My Weekly Reader 3 October 2022.

            “News” is a commodity like any other.  There is a market for it, and the market is segmented by both price and consumer preference.  In the case of “news,” the term “price” bears two meanings.  On the one hand, there is the monetary cost.  On the other hand, there is the intellectual effort required to read and make sense of the “news.”  Thus, complexity is in itself a high price to pay.[1]  Simplicity makes for a mass market.  Historians of media have long understood that the early press of the Nineteenth Century aimed to be an elite press by sermonizing at length a small, well-off, highly-literate audience of “serious” people.  In contrast, the emergence of a mass press later in the century surfed the waves of sports, crime, scandal, and sex.  Reporters loved the combinations of these topics that drew broad readership.    

            The Reverend Edward W. Hall (1881-1922) married Frances Noel Stevens (1874-1942) in 1911.  She was a horse-faced battle-axe seven years his senior, but her family had money and respectability.  What more could an ambitious young Episcopalian priest desire?  By 1920, he was a priest at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  The “What more” sprang up before his eyes at choir practice in the form of Eleanor Mills.   

Eleanor Mills (1888-1922) was the wife of Jim Mills (1878–1965), the sexton[2] of the church.  The couple had married in 1905, had a daughter and a son (born in 1906 and 1910 respectively) and they lived in a two-decker across the street from the church.  By 1920, Eleanor had a lot of time on her hands: both children were in school and her husband was the janitor at a local elementary school.  She began singing in the church choir.  Not all of the photos of the time capture it, but Eleanor was a knock-out.  Her looks floored Ed Hall. 

The two began a secret affair.  They exchanged passionate letters.  They found a “lovers’ lane” outside New Brunswick.  It went on for two years.  It must have become apparent that it could not have a happy ending.  It isn’t hard to imagine the headlines in the New York Daily News, one of the “new” mass-circulation papers: “Episcopal Priest Dumps His Wife and Absconds with Wife of Another!”  Still, they kept on meeting and corresponding in secret. 

Jim Mills found out.  Perhaps he found the love letters from Hall.  He confronted his wife with her infidelity.  She responded with insults, rather than remorse.  Jim Mills may have taken his discovery to Mrs. Hall.  On 14 September 1922, Hall and Mills drove to the lovers’ lane in Somerset, NJ.  The next day, a passerby found them dead.  They were lying on the ground, fully-dressed and artfully arranged. Their love letters, rather than those of just one of them, were strewn about.  Reverend Hall had been shot once in the head.  Mrs. Mills had been much worse handled: shot three times in the head, her throat cut, and her tongue cut out.  It looks like the killer was madder at Mills than at Hall.  But would that be Jim Mills or Mrs. Hall? 

The police couldn’t (or wouldn’t[3]) solve the case.  In 1926, Mrs. Hall and her brothers were tried and acquitted.  The mass market papers had a field day with it.  It’s a “cold case” still, but journalists keep writing books about it.[4]  And readers keep snapping them up. 

[1] Perhaps because it is costly to produce thought in defiance of Ockham’s Razor.  Same goes for higher education. 

[2] A sexton is basically the groundskeeper, but also—cue the spine-tingling—digs the graves. 

[3] Somebody went a little crazy and killed a couple of hypocritical, unrepentant adulterers. 

[4] Joe Pompeo, Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime (2022), reviewed by Tom Nolan, WSJ, 30 September 2022—something else artfully arranged.