Alumni Profiles

Looking Back at the Crime of the Century

Joe Pompeo

In a new book, Rutgers alumnus Joe Pompeo explores the murder of star-crossed New Jersey lovers 100 years ago and how the case fed America’s obsession with true crime stories.

By Amy Vames

One hundred years ago, the murder of a New Brunswick minister and a young woman in his church’s choir was just the kind of shocking crime America hungered for. After the country’s losses during World War I and a devastating flu pandemic, “America was coming back to life,” says Joe Pompeo, author of Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime (William Morrow, 2022). People were craving stories that were a little more escapist “and didn’t have the weight of this horrible period the world had just endured.”

The brutal slayings of the Rev. Edward Hall, minister at St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick, and Eleanor Mills, with whom he was having an affair, have been written about extensively since they took place in 1922. But Pompeo RC’04 wanted his book to shed light on recently discovered documents and transcripts connected to the case and to explore how the tabloid newspapers of the time fostered a fascination with true crime stories that continues today.

Pompeo, the media correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, says he came across the Hall-Mills murder case when he was scouting ideas for a historical true crime book that would also examine how media at the time covered the story. A professor at Columbia University School of Journalism, where Pompeo got his master’s degree, mentioned the case to him. Despite growing up in New Jersey, Pompeo had never heard of the unsolved crime, which coincided with the emergence of tabloids. “It had all the right elements,” he says. “I immediately saw that those two threads were the making of a book.”

A Horrifying Discovery

The Hall-Mills murders still have the power to shock and intrigue. Both victims were shot in the head, but Mills’s throat was also slashed. The bodies, found under a crabapple tree near Buccleuch Park just over New Brunswick’s border in Franklin Township, had been carefully “staged” with Hall’s outstretched hand cradling Mills’s head and her hand resting on his thigh. A stack of their love letters lay between them.

Almost immediately after the victims were discovered, the crime scene devolved into a free-for-all, Pompeo writes. “Reporters and civilians stomped about the bodies and handled the evidence. Not a single police photograph was taken.” Confusion about which jurisdiction—Somerset County or Middlesex County—should investigate the murders and the botched efforts to do so likely contributed to the fact the case is still unsolved.

A Feast for Tabloids

American tabloids were relatively young at the time of the case. Joseph Medill Patterson, whose family ran the Chicago Tribune, launched America’s first tabloid in 1919, the New York Daily News. Other tabloids followed, including the Daily Mirror, owned by William Randolph Hearst, and the Evening Graphic, published by Bernarr Macfadden.

The Hall-Mills slayings became irresistible fodder for the burgeoning papers as they strove to satisfy a public that couldn’t get enough sensationalistic crime news. The case was a “perfect swirl,” Pompeo says, of sex, money, and murder that the tabloids exploited to the fullest.

It was also full of larger-than-life characters, including Hall’s wealthy widow, Frances; her eccentric brother Willie Stevens; Mills’s cuckolded husband and the couple’s daughter; and Jane Gibson, also known as the Pig Woman, who claimed to have witnessed the murders.

Pompeo believes there’s a through line extending from the tabloids of the 1920s to the National Enquirer, Court TV, and today’s true crime podcasts. Beginning in that decade, crime was covered “in a way that was meant to be entertainment,” Pompeo says. “When the tabloids came along, suddenly you had a medium that was driven by photos, outrageous headlines, and the need to create celebrities out of ordinary people. There may be something unseemly about that but we’re still bingeing on these stories because we are fascinated and entertained by them.”

An Early Flair for Journalism

Pompeo, who grew up in northern New Jersey and now lives in Montclair, says he always enjoyed writing. Starting at age 14, he would create fanzines about indie and punk rock music. “I was putting together these little publications, doing interviews with bands, very primitive journalism,” Pompeo says.

His passion for punk rock also indirectly led him to attend Rutgers. “In the 1990s, the punk rock underground was a huge scene in New Brunswick,” he says. He began attending “basement” shows—literally, local bands playing in someone’s basement—and realized he could combine that interest with the academic rigor that Rutgers’ English department has long been known for.

Rutgers “was a really stimulating academic environment,” he says, adding that some of his favorite courses were 18th- and 19th-century literature with Professor William Galperin and critical theory with Richard Dienst, now an emeritus professor. After getting his master’s degree in magazine writing at Columbia in 2008, Pompeo wrote for the weekly New York Observer and then several other publications before moving on to Vanity Fair in 2017.

An Enduring Whodunit

In doing research for Blood and Ink, Pompeo relied heavily on Rutgers’ Special Collections and University Archives, which he says houses the definitive academic archive on the murders. He also drew on original files and physical evidence held by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and materials at the New Brunswick Free Public Library, which only a few years ago discovered “a trove of long-lost records from the case,” he says.

Those sources enriched his book with “a level of detail that other books [on the case] don’t have,” he says. In addition, no other work has “looked at the case through the lens of the media and how influential the tabloid war in New York was in the case.”

Pompeo says that while the Hall-Mills murder case may never be solved, its enduring mystery is what fascinates people. He adds, “Yearning for something you probably can’t obtain—to me, that makes it all the more a compelling story.”

Pompeo will talk about Blood and Ink in a virtual event sponsored by Rutgers University Libraries on Thursday, November 10, at 4 p.m. on Zoom. Registration is required. Click here for more information.