On September 16, 1922, two bodies are found in a New Jersey park, a man and a woman. They’ve both been shot and the woman has nearly been decapitated In a sleepy community like this such a crime would naturally cause a commotion, but when it turns out that the deceased are a local minister and a woman who is very much not his wife, the fervor goes into overdrive. The case, known as the Hall-Mills murders, inflamed a media war between New York’s three tabloid newspapers, all of which went to great lengths, and resorted to some cheap stunts, to try and scoop the others and solve the case. More than a century later, the murders still fascinate many true-crime obsessives. In Blood & Ink, Vanity Fair correspondent Joe Pompeo revisits the case and the circus surrounding it, covering the original investigation, multiple court proceedings, and countless false starts and dead ends.
Pompeo’s book is a well-researched guide through the facts of the case and a fair examination of the competing theories about what happened. What it fails to do, however, is really explain why these particular murders resonated so strongly with the public at the time and why they still do today. Obviously, there are some salacious details involved: the minister cheating on his wealthy wife with a member of his congregation sells itself, never mind the gory crime scene. The class difference between the victims and their grieving families also made for good copy. But Pompeo fails to really capture the character of the victims. In this telling they are plot devices, not people.
There is a bit more focus on the members of the press, or at least one particular member. Philip Payne, first of the Daily News and later of the Daily Mirror, is a colorful presence in Blood & Ink. His relentless pursuit of increased circulation leads him to such dubious journalistic practices as trying to scare a confession out of his preferred suspect with a phony medium and a staged séance. Pompeo is clearly fascinated by Payne, following his story past the end of his involvement in the case and to its own tragic conclusion. But Payne is a sideshow in the Hall-Mills story, however fascinating a sideshow he may be.
The other thing Blood & Ink turns out to be is a primer on how hard it was to solve a murder 100 years ago, and how easy to get away with committing one. Without much in the way of forensic evidence to work on, the investigation relied on conjecture and unreliable witnesses, many of whom may have been attracted to the case by the press hysteria surrounding it. Equally troubling, the police and the prosecutors became so desperate to make the case go away they repeatedly arrested and tried to convict suspects on flimsy evidence and preposterous testimony.
Blood & Ink is a fitfully fascinating, but largely frustrating look at a murder whose notoriety far outstrips its historical import. It may be best for real true-crime obsessives.