Interview with Joe Pompeo - BLOOD AND INK

Interview with Joe Pompeo - BLOOD AND INK

In this interview, Joe and I discuss Blood and Ink, timing the publication of his book with the 100th year anniversary of the crime, the birth of tabloid journalism, his long-term interest in historical true crime, his research and the documents that he helped uncover about the case, how the title and cover came about, our fascination with true crime, and much more.


In this interview, Joe and I discuss Blood and Ink, timing the publication of his book with the 100th year anniversary of the crime, the birth of tabloid journalism, his long-term interest in historical true crime, his research and the documents that he helped uncover about the case, how the title and cover came about, our fascination with true crime, and much more.

Joe's recommended reads are:

  1. American Demon by Daniel Stashower
  2. The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

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Transcript

[00:11] Cindy: You are listening to the Thoughts From a Page podcast, which is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books with anyone and everyone. While listening to my podcast, you will hear author interviews, behind-the-scenes conversations about various aspects of the publishing world, themed discussions with other book lovers, and more. For more book recommendations and a complete list of all of my interviews, check out my website, thoughtsfromapage.com and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage. In 2022, I would love for you to join my Patreon group. I offer at least two bonus episodes a month and a monthly advanced read and pre-publication author chat. For those on Facebook, I host a special Patreon Facebook group where we all chat books. Thanks so much to those who already participate, and I hope you will consider joining us. Today I am chatting with Joe Pompeo about Blood and Ink. Joe is a correspondent at Vanity Fair who previously worked at publications including Politico and the New York Observer. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, and many other outlets. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and children. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome, Joe. How are you today?

[01:25] Joe: I'm good, thank you.

[01:26] Cindy: I'm so glad you're here to talk about Blood and Ink.

[01:29] Joe: I'm happy to be here to talk about Blood and Ink.

[01:32] Cindy: Well, let's start out with you giving me a quick synopsis for those that won't have read it yet.

[01:36] Joe: So the really quick synopsis is this is a Roaring 20s murder mystery about a prominent minister who was murdered with his choir singer mistress in central New Jersey in 1922, which set off a massive local scandal and also gigantic national media circus and a bewildering investigation into this double murder. It's a story with a lot of rich, eccentric characters. And it's also a story about the birth of American tabloid media and American tabloid culture, which was rising at the same time in the early 1920s and ended up playing a direct role in sort of influencing the course of this case as it played out over four years. It's a complex mystery and there's a lot of twists and turns, but that's sort of the most basic bird's eye view summary I think I can give.

[02:40] Cindy: I was so curious to hear your quick summary because there are a lot of characters and there are a lot of storylines, and so I was like, how is he going to summarize all of this?

[02:48] Joe: I know it's hard and I always get tripped up, but doing a lot of these interviews, I think I'm getting a little better at giving the elevator pitch without just recycling my jacket copy from the book.

[03:00] Cindy: Yeah, you could just pull it out and read it.

[03:02] Joe: Yeah.

[03:02] Cindy: And your book came out in September, timed with the 100th anniversary of the killings. Correct?

[03:07] Joe: Yeah. So the book came out on September 13, and the 100th anniversary of the murders was actually September 14. They took place on September 14, 1922. So it was very lucky that I was able to get this story ready for this itinerary of this crime. The bodies were found on September 16, 1922. So I think that's kind of more I think that's kind of what the date that you probably use as the official it's the beginning of the story and the beginning of the mystery. But yeah, really, you know, my publication date was just a day off from the actual 100th anniversary of the day that these two characters, Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills, were killed 100 years ago.

[03:50] Cindy: That's kind of crazy. You were able to time it that close?

[03:53] Joe: We were. And originally, it kind of just worked out that way. I started working on the book in the fall of 2018, and originally we were talking about publishing it maybe in the spring of 2022 or summer 2022, but obviously everything got pushed back because of the pandemic. And I think every writer who had a book going during that time got, like, an extension, and then publishing schedules were all backed up. So when we were finally getting close to finishing the manuscript and looking at a date, we were pretty much right on schedule. It just kind of turned out to be a really a really good stroke of luck.

[04:30] Cindy: So let's start at the beginning, how you learned about this and then how you decided to write about it.

[04:35] Joe: Yeah, so I was literally fishing for a story like this to do. I'm a big fan of historical narrative nonfiction, especially historical true crime, dark historical history. And I caught up with a graduate school professor of mine around maybe September 2018, and I said, I'm looking to write a book in this genre. She's a journalism historian at the Columbia Journalism School. And when I had taken classes with her, like, ten years earlier, we studied cases like, you know, the murder of Helen Jewett or the Mary Rogers case, these kind of, like, newspaper sensations from long ago. And I was really drawn to those types of stories, and I thought she'd be a good resource and might have some good ideas. So we started talking, and she's mentioning all these different crimes and at one point mentioned the Hall Mills case down in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And immediately my ears perked up because I'd gone to school in New Brunswick. I went to Rutgers as an undergraduate, so I had this connection to the story right away, and I liked the sound of the name itself, Hall Mills, when she started describing the circumstances of the case, it was completely fascinating. Immediately, it was clear that it just dovetailed closely with the rise of the tabloid newspapers in New York City. And between those two things. I just immediately saw the makings of a book kind of following those two threads.

[06:06] Cindy: I'm always amazed that tabloid journalism was so old. Like, if I think about it, I think of it the which is just my own not knowing. But it's fascinating to me that truly is that old.

[06:18] Joe: And I think people, when they use the word tabloid, I think that generally people just think of down market newspapers or like gutter publications. And I think that even some older newspapers, people might just colloquially refer to them as tabloids, like the yellow press of the early 1900s or the penny press of the Victorian era in America. But really, the tabloid newspapers were born at the turn of the century in Britain with the Daily Mirror. And it wasn't until about 20 years later, a little less than 20 years later, in 1919, that this format came to America. So America's first tabloid newspaper, which is a smaller, kind of handheld, more magazine looking publication, filled with photos and these gigantic headlines and all sorts of sensational news stories, I mean, that didn't really arrive until 1919. And that coincided with the 1920s, which was this decade full of sensations and full of crime and murder and scandal, and also full of all sorts of trivial obsessions that people were drawn to after this dark period of the World War and the Spanish flu pandemic. So, I mean, it was really as much a product of the Roaring Twenties as the subject matter it was covering about the Roaring 20s. But it is a very old form and one that I think has continues today and also has taken a lot of different forms.

[07:48] Cindy: The other thing that I thought was really interesting was that large photos were traced to tabloids, because all newspapers have large photos today. So it was fascinating to me that large photos were something originally just associated with tabloids, when that's something we see in all forms of news, especially with social media now. But even before that, you know, newspapers would have these very large photos.

[08:09] Joe: Yeah, and that was really not something that existed again until the Daily News came along. In America, they were called picture papers at the time, the tabloid newspaper. The word tabloid is derived from this British term, which referred to these compressed tablets, like medicine tablets that were taken, and something that was a format that was compressed. So the pages of a big newspaper are compressed into a tabloid form, but also the pictures. That was really the defining characteristic of the early tabloid newspapers. This was the first time that a news product was giving as much importance to photography as it was to text. And actually, in fact, I think that the early tabloid pioneers would probably say that photography was more important than text. And that was kind of, at the time, a sacrilegious notion. So something like the Daily News comes along and you have these gigantic photographs that was very new and very appealing to readers.

[09:03] Cindy: Oh, absolutely, because you can read and read and read, but when you see a photo, you completely visualize it and you see exactly what it looked like.

[09:11] Joe: Yeah, and I think especially with stories like the hall Mills case, they have this murder with all of these wild characters, the tabloid press, they kind of shifted the emphasis to big personalities.

[09:24] Cindy: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that case. So there are an incredible number of people like, it took me a while to kind of get on board and be able to separate everybody out. I can't even imagine the amount of research you must have done.

[09:36] Joe: Yeah, there's a lot of archival research that I was able to access. Fortunately, these things materialized over the course of working on the book proposal, which is really the first year of my research. This just trove of the original witness statements and depositions and grand jury transcripts. I mean, several thousand pages in all of hundreds of people who were interviewed as witnesses for these case, but also including the main cast of characters from my book. So I had these long transcripts of interviews with prosecutors and detectives and things like that. I was able to hear people tell in their own words how they found the bodies, how they turned this way or that, like their movements, their thoughts. So there was a lot of really rich, amazing archival material that I was fortunate enough to get possession of. But also just reading the newspaper coverage. It's not as much of a primary source as an actual transcription of an interview. But this was covered so closely in all the newspapers, and especially the New York newspapers. There was something like ten New York newspapers alone at the time. So, like the New York Times, I mean, they wrote so much about this case. You just go day by day, and it's just these really long articles every single day. So I really went through every single day for the course of this investigation in 1922. I read every single newspaper that was digitized on newspapers.com. I read the coverage. I compared that against the primary sources I had, and lots of other things too. There's tons of stuff to really build out the story well, and it's the.

[11:15] Cindy: Craziest story from the beginning. These two people are found clearly staged, and then the way the whole crime scene was handled, where all surrounding neighbors and people from many miles away drove in, trampled through, it all took. Souvenirs, I mean, it's just mind boggling to think about how it was done.

[11:33] Joe: Yeah. Even by the standards of the day, where forensics was modern, forensics was still in its infancy, really. But even just the most basic things, there was no photographs taken. They kind of just let people trample through all the evidence at the crime scene and stomp around the bodies. There were no autopsies at first. The two victims were buried with just, like, kind of a cursory morgue report that the coroner did. They didn't note, like, any of the real violence that had been committed on, especially Eleanor Mills. Everything you could have done to, like, stymie your investigation and make it harder to build a case down the line that they pretty much did.

[12:14] Cindy: And I love some of the little tidbits that you included that weren't totally related to the case, but were related to the time period. Like, patrolman didn't have their own car, so one of them had to rely on someone else, just a citizen, to get him to the scene of the crime. I mean, I was completely cracking up.

[12:29] Joe: Yeah, he waved down a passing a motorist who drove him to the crime scene. There's all sorts of the language of the day was a little different, some of the vocabulary they used. But, yeah, that's a great example of a little detail that you come across in just, like, reading some of the transcripts. This guy, his name was Edward Garrigan, and I was able to read his account and his own words of when he was kind of, like, told to go down into this field where these two bodies had turned up. And I was able to follow his footsteps in his own words, because I had access to these great archival documents.

[13:09] Cindy: And then the fact that the media getting involved is what really led to a revival of the case. And some of the things you're now describing, like autopsies or looking more closely at some of the facts, that the media was the one who really got involved in the investigation and kind of spurred some of that along.

[13:25] Joe: The media, but specifically the tabloid media, and specifically as a result of this kind of first tabloid circulation war that had developed in New York City. So just for some context, we're talking about this investigation. It began in 1922, throughout the fall of 1922, but there were no indictments at the time. It kind of fizzled out. And then in the intervening years, between 1923 and 1926, as these three tabloid newspapers came onto the scene in New York, each of them kind of had the Hall Mills case in the back of its mind and kind of, like, decided they would try to revive it. But in 1926, it is the Daily Mirror, where Phil Payne of the Daily News ends up. He sends reporters back down to New Brunswick, and they do this investigation and put together this dossier, and they bring it straight to the governor of New Jersey and the Attorney general of New Jersey in the summer of 1926, and they get them to reopen the case. Really, like, the reopening of this case, the way it comes roaring back to life really was a direct result of this competition between these new tabloids that had sprouted up in New York City. And I think that without that, it may have not come back to life at all very well. So that is where I think that those two stories, the story of the birth of the tabloid culture in America and the Hall Mills murder mystery, that's really where they collide. And it's definitely it's a fascinating collision, I would say it is.

[14:59] Cindy: And then kind of the birth of true crime and our fascination with it as well. It's not the birth of true crime because there's crime, but it's the birth of the fascination with true crime.

[15:07] Joe: I think it's the birth. I mean, I think people are always drawn to stories like this, but I think that what I think this is the beginning of is a way in which stories like this, true crime stories were covered explicitly in publications. That were out to entertain readers and present news like this in a way that was thrilling and wasn't just going to inform people, but also entertain them. I mean, that was the whole idea of the tabloid press. And Hearst Daily Mirror. When it debuted, its slogan was 90% Entertainment. 10% information. So they really emphasize they really emphasized the entertainment side. And I think that, again, that carries through to today and the way that we're drawn to stories like this. There's always an element where people have died, oftentimes these horrible deaths, and there's something very voyeuristic and kind of unseemly about getting really obsessed with cases like this. But people love mysteries. We've always been drawn to stories like this. And frankly, we are drawn to true crime today because it also entertains us.

[16:13] Cindy: And that's what I was trying to say is obviously not the birth of true crime itself, but the way we ingest true crime and the way it is treated as entertainment versus just a story.

[16:22] Joe: Absolutely.

[16:23] Cindy: I think that's exactly right. Well, did you hope to solve it when you began looking into it?

[16:27] Joe: You know, I didn't. I think that I think my agent and my editor both probably did because that would have been a great ending to a book. But I came to where I come down on this in the end is that I think it's so and it's such an enduring story because it is unsolved. I think that readers of my book or people who have studied this crime I think could probably form a pretty firm conclusion about who they think did it or what they think happened. But you can never know. And it's not yearning to know more, wanting to know what you can't fully explain that I think really gives a story like this so much of its mystique you want so bad to be able to come to a firm, unequivocal conclusion, and you can't. And I think it continues to draw you in.

[17:16] Cindy: Well, I think that's exactly right. And it's old enough now that what kind of new details are going to come up at this point, though, you did discover a ton of documents that had been hidden away for a very large amount of time. So maybe there will be more documents like that, but most likely the idea of it being solved is one that is not going to happen.

[17:33] Joe: I would say that's correct. I think there are people who are really enthralled by this crime who I think really want to solve it. There's like some active Facebook communities around this, and people really do. They talk and they exchange theories, and they really are trying to find anything that can maybe shed some piece of light that could maybe lead to a solution. I think there's a hope that maybe a murder weapon could turn up or maybe something. But based on what actually exists in the historical record and also the physical evidence that is still housed today in the Somerset County Prosecutors Office, I don't see a way where you can, you know, if you were able to test some of this physical evidence, what would you test it against? No murder weapon was found. I think that's one of the that's one of the devils aspects of the case. There was not a murder weapon that was recovered, so we don't even have that. So how can you really, this many years later, even if there was the most advanced forensic techniques you could think of, I don't know how you'd be able to solve something that way.

[18:32] Cindy: That would be so hard for me because I'm such a cut and dry person. I'd be like, I want to know who did it. But it sounds like you didn't even mind at the beginning, so it was okay with you to go through all of this and realize we're not going to know who did it.

[18:43] Joe: Yeah, I was kind of at peace with that from the beginning, and it's a really big there's a lot of pressure. If selling this book meant like, well, you have to solve it, then that's a whole different you're like, I'd come.

[18:57] Cindy: Up with some kind of solution.

[18:58] Joe: Yeah. All right. Maybe I'll do a different book that has an actual ending, but I think it worked out. And I think that in my epilogue, I do grapple with all of the numerous theories about how this crime may have been committed, who may have been responsible. And there are compelling theories that you can argue and really come to land on the one that you think makes the most sense to you. I think most people who study this crime or even just read the book, I feel like most people will align. I don't know who you think did it, but there's certainly, like, a number of possibilities, and I hope that I was able to engage with all of them in the epilogue to the story.

[19:42] Cindy: You definitely did. And I was curious which one you finally came down on. Is the one you think is right? I don't think I really did. I think I just was like, okay, that's a possibility. OK, that's a possibility. But it didn't seem like there was enough evidence to make sure that one person in particular was the suspect or the perpetrator.

[20:00] Joe: Yeah, for me, I think that it seems like the most plausible thing that happened was that the family of the minister was involved. This was a proud, wealthy, Victorian era sort of clan, that their honor was very important to them. And it is not implausible by any means to think that they would have tried to put a stop to this scandalous affair that was happening, that everyone in town knew was happening, and that somehow things got out of control and escalated to such a degree that you had this gruesome murder. And I don't think that I have an idea of who pulled the trigger, but I do, and I think most people probably end up thinking that the family of the minister was involved, which is his wife and her brothers, which.

[20:50] Cindy: Seems the most likely. And they were so quirky too. So I mean, I think, yes, you could definitely see where they would have done that. I think from everything you presented about her husband, it just didn't seem like he would have the wherewithal to be able to kill both of them like that, stage them, do all of that. He just didn't seem quite capable of that.

[21:08] Joe: I agree. And I think people who read the book, I think they will come to know Jim Mills as this sort of secret sad sack of a guy who's probably not at this point and has deteriorated marriage with Eleanor Mills probably maybe not even that concerned what's going on. I mean, I had to have known. He may have even welcomed some of the advantages that the proximity to this wealthy family of the Minister brought the Mills family. But I agree he comes across as kind of like a dimwit even to an extent. Too aside from the question of whether or not, based on his alibi, when people saw him on the night of the murders, he could have actually made it out to this field and back in time. I do think there's a question of whether or not he even had it in him.

[21:52] Cindy: Yeah, that's what I think. Too yeah. Well, let's quickly talk about the title Blood and Ink.

[21:57] Joe: The blood is obviously refers to the murder and the ink obviously refers to the other arc of the story, which is the newspapers. I didn't come up with the title. My fantastic literary agent came up with the title of the book. I think it has a nice ring to it, but I think it captures, like I said, the two dual arcs of the story, which is this fascinating murder mystery and then also this rollicking story of the creation of the American tabloids.

[22:23] Cindy: And I love the photos. I love the way the cover is done and the kind of Art Deco rim, all of it together. It's a great package.

[22:32] Joe: Yeah. And I think they always try I think with books like this, they try to capture the devil in the White City kind of appeal. I think a lot of the covers end up trying to mimic that. I think that that's a great kind of like a really dark, kind of gothic looking visual was definitely fitting for this book. It's interesting because the cover of the book, the characters that are on it, it's actually a picture of Jim Mills and their daughter, Charlotte Mills, who's another great character we haven't even got to touch on. It's a really haunting photo of them looking at each other. They look troubled. She was 16 years old at the time of the murders, and she kind of adopted the flapper lifestyle. She kind of has that look about her. So I think that her appearance on the cover of the book kind of evokes the time period in that way. But there's not a lot of great photographs to work with of either the victims or the accused of the heiress, Francis Hall. We ended up going with that photo even though it's not the most main characters in the book, because it was just such a great haunting shot.

[23:35] Cindy: It is. And then also the shot of all the men in the field after you read about how crazy it was when they found the people and how everything was trampled.

[23:43] Joe: Yeah, I think that conveys to I think that gives you a sense of the murder scene, you know, out in this kind of rural setting, this abandoned farm, and it was a place where even weeks and months after the crime scene was cleaned up, I mean, the crime scene became this sort of like country jamboree atmosphere. People from all over different states would come just to kind of get a glimpse of the crime scene. People, like, hawked balloons and popcorn there. People put up local businesses, put up signs advertising what they were selling. People came and they stripped the tree down to nothing. The crab apple tree with the victims were found beneath. I mean, it just became this little, like, you know, this sad little twigs coming out of the ground because people just wanted to take souvenirs away from the crime scene. I think that also speaks to this time in the 1920s where people were looking for fun. They had cars, they were able to be more mobile. And this just became like a total spectacle. And it was a way for people to go and have some fun on a Saturday afternoon, I guess, literally murder tourism.

[24:45] Cindy: I just think that is so crazy. It's so far outside my realm of comprehension. I just can't even fathom that. And I'm like, they must have needed more to do that. Just seems like if I had some free time. That is not what I would go visit.

[24:58] Joe: Yeah, I guess at the time you have to think about what people do have to do. I guess the movies there's now, movie theaters, the burlesque shows are still are still going. But in terms of entertainment, radio is not really a thing yet. Other than that you have the newspapers. And I think people were following along this story in the newspapers every single day. It was keeping them hooked. And I think if you had the ability to go and actually go to the crime scene, that would have been very exciting. And same thing with the trial that eventually happened in 1926. I mean, to be in that courtroom was like the hottest ticket in town.

[25:30] Cindy: Yeah, it's really crazy. Well, what have you read recently that you really liked?

[25:36] Joe: I have two books that I'm going through right now. One is kind of like another recent release in the same genre, this historical true crime that's American Demon by Daniel Stashower. I was a fan of Daniel Stashower from reading one of his earlier books about the Mary Rogers case in 19th century New York. That is the case that Edgar Allen Poe based one of his famous short stories on and American demon is this guy's new book and it is about the serial killer in 1930s Cleveland and the famous Eliot Ness who was the public safety director at the time and this kind of larger than life crime busting figure from history. So I'm reading that and then I have a really obscure one for your listeners. Rachel Maddow has a new podcast out right now, and it's about this fascist plot in 1940s America. And there's a character in it named George Sylvester Vierek. And he was, at the time, essentially a Nazi agent in the US. A Nazi propagandist that was working with members of Congress to get propaganda out to the American public. In any case, Rachel Maddow had mentioned in some interview about the podcast that he had written much earlier in his life what is considered the first gay vampire novel. I know Rachel a little because I had profiled her for Vanity Fair where I work full time, and I was texting her. I said, I was so fascinated by this book. It's called the House of the Vampire. I was like, Should I read this? I was like, oh, my God, you have to. So sure enough, I went on Amazon and bought one of these 499 copies that some random person just put together. And, yeah, it's an early psychic vampire novel that takes place in the early 1900s in New York. It's more of a novella, actually, but it's kind of like, I think, with October and Fall and Halloween season. I kind of just plucked it out as sort of a dark read consistent with the season. But it is an obscure story. So I thought. I would just put that out there for a more often beaten path recommendation.

[27:46] Cindy: When was it published?

[27:48] Joe: 19. 1907

[27:49] Cindy: Okay, so it is really a lot older.

[27:51] Joe: It's a lot older. And I think that the whole gay vampire novel might be a little bit more of a subtext, but it's about this older writer who is like psychically vamping this younger writer and kind of stealing his ideas out of his brain. So it's kind of like weird wild story that the guy who wrote it eventually became this terrible Nazi propagandist.

[28:16] Cindy: And you're hawking his books

[28:19] Joe: He's dead, and it's like it's in the public domain now, so someone is making money off of it, but it's not him.

[28:26] Cindy: Well, Joe, thank you so much for joining me today on the Thoughts From a Page podcast. I really enjoyed Blood and Ink and it was fun to talk about it with you.

[28:33] Joe: Thanks for having me.

[28:35] Cindy: Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, consider joining my Patreon group to access bonus content and support the podcast, tell all of your friends about the show and rate it or subscribe to it wherever you listen to your podcasts, I would really appreciate it. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my Bookshop storefront and the link is in the show notes. I hope you'll tune in next time.

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Joe Pompeo

Author

JOE POMPEO is a correspondent at Vanity Fair who previously worked at publications including Politico and The New York Observer. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Columbia Journalism Review, and many other outlets. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and children.