Thinkery & Verse present

S01 Episode 08: "The Fires of Hell." Frances Hall and the Stevens brothers are brought to trial

September 21, 2020 Thinkery & Verse, Kaitlin Ormerod Hutson, Johnny Kavanagh, Erin Bogert, Sean Ullmer Season 1 Episode 8
Thinkery & Verse present
S01 Episode 08: "The Fires of Hell." Frances Hall and the Stevens brothers are brought to trial
Thinkery & Verse present
S01 Episode 08: "The Fires of Hell." Frances Hall and the Stevens brothers are brought to trial
Sep 21, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Thinkery & Verse, Kaitlin Ormerod Hutson, Johnny Kavanagh, Erin Bogert, Sean Ullmer

Without further ado, let’s jump right back in to where we last left off in the summer of 1926. It has been almost four years since the murders, and it seems like everyone has forgotten about Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills. But a mix of partisan politics and provocative New York City media coverage ensures that the case will go to trial....

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Show Notes Transcript

Without further ado, let’s jump right back in to where we last left off in the summer of 1926. It has been almost four years since the murders, and it seems like everyone has forgotten about Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills. But a mix of partisan politics and provocative New York City media coverage ensures that the case will go to trial....

Want to support, work with, or give feedback to us? Email: [email protected]

Episode 7 Script

Title: “1926: Reinvestigation and Trial”

Johnny Kavanagh: Hello everyone and welcome back to That’s How the Story Goes: the Hall-Mills Murder Podcast brought to you by Thinkery and Verse. I’m your host Johnny Kavanagh.

Kaitlin Omerod Hutson: And I’m your other host Kaitlin Ormerod Hutson.

J: This episode is something of a part 2 to our last episode in which we talked about the initial investigation of the case that took place in 1922, so we recommend that if you haven’t yet listened to that episode that you do so before going ahead with this one. 

K: We’ll still be here when you get back, not to worry.

J: Exactly. So without further ado, let’s jump right back in to where we last left off in the summer of 1926. Its been almost four years since the murders and it seems like everyone has forgotten about our pair found under the crab apple tree. That is, until Louise Geist’s new husband makes a petition for divorce with some news that breathes life back into the case.

K: Louise Geist's, now Louise Reihl's, husband Arthur files a petition for divorce from her on July 3,1926. In it, he claims that Louise knew all about the murders at the time and was paid $5,000 by Frances Hall to keep quiet about what she knew. While Louise obviously denies this accusation, the story quickly becomes front page news with several papers picking it up and it eventually gets the attention of Governor Moore, who is still the governor from 1922.

J: By this time both of the prosecutors from Somerset and Middlesex counties that conducted the 1922 investigation are either dead or retired so the governor calls on their replacements as well as the attorney general to investigate these new claims an open the case back up again. Now the case has fresh eyes but also 4 years of time on people’s memories.

K: Despite the uphill battle in front of them, the new county prosecutors start poking around the case: reviewing the evidence from before that they can find, re-interviewing witnesses, etc. Two weeks after the governor calls for the investigation to be reopened, the Somerset prosecutor announces that new evidence has been discovered the conclusively points to Frances Hall as the murderer, though he declines to tell the press what that new evidence is, and a warrant is issued for her arrest. 

J: Frances is taken into custody around midnight on July 28th. Apparently she is surprisingly calm: merely asks to see the warrant and call her attorney. Once her lawyer verifies it’s legit, she goes with the detectives to Somerville to be arraigned. The next day Frances hires a new lawyer to add to her collection, Robert H. McCarter, who not only was one of the best known lawyers in New Jersey, he was also a former attorney general and a state senator.

K: On July 30th, Frances is released on bail: $7500 per murder charge, so $15,000 total, which would be about $220,000 today. Ordinarily bail is more difficult to get for a severe crime like murder, but the Somerset prosecutor was still loathe to disclose what the new evidence was that had led them to Frances in the first place. So without knowing what that evidence was, the judge decided that bail would be granted. 

J: Meanwhile, the governor has decided to go ahead and promote a special prosecutor right away instead of waiting for months like in 1922 for a few reasons: mainly to prevent the confusion that happened last time as the two counties tried-ish and failed to cooperate with each other but also because Frances was starting to assemble a very skilled legal team and he felt the state should be equally well-represented. The man Moore taps for the job is Alexander Simpson, another well-known and very experienced trial attorney, also a state senator, plus he was a friend of the governor. Simpson and the Somerset County prosecutor finally meet to exchange the evidence they have on August 2. Simpson already has concerns that there was external influence and corruption that influenced the last investigation so he’s eager to get a look at what evidence they have. Immediately it seems like his suspicions may be correct. They find that there’s actually a great deal of evidence missing from the 1922 investigation including: Willie Steven’s pistol, a group of witness statements, the autopsy reports, Edward’s glasses were wiped of fingerprints, and it also seemed like maybe some PIs had been hired to convince witnesses to change their stories.

K: Basically what Simpson found was a big, old mess. Documents were being kept all over the place without any real rhyme or reason why and little documentation or accountability as to where things were supposed to be or if they were there. Plus some papers had been found in the old Somerset prosecutor’s office after his death which were supposed to be sent to the safe in the Somerset county jail but apparently they never arrived and the replacement prosecutor never saw them.

J: So no one knows right now where that stuff went as well or even what was in those personal notes.

K: Right. As the first few weeks of August continue, Frances remains silent since her arrest and the press are starting to call her legal team the “million-dollar defense.” James Mills gets re-interviewed and he now admits that he had known about the affair for a long time and had complained about it, but didn’t divorce Eleanor because he, “lacked the money and was a busy man.” However, despite this admission that he’d known about the affair, which gave him a big motive, nothing he said could implicate him and the police never considered him a suspect. Charlotte was also brought in to be interviewed and cast even more shade on the previous investigation saying that the previous prosecutor had coached and limited her responses so it changed her testimony in front of the last grand jury so she wasn’t able to give the testimony that she wanted.

J: After all of that gathering of new evidence and reviewing the old, on August 12th Henry de la Bruere Carpender, Frances’ and Willie’s cousin, and Willie Stevens are arrested and charged with the murders of Eleanor and Edward. They both plead not guilty, of course. The next day a preliminary hearing begins to convince the judge that there’s enough evidence to hold both suspects until a grand jury can be convened. This hearing takes four days and 54 witnesses. They include: Jane Gibson, who repeats her testimony from 1922, as well as a man who testifies to seeing her on De Russey’s Lane on the 14th; Charlotte, who testifies to a conversation with Eleanor who was afraid she was ill and didn’t have long to live and asked her to take care of some letters from her to Edward, these were handed over in court but not read; the women who saw Eleanor and then Edward follow along Easton Avenue, and a man who claimed to have been given money to stop investigating during the original trial in 1922. At the end of the hearing the judge says, “I have come to the conclusion that in this case  sufficient case has been made out by the state to justify its submission to a grand jury for its determination. I have reached the conclusion, therefore, that these defendants should e committed to await the action of the grand jury.”

K: Meanwhile, the Hall family has added a new lawyer to its roster, Clarence Case, who is also the state senator for Somerset County-the county where the trial will eventually be held, and both Willie and Henry Carpender are denied bail.

J: Mean-meanwhile the investigation is starting to look even more closely at Ralph Gorsline and Henry (the brother) Stevens. Although Gorsline denied any knowledge in 1922, eventually he and Catherine Rastall both admit that they were in the area on the night of the murders and Gorsline says he lied to protect his family (he was married and had a daughter) and Catherine. They both confirmed what some of the other neighbors heard that night, a shot, a woman’s scream, and then three more shots.

K: September 14, 1926, four years to the day after the murders, the second grand jury is convened to hear the new evidence against Frances, Willie, and the two Henrys. At the grand jury people testify about seeing scratches on Frances’ face on the day of Edward’s funeral, that Ralph Gorsline had threatened Eleanor he was going to expose the affair if she didn’t stop, and one woman says she saw Henry Stevens in New Brunswick the day after the murders. The people that Henry had said could confirm his alibi that he was in Lavallette all were unable to do so. After all the evidence presented over the course of 3 days it only takes the grand jury 10 minutes to indict all four of the defendants for both counts of murder. All four plead not guilty and Frances’ bail is now up for renegotiation now that she’s been officially indicted for murder and they’re all going to trial. They eventually agree on a $40,000 bail, in addition to the $15,000 she’d already paid for a grand total of $55,000 dollars on bail. That would be almost $800,000 today. An arrest warrant is put out for Henry Stevens since he hadn’t been arrested yet and Willie and Henry (the cousin) Carpender are still being held without bail.

J: Now that they’re officially going to trial Simpson petitions the judge to allow what he calls a “foreign jury” which is basically just a jury made up of people that were not from Somerset County. I think most of us who have seen an episode or two of Law and Order are familiar with the idea of a “change of venue” and this seems to be functioning in a similar way. Essentially Simpson is concerned that due to the high press coverage and people’s feelings about the old prosecutor they won’t be able to find an impartial jury made up of Somerset county residents. The judge, however, denies this request and the trial is scheduled to stay in Somerset. As things for the trial start gearing up, the bodies of Edward and Eleanor are exhumed, again, for another autopsy. What they find is consistent with the autopsies done in 1922 except this time the corner says about Eleanor, “I can’t say just now whether the tongue was cut out or not but it seems likely that it may have been done,” which seems like that was likely intentional and not a result of predators or some other natural phenomenon. They also confirm in Edward’s autopsy that he was most likely shot while “bending over or kneeling.”

K: The press is also getting themselves prepared. So many journalists came to the area to cover the trial that it was almost impossible to get a hotel anywhere and many were resorting to staying in hotels in Manhattan and commuting to Somerset from there. And that’s over an hour drive today so I can’t even imagine how long the commute would be back then or what the trains were like. The courthouse itself added 100 seats to accommodate all the press and spectators they were expecting and so many extra telegraph and telephone lines were installed at the courthouse that it looked like a powerplant outside. In fact they had to install a new switchboard to be able to accommodate all the messages and hire 15 people to operate it. Western Union and Postal Telegraph hired a special team just for this trial to be stationed in Somerville 24/7 and a radio station was planning on broadcasting the entire trial over the radio.

J: Yeah, now if they weren’t before all eyes and ears are on Somerset. And with all that attention, on November 3, 1926 the trial officially begins. Technically this trial was just for Eleanor’s murder and the only people being tried at this time are Frances, Willie, and Henry The Brother Stevens since they’d decided that Henry The Cousin Carpender would be tried alone at a later date. The trial begins with Simpson, the prosecutor, laying out his theory of the case: that Frances didn’t go to meet the couple intending to kill them, just to catch them in the act, and asks her two brothers to go along with her and after an altercation Edward and Eleanor end up dead, but unfortunately for them, Mrs. Gibson saw them. And then Simpson starts bringing in the witnesses to build his case. 

K: The highlights of the prosecution’s side included testimony from Charlotte who identified 16 letters from Eleanor to Edward as well as Edward’s journal that was found in the closet by identifying his handwriting. She also testifies how Eleanor and Edward would hide their letters in a book in his office at the church. Three fingerprint experts conclude that Willie’s fingerprint was the one found on Edward’s calling card that was found at the crime scene. James Mills also takes the stand and talks about how Eleanor had one of only 5 keys to the church: the other keyholders being Edward, Minnie Clark, the organist, and James himself. James Mills also reiterates his story about the events of the 14th as well as Frances’ ominous “they must be dead or they would come home” schpeel. On their cross-examination it’s clear that the defense is trying to position James Mills as an alternative suspect for the crime, fairly enough since he did have a motive, but they aren’t able to get anything out of him except that he didn’t try that hard to look for her. Simpson brings in a bunch of witnesses who have some interesting stories to tell. One woman talks about not only seeing Henry Stevens in New Brunswick the day after the murders but also that she’d seen Minnie Clark and Ralph Gorsline spying on Edward and Eleanor in the park AND that a PI had come to bribe her to not say anything about what she saw; a former NJ State Trooper who (to be fair) was in prison for deserting the Army but claimed that he was paid $2500 to leave the police and the first investigation; a PI who said Gorsline confessed to him in October of 1922 that Henry Stevens threatened him that “This is none of your affair. Get the hell out of here!” on the night of the murders; the doctor who did the 1926 autopsy who confirmed that Eleanor’s missing vocal organs couldn’t have been pulled or ripped out, they were cut out; and a confirmation that the murder weapon was a gun with .32 caliber bullets, probably a Colt, and all the bullets came from the same gun. One of Eleanor’s sisters testifies to the intensiveness of the relationship between Eleanor and Edward and how Eleanor wanted to elope to Japan. She also saw how Frances was keenly aware of the affair, citing several incidents that she saw where Frances was obviously jealous: one where Edward put Eleanor in his car to drive back from a church event and a Halloween party at the church where he danced with Eleanor all night and Frances hung around by herself watching them the whole time. 

J: Which puts a bit of a hole in Frances’ story that she knew nothing about what was going on. But of course, the piece de resistance of Simpson’s case is Mrs. Gibson’s testimony. We’ve already covered it a few times in past episodes so most of you are familiar with it, but we’ll summarize it again here. She is brought in on a stretcher after having been hospitalized since before the beginning of the trial for some unknown ailment. Not only is this very dramatic scene set with the stretcher, but Jane Gibson’s mom is also brought into the court where at one point she has an outburst shouting, “She’s a liar! A liar, liar, liar! A liar, that’s what she is!” in front of the whole court. When she finally begins her testimony she’s so weak the jury can’t hear her and the stenographer has to repeat what she says. And, essentially, she sticks to the same story she’s been telling for the past four years to multiple special prosecutors grand juries, and news stories. After suspecting thieves on her property she follows the sound and stumbles upon a group of people arguing. She hears someone shout “explain these letters!” and then the fight gets physical. She said she heard “somebody’s wind going out and somebody said ‘ugh’ while someone else shouted, “Goddamnit, let go!” She sees two men wrestling and then a gunshot. Of the two women there one says “Oh Henry” the other starts screaming. Jane Gibson ran back to her mule after the first shot and the screaming woman also tries to run away but then she hears another three shots, bang, bang, bang. Later that night she goes back for the moccasin she lost. By this time the moon has risen and in the moonlight she can see Frances Hall crying. Mrs. Gibson also adds that the same PI who accosted one of the other witnesses came to her as well with a bribe to keep quiet. As she leaves the courtroom she points to Frances, Willie, and Henry and says “I have told the truth, so help me God, and you know I’ve told the truth.” And those are the high points of the prosecution’s case.

K: And so now we get to the defense and their strategy is pretty simple, none of the defendants were there and they don’t know anything. Henry Stevens gets on the stand and claims to have been fishing in Lavallette. Remember all those witnesses who couldn’t confirm he was there that night? Well they show up to confirm his alibi at the trial conveniently enough, although their inconsistency on the record doesn’t exactly help them. The defense also has their own fingerprint experts who come in to say that there is a smudge on the calling card which makes it impossible to say for sure if the print is Willie’s plus they try to call into question whether the card the prosecution has as evidence is actually the one that was found by Edward’s foot. Then Willie Stevens takes the stand and surprises everyone by holding his own. He starts off on kind of a strange foot by misstating his own age, but quickly finds his footing. He testifies that he hasn’t shot his gun in 14 years and that he and Edward had a cordial relationship and he didn’t really know Eleanor all that well at all. His story is that he was in his room all night until Frances came to get him to look for Edward in the middle of the night.

J: Simpson pounces on this bit of his story on cross-examination though trying to dig into why Willie and Frances didn’t knock on the Mills’ door if they suspected he could be there given the fact that they were sooooo worried. Simpson says, “If you were my brother and I were looking for you and I went to a place where I thought you were and I knew it was the last place you were and I did not knock on the door and try to find out whether you were there, wouldn’t you think that was a fish story I was trying to tell?” 

K: And Willie just retorts, “No sir, I do not.” Well then. He also categorically denies putting the calling card at Hall’s feet or being there at all. After Willie, the defense goes on to just try and poke holes in the testimony the prosecution set up to establish all the circumstantial evidence against the trio: an astrologer who says the phase of the moon wasn’t right for the conditions Jane Gibson describes, someone to contradict seeing Henry Stevens in New Brunswick, or seeing Gorsline and Minnie spying in the park, or that Frances had scratches on her face, and a whole slew of people who are only there to say they think Jane Gibson is just a liar in general or that she bribed them to help verify her story by saying they saw her on De Russey’s Lane. The sketchy PI that several of the prosecution’s witnesses say bribed them turns up for the defense. He denies the bribes and claims he earned his entire $5,000 fee by doing honest work for Frances including following James Mills for a few weeks and canvassing De Russey’s Lane asking if anyone saw anything.

J: Not only that, but he also purports to have a theory as to who the real murderer is but for some reason the judge rules that he doesn’t have to say who under oath so that little bit of info we never get to hear. And now the big daddy comes for the defense, Frances. She takes the stand and gives her early life story. She talks about driving Eleanor to the hospital and visiting her when she went in for her kidney surgery to show how they were friendly with each other and how she didn’t see or feel like Edward was acting strangely while they were in Maine right before the murders or at Lake Hopatcong: a trip that was supposedly for both Minnie Clark and Eleanor to reward them for their “efforts on behalf of the church.” She reiterates the story she told in 1922 about her movements on the night of the murders, looking for Edward in the middle of the night but not being able to find him, etc, and she categorically denies being in the area of the murders or committing them. On her cross-examination Simpson goes in again on why they didn’t knock on the Mills’ door if she knew he was going to see Eleanor as the last thing he said but she doesn’t really give a reason why. He also asks why she would call the cops the next morning, not give her name, and ask if there were any “casualties”? She says she thought Edward might have been in a car accident. But if she thought that why didn’t she just ask that? When asked why, if she thought he’d been in an accident, didn’t she call any hospitals? She replied, “If my husband had been in any accident and taken to a hospital I would have been notified. He was well known.”

K: Ok but like. That just circles back to why call the cops??? Because surely if there were a car accident and the cops were there they would send that person to the hospital? But anyway. Simpson’s main thrust is that for someone who is so worried about her husband she doesn’t seem to look that hard for him. At about this point Simpson actually moves to have the case declared a mistrial because he feels like the jury is being prejudiced against him by, among other things, sleeping during some of the state’s witnesses’ testimony. The judge dismisses that motion.

J: And that brings us to the closing arguments. The defense puts the Halls and Stevens up on a pedestal, “Have they been thugs; have they criminal records, are they thieves? No, they are refined, genteel, law-abiding people, the very highest type of character, churchgoing, Christians…It’s unlikely that people like this would resort to murder to solve a problem they had.” They also try to circle back and paint James Mills as a viable alternate suspect and attack the credibility of those who gave testimony for the prosecution. When Simpson begins his closing argument it centers around his postulation that either Frances is dumb or she’s a liar and, in his words, “Here is the most cunning woman, thoughtful, experienced, a good judge of human nature, with pride of family, and yet she says that she never dreams that this man has changed. Do you believe such nonsense as that?” Basically she’s no dummy, and there’s no way she’s literally the only person in New Brunswick who didn’t know about this affair. So if she’s lying about that, what else is she lying about?

K: Right. He also goes back to her shady behavior in the days after the murders; she never goes to the funeral home to see Edward’s body, the dying of her coat to black, the calls to the police being actually a maneuver to see if the bodies had been discovered yet. And with that, the evidence goes to the jury.

J: After 30 days of testimony the jury begins to deliberate and after 7 hours they reach their verdict. Not guilty for all three defendants. It took three ballots for the jury to get there though, so they didn’t all agree at first, but one juror said after the fact, “I would remain here for thirty years rather than vote a verdict of guilty on such evidence,” referring to Gibson’s story.

K: As a result, the charges for Edward’s murder are dropped and Henry the cousin Carpender is never brought to trial and the charges against him are dropped as well. Charlotte’s response is, “I am not surprised. Money can buy anything.”