Thursday, December 6, 2018

Guest Post by Tony Medawar: The Orchard Murder Case--S. S. Van Dine Encounters True Crime Part One

It has long been known that the creator of Philo Vance, Willard Huntington Wright or S.S. Van Dine as he is better known outside art circles, authored a series of articles about real-life crime for Cosmopolitan, which were published “as by Philo Vance.” What is less well-known is that these cases were not the first time that Van Dine’s controversial detective had commented on an actual case.

Three years before the series of articles in Cosmopolitan, Van Dine, writing as Philo Vance, had set out his views on one of the most sensational crimes in American history, the so-called Hall-Mills Murder Case, “a tragedy that was to set New Brunswick [New Jersey] and its environs to quivering with astonishment and horror” and whose every twist and turn would be reported around the world.  

Almost immediately the Hall-Mills Murder case was recognized as “a classic of scientific criminology.” Writing for The Boston Globe, famed American journalist and columnist Dorothy Dix (Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer) described the case at the time as “a super-detective story” before-- anticipating novels like Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case--setting out eight possible solutions.

It is no surprise then that the case caught the eye of Willard Huntington Wright, then starting out on his career as a writer of detective stories; and no surprise either that the case would go on to provide the basis for several mystery novels including The Bellamy Trial (1927 by Frances Noyes Hart, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (1931) by Anthony Abbott and The Crime (1959) by Stephen Longstreet.

the : Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills

A little after seven on the evening of Thursday, 14 September 1922, a telephone call was made to a second floor apartment of a house near the Protestant Episcopal Church of St John the Divine in the small city of New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey. The apartment was home to Eleanor Mills, principal soloist in the church choir, and her husband James, the church sexton. Eleanor Mills told her husband that the call had come from Henry’s, the neighborhood grocery store, and she went upstairs to her room.

Around half an hour later she came downstairs, wearing one of her newest dresses and her newest hat. Her husband James asked where she was going and, perhaps playfully, his young wife suggested that if he really wanted to find out he should follow her. Mills did not do so and stayed at home with their two children, Dan aged twelve, and Charlotte, aged fifteen – the latter of whom would later be stalked by the paparazzi as she strove to secure justice for her mother.

The Washington Times reported that at two in the morning James Mills, unable to sleep, had decided to go for a walk. “Thinking she might have gone there for choir practice,” he headed in the direction of St John’s, where he later claimed to have waited until dawn. It would also emerge later that, in what her husband would later concede looked “like an elopement,” Eleanor Mills had taken a trolley car, reaching the end of the line at 8.20 p.m. The terminus was but a short distance from a deserted farm known as the Philips Place near the Delaware and Raritan canal in the western outskirts of Middlesex County.

When Mills returned home, he found that Eleanor was still not there and so, at nine the next morning, he went back to the church. On arriving he found Frances Hall, the wife of the rector of St John’s, Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall. Mrs Hall asked Mills if he had seen her husband and, when Mills told her that his wife was also missing, they decided to go together to the police station.

Two days later, Pearl Bahmer and Raymond “Ray” Schneider, initially described by the press as a “boy and girl, neither as yet in their teens”--even though Pearl Bahmer was 16 years old and Schneider 21 (or 19 or 23--reports vary on this point; likewise his first name is sometimes given as Paul or Michael or Charles and his surname as Snyder)--discovered two bodies lying side by side face upward a foot apart in an orchard under a gnarled crab apple tree in a field about fifteen feet from a private road, DeRussey’s Lane, which led to an unoccupied farmhouse and--according to the Central New Jersey Home News--was known as a local “trysting spot.”

uninhabited Phillips Farmhouse--known as a local trysting spot
The first body was that of a soberly dressed man.  His coat was buttoned and his eyeglasses were in place while a Panama hat was over his face. The other was that of a young woman.  She was wearing a blue velvet hat and a blue dress with red polka dots, which had been smoothed down, and a brown scarf was covering her face.

The man had been shot once from behind, the bullet entering about three inches above his ear, while the woman had been shot three times, once in the center of her forehead, once in the upper right cheek and once in her right temple; her tongue had been cut out and her throat cut with a sharp knife in what some medical examiners would later describe as a “necklace incision,” although others who examined the body believed that her throat had not been cut at all. There was also bruising on her left arm, suggesting to some, including the New York Evening World, that she had been held tightly.

From the condition of the bodies, the blood that had drained from the wounds and the flies covering the decaying flesh, it was evident that the dead man and woman had lain where they were for about thirty-six hours.

While no weapon was found, there were two exploded .32 caliber cartridges near where the woman’s body lay and a third cartridge dropped from Hall’s clothes when the body was moved. Scattered near the bodies--“in the greatest confusion” according to the Billings Weekly Gazette--were several unaddressed and unsigned letters, apparently written “in a woman’s hand,” and a number of visiting cards, one of which was lying on the rector’s body and would later be shown to bear a fingerprint.

Pearl Bahmer and Raymond Schneider went immediately to the New Brunswick police station, where officers concluded that the case was not theirs to investigate because the location at which the bodies had been found was in Somerset County. The identity of the victims was quickly confirmed: Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, aged 32, and the Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall, aged 41, who lived with his wife, her brother William “Crazy Willie” Stevens and several domestic servants.

the panama hat
Lead responsibility for the investigation was transferred to Somerset County and put in the hands of a detective called George Totten who, perhaps surprisingly, immediately discounted James Mills as a suspect.

The Washington Times reported that, at the inquest, Totten “advanced the theory that robbery may have been the motive for the double slaying … Hall usually carried a considerable sum of money and a watch. No watch was found on his body and there was but 61 cents in cash in his pockets.”

The coroner agreed that suicide was not the explanation and the newspapers began to speculate. The Salt Lake Telegram concluded that:

There is no doubt that this was a double murder. The shots entered the body in such a way that any theory that one of the pair shot the other and then committed suicide is absurd. I am of the opinion that the murder was not committed where the bodies were found, but that the bodies were transferred to the spot in an automobile.

At the inquest, Totten revealed that some of the scattered letters had been written by Mrs Mills, including one that left no doubt as to her feelings for him:

There isn’t a man who could make me smile as you can. I have the greatest of all blessings – a noble man’s deep, true and noble love, and my heart is his. I am his forever.

With the police openly admitting to being confounded as to the explanation of the murders, journalists were more than ready to offer theories, including the New York Times:

Although [the authorities] are convinced that jealousy was the motive and that a jealous woman played a leading role in the tragedy, they have failed to follow this theory to its conclusions and find the woman. They admit, also, that while most of the circumstances, such as the love letters written by Mrs Mills, points to jealousy as the motive, there are other circumstances pointing to other motives. The disappearance of the rector’s money and watch might mean robbery, if these articles were not taken merely to confuse the investigators.

The gossip that had existed about the rector and Mrs Mills might indicate the opportunity for blackmail. It is even considered possible by the investigators that the murders may have been committed by some volunteer moral censor or censors, either acting as an individual or concertedly in some such organization as the Ku Klux Klan. That a religious fanatic might have committed the crime is another theory

Charlotte Mills
daughter of the dead woman
Everyone known to the rector or the choir leader--other than James Mills--was considered a suspect:

a couple who had heard screams in the woods on the night of the murders

a woman with whom Mrs Mills had had an altercation in St. Johns (ostensibly about a prayer book but gossips muttered darkly that it was in reality about considerably more than that)

Hall’s widow Frances, whom Eleanor Mills’ daughter Charlotte had “bitterly assailed,” according to the Central New Jersey Home News

Frances Hall’s other brother, Henry Stevens, who was a well-known rifle marksman and had left New Brunswick immediately after the Reverend Hall’s funeral

Every incident surrounding the case was mined for clues, such as the occasion when Mrs. Mills and a number of women went camping with the rector and, after he had offered to drive one of the women home, Mrs. Mills “threw herself down on her cot and sobbed hysterically.

And every stranger was a suspect, such as the drivers of two cars seen speeding near the crime scene at 1am on Friday morning, or the two Italians who, it was alleged, had been seen boarding a small boat on the canal that ran close to the murder site but had not been seen since.

some decidedly queer characters: Reverend Hall and his flock

On 24 September, Pearl Bahmer and Raymond Schneider were called to the Somerset Prosecutor’s Office. Schneider, described in press reports as a roustabout, had married two months earlier but he was already separated from his wife and he admitted to having visited the old Philips farmhouse with Pearl Bahmer on several occasions before 16 September. However, he claimed that he had not in fact been with Pearl when she discovered the bodies because at about nine o’clock he had left her near the trolley line terminus. After that, he had met up with a friend--Clifford Hayes--and another boy named Leon Kaufman, though he conceded that the three had then gone for a walk close to the old Phillips farmhouse before returning home by 9.45pm. Unsurprisingly, Schneider too became a suspect.

After questioning, in the first of what would be many extraordinary developments Pearl Bahmer was arrested on a charge of juvenile delinquency apparently unconnected with the murders.

Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey 1929

After the questioning of Pearl Bahmer and Raymond Schneider, the Little Rock Daily News set out three new theories:

1. That the parson and singer were slain by blackmailers whom they had gone to the farm to meet. In this connection, it was conjectured that perhaps the torn letters, said to have been love epistles, had been stolen by the blackmailers and were to have been delivered to Rev. Hall for a sum of money he is known to have had on his person.

2. That the crime was committed by a jealous woman who resented the attention that the Reverend Hall had been paying to the pretty wife of the church sexton.

3. That the two had gone to the farm and been surprised by robbers who, after a struggle, killed the pair and robbed the clergyman.

Then everything went crazy.
Jane and "Jennie"

The King Kleagle of the New Jersey Ku Klux Klan issued a denial of any involvement in the murders.

Nicholas Bahmer admitted that he had gone “gunning” for Schneider on the night of the murder.

The man who had discovered the body, Raymond Schneider, said his friend Clifford Hayes had shot Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills after mistaking them for his sweetheart and her lover.

And then everything went even crazier as one Jane Gibson--an eccentric known as the Pig Woman came forward--claiming to have been an eye witness to the murders, which she said she had seen while out riding on her mule "Jennie.

Jane Gibson’s statement led Ray Schneider to retract his claim and, more importantly, led Frances Hall to employ the former assistant district attorney of New York County to investigate the case. He did and his investigations led the authorities to arrest Frances Hall, her brothers Henry and William and a local man, Wall Street broker Henry Carpender, on a charge of murder. (Carpender won the right to a separate trial and in fact was never placed in the dock.)



During the trial, it was revealed (in disputed evidence) that the fingerprint on the card found on Hall’s body belonged to William Stevens who, it was disclosed, owned a .32 calibre pistol.  And it was also confirmed that Henry Stevens had an apparently perfect alibi--he had, he said, been fishing in Lavallette with several friends. Frances Hall did not have an alibi but she was related to many of the wealthiest and most influential families in New Brunswick, which might or might not be entirely irrelevant.

Before the trial of the Stevens siblings began on 3 November 1926, more than four years after the deaths of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall took place, the Newspaper Enterprise Association approached S.S. Van Dine to author two pieces on the Halls-Mills case, which were published while the trial was proceeding. Three days after the trial began, SS Van Dine entered the scene, or rather did his fictional Great Detective, Philo Vance.  

To Be Continued....

Mystery Genre authority Tony Medawar has most recently edited the short crime fiction anthology Bodies in the Library (2018).  A second volume will be published in 2019.  In an upcoming issue of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, Tony will discuss the recently discovered cartoon murder cases of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance.


  1. Replies
    1. It's coming, Doug Monroe, my apologies. Getting caught up again after Christmas. Thank you for your first time post.