion at a fairly early date. He struck everyone as such a (in the words of Damon Runyon) "harmless, dull little fellow," that everyone had a hard time picturing him working up the gumption to carry out a double murder.  Even Raymond Schneider and Pearl Bahmer were considered as possible killers when it emerged that the pair ran with a very dodgy crowd (including Pearl's father, who was later charged with incest.)

James and Charlotte Mills


However, despite the powerful motives and lack of cast-iron alibis for the time of the murder, investigators were utterly unable to find any solid evidence linking any of their suspects to the crime. It did not help matters that the local police--who seem to have been a remarkably bumbling lot--failed to secure the crime scene. As soon as word went out about the gruesome discovery, hundreds of morbid sightseers swarmed De Russey's Lane, hopelessly contaminating or destroying whatever clues may have remained on the scene. Even the crabapple tree that had canopied the victims was soon chopped to bits by eager souvenir hunters. This case which police had initially boasted would be "a cinch" to solve was instead beginning to look like a hopeless conundrum. The investigation seemed as dead as Edward and Eleanor.

Enter the Pig Woman.

Jane Gibson


True crime writer Edmund Pearson noted the phenomenon of the "Marvellous Female Witness" who enters many a high-profile murder case, stirring up much drama and excitement, while generally doing little or nothing to actually solve the crime. Well, FWs didn't get much more M than 50-year-old hog farmer Jane Gibson. She would go on to virtually hijack the entire Hall-Mills mystery, upstaging even the victims themselves.

Gibson lived with her mentally disabled son, William, in a converted barn adjoining De Russey's Lane. She told police that around 9 p.m. on the night of the murders, she saw a man standing in her cornfield. Assuming he was a thief, she hopped on her trusty mule, Jenny, and rode in pursuit. When she failed to catch him, she turned for home, cutting across a field.

Then, she declared, she saw four figures standing near a tree. She heard a gunshot, and saw one of the figures fall to the ground. Then a woman screamed "Don't! Don't! Don't!" More shots rang out. Another figure fell. Another woman shouted, "Henry!"

Now, enticing as Gibson's story may have sounded, it failed to fit the medical evidence, which indicated that Edward Hall had been lying on the ground when he was shot, not standing. For this reason--along with the fact that Jane Gibson practically had the words "publicity seeker" tattooed on her forehead--some investigators were inclined to ignore her. However, the Special Prosecutor of the case, William Mott, seized upon her story. He felt it was the big break he had been praying for.

Meanwhile, Gibson happily made her story available to any reporter who cared to take it down. Perhaps we should say, "stories," as her account of what she had seen on the fatal night grew more lavishly detailed and lurid each time she repeated it. Now, she had seen a car parked near the murder site--a car that, wouldn't you know it, exactly matched the description of the open touring car owned by the Halls. Gibson now had descriptions of these once-shadowy "figures" she had seen. One was a woman with a long gray coat (like the one worn by Frances Hall.) She was accompanied by a man who, like Willie Stevens, had a heavy dark mustache and bushy hair. "How do you explain these notes?" Gibson heard the woman say. Then, after Edward was shot, she saw Eleanor attempt to flee, only to be caught and dragged back before being repeatedly shot.

Gibson claimed that a few hours later, she realized she had lost a shoe during her ride, so she returned to look for it. When she passed the site of the earlier shooting, she saw a "big lady" with "white hair" kneeling next to a prone man and weeping loudly.

Jane Gibson was anything but subtle.

The more the "Pig Woman" (as the newspapers called her) talked, the less most people believed her. It was pointed out that she could easily have concocted all the details in her story from the copious newspaper reports on the murders. A neighbor stated that if all Gibson said were true, she herself would have heard something that night. She had heard nothing. It also emerged that Jane Gibson was well known as a habitual fabulist. (Her own mother denounced Jane as a hopeless liar.)

As entertaining as Gibson was, two Grand juries failed to find enough evidence to indict anyone for the murders. Although law enforcement insisted the investigation would continue, everyone knew that the hunt for the killer(s) of Reverend Hall and his paramour was effectively over. Life went on quietly for four years, when a seemingly unrelated event took place that suddenly brought the long-dormant mystery roaring back to life.

The Hall family's former maid, Louise Geist, filed for an annulment to her marriage.

Geist's estranged husband, Arthur Riehl, retaliated by going to police with a stunning story. He stated that on September 14, 1922, Louise had informed Frances Hall that Edward was going to run off with Eleanor Mills. That night, Louise had driven off on a mysterious errand with Frances and Willie. Afterwards, the maid received $5,000 for keeping her mouth shut. Louise angrily insisted Arthur was lying through his teeth.

Was she telling the truth, or simply trying to avoid being arrested as an accomplice to murder?

This was good enough for the Somerset County prosecutor. He issued warrants for the arrest of Frances Hall, Willie Stevens, Henry Stevens, and their cousin, Henry Carpender. (It was thought perhaps Carpender was the "Henry" Jane Gibson had allegedly seen.) The defendants fiercely denied any guilt. They hired the best lawyers Mrs. Hall's considerable amount of money could buy, and prepared for battle.

At this point, a minor figure from the initial investigation took on more prominence: Ralph Gorsline, a vestryman in Hall's church. Gorsline, a notorious womanizer, reportedly had an affair with Eleanor Mills before she dumped him for Reverend Hall. Some in the D.A.'s office wondered if the murders had been a case of a "man scorned." Perhaps Gorsline, seeking revenge against Eleanor, told Frances Hall about her husband's infidelity, and urged her to confront the adulterers. After Frances and Henry Carpender killed the lovers, Gorsline helped cover up the crime. This theory was strengthened when the authorities learned that one of Eleanor's fellow choir singers claimed that Gorsline had threatened to expose Eleanor's affair with Hall. He had been spying on her, accompanied by a woman who had her own romantic designs on the reverend. Then, prosecutors heard that Gorsline had been out with a young woman named Catherine Rastall on the night of the murders.

Ralph Gorsline


When Rastall was brought in for questioning, she soon broke down and confessed that she and Gorsline had been near the murder scene. They had heard four shots. When Gorsline heard of this, he reluctantly confirmed Rastall's account. He now said that he and his lady friend had been parked on De Russey's Lane at about 10:20 p.m. They heard a shot, followed by a woman screaming, and then three more shots. He had kept quiet, he explained, because he wished to protect Rastall from unpleasant publicity. Many believed that Gorsline knew far more about the murders than he was willing to say. It was odd how he seemed to know precisely how Eleanor's throat had been slashed.

Henry Carpender was to be tried separately from the other three defendants. The first trial, of Frances Hall and her brothers, opened on November 3, 1926. The case against the defendants was largely circumstantial, but seemingly compelling. A fingerprint believed to belong to Willie Stevens had been on the calling card found at Edward's foot. It was also noted that before the bodies were discovered, Frances had anonymously called the police to ask if there had been any "casualties." She had also dyed her gray coat black. (Willie had sent his coat out to be dyed, as well. The suspicious delivery boy had instead brought the garment to the police, who promptly lost it before any tests could be done.) And, of course, there was the Pig Woman.

The defense countered the fingerprint evidence by pointing out that the print on the calling card did not exactly match Willie's. Besides, the card could have been contaminated. There was even reason to argue that the fingerprint had been planted. After all, when fingerprint experts first examined the card in 1922, they had found no fingerprint at all.

The dramatic climax of the trial came with the Pig Woman's grand entrance. As Jane Gibson was in failing health, she was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher. She was, however, as determined as ever to have her say. Not even the spectacle of Gibson's mother, disrupting the proceedings by shouting, "She is a liar! Liar, liar, liar!" could stop her.

The Pig Woman testifies


Gibson saved the best version of her story for last. She now placed Frances, Willie, and Henry Stevens at the murder scene. "I see something glitter," Gibson intoned with a flair Sarah Bernhardt could envy, "and I see a man and I see another man, like they were wrestling together. One was Henry Stevens." She saw one man beating another. She heard a lot of shouting about "letters." Then came the shots.

This story would have wowed them on the Broadway stage, but in the setting of a court of law it fell decidedly flat. The reviews were not good. For one thing, her testimony contained many elements directly contradicting her earlier statements. Also, even though Gibson insisted Frances Hall had been the "big woman" with "white hair" crying over her slain husband, Frances was a notably petite woman. In 1922, her hair had been dark. There was no evidence at the murder scene of the titanic struggle Gibson described. Quite the contrary, in fact. It emerged that the first time she had been presented with the defendants, she had been unable to identify them. A neighbor asserted that the Pig Woman had tried to bribe him into testifying that he had seen her on De Russey's Lane on the night of the murder. By the time Gibson was carried out--continuing to insist on her veracity to the end--she had begun to rather bore people.

Some performers never know when to end their show and leave the stage.

There was virtually no case to be made against Henry Stevens at all. Evidently, the prosecutor in 1922 had dragged him into the investigation solely because of his skill with firearms. When he was able to present a convincing alibi for the time of the murders, everyone acknowledged he was home free.

After the Pig Woman, Willie Stevens was the most anticipated witness. Many stories had been spread about his odd character, and it was widely expected that he would make an embarrassing spectacle of himself on the stand.

Willie surprised them all. He proved to be more than a match for the prosecutor. He came off as well in control of himself, witty, and self-assured. His ripostes often left his interrogator at a loss for words. The audience in the courtroom loved him. Frances made an equally good witness, impressing observers with her dignity and air of innocence. When confronted with her statements to James Mills about their spouses being dead, she calmly replied that when they failed to return home, it seemed only logical to assume that they must be deceased.

By the time the five-week trial ended, the "New York Times" had devoted a total of 152 front-page articles to the murder mystery. 157 people had taken the witness stand. And after all that, no one felt they were any closer to solving the crime than they had been on the morning of September 16, 1922. After deliberating for five hours, the jury returned an acquittal of all three defendants. Henry Carpender was immediately released. One of the first things he did after being cleared was to sue the "New York Daily Mirror" for its libelous coverage. (The paper settled out of court.)

And that was that. The murders of Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills were fated to remain forever unavenged, leaving nothing but a tempting puzzle for decades of armchair detectives to ponder. Despite the lack of evidence against them, did Frances Hall and/or her brother Willie kill the unfaithful pair? What of James Mills, the openly scorned husband? Perhaps the murderer was a woman who yearned for the reverend and finally lashed out in a fatally jealous rage. The well-known attorney William Kunstler plumped for the KKK as the guilty party. Some have even suggested that none other than the Pig Woman herself killed the pair.

In a recent book about the mystery ("Moonlight Murder on Lovers' Lane") Dr. Katherine Ramsland offered an intriguing theory. She wondered why investigators did not look more closely at Ralph Gorsline. He served in the Spanish-American war and had been captain of a local militia, so he was familiar with both guns and killing. He had also been trained to fight with a bayonet, a weapon which could easily have caused the wide, near-decapitating wound on Eleanor's throat. Gorsline admitted to being just a few hundred yards away when the murder took place, yet he did not say a word about it until forced to do so. Rastall's story of accompanying him had a number of holes in it. Perhaps Gorsline had gotten her to lie for him. Even jurors at Frances Hall's trial believed Gorsline was a liar who should have been charged with perjury.

Ramsland suspected that Gorsline was what now would be called a "stalker." There was evidence that he deeply resented being dumped by Eleanor, and was jealous of her new affair with Reverend Hall--to the point where he was obsessively spying on the pair. Could his anger against them have reached the point where it turned savagely violent?

Under this scenario, Frances and Willie's suspicious behavior the day after the murders becomes understandable. Perhaps, in their frantic search for Edward on the night of the 14th, they went to De Russey's Lane...and found the bodies. Frances hesitated to call police, fearing that if she admitted being at the murder scene, she and Willie might be blamed. However, in their agitation, the siblings could not help but drop hints that they knew something terrible had happened. They must have been very impatient for someone else to make the grim discovery.

There was one more odd piece to this hopelessly scrambled puzzle. A few years ago, an amateur researcher into the case named Wayne Gunn saw something that had escaped all notice before then. When examining a photo of Edward Hall's bloodstained tie, Gunn noticed the tie clasp. It was monogrammed, not, as you would imagine, with an "H" for "Hall," but a "G."

For "Gorsline," perhaps? Did the vengeful vestryman deliberately leave the clasp there, as a brazen taunt? Or did he accidentally lose it at the crime scene, only to have it collected by careless investigators who never bothered to give it a second glance?

Is it possible that the answer to this famed mystery lay under everyone's nose all the time?

5 comments:

  1. I've read of this one before, and thought it had everything characteristic of a 1920s sensational trial. And like most sensations, the poor victims end up being almost forgotten by the other participants. It almost begs for DNA evidence to be found.

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  2. Something called the "CPI Inflation Calendar" (http://data.bls.gov) says that $500 in 1922 dollars was worth about $7000 in 2016 money. Heck, I might have sold Mom's love letters, too. After a media circus like that, you'd think it can't have been much fun for her, living in New Brunswick, NJ.

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  3. "FWs didn't get much more M than 50-year-old hog farmer"... Thank you for the laugh, I needed that. Great writing, enjoy your site very much.

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  4. Could the pig woman's son have been involved? That could also explain the "G" and her intention may have been to deflect possible interest in him?

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  5. What about the pig woman's son? That would also explain the "G" (Gibson). She may
    have been trying to deflect interest of her son?

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