The Tabloid That Launched America’s Obsession With True Crime

OA pleasant evening in 1918 in the Champagne region, Joseph Medill Patterson was returning to field headquarters after a three day engagement during which the Allies repelled a large German offensive. Patterson, who was thirty-nine years old and an infantry captain, belonged to the Medill family that governed the area. Chicago Tribune. He is the cousin of his business partner and runs the company. TribuneCol. Robert R. McCormick (38), recently recovered from near-death experiences elsewhere on the front had made a stop by to pay a visit. As they sat together on the straw pile in front an old farmhouse by the River Ourcq, the gunfire and the light from enemy shells was illuminating their night sky, as well as the sound of Scotch being passed back and forth. After a while, they moved on to more serious conversation. Patterson was proposing a new venture.

A few years earlier, while traveling through Europe, Patterson had encountered London’s Daily MirrorThe tabloid newspaper ‘The Observer’ was founded in the early part of the new century by Alfred Charles William Harmsworth First Viscount Northcliffe. His publishing empire had great political power and Lord Northcliffe was an influential newspaper magnate. His empire included the Evening NewsIt is the Daily MailAnd the TimesHowever, Mirror His popularity has been credited as the reason he is considered a leader in popular journalism. It is 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.) This news product was easy to digest and focused on scandals and crimes. The middle and working class could consume the contents in their subway cars or at crowded bars. 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.”

Patterson tried socialism, but was rejected by his conservative wealthy family. Mirror’s everyman sensibility held considerable appeal. He was most impressed by the photos. They were numerous, particularly on the frontpage, where there was usually three to four large photos and not an inordinate amount of text. The biggest news stories, like when the German U-boat attacked and torpedoed the USS Constitutional Station in Germany. LusitaniaOne photograph may occupy an entire page. At first, newsmen resisted pictures having the same importance as text. It began to take root, with the advent of printing technology making it easy and inexpensive to print photos. As the legendary editor Arthur Brisbane is said to have famously remarked in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Patterson met Northcliffe in order to learn more about his 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 Nearly a million issues were sold each issue. Each issue was packed full of advertising. New York City is a cultural capital and commercial hub with over five million inhabitants, so it was obvious that American tabloids would thrive in this vibrant city. McCormick, Patterson, and McCormick were already exploring the possibility of New York City being expanded. McCormick would retain his control over the tabloid business, while Patterson could have a personal project. Chicago Tribune. Win-win.

McCormick and Patterson discussed this idea as they enjoyed Scotch while sitting 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 the New York tabloid below: The first half of content would include photos; the second half would contain news and features. It’d be streetwise, humorous and simplespoken. The industry was now competing for people’s attention with movies and, before long, it would have radio to contend with as well. Patterson and other people would quickly realize that newspapers had to be as appealing as newfangled technology.

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


Patterson and McCormick returned to war unharmed after McCormick had been wounded.New York Daily News The idea came to life. Their cousins secured loans and established the company. News Lower Manhattan was home to a handful of journalists and employees from business. The office had been rented by the Evening Mail. Patterson bombarded them with letters and telegrams sent from Chicago. The most competitive and crowded field in America was theirs. New York had seven other morning newspapers and ten afternoon papers, the largest of which, William Randolph Hearst’s Evening JournalNearly 700,000 copies were sold per day. That’s a lot more than what the magazine had. News debuted—between 150,000 and 200,000 copies, according to historical records. Patterson loved the chance to win.

The inaugural 16-page edition of the newspaper was printed on June 26, 1919. This issue came after months of planning. Daily News Hit stands for “two cents.” On page 5, an editorial spelled out the tabloid’s mission:

The pictures will provide you with short and concise news stories. . . . No story will be continued to another page—that is to save you the trouble. You will see the print clearly and in large sizes. The print will not cause eye strain and can be read easily. You can read it easily, thanks to its size. The pages can be turned in the subway, without being snatched by drafts.

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. There were dense stories on the congressional bills and peace treaty process that filled the pages. These were the News A juicy piece of gossip from society was the Prince of Wales’s first appearance. The Prince of Wales is shown riding his horse on a front page photograph. It was to visit Vanderbilts and Goelets at their Rhode Island summer estates. The paper contained shorter versions and more concise reports of foreign, domestic and local news than everyone else. There were also copious cartoons and a detective series from 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.”

The initial novelty faded and circulation dropped from low six to low five figures. In late 1919 it started to rebound. It was first sixty thousand per day. One hundred thousand were recorded in December and three hundred million the next September. The 1922 Census included the following: News was selling six hundred thousand copies a day, making it the country’s third-largest newspaper.

America was free from the suffering of death, war, influenza, and other human miseries. This was the beginning of an exciting era of consumption and opulence, along with dizzying innovations, such as radio, cinema, automobiles and transatlantic flights, penicillin, and radio. It was a time of temperance. America’s Volstead Act went into effect in January 1920, banning alcohol across the United States. However, it had exactly the opposite effect. Prohibition set off a rebellion against moderation. It also eroded the Victorian moral code and made way for the new pleasures of the Roaring 20s. The knees of skirts were bowed. After dark, joyriding became a popular pastime for lovers. Airplanes flew across the sea. Actors became heroes, as did athletes. Beautiful women were attracted to the beaches by beauty pageants. The speakeasies were filled with hip hop dancers. American tabloid papers, another garish postwar boom pomp, covered it all with an emphasis crime, celebrity and trivial obsessions, which provided a welcome break from years of depressing news around the world.

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. Hearst challenged Patterson in a duel in 1924 when tabloids were sprouting in Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore as well as St. Louis, St. Louis, Des Moines and Detroit. Hearst also launched New York’s first tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

The NewsAnd the Mirror, as well as a third New York tabloid, Bernarr Macfadden’s downright salacious Evening GraphicThe nicknamed “The” PornoGraphicThey were poised for all of the eccentricities and excesses of that era. As one 1920s tabloid editor put it, “Tabloids were just as inevitable as jazz. These are just as expressive of contemporary America as World Series Baseball, Skyscrapers and Radio, as well as radio, television, movies, Trudy Sunday, 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 leaders ruled. Bootlegging was a key factor in the rise of organized crime. “Rum rows” lingered off the coasts of Long Island and the Jersey shore. Prohibition caused a rise in burglaries and assaults as well as 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.

Homicide became a major topic for the media in the 1920s. Although gangster gunfights make for great copy, tabloids are particularly interested in killing domestically-minded people, especially if sex is involved. 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. This scandal instantly captivated the nation. NewsOther papers continued to produce endless coverage each day. This was an intricate murder mystery with many characters. There were a flirty flapper, a sneaky private eye and a pipe-smoking, eccentric savant. The Pig Woman came up with an eyewitness account that placed Frances Hall (and her brothers) at the scene.

The Hall-Mills trial was a failure to get indictments despite the media attention. The story was far from over. As Patterson’s News, Hearst’s Mirror, and Macfadden’s GraphicEvery paper attempted to revive the investigation by offering readers addictive contests, outrageous stunts and tabloid campaign coverage. One of the attempts was successful.

In 1926, the madcap tabloid editor Phil Payne—hired by Hearst to run the MirrorPatterson ejected him from his position News—embarked on a circulation-driven crusade to solve the mystery. Nine months later, his obsessions paid off. 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. This was an unprecedented event for the newspaper industry. Hundreds of journalists were sent to Somerville in New Jersey to document the proceedings. However, not all of them. MirrorIt could be credited with setting the whole thing in motion. The defense did not attempt to hide its disgust for this tabloid mindset during closing arguments. “No newspaper,” one of the defense attorneys sneered, “should undertake to do what this sheet they call the Mirror has undertaken to do.”


Inexorable and unprecedented cultural forces drove the birth of tabloids.That not only changed how justice was handled in the Hall-Mills trial but also made the modern world a better place. Since early Victorian times, newspapers have been publishing murder and mayhem. The tabloids in the Roaring Twenties elevated this obsession by making it affordable entertainment that was both news-based and fun. 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.”

Since at least 200 years, true crime has attracted readers. The early New York tabloids were able to transform true crime into something much more compelling and vivid than the dense jungle of small-font newsprint. Hall-Mills’ mystery, as well as other Jazz Age tabloid crime stories were the zeitgeist-setting murder podcasts of their time and Netflix documentaries. The Hall-Mills story was driven by the tabloid media, and not police. It hooked the nation to courtroom drama, helping tabloidism to become a staple of American culture, and helped to create the Hall-Mills mystery.

The era of the internet is almost a century later. Mirror And the Graphicand have since been exiled to the depths. It is the Daily News, on the other hand, is a veritable American icon—an eleven-time Pulitzer Prize winner that inspired Superman’s Daily PlanetHe built a iconic skyscraper in Manhattan’s Midtown Manhattan and was credited with spawning legends such as Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. The original structure is still standing, but it has been reduced to ashes. NewsIt holds the distinction as the most popular newspaper in American history with a total circulation of over 2.4 million copies on weekdays and 4.7 millions Sunday editions during its peak of publication in 1947.

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 NewsAs the country entered World War II, they were championed. It was the News was in the best shape of its life, but Patterson’s health took a turn for the worse. His liver was damaged by years of heavy drinking, which led to pneumonia that left Patterson weak and frail.

He shared his front page with Harry Truman, the pioneer of American tabloid culture and an alarm blaze at Fifth Avenue on May 27, 1946. Patterson, his second wife Mary King and his two children, had his final breath at Doctors Hospital, Upper East Side. “Death came quietly,” according to the News. “His title and duties—his business position and financial success—in themselves meant little to Patterson. Patterson valued them as tools that enabled him to understand, illuminate and interpret the issues of people. To the end of his life he played this role—modestly and much of the time anonymously.”

Oder, 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. William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

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