A young couple strolling down a lovers’ lane outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a September morning made a gruesome discovery: the bodies of a man and a woman lying under a crab-apple tree.
According to accounts—because confusion over jurisdiction left the bodies in an unsecured scene for hours, there were many—the man’s face was obscured by a Panama hat; the woman’s throat was wrapped in a blood-soaked scarf; her throat had been savagely cut and the wound was crawling with maggots. Both victims had been shot in the head. And the bodies had been arranged after death, her head resting on his arm, her hand on his knee, both pointed toward the crab-apple tree. Torn love letters were scattered between the bodies, and the man’s calling card lay at his feet: He was Edward Wheeler Hall, a New Brunswick Episcopalian minister whose wife had ties to the community’s most prominent families. The woman, 34-year-old Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, was a congregant—and his mistress.
It took hours for the police to clear the scene, and by the time they managed to do so, the surrounding area was trampled, the tree had been stripped of bark by souvenir-hunters, and the business card had been passed from hand to hand. The press attacked the case, reporters and photographers descending on the area. The bodies were exhumed and reexamined. The young couple who’d discovered them were questioned again and again, as was the girl’s father. He (the father) was later jailed for incest, she for incorrigibility. When Hall’s diary and a packet of their love letters were discovered in Mills’s house, her daughter promptly sold them to the New York American. One school of thought held that the Klan was involved.
Prime suspects were Hall’s wealthy widow and her two brothers—one eccentric (and “a sort of a genius”), the other a skilled gunman. But indictments did not come quickly; a loose silent film adaptation, The Goose Woman, arrived first. When the three were belatedly brought to trial, in 1926, the courtroom circus was wild indeed. Damon Runyon was a reporter, to give you an idea. Western Union had to hire extra telegraphers. Antics included the unreliable key prosecution witness being rolled into court on a hospital bed: a mule-riding hog farmer whom the press dubbed “the pig woman” and whose mother said from the crowd, “She is a liar! Liar, liar, liar!” All in all, 157 witnesses would be called, and the New York Times would devote countless front-page stories to the trial. Everyone got off.