Lovers’ Lane: The Hall-Mills Mystery (NBM)

A sensational affair ends in a gruesome murder in the latest volume of Rick Geary’s “Treasury of XXth Century Murder” series. 


80 pgs., B&W; $15.99
(W / A: Rick Geary)
It may not be as influential in historical terms as the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, subjects of a previous entry in Rick Geary’s Treasury of XXth Century Murder series, but the Hall-Mills murder kept the New York/New Jersey area buzzing for years. And no wonder, because the this case had everything a good juicy murder requires, including a sex scandal in an improbable setting, a multiplicity of suspects, and a proliferation of contradictory evidence.
In 1922, New Brunswick was a prosperous town in the Raritan Valley of New Jersey, a thriving commercial and industrial center and home to Rutgers College. The peace was shattered on September 14, when several people heard gunshots and screaming near the local “lover’s lane”; two days later, the bodies of a man and a woman were discovered in the area. They were laid out theatrically, with the man’s arm cradling the woman’s head and her arm touching his thigh, and with love letters strewn about the bodies and the man’s business card propped against his foot. The bodies were quickly identified as those of Edward Wheeler Hall, an Episcopal minister and husband of the Johnson & Johnson heiress Frances Noel Stevens, and Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, a member of the choir at Hall’s church and wife of James Mills, a school janitor and sexton at the church.
The letters found with the bodies made it clear that the two had been having an affair, and in fact this had been an open secret in the town for several years. There was no lack of people with a motive to commit the murder, including the spouses of the murder victims as well as other rivals for the Reverend Hall’s affections (he was quite a hit with the female members of his church). Some even believed the Ku Klux Klan was responsible, given their disapproval of adulterous couples and their love for imbuing violence with theatrical touches.
The pretrial hearings became something of a circus, as the area was overrun with reporters and vendors set up stands to supply refreshments and souvenirs to the crowds drawn by the notorious case. Not much came of the initial investigation, however, as witness statements were contradictory and the police work was shoddy—in particular, no effort had been made to safeguard the crime scene or prevent evidence from being handled—and the chief suspects had apparently ironclad alibis.
Four years later, spectacular claims about withheld information and bribery once again pushed the case into the headlines. This time, it did go to trial, and the show was even better the second time around: highlights included a forensics expert who testified that one of the bodies had been mutilated, and a key witness so ill she had to testify from a hospital bed wheeled into the courtroom. Add in a collection of new testimony, some of which contradicted that given at the previous hearing, and all kinds of evidence of dark activities going on in this apparently peaceful little town, and you may find yourself agreeing with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple that, in the most apparently innocent locations, “you turn over a stone, and you have no idea what will crawl out.”
Rick Geary’s distinctively inked style is a perfect match to the tales of bloodshed he favors—they recall both woodcuts and graphical newspaper illustrations of the Police Gazette variety, giving a period flavor to his work. His deadpan style of storytelling, as well as his unerring choice of unusual details to highlight, give the proceedings a touch of humor of the “what fools these mortals be” variety.
You can see a preview of the art for Lovers’ Lane on the NBM website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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