Joe Pompeo Discusses The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime

If you thought Sarah Koenig and Serial was the first time a true crime gripped the country, think again. Vanity Fair corresponded Joe Pompeo‘s new book Blood & Ink reveals the long-running obsession America has had with true crime by taking us back to the time of Gatsby.

The book follows the murder of the Reverend Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills, a choir singer from his church he was having an affair with. Pompeo expertly unravels the crime as well as examines why we as a society are so obsessed with crime in general.

Pompeo chatted with Debutiful to discuss his background, obsession, and research.

I’d love to hear more about your background and how you came to be a media correspondent at Vanity Fair. Can you introduce your path to readers?

My path started almost 20 years ago, when I emerged from Rutgers with an English degree and a delusion that I would soon find a job as an editorial assistant in publishing or magazines. When those jobs laughed in my face, I applied—via regular mail because applying for jobs that way was still a thing—to a part-time position as a community news reporter in suburban North Jersey, and I got it. I kicked around in local newspapers for a few years, then slowly started breaking into newspapers in Manhattan, like New York Press. I went to Columbia j-school and landed a job upon graduating at The New York Observer, which was the lucky break that more or less set me up for the rest of my career. After leaving the Observer—where the party was coming to an end thanks to the departure of our legendary beloved editor, Peter Kaplan, and the disastrous ownership of Jared Kushner—I joined a digital startup called Capital founded by two of my former Observer editors, who hired me to cover the media beat. Capital was acquired by Politico, where I created a daily newsletter called Morning Media. It was fun and scoopy and read by all the right people, including a Vanity Fair editor I was friendly with from freelancing for him several years earlier when he was at Bloomberg Businessweek. He brought me over to VF in 2017 and I’ve been there ever since.

Your book is about a 1922 crime. How has society’s obsession with crime changed or stayed the same in the past century?

I think it’s the mediums that have changed. In Victorian America, people devoured crime stories in the penny newspapers. Then came the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer. And then the creation of the tabloids, which Blood & Ink chronicles. From there, it’s a straight line to stuff like Court TV and HLN and MailOnline, and now the endless barrage of true crime podcasts and streaming series. (Vanity Fair has always loved a good crime story, I might add.)

Speaking of research, can you take readers into what your process was like? How did the story unfold for you?

It was a lot of sifting through thousands of pages of ancient documents, whether that was articles I obtained on or from the microfilm readers of the New York Public Library; statements and depositions and court transcripts from the original murder investigation; the professional correspondence of America’s early tabloid barons, like William Randolph Hearst; the archives of publications like Editor & Publisher and The New Yorker, and vintage detective magazines; not mention a large stack of dusty old obscure books. It was totally fun and escapist, like binging on a juicy period drama, sometimes late into the night.

I’m fascinated by how we consume media. What is your approach to digesting everything that is out there?

As a journalist, I need to be on Twitter more than I’d like, so a lot of stuff makes its way to me there. I increasingly prefer to keep track of all the major headlines via email newsletters—I subscribe to a few from The New York Times that tend to do the trick, as well as several that are essential to my media coverage. I try to listen to the BBC World Service every day, whether the podcast, or the 9 a.m. hour on WNYC, or streaming in the background on my laptop. I also have a sick habit of scanning the Daily Mail app on my phone right before bed. Then there’s the “Latest Episodes” queue on my podcast player to keep me up to date on the various shows I subscribe to. I get Vanity Fair in print, obviously, and my wife works at The New Yorker, so we also get that in the mail, as well as New York, Smithsonian, and our local newspaper. We get the Times on weekends, but the only sections I tend to flip through in print these days are the Book Review, Real Estate, and Metropolitan, which all arrive on Saturday. Oh and I get my New Jersey news from the app. 

Media has obviously evolved over the past century. Where do you see news media headed in the future? What is media doing “right” now? What is “wrong” that we need to fix?

This will be unsatisfying, but even though I’ve reported on media for the past 12 years, I’m probably the wrong person for this question, because I never have a great answer. I don’t think I approach the beat with as much of a sweeping bird’s eye view as other media reporters. I’m much more engaged with individual characters and personalities and sagas on a story-by-story basis. And I’m much less of a journalism ombudsman or critic than some of my peers. (Sorry!)

Can you share where your writing may take you? Are there any topics you think are capable of filling a book-length project?

There are! But I’d be jinxing myself if I coughed them up here.

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