Showing posts with label Sarah Churchwell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sarah Churchwell. Show all posts

25 September 2014

The Minister and the Choir Singer


by Eve Fisher

This summer, among other things, I read Sarah Churchwell's "Careless People: Murder and the Making of The Great Gatsby". Very well written, very well researched. Churchwell says that The Great Gatsby was influenced, and borrowed from, the Hall-Mills murder case, which captured everyone's imagination from Damon Runyan (who was one of the reporters on the spot) to James Thurber ("A Sort of Genius") to William Kunstler ("The Minister and the Choir Singer"). The case was never solved, for a variety of reasons ranging from incomprehensibly bad police work to, as David Gates put it a while back, "a lack of any practical forensic approach", to the wholesale swamping of any reason or fact by a media storm that most people don't think existed until O. J. Simpson.

Eleanor Mills
On September 14, 1922, in New Brunswick, NJ, the bodies of Eleanor Rinehardt Mills and the Edward Wheeler Hall were discovered lying side by side under a crab-apple tree. They had been shot, and the bodies carefully arranged so that her left hand laid on his thigh, and his right hand on her neck. He had a hat over his face, and his calling card placed at his feet. Torn love letters were strewn over them. He was an Episcopal priest, and she sang in his choir. In the words of The New York Times, although both were married to other people, Hall and Mills "had long been friendly."

It was obvious they'd been shot, but the investigation was... unbelievable. According to Churchwell, the first doctor to look at Mrs. Mills body didn't even do an autopsy, since it was obvious she was dead by foul play; and it took two more autopsies to discover that Mrs. Mills had been shot three times, her throat cut, and her tongue cut out. There was no police cordoning of the area, and, as publicity blazed ("Priest and choir singer slaughtered in New Jersey!"), people came and went freely. It became such a tourist destination that, by the time of the 1926 trial, the crab-apple tree was entirely gone, hacked away by souvenir hunters.

Frances Noel Stevens
The prime suspects never changed: Hall's wife, Frances Noel Stevens (1874–1942), and her two brothers, Henry Hewgill Stevens (1869–1939) and William "Willie" Carpender Stevens (1872–1942). (James Thurber's essay was primarily about Willie Stevens, who was an odd duck all the way around; probably high-functioning Asperger's, in his world, he couldn't hold a job and spent most of his time hanging around the local fire house.)

The prosecution's key witness was Jane Gibson, a pig farmer on whose property the bodies were discovered. She would be known throughout the next few years as The Pig Woman. Because she was poor, uneducated, and highly "colorful", people quickly took sides regarding her story: she was either the bearer of ultimate truth or a crazy woman trying to get attention and money. Her first story was that her dog got her up and out around 9 on the night of the murder. She saw a man standing in her cornfield, so she got on her mule and rode towards him. As she got close, she saw four people by the crab apple tree. Then she heard gunshots, and one fell to the ground. She heard a woman scream, "Don’t", repeated three times. She said she turned her mule in the opposite direction, heard more gunshots and when she looked back, saw a second person fall and heard a woman shout "Henry".

Over time she saw more people; she saw fewer people; she heard more sounds; she saw a black man; she didn't see a black man. At the trial, she was a great sensation, rolled in on a hospital bed to give her testimony.

The trouble was, there was no proof, no evidence, and even if Mrs. Hall had arranged and/or participated in the murders, her husband was an adulterous pastor. The Hall/Stevens family were all acquitted, even though most historians and students of the case believe that they were guilty. (William Kunstler was the exception: he posited that the KKK committed the murders. Most people disagree.)

But the case captured the imagination of the day, especially since it was never solved. It held primacy in the public imagination until the tragic Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932.

Churchwell links this murder to The Great Gatsby, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, everyone was talking about it during the time F. Scott Fitzgerald was actually living in Great Neck ("East Egg" in the book). The novel takes place in 1922, the year of the crime. And there are patterns throughout: Hall gave Mills a novel - Simon Called Peter - (racy for the 1920s) that Fitzgerald has Nick Carraway read while Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, romp in the back bedroom. Myrtle and George Wilson are supposedly based on Eleanor and James Mills. George was a mechanic, James a janitor. Tom Buchanan describes George in the novel as "so dumb he doesn't know he's alive", and one of the reasons James Mills was never a credible suspect is that he first appeared to be so dumb he didn't know his wife was having an affair, and he didn't have the "manliness", apparently, to do something about it. Meanwhile, Myrtle and Eleanor were both sleeping above their station, desperate for another life, away from their boring, working-class husbands.

I don't know if Churchwell is right in all her surmises, but it's a fascinating case, and a great book. Start off slow: read Thurber's essay and/or Gatsby to whet your appetite; then go to Churchwell and discover the whole cast of characters. And let me know who you think did it.

(NOTE: I am, hopefully, in Quebec. See you in a week…)