Murder at the Battery Park

New Battery Park

The 1920s roared into Asheville bringing with it financial prosperity and a real estate boom, but in 1929 the banks closed and Asheville would basically freeze in time, taking 50 years to pay off its debt. In the summer of 1936 Asheville and the surrounding area was just starting to pick up the pieces from the great Depression: construction on the Asheville section of the Blue Ridge Parkway started in 1935, and in 1936 the land for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was nearly all acquired. As the nation pushed toward economic recovery people traveled to the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, population 50,000, looking for physical and spiritual health, and visitors stayed at the many hotels left over from the boom, including the 14 story Battery Park Hotel, built by E.W. Grove in 1924, eleven years after he opened the famous Grove Park Inn.

Helen Clevenger was a 19 year-old NYU college student, traveling in the mountains with her uncle, William Clevenger, a 54 year-old bachelor that taught agriculture and food science at North Carolina State University. The summer road trip with her uncle was said to be her first foray into adulthood for the young honor student.

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On the night of July 15th Helen retired to her room around 10:30pm after having dinner with her uncle and some friends. There was a severe thunderstorm that night, so a gun shot that a guest across the hall heard was thought to be thunder. Durham Jones, a bellboy on duty, later noted that there was a mysterious man creeping about the hotel lobby, approximately 5’9” and 160 pounds – a man that fled the lobby and leapt from the hotel porch, in the rain, jumping about 15 feet down to O. Henry Avenue below. The next morning around 7:30am when Helen’s uncle went to wake her he found her on the floor of her room, her green striped pajamas stained with blood from a gunshot wound to the chest and her face badly beaten. There was a .32 caliber pistol casing next to her.

New York Detectives were flown in and promised find the killer …. The New York times covered the case almost daily for the first month, starting with the headline “STATEN ISLAND GIRL SLAIN IN THE SOUTH”. On August 9th the NY Times proclaimed: “HALL BOY ADMITS MURDER OF CO-ED, MOTIVE ROBBERY”. The “Hall Boy” was 22 year old Martin Moore, described by the times as a “Negro Giant.” Just a week after his quick and secret arraignment he was was put to trial in front of an all white jury, facing 2 capital murder charges. Moore had alibis saying he was at a birthday party that night, and his confession was reported to have been beaten out of him by a ‘fat man’ who whipped him with a water hose – apparently one of the New York detectives that were under intense pressure to solve the case. Also, although the motive was stated as robbery, nothing was taken from the room. The ex-police chief of Charlotte came out on record saying that $1000 reward was offered for the arrest and conviction of Martin Moore, but Asheville authorities denied it. Moore was convicted within 4 days and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. In November Moore’s attorneys pled for an appeal, but the NC Court wouldn’t hear it.

On December 11th, 1936 Martin Moore was executed for the murder of Helen Clevenger.

Also during the summer of 1936 author F. Scott Fitzgerald was staying at the Grove Park Inn. He had admitted his wife Zelda to Highland Hospital, also in Asheville, where she was being treated for emotional disorders. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been in and out of clinics since 1930. Fitzgerald met Zelda when she was 18, and they were engaged before she turned twenty, but their marriage had been tumultuous, dotted with affairs and alcoholism, and although they were just a few miles away from one another they rarely saw each other during this time. They had a daughter, Scottie, who was a teenager and away at boarding school as neither parent was capable of keeping her.

It was during the summer of 1936 while staying in Asheville that Fitzgerald supposedly had a diving accident at Beaver Lake and injured his shoulder, ending up with a cast and needing a nurse.

In a article published September 25th ”The Other Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair” Michael Mok of the New York Post article writes of Fitzgerald:

Physically he was suffering the aftermath of an accident eight weeks ago, when he broke his right shoulder in a dive from a 15- foot springboard. But whatever pain the fracture might still cause him, it did not account for his jittery jumping off and on to his bed, his restless pacing, his trembling hands, his twitching face with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child.” Fitzgerald admits: “A series of things happened to papa,” he said, with mock brightness. “So papa got depressed and started drinking a little.”What the “things” were he refused to explain.’”One blow after another,” he said, “and finally something snapped.”

Eight weeks prior to the article would have been the end of July, 1936.

A woman he hired to be his secretary later gave in interview in 1949, nine years after Fitzgerald’s death, where she talks about working for him the summer of 1936. In this interview she describes the nurse relating Fitzgerald’s suicide attempt that summer that nearly got him kicked out of the Grove Park Inn:

She then went on to tell me the details of his getting his pistol and threatening to shoot himself. There was quite a commotion. In some way she got a bellboy, who got the pistol, and Scott, in pajamas and bathrobe, chased him over the hotel. After that, the hotel refused to let him stay there by himself.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was about 5’9”.

 

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In 1948 Zelda died in a fire at Highland Hospital Asheville, unable to get out of a locked room. Fitzgerald had died of a heart-attack eight years earlier at the age of 44.

 

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting … I think you have something there . The resemblance between a young Zelda and Helen is uncanny …The timing … The proximity of the two hotels … and the strange newspaper articles of the time which stated how close they were to arresting a “white “ suspect .. hmmm

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