Asheville Archives: The great jewelry heist of 1912

PALMISTRY: There is no known photograph of clairvoyant Mme. Nina Lester. This image, believed to have been taken in 1900, shows an elder woman reading the hand of a woman in the woods. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Room Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library

On June 20, 1912, an advertorial in The Asheville Citizen announced: “Asheville is favored at present with the presence of one of the most wonderful and successful Clairvoyants and Palmists of modern times[.]” Over the next month, several similar notices would appear in the paper, all touting the gifts of one Mme. Nina Lester.

Residing at 18 Merrimon Ave., Lester claimed to possess the “wisdom of the ancients, the mysticism of Egypt and the occult sciences of the Orient[.]” While she usually charged between $2 and $5 per reading, the fortuneteller offered residents a reduced rate of $1 as a way of “introducing herself and work to the people of Asheville.”

By June 25, Lester’s promotional language grew more technical. In that day’s paper, she both defined and provided examples of her combined expertise in astrology, palmistry, astronomy, phrenology and psychics. Metaphorical language was also employed:

“Through Mme. Lester’s wonderful ability to draw aside one curtain which hides the vista of the future from our view as well as her ability to read what has been written in the archives of the past, she can at once tell you whether the troubles over which you brood are real or fancied.”

Two days later, on June 27, it was announced in the paper that Lester would make Asheville her permanent home.

On Independence Day, the latest advertorial proclaimed, “Hundreds of the best people in Asheville have consulted Mme. Lester and have gone away satisfied that she is a great life reader.” But by no means were her services limited to the city’s elite. According to the announcement, the clairvoyant was regularly besieged by visitors from all walks of life.

Lester’s final known ad appeared on July 21, in The Sunday Citizen. Along with its usual rhetoric, the announcement declared that the fortuneteller would continue to offer her $1 reading rate for the next two weeks. The promotion, however, would not stand. Lester would flee Asheville the following day.

On July 23, The Asheville Citizen reported:

“The members of the local police department are looking for Mme. Nina Lester, clairvoyant and fortune teller and the Asheville department has issued a call to wearers of the blue uniforms and brass buttons in other cities to arrest her if possible. It was stated at the department yesterday that Mme. Lester has disappeared and likewise a number of ex-owners of precious stones and jewelry have been robbed of their property, while seeking advice and information from the woman who has made her disappearance. A prominent Asheville woman who lost a very valuable ring has authorized the police department to offer a reward of $50 for the apprehension of the woman of wisdom and the money will be placed in one of the local banks this morning to be used for that purpose.”

According to the article, Lester was around 35 years of age, stood 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighted an estimated 150 pounds. She had arrived in Asheville with a 12-year-old girl and a man named Munroe (“the possessor of brown hair and a brown mustache”). Both the “sad-looking girl and meaning-look man” had also fled the city, the paper reported.

The Asheville Gazette-News offered information on the robbery, as well. It claimed that among the stolen jewels was a diamond valued at $400. (The consumer price index inflation calculator puts this at $10,397.77 in today’s currency.)

The Gazette continued:

“It is believed here that Mme. Lester is the same woman desired in Spartanburg, where she beguiled a number of gentlemen into believing that they had gold buried on their places and that it could be found by the simple process of giving her $100, which she would combine with a like amount of her own, attach a charm to the combination and carry for a few days, after which some geni would appear on the scene and disclose to her the exact spot where the gold was located. She carried the hundreds but inadvertently she carried them too far, and the owners have never since been able to ascertain just how far it was carried, likewise they have never located the buried gold.”

There is no indication that Lester, the sad-looking girl or the mean-looking man were ever located by the authorities. If you or someone you know has any information regarding the 1912 jewelry heist, who knows? Maybe that $50 reward still stands. (Which, according to the consumer price index inflation calculator, would amount to $1,264.61 in today’s currency.)

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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