Hall-Mills Murders of the Reverend and the Choir Girl
By Bruce Doorly
|A sign outside the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerville says “The Court House was the location of the famous Hall-Mills murder
trial in 1926.” But no other details are given on it.
So, what was this trial and murder? A check on the internet shows that indeed the Hall-Mills murders were sensational and fascinating with an interesting cast of characters. It was an ongoing front-page story throughout the country for the month after the murders in 1922 and again four years later in 1926 when the trial took place.
|On September 14th 1922 a Reverend from the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick, Edward Hall,
along with a pretty choir girl from the same church, Eleanor Mills, were found murdered together just over the county line in Somerset County
off Easton Avenue in a “lover’s lane”. They were both married, but not to each other. The newspaper reports said that they had been
having an affair for over four years. This affair was well known by most everyone in town.
The murder scene was staged to send a message. The bodies were laid side by side with the arms extended outward resting on each other. Love letters that were written from the choir girl to the Reverend were torn and placed between the bodies.
Reverend Hall and Eleanor Mills
|Both the Reverend and the choir girl had been in mis-matched marriages.
Reverend Hall was married to a wealthy socially prominent yet unattractive woman Frances Stevens Hall. She was 7 years his senior and married him when she was 37. That marriage happened when the Reverend first moved into town and was looking to establish an identity and social position. A marriage of convenience – common for the times.
As for the choir girl, Eleanor Mills, 34 at her death, she married when she was just 17 to James Mills who was described as meek and unambitious. Reverend Hall and the attractive choir girl found in each other what they did not have at home.
|At first there were many theories|
||The prime suspects were the reverend’s wife Frances Stevens Hall and her 50-year-old brother Willie Stevens who lived with her.
Willie had a mental condition that could not be fully diagnosed in that era. He was like a child in some ways as he could not hold a job or manage
his own affairs.
Frances said her and Willie were home that night at 10:15 PM - the time that many heard four shots fired in lover’s lane. But no witnesses, including her two live-in servants, could confirm that. Frances Hall initially said she and Willie were home the entire night, but changed her story after a night watchman across the street reported that he saw someone who looked like Frances go into her home at 2:30 AM that night. Suddenly she recalled that she did go out looking for her husband at 2 AM because he had not returned.
The prosecutor reasoned that they had something to do with the killings, but could not prove anything so no arrests were made. The story disappeared from the newspapers.
|The prime suspects|
Willie Stevens and Frances Hall
|But four years later, in November of 1926, the prosecutors finally decided to try the case against Frances Stevens Hall,
her brother Willie Stevens, and another brother as well as a cousin who would be tried separately.
As the Hall-Mills murder trial was set to begin the national media jumped on the story again with daily front-page coverage.
Each day of the trial saw a fully packed courtroom with both curiosity seekers and hundreds of members of the national press.
|The Courthouse was packed every day of the trial|
|But the prosecution still had a weak case. A business card belonging to the Reverend had been found at the foot
of his dead body that had a partial (controversial) fingerprint on it that they claimed belonged to Willie Stevens.
But at the murder scene that card had been contaminated as it had been passed around by many curious onlookers.
The prosecution did have someone who said she witnessed the killings. But this was a very strange woman who had only come forward a suspicious two weeks after the murders. This woman owned a farm with many pigs one mile away from the murder scene. She was described as a nut and storyteller. Those who knew her farm said it was disgusting. For the trial she would be known as “the pig woman”.
|The bodies were found off Easton Avenue and |
Franklin Boulevard (in 1922 it was called Debussey Lane)
|Her claim was that on the night of the murders she was pursuing a “corn thief” on her mule when she
accidentally came across a group of people arguing in “lover’s lane”. Unseen by the group she stopped to observe –
but she said that it was hard to see as it was quite dark. She said tensions escalated and four shots were fired resulting
in a man and a woman falling to the ground and then she quickly returned home.
To add to her bizarre tale, she said she had lost a moccasin in her hurried exit and thus two hours later headed back again on her mule to the scene. This time she said the night was well lit and she saw clearly Frances Stevens Hall alone sobbing over her husband’s dead body.
|The location of the bodies was here.|
The bodies themselves were never photographed.
|It sounded entirely unbelievable, but when the prosecutors checked the astrological charts it was found that the moon had risen over the horizon between her visits thus explaining the discrepancies in the lighting conditions.|
|Today on Rodney Avenue a housing development |
is where a farm once was.
|Still disbelieving the pig woman’s incredible story, the prosecutor, doing his due diligence,
took her to the New Brunswick Train Station as she claimed that she did get a good look at one of the men at the murder scene,
but she did not know him. (Ironically this “good look” was during her first visit when it was much darker.)
So, the prosecutor thought just maybe at the busy train station she might run across the man that she said she saw.
Surprisingly she picked out a man who turned out to be a cousin of Frances Stevens Hall – the suspect in the murder. Was the pig woman’s bizarre story actually true? The desperate prosecution had little evidence to put forward in their case so they would make her the star witness in the Hall-Mills murder trial.
|One Raritan man Ed Tillman was on the jury.|
He is 5th from left.
|However, days before the pig woman’s scheduled date to testify she became deathly ill and was admitted to a hospital.
But they still needed her in the courtroom to testify so she was brought into the courtroom on a stretcher and placed in a hospital bed. From there she gave her testimony as a doctor and nurse monitored her vital signs. The photo of her in the bed in the court room is one of the most incredible photos in judicial history.
|The Pig Woman testifies in a bed in the courtroom|
|Her story was not believed by the jury. And that fingerprint evidence was torn apart by the defense.
At the trial’s end the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in just a few hours. The widow of the slain Reverend, Frances Stevens Hall,
along with her brothers were free. The cousin, who was to be tried later separately, had the charges dropped.
The crime for the murder of Reverend Hall and the choir girl Eleanor Mills remains unsolved. Today artifacts from the case are on display in the jury room of the courthouse.
|Today in the Jury Room of the Courthouse|
artifacts of the trial are on display