Frances Hall, Henry Stevens, and William Stevens Trial: 1926
Frances Hall, Henry Stevens, and
William Stevens Trial: 1926
Defendants: Frances Stevens Hall, Henry Stevens, and William Stevens
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence E. Case, Robert H. McCarter, and Timothy N. Pfeiffer
Chief Prosecutors: Francis L. Bergen and Alexander Simpson
Judges: Frank L. Cleary and Charles W. Parker
Place: Somerville, New Jersey
Dates of Trial: November 3-December 3, 1926
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: This trial came four years after the execution-style murders of two lovers—both adulterers—had produced sensational headlines nationwide. In what mystery writer Rex Stout called "sustained official ineptitude surely never surpassed anywhere," New Jersey authorities were unable for four years to produce an indictment. When they finally did so and the trial resulted in acquittal, The New York Times commented, "Jersey Justice can at least acquit the innocent if it cannot always find the guilty." The crime has never been solved.
On Saturday morning, September 16, 1922, a young couple strolling on a lovers' lane on the outskirts of New Brunswick, New Jersey, discovered two bodies. A woman's head lay on a man's right arm, her hand on his knee, a scarf over her throat. The man's business card leaned against his foot. Scattered over the bodies were pieces of paper.
The man was the Reverend Edward W. Hall, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist. Handsome and popular, he had some 11 years earlier, at the age of 30 married 37-year-old Frances Noel Stevens, daughter of a well-to-do New Brunswick family.
"I Have the Greatest of All Blessings"
It was known almost instantly who the murdered woman was, for it was common knowledge that Reverend Hall was deeply involved with a member of the St. John's choir, Eleanor Mills. Her quiet and unambitious husband James served as sexton of the church. The country was titillated when the newspapers, hot on the trail of a story of torrid love, revealed that the papers scattered over the bodies were love letters such as this:
There isn't a man who could make me smile as you did today. 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. My heart is his, my life is his, all I have is his, poor as my body is, scrawny as they say my skin may be, but I am his forever.
The autopsies reported that the minister had been shot once and the 32-year-old choir singer three times—both in the head. Her throat had been slit from ear to ear and her voice box nearly removed.
Middlesex and Somerset county detectives and prosecutors vied for authority, for the bodies had been found almost on the line between the two counties. Soon Middlesex County prosecutor Joseph Stricker charged one Clifford Hayes with the murders. He believed a young man who said Hayes had mistaken the victims for a girlfriend and her father, whom Hayes had threatened. But Hayes was jailed in Somerset County, where its prosecutor was unable to make the mistaken-identity theory explain the slit throat or the love letters. Two days later, Hayes' accuser admitted he had lied.
Meantime, in four weeks, the police and the prosecutors had found no reason to suspect the choir singer's husband, James Mills, whom columnist Damon Runyon later described as "a harmless, dull little fellow." As for Frances Hall, she had spent the evening of the murders with her husband's visiting niece after Reverend Hall had gone out in response to a call from Eleanor Mills. At 2:30 in the morning, Frances Hall had discovered that her husband had not returned. With her brother Willie Stevens, who had been at home the entire evening, she had gone to the church to search for her husband.
The police questioned Frances Hall and her brothers extensively on October 17, even forcing her to don the gray coat she had worn on her middle-of-the-night search and submit to inspection by an unidentified woman who peered at her intently.
By now, countless eager curiosity-seekers, propelled by daily sensational newspaper stories, had traipsed through the lovers' lane property. The weekends brought hundreds of cars, police to handle traffic, and vendors to hawk peanuts, popcorn, and soft drinks.
A Mule-Riding Pig Woman
At the end of October, a 50-year-old widow named Jane Gibson, who raised hogs near the murder site, disclosed that she had mounted a mule on the night of September 14 to follow a suspected thief. In the lovers' lane, she had seen two men and two women silhouetted against the night sky, then heard screams and shots and the shouted name "Henry."
Dubbing her "The Pig Wooman," the press thronged Gibson's dilapidated living room. She told them she had always wanted to talk to the police, but they wouldn't listen. When Hayes was arrested, she had forced them to pay attention. It was she who had peered intently at Frances Hall at police headquarters.
The grand jury spent five days hearing 67 witnesses, including The Pig Woman. It took no action.
Three and a half years later, a piano tuner named Arthur S. Richl filed a petition for annulment of his 10-month marriage. His wife, he said, had withheld from him "knowledge of the doings in the well-known Hall-Mills case." He said his wife, who at the time was a maid in the Hall household, told Mrs. Hall on September 14, 1922,
… that she knew Dr. Hall intended to elope with Mrs. Mills. About ten o'clock that night respondent [Mrs. Riehl], Mrs. Hall, and Willie Stevens were driven to Phillips farm.…Respondent told your petitioner that she got five thousand dollars for her part in the matter and for keeping quiet about it.… Respondent told your petitioner Willie Stevens was a good shot and that there was always a pistol in the Hall library drawer.
Mrs. Richl denounced her husband's statement as "a pack of lies." But for the next three weeks, the New York Daily Mirror, a new Hearst paper eager to win a circulation war with the established Daily News, led the press in demanding the reopening of the Hall-Mills case. At midnight on July 28, Frances Hall was arrested and arraigned. Over the next month, several hearings, each with more than 50 witnesses, produced enough testimony to convince the grand jury to indict not only her but her brothers Willie and Henry Stevens and their cousin, Henry Carpender, for each murder. Special Prosecutor Alexander Simpson asked for a separate trial for Carpender.
The trial turned Somerville's Main Street into what one wag called "a country fair," with dozens of souvenir and refreshment stands. In the courthouse, some 300 reporters pumped their stories into 60 leased wires while 28 special operators handled a 129-position switchboard moved in from the recent Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney prizefight in Philadelphia. In view of the intense interest, Somerset County Judge Frank L. Cleary invited New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Charles W. Parker, who had presided over some of the hearings, to help him run the trial in the murder of Eleanor Mills.
For the prosecution, a fingerprint expert testified that Reverend Hall's business card bore Willie Stevens' fingerprint, despite the fact that it had been handled by police and reporters and the curious, had developed "flyspecks," and after three years had languished in the possession of the editor of the Daily Mirror.
The Pig Woman provided the ultimate drama. Severely ill, she was brought by ambulance to the courthouse, where she lay flat in a bed before judges and jury and told again her story of riding her mule into the night and hearing voices. She said she had heard a woman shout, "Explain those letters." Then, she went on, "I could hear somebody's wind going out, and somebody said, 'Ugh!' "A flashlight shone, and she saw Henry Stevens. Then a woman said, "Oh, Henry," and another screamed "Oh, my; oh, my!" She heard a shot, then three shots, and she rode away.
Defense attorney Clarence Case worked to destroy The Pig Woman's credibility. Known as Mrs. Gibson, she said she was really married to a Mr. Easton—except that she couldn't remember in which church or city she married him, and at the hearings four years earlier, she had denied that marriage. Hadn't she been married in 1890 to a man who divorced her in 1898 for adultery? Had she lived with Harry Ray? Had she known "Stumpy" Gillan? She couldn't remember.
The defense produced witnesses to prove that Henry Stevens spent the night of the murders bluefishing on the Jersey shore. Three fingerprint experts could find no resemblance between the smudge on the card and Willie Stevens' prints. The detective who received the card in 1922 said he had put his initials on it then, but the card in evidence showed no initials.
"A Sort of Genius"
Cross-examining, Simpson asked Willie Stevens if it wasn't "rather fishy" to look for the missing minister in the middle of the night. Willie Stevens said, "I don't see that it is at all fishy." The prosecutor wanted to know how Stevens could prove he had been in his room during the evening of September 14. "If a person sees me go upstairs," said Stevens, "isn't that a conclusion that I was in my room?"
The press hailed Willie Stevens. The deflated prosecutor called him "a sort of genius."
Frances Hall testified that her husband was "absolutely" devoted to her. Her interest in and devotion to Eleanor Mills was demonstrated by the fact that she had taken Mills to the hospital for a kidney operation in January and paid her bills there.
Having heard 87 witnesses for the state and 70 for the defense, the jury deliberated for five hours. It found the three defendants not guilty of the murder of Eleanor Mills. The next morning, Justice Parker granted the New Jersey attorney general's motion for dismissal of all remaining charges against them. All charges against Henry Carpender were then dropped.
Willie Stevens, Henry Carpender, and Frances Hall sued the Daily Mirror for libel, each asking for $500,000. Later they sued William Randolph Hearst and the Evening Journal. All suits were settled out of court for undisclosed sums.
On the books of the Somerset County prosecutor, the Hall-Mills case continues to be unsolved.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Kunstler, William M. The Minister and the Choir Singer. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1964.
Nash, Jay Robert. Almanac of World Crime. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.
Sifakis. Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts On File, 1982.