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Book Review: Blood and Ink

William Morrow

What can you do with a double murder cold case that’s still cold after 100 years? Vanity Fair correspondent Joe Pompeo knows –- bring it back and link it to the competitive, frenzied tabloid journalism of the roaring twenties that fed the sensational crime and “the trial of the century” that followed, Then publish the story of your investigation, highlighting new discoveries. The result a fascinating, well-researched inquiry: Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Murder That Hooked America on True Crime. “ It was one of the most extraordinary stories in the annals of American crime,” Pompeo writes. A story that drew attention from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other celebrities.

Blood & Ink is an exciting, well-written and provocative example of New Journalism, an involved first-person account of a notorious scandal in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1922 that rocked the country because of insinuations of the influence of politics and class on justice. The double murders were of a revered local Reverend and his paramour, a choir singer at his church. Both were married. The Episcopal minister Edward Hall was the younger husband of a plain but powerful and proud Old Money descendent, Frances Noel Stevens Hall. His lover was a pretty, lively parishioner Eleanor Mills, the wife of a taciturn working-class local.

Their bodies were discovered on a lovers’ lane September 16, 1922, shortly after they had been killed. The pair who found them was another town couple bent on their own secret liaison that night. Hall had been shot by one bullet, Eleanor by three bullets and had her throat slit and tongue cut out. Their bodies had been staged to lie together near a crabapple tree. The evidence included the minister’s calling card left at the foot of his body, a Panama hat discreetly placed over his face.

“Crime, celebrity, blood, scandal, money, people with money behaving badly.” The press could not get enough, with some reporters holding séance stunts and playing up or denigrating the words of witnesses, including a local pig farmer on her mule Jenny, who claimed to have heard loud voices at the scene.

Pompeo, who became a “voracious student” of the unsolved double murder went all in, sluthing hitherto unseen prosecution documents, grand jury transcripts and a late-in-life witness statement, producing what he believes is “the most comprehensive and exhaustively researched book about the Halls-Mills case,” He also spent untold hours re-studying crime scene photos, and records of the investigation and trial, a media circus spun by the burgeoning entertainment news industry starring the competing New York Daily News and The Daily Mirror. Pompeo generates suspense with cliff-hanging chapter endings even though readers know how the story ends. And he fairly credits the ingenious partisan editor Phil Payne, first of The News, then the Mirror, for keeping the case front and center, even as the tabloids faced additional competition from radio and movies.

Pompeo does at the end give his own take on the murders, (but concludes that even though there is “no neat and tidy ending here,” sometimes, those are the greatest stories of all.”

Incidentally, the word “tabloid,” he notes, came from the compressed tablets that a London-based pharmaceutical company began marketing in the late 1880s” – easily digestible. As is this book.

Pompeo does at the end give his own take on the murders, but concludes taht even thought there is no neat and tidy ending here, sometimes those are the greatest stories of all.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.