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The Tabloid That Launched America’s Obsession With True Crime

15 minute read
Pompeo is a correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of the new book, Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime

On a pleasant summer evening in 1918, in the undulating Champagne region of France, Joseph Medill Patterson returned to field headquarters following a three-day engagement in which the Allied forces pushed back a major German offensive. Thirty-nine and an infantry division captain, Patterson was a scion of the illustrious Medill dynasty that controlled the Chicago Tribune. His cousin and business partner in running the Tribune, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, thirty-eight and recently convalesced from a near-death experience elsewhere on the front, had stopped by for a visit before returning stateside. They sat on a straw pile outside an old farmhouse along the River Ourcq and passed a bottle of Scotch back and forth, gunfire thundering in the distance, enemy shells illuminating the night sky. Before long, the small talk progressed to a more substantive conversation: Patterson had a new business venture to propose.

A few years earlier, while traveling through Europe, Patterson had encountered London’s Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper founded at the dawn of the century by the landmark British publisher Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, First Viscount of Northcliffe. Lord Northcliffe was a powerful newspaper magnate and society fixture whose publishing empire wielded great political influence. He owned the Evening News, the Daily Mail, and the Times, but the Mirror put him on the vanguard of so-called popular journalism. The Mirror’s size was compact, larger than a magazine, but much easier to handle than a clumsy broadsheet. (The word “tabloid” came from the compressed tablets that a London-based pharmaceutical company began marketing in the late 1880s.) It was an easily digestible news product with an eye for sensational topics like scandal and crime, and it appealed to the middle and working classes, who could handily consume its contents on a subway car or, should they be so inclined, inside a crowded pub. As Northcliffe proclaimed with the paper’s maiden issue on November 2, 1903, the idea was “to be entertaining without being frivolous, and serious without being dull.”

For Patterson, who dabbled in socialism and became something of a renegade in his wealthy conservative family, the Mirror’s everyman sensibility held considerable appeal. But the photographs impressed him most of all. There were lots of them, especially on the front page, which typically consisted of three or four large images as opposed to an endless sea of text. On big news days, such as when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a single photograph might occupy the entire cover. Newsmen initially resisted the idea of pictures being just as important as text, if not more important. But it slowly caught on, especially with advances in printing technology that made it possible to reproduce photos quickly and on the cheap. As the legendary editor Arthur Brisbane is said to have famously remarked in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Patterson visited Northcliffe to pick his brain about the newspaper business. “New York’s got to have a picture tabloid,” Northcliffe implored during one of Patterson’s trips to England. “I don’t care who starts it. If the rest of you don’t see the light soon, I’ll start one myself!” In the U.K., the Mirror sold nearly a million copies per issue, packed with advertising every single day. Surely New York City, a booming cultural and commercial capital with a population of more than five million, was the perfect landscape for an American tabloid to flourish. Patterson and McCormick had already flirted with the idea of expanding from Chicago to New York. A tabloid venture would give Patterson a pet project while McCormick consolidated his grip on the Chicago Tribune. Win-win.

This was the idea Patterson wanted to discuss with McCormick as they swigged Scotch on the straw pile. He didn’t know it then, but the form of media he proceeded to describe to his cousin that fateful night in France at the tail end of the war would shape America’s relationship with crime, scandal, and celebrity for decades to come. By championing a new medium tailored to our most voyeuristic instincts, he’d tapped into a sensibility that continues to smack us in the face at every turn, from the low-rent clickbait that clutters our social media feeds, to the reality television we binge as a guilty pleasure, to the bloody sagas populating our audio and streaming queues.

Patterson pitched his New York tabloid as follows: Half the content would be photos, the other half news and features. It would be humorous, plainspoken, and streetwise. The industry was now competing for people’s attention with movies and, before long, it would have radio to contend with as well. What Patterson knew, and others would soon realize, was that newspapers needed to be just as irresistible as these newfangled technologies.

It didn’t take much convincing. As McCormick later recalled, “I said we would get started on it right away.”


After Patterson and McCormick each returned from war in one piece, the New York Daily News came alive. The cousins had secured a loan and set up the News in lower Manhattan, where a few dozen journalists and business employees crammed themselves into a small office rented from the Evening Mail. Patterson bombarded the brass with letters and telegrams from Chicago. They were elbowing in on the most crowded and competitive field in the country. New York had seven other morning newspapers and ten afternoon papers, the largest of which, William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Journal, sold nearly 700,000 copies a day, dwarfing the number with which the News debuted—between 150,000 and 200,000 copies, according to historical records. Patterson relished the gamble.

On June 26, 1919, after several months of preparations and planning, the inaugural sixteen-page issue of the Daily News hit stands for two cents. On page 5, an editorial spelled out the tabloid’s mission:

With the pictures we shall give you short, concise news stories. . . . No story will be continued to another page—that is to save you the trouble. The print will be large and clear. You can read it without eye strain. The paper is, as you see, of convenient size. You can turn the pages in the subway without having it whisked from your hand by the draft.

Compared to other papers that same day, Patterson’s tabloid—initially called the Illustrated Daily News before they truncated the name—looked as if it beamed down from outer space. The front pages of the broadsheets were filled with dense stories about the peace treaty process and congressional bills. The News led with a juicy morsel of society gossip: the Prince of Wales, shown atop his steed in a towering front-page photograph, was expected to visit the Goelets and Vanderbilts at their Rhode Island summer mansions. Inside the paper, readers found shorter and snappier versions of the same foreign, domestic, and local news that everyone else was reporting, but also provocative photo spreads, copious cartoons, and a detective series by E. Phillips Oppenheim. On the back page, a quintet of femme fatales advertised a ten-thousand-dollar contest seeking “the most beautiful girl in Greater New York.”

After the initial novelty wore off, circulation plummeted from the low six figures to the low five figures. But in late 1919, it began to climb back up. First to sixty thousand a day. Then one hundred thousand in December, and three hundred thousand the following September. Come 1922, the News was selling six hundred thousand copies a day, making it the country’s third-largest newspaper.

By now, America had shaken off the misery of war, flu, death, and sacrifice. It was the dawn of an enchanting era of opulence and consumption, as well as dizzying innovation, from radio and the cinema to automobiles, transatlantic flight, and penicillin. The official posture of the times was temperance. America’s Volstead Act went into effect in January 1920, banning alcohol across the United States. But it ended up having the opposite effect. Prohibition sparked a bacchanalian revolt against moderation and prudence, chipping away at the last vestiges of the Victorian moral code, and making way for all the modern pleasures that would come to define the Roaring Twenties. Skirts rose to the knee. Lovers went joyriding after dark. Planes soared across the ocean. Actors and athletes became idols. Beauty pageants drew scantily clad ingenues to the seaside. Speakeasies filled up with flappers dancing the Charleston. And American tabloid newspapers, yet another garish flamboyance of the postwar boom, chronicled it all, with an emphasis on crime, celebrity, and trivial obsessions that provided a refreshing chaser to years of distressing world news.

The tabloid genre proliferated as other publishers around the country, like Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. and the E. W. Scripps Company, set out to replicate Patterson’s success with the News. In the summer of 1924, as tabloids sprouted in Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Detroit, Hearst challenged Patterson to a duel by launching a competing tabloid in New York: the Daily Mirror.

The News and the Mirror, as well as a third New York tabloid, Bernarr Macfadden’s downright salacious Evening Graphic (nicknamed the PornoGraphic), were poised to capture all the excess and eccentricities of the age. As one 1920s tabloid editor put it, “Tabloids were just as inevitable as jazz. They are as truly expressive of modern America as World Series baseball, skyscrapers, radio, the movies, Trudy Ederle, Billy Sunday, taxicabs, and beauty contests. They are feared because they are jolting the pillars of conservatism.”

They were also charting the decade’s dark underbelly. Crooked political bosses ran rampant. Organized crime flourished thanks to the advent of bootlegging. “Rum rows” lingered off the coasts of Long Island and the Jersey shore. Prohibition inadvertently fueled a significant increase in burglaries, assaults, and homicides. By 1926, more than twelve thousand murders were being committed annually, as the country’s murder rate ticked up to a high of nearly ten per one hundred thousand people.

The media became obsessed with homicide during the 1920s. Gangster shootouts made for good copy, but the tabloids were particularly enthusiastic about killings of a domestic variety, especially when sex was involved or, better still, rich and famous people. As a friend of Patterson’s observed, he ranked the subjects that most interested readers as follows: “(1) Love or Sex, (2) Money, (3) Murder.” He believed that readers were “especially interested in any situation which involved all three.”

The media was blessed with just such a sensation in September of 1922, when the bullet-ridden corpses of a prominent clergyman, Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall, and his working-class choir-singer mistress, Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, were found beneath a crabapple tree on a lover’s lane outside of New Brunswick, New Jersey. The minister’s wife, Frances Hall, was a blue-blood heiress with ties to the Johnson & Johnson dynasty. Eleanor’s husband, Jim Mills, was the sexton of their church, St. John the Evangelist. The scandal immediately captivated the nation, as the News and other papers churned out endless coverage day after day. It was a perplexing murder mystery full of larger-than-life characters: a feisty flapper; a slippery private eye; a pipe-smoking, oddball savant; and a theatrical female pig farmer, dubbed the Pig Woman, who came forward with an alleged eye-witness account of the murders, placing Frances Hall and her brothers at the scene of the crime.

Despite the attendant media circus, the Hall-Mills case fizzled out at the end of 1922, after prosecutors failed to secure any indictments. But that was hardly the end of the story. As Patterson’s News, Hearst’s Mirror, and Macfadden’s Graphic sought to enlarge their readerships with addictive contests, outrageous stunts, and swashbuckling tabloid campaigns, each paper took a stab at reviving the investigation. One of them was successful.

In 1926, the madcap tabloid editor Phil Payne—hired by Hearst to run the Mirror after Patterson booted him from the News—embarked on a circulation-driven crusade to solve the mystery. After nine months, his obsessive antics paid off: the Mirror unearthed several pieces of fresh evidence—albeit circumstantial—and brought the case roaring back to life.

Payne and his bloodthirsty reporters, allied with New Jersey’s powerful Democratic machine, drove the Hall-Mills saga to its dramatic climax, showcasing the might of American tabloid journalism along the way. Frances Hall and her brothers were finally arrested, leading to a “trial of the century” like the country had never seen. It was a smorgasbord for the entire newspaper industry, which dispatched hundreds of reporters to sleepy Somerville, New Jersey, to cover the proceedings. But only the Mirror could take credit for setting it all in motion. During closing arguments, the defense made no effort to mask its disdain for the lurid tabloid ethos. “No newspaper,” one of the defense attorneys sneered, “should undertake to do what this sheet they call the Mirror has undertaken to do.”


The birth of the tabloids was an inexorable, unprecedented cultural force that not only changed the course of justice in the Hall-Mills investigation but shaped the modern world. Newspapers have been dishing out murder and mayhem since the early Victorian era. But the tabloids of the Roaring Twenties took that obsession to new heights, packaging it into cheap handheld entertainment for the masses that delivered an irresistible mix of news and frivolity. Pioneering tabloid editors hooked their readers with a focus on sex, scandal, and crime, but also, as the journalism historian Andie Tucher told me, “an emphasis on big personalities”—whether that was Rudolph Valentino or Charles Lindbergh or the Pig Woman. Today’s celebrity culture, Tucher said, “was essentially born in this era.” Martin Weyrauch, a former Evening Graphic editor, similarly suggested of the early tabloids in a 1927 essay, “They introduced a style of journalism that concerns itself primarily with the drama of life.”

True crime has been captivating readers for at least two hundred years. But the early New York tabloids arguably laid the groundwork for the genre as we know it, by transforming true crime into something more vivid and compelling than a dense wilderness of small-font newsprint. The Hall-Mills mystery and other Jazz Age tabloid crimes were the zeitgeist-setting murder podcasts and Netflix documentaries of their day. With the Hall-Mills case, it was the tabloid press, not the police, that ultimately drove the case to its apex, hooking the nation on courtroom drama and helping to secure tabloidism as a fixture of American culture.

Nearly a hundred years later, the Mirror and the Graphic have been consigned to the depths of obscurity. The Daily News, on the other hand, is a veritable American icon—an eleven-time Pulitzer Prize winner that inspired Superman’s Daily Planet, erected a landmark skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, and gave rise to legends like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. Though a shadow of its former self, the News holds the distinction of being the bestselling newspaper in U.S. history, reaching a circulation of more than 2.4 million weekday copies and 4.7 million Sunday editions at its 1947 peak.

The previous year, Joe Patterson’s journey from the battlefields of Frances to the heights of the U.S. media firmament came to an end. At the age of 67, he’d traded in his youthful socialism for an isolationist “America first” ideology that the Daily News championed as the country was drawn into World War II. The News was in the best shape of its life, but Patterson’s health took a turn for the worse. Years of hard drinking wreaked havoc on his liver, and a bout of pneumonia rendered him frail and weak.

On May 27, 1946, the man who ushered in American tabloid culture shared the front page of his groundbreaking newspaper with Harry Truman and a three-alarm blaze on Fifth Avenue. Patterson had taken his last breath at Doctors Hospital on the Upper East Side, with his second wife, Mary King, and two of his children by his side. “Death came quietly,” according to the News. “His title and duties—his business position and financial success—in themselves meant little to Patterson. He valued and used them only as tools enabling him, as a publisher, to find, interpret and illuminate the problems of the people. To the end of his life he played this role—modestly and much of the time anonymously.”

Or, as an unnamed Daily News employee put it, “He was the most human great man I’ve ever known.”

Excerpted from the book BLOOD & INK: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime by Joe Pompeo, Vanity Fair correspondent. Copyright © 2022 by Joe Pompeo. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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