“Oh, it is awful! It is awful! What is done,” shouted William Clevenger as he stormed down the second-floor hallway of the Battery Park Hotel on the morning of July 16, 1936.
Moments prior, Clevenger, an N.C. State University professor and state dairy extension officer, had casually strolled from his room, 231, to room 224, where his 19-year-old niece, Helen Clevenger of Great Kills, Staten Island, N.Y. was staying. The two were traveling the western part of the state together: William, to inspect the region’s dairy farms; Helen, to explore the South for the first time after completing her freshman year at New York University.
Upon reaching room 224, William discovered the door was unlocked. Inside, his niece lay dead on the floor — bludgeoned and shot in the chest.
When hotel management arrived, they ordered William back to his room. Another hour would pass before they called the police.
In her new book, Murder at Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel: The Search for Helen Clevenger’s Killer, local writer Anne Chesky Smith explores the 1936 tragedy that made national headlines. Along with outlining the events, Chesky Smith raises questions about the official narrative, which resulted in the arrest, conviction and speedy execution of Martin Moore, a 22-year-old Black employee of the hotel.
Among the stacks
As Chesky Smith tells it, she first learned of the murder by happenstance. Prior to becoming the executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association in 2020, the author served for nearly a decade as the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center’s first full-time director.
A cardboard box loaded with documents donated by the family of former Buncombe County Sheriff Laurence Brown was among the first collections Chesky Smith processed in 2010.
Brown, who served 16 consecutive terms beginning in 1930 (after losing his initial bid for reelection in 1928), is one of several people profiled in Chesky Smith’s book. A larger-than-life character, he played a crucial role in modernizing the sheriff’s office, creating the county’s first night patrol. He also militarized the department, purchasing machine guns and an armored car.
As Chesky Smith organized Brown’s files, she discovered a carbon copy of a confession by Moore. “That is what initially piqued my interest and had me look more into what the document was related to,” she says. “I wanted to know who Martin Moore was and what he was confessing to. It all spiraled from there.”
Prior to Moore’s arrest, Brown ran a nearly monthlong investigation in search of the killer. Pressure, notes Chesky Smith, came from several directions. “Tourism was definitely one of them,” the author says. “It shows up in the papers again and again — that this is giving Asheville a black eye.”
Meanwhile, Brown himself was up for reelection that November. “So he’s really feeling the pressure to solve the case before then,” Chesky Smith continues.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Brown detained several suspects, including Mark Wollner, a German violinist living in Asheville, and Daniel Gaddy, the hotel’s night watchman. William Clevenger was also questioned.
Within her book, Chesky Smith does a marvelous job detailing the lives of these suspects and the community’s reactions to their arrests. And though the story is a tension-filled, macabre tale, the author doesn’t exclude moments of humor and poignancy, including Wollner’s solo violin concert performed while in custody.
Chesky Smith is also masterful in re-creating the general frenzy surrounding the case, as reporters from Raleigh, Atlanta, New York and Baltimore swarmed Asheville.
Meanwhile, local reports often provided play-by-play accounts of the investigation. “Much of what is known about the day-to-day investigation into Helen’s murder comes from the yellowing pages of Asheville’s daily newspapers,” Chesky Smith writes. The information, she continues, came from reporters “staking out the county courthouse, the hotel and the funeral home.”
Nearly a month after the murder, on Aug. 9, 1936, the Asheville Citizen-Times ran a special afternoon edition, announcing Moore’s arrest. The headline read, “Negro Arrested for Clevenger Murder; Confesses to Slaying.” The front page included a photograph of the declared killer, surrounded by several law enforcement agents, including Sheriff Brown.
The publication sold over 25,000 copies that day.
“Cars stopped in the middle of the road so that drivers could grab a paper,” Chesky Smith writes, “with some people buying as many as 15 copies.”
Moore’s trial began shortly thereafter, on Aug. 17. Two of the assigned jurors, Chesky Smith points out, expressed their belief in the young man’s guilt prior to their selection. Meanwhile, the author continues, newspaper accounts were far more selective in what they reported on about the trial compared to the earlier investigation, limiting column space for testimonies that placed Moore away from the hotel on the night of the murder. Furthermore, Moore’s own testimony, in which he claimed detectives repeatedly beat him until he confessed to the crime, rarely made the front page.
Additionally, multiple eyewitness accounts initially described a man less than 6 feet tall and believed to be white fleeing the hotel at the time of the murder. Moore, an African American, stood 6 feet 3 inches.
Nevertheless, the suspected killer was found guilty on Aug. 22 and sentenced to death. His execution date was set for Oct. 2, but an appeal delayed it two months. On Dec. 11, 1936, the 22-year-old was strapped to a chair inside the state’s new gas chamber, holding his breath for three minutes before succumbing to the fumes, Chesky Smith writes.
Another young soul
Ultimately, Murder at Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel raises more questions over the guilt of Moore than answers as to who might have committed the crime, though Chesky Smith does offer theories with some intriguing evidence supporting her claims. To avoid spoiling these new insights, this reporter will simply note that Murder at Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel is a must-read for local history buffs and true crime enthusiasts.
“As a historian, I really believe in the power of good storytelling to teach and inform,” says Chesky Smith.
Over the 10 years she spent researching the investigation, the author continues, she’d often come across shorter versions of the crime from individuals without a full understanding of the case. Not surprisingly, she notes, these accounts were riddled with inaccuracies.
But more than just getting the story right, Chesky Smith sees the events as a glimpse into a time period of the city’s history that is often overshadowed by the larger narrative of the Great Depression.
“The story really helps us learn a lot about what Asheville was like in the 1930s for different segments of the community,” Chesky Smith says. “Especially for the African American community here and what they were facing.”
A tragedy on multiple accounts, the author writes in her book: “Helen was not the only one to lose her life from the events that unfolded at the Battery Park in the early morning hours of July 16, 1936. Her death became a strand in a tangled knot of politics, police brutality and systemic racism that would, before the end of the year, entrap another young soul.”