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Murder at Asheville's Battery Park Hotel: An Interview with Author Anne Smith PT. 2
Did the phrase “That’s what I was wondering…” solve a murder? In the morning hours of July 16, 1936, Helen Clevenger’s uncle discovered her bloodied body crumpled on the floor of her small room in Asheville’s grand Battery Park Hotel. She had been shot through the chest. Buncombe County Sheriff Laurence Brown, up for reelection, desperately searched for the teenager’s killer as the public clamored for answers. Though witnesses reported seeing a white man leave the scene, Brown’s focus turned instead to the hotel’s Black employees and on August 9 he arrested bell hop Martin Moore.
After a frenzied four-day trial that captured the nation’s attention, Moore was convicted of Helen’s murder on August 22. Though Moore confessed to Sherriff Brown, doubt of his guilt lingers and many Southerners feared that justice had not, in fact, been served. Author Anne Chesky Smith weaves together varying accounts of the murder and investigation to expose a complex and disturbing chapter in Asheville’s history.
And welcome back to Crime Capsule. We are so glad to have you.
Glad to be back
where we left off last week. This case was almost at standstill. Helen Clevinger was murdered only a few days prior to the entire investigation grinding to a halt. Flurry of activity, lead after lead after lead. Coming up, nothing. And Sheriff Lawrence Brown is in some serious hot water. There's no one he's been able to firmly tie to this particular case what happened when Irwin Pittman suddenly remembered something that he had conveniently forgotten as one of the only witnesses
[00:01:10.270] - Anne
Erwin Pittman had seen someone, a man in Helen doorway right after 01:00 A.m.. Right at 01:00 A.m., he sees someone in the doorway. He's heard this scream. He goes out to investigate and sees this person in the doorway and thinking that that person is a guest, says, I wonder what that noise was. And then the person replies, as Erwin Pittman had originally told law enforcement, that's what I was wondering too. Now the investigation has solved. And then there's a couple of different stories of how Irwin Pitman ends up back at the Sheriff's Department two weeks later. He lives in Raleigh. He had just been staying in the hotel. He was a Bank examiner. He'd just been there for the night. And so he ends up back at the police Department, back at the Sheriff's office. And he either came there of his own accord or the Sheriff called him. And there's a few men in the room when this happens. And he says either after extensive questioning and possibly leading by the Detective or of his own accord, where we're not sure we weren't in the room. But he eventually says, you know, I think what the person said that I talked to in the doorway who he originally described as fairly short, he thought he was white, et cetera, et cetera.
He says, I think what he actually said was it's what I is wondering or some variation of that. And at this moment, someone, either Sheriff Lawrence Brown or someone in the room has this epiphany. Oh, well, that's how a black person would speak, not a white person. So it must have been a black person that was in the room that night. Because what I was wondering versus that's what I was wondering are two very different syntaxes and how we speak. And so immediately they shift the investigation to look exclusively at black men and really at black employees because under the assumption that the only black men in the hotel that would not have been noticed were black employees since it was a segregated society at the time. And so they bring in and question all the black male employees who were there around the building that day and that evening.
[00:04:04.690] - Ben
So you write that there are about 26 black employees that are brought in for questioning. And after a sort of series of probably fairly grueling interrogations of each one. They narrow it down to about five potential persons of interest and then down further to three. So tell us about Banks Taylor, Martin Moore and Lim Rottie.
[00:04:39.770] - Anne
So they end up narrowing it down to Banks and Lime. And Lin has already been in for questioning a few times based on some other things that he had been associated with in the hotel that were fairly innocuous. He had taken some women up to the rooftop garden in the elevator and they had asked him to move some chairs. And the boss said the elevator was up there too long. What were you doing with those white women? And so they're all three black men and they end up getting taken aside because they are known to own weapons. And this is another big sticking point in the case at this point is that they have not discovered the murder weapon. They have the bullet from Helens that they found in her chest and the shell casing. And it's a pretty unique bullet. They try to match it to where it would have been purchased. It has a star and some other markings on it that they eventually decided some kind of outlaw bullets, I guess, off brand that's not sold in the city. So they are not able to figure out where the bullet came from or even exactly the type of make and model that it might have been shot from, only that maybe the gun and the bullet didn't exactly match up and that's maybe why the gun jammed and why the murderer had to hit Helen in the face rather than shoot her a second time.
So they really are looking for this murder weapon. The fact that they don't have it is really making things difficult. I mean, they even have Boy Scouts offer to come out and scour the area looking for this weapon they dump over the Humidor. I mean, they just are looking anywhere this could possibly be and they've come up empty handed. So they assume that whoever did this still has the gun in their position. So they bring in Banks Taylor because he's known to own a gun and Lamb because he's also known to own a weapon and they grilled them. Now what the definition of that is kind of unknown at this point, how hard they grilled them. This was certainly a time of forced beatings, confessions, strong interrogations, and not that that's not still going on. I mean, police can still lie to people who are under investigation and interrogate them pretty hardcore over a long period of time. So they're definitely parallels to things that we still see today. So we're not sure exactly what grilling means in this instance. But eventually Banks Taylor comes up with this, says, why are you pestering me so much?
Martin Moore owns a gun. And so they go over it's the middle of the night at this point. They go over and Martin is a hallboy, what they call hallboy, basically a janitor at the hotel. He's 22 years old. He has about a 6th grade education, moved to Asheville from Spartanburg when he was pretty young with his mother. And he lives with his mother on Hill Street, which is a historically black neighborhood in Asheville that was eventually bulldozed for the highway to go through. That's a whole other story. But he lives there with his mother, very close to the hotel, certainly within walking distance, which is why the hotel was also a huge employer of folks who lived on Hill Street. But they go over in the middle of the night, wake him up from a deep sleep and say, Where's the gun you killed that girl with? And she says, I don't have a gun. And eventually, according to law enforcement, anyway, he says, well, my gun is under the house. And Tom Brown, the Sheriff's brother, Deputy Tom Brown is the one who eventually crawls underneath their house and finds this gun. Hoony says it's got blood and hair on it.
We found the murder weapon. And Martin says, well, yes, that's my gun. But Lam Roddy had it the night of the murder. And I just got it back and I was scared. So I hit it under the house. And so they immediately arrest him, take him to the courthouse and put him in with Banks and Limb and let them kind of wait it out, sit there all together. And at this point, also, the New York detectives have arrived.
[00:09:35.790] - Ben
So, Anne, I have to confess, as I was reading your account, when these officers take these suspects over to Martin Moore's house, you write like a novelist. And I was sort of expecting them, quite frankly, not to find the murder weapon. And when they actually did, it felt more like a twist than anything else almost to date. In the book, I sort of thought lead after lead is running dry. Nobody is actually able to tie this. We've got an unknown assailant who has actually fled in the middle of the night. It could have been a drifter. It could have been anybody. Right? At this point, we have nothing concrete to go on. And pardon my French, but Holy crap, suddenly there's actually a piece of evidence which is a critical piece of evidence which shows up and you write that the bullet casing that was found in Helen's hotel room on the floor of room 224 does actually match the casings of the bullets that are in the Chamber of this particular.
It's a. 38 Special. Is that what it was? So here we have the smoking gun that is really just barely not smoking anymore. Right. But there's a piece of incontestable proof here. These casings are so unique that they're not found anywhere else. And here's a weapon that matches the caliber I was floored. I really did not see that coming. I have to confess.
[00:11:42.770] - Anne
Well, this is a huge point of contention, especially if you are a believer that the police are looking for a scapegoat. And I know a lot of people are. I think I'm in that camp as well. I tried to keep myself out of the book. It was not easy to do because it's very easy to have strong opinions about this case. But this is the piece of physical evidence. This is the only piece of physical evidence that they really have tying anyone to the murder. And so a lot of people believe that the gun was planted. I have mixed feelings about that, mostly because Martin Moore always sticks to his story, that he had led the gun to Lim Ratty that night, that he did not have the gun in his possession. He never denies that it wasn't his gun, but he does deny that it was in his possession that evening. So they take Martin into the courthouse. They sent him in the room with Banks, Taylor and Lyn Roddy Banks, who has kind of said, this is who you need to look at, Lim, who is supposedly the one who had the gun that night.
And they say to them, you all need to sit here together. They're all handcuffed together and decide who is going to take the heat for this, who did this. And they have some audio recording equipment or audio. It's not recording, but they can listen in. And so they all are listening into this conversation between these three men and their Banks. And Roddy are telling Martin to confess. And he's saying, I can't confess. I didn't do anything. And then one of the New York detectives who's arrived on the scene bursts into the room and says, Martin Moore, we've got your fingerprints on this light bulb. We know you killed that girl. You need to confess. And at that point, they take him again into a separate room and interrogate him. What happens in that room is still another huge point of contention that comes up repeatedly at trial. But after a long night of questioning, Martin does sign a confession that he went to Talend's room that night to Rob her. Didn't realize she was there when she was there. He shot, beat her in the face. And then the details of his confession pretty much match up with what the witness accounts say after the murderer left the room and escaped and jumped over the balcony.
[00:14:50.370] - Ben
With the notable exception that the physical description of the assailant that came from several different sources. Even if skin color was difficult to ascertain, maybe in a low light setting. They all sort of suggested stockier, not extremely tall and maybe medium weight, whereas Martin Moore is quite tall and quite lengthy. You described. So there's just a real kind of there's two points of significant divergence here.
[00:15:23.910] - Anne
Yeah. He's six three. He's very tall, skinny frame. His arms just look impossibly long, mostly because he also had the style of the day is that his pants are very high along his waist when you see pictures of him. So it makes his arms look very long. Certainly you could see him playing basketball, being close up to the net. He's got huge hands, but he's a kid and he has a 6th grade education. A lot of people describe him as being mentally disabled, but he could read and write. He talks about that. But yeah, he's a very different physical type than what witnesses saw. And before the law enforcement office, before Sheriff Brown releases that he's made this arrest to the press, he has Martin Moore go through this entire reenactment of the crime based on the confession. And that more than anything because they published the reenactment in the paper from what the court stenographer writes down. So there's this almost verbatim transcript of what transpires in that hotel before reporters are even notified that this is happening. And there are a number of really it's incredible that these still exist, but photographs detailing and detail showing him going through this reenactment.
And it's really telling when you look at the transcript, it's a lot of like, yes, they say, did you do this? Yes, I did that he's not providing any of the detail. He is agreeing with them. And you even see this in the confession and you see this a lot. I'm not a law enforcement historian, but you see this a lot when you look at media and things about forced confessions of people just saying after this amount of time being interrogated, what they know, what the officers want to hear in the thought that they're going to get to go home after this. If I just do what they say, I'm going to get to go home. They're going to be lenient to me. I can't fight this. They have my fingerprints, which they didn't, on the light bulb. I'm going to go down for this even if I didn't do it. And so you see this reenactment, and when he does something that's like a little off, like he doesn't place the light bulb in the right place or he doesn't hit the person who's doubling as Helen in the right place, they say, well, are you sure it was there or was it here?
And he says, oh, yes. And then for me, too, the most telling part of this reenactment is that when he goes to escape from the hotel and shows them how he escaped that night, he goes down the same stairway, but he ends up going through the ballroom, which is like half a level above where the manager's office is. So he doesn't escape into the manager's office, which is what all the employees and witnesses had seen. He goes into the ballroom and then where he goes over the Bannister where they saw the murderer or the alleged murderer go over whoever it was that night, go over the Bannister. It's at a much lower level. It's a half a level down from the ballroom level. And so it's a much shorter jump. It is over a crazy staircase which still exists, that goes down into the basement. So he makes this kind of leap, the murderer does over to the street, but Martin goes out the ballroom and goes to the corner of the hotel, which is a lot further to the ground and like half the distance of the hotel away from where they saw it that night.
He can't jump off of it because it's very far. He has to kind of crawl down the side of the hotel. And of course, at that point, the reporters have gathered to watch him do this, and they eventually do report it. It comes out as a special edition of the paper that afternoon. It sells more copies than it even did when the Lindbergh baby was found. So this is huge news. And what's really interesting to me is that like a year after this, one of the reporters who was there that day is writing some unrelated article about how being a newspaper reporter isn't as glamorous as it seems. And, like buried way down in the article, like way into the paper is this snippet of I was there when Martin Moore was reenacting the murder and the escape, and none of us thought he did it, and that's all it says. But it was just interesting to get that perspective a year out from there.
[00:20:42.410] - Ben
It really struck me that you call it a more or less successful reenactment. And it was almost like the emphasis was on the less because Martin didn't have any idea of what took place that night. I mean, he was just being coerced into this and required and fed these answers so that justice could seem to be done. And I think it's worth really pausing on this for just a minute to remember that this is the Jim Crow South, that there are absolutely different standards of justice for white and black communities. And you write that just five months earlier, the United States Supreme Court had judged a case and determined it was Brown versus the state of Mississippi that coerced confessions could not be used in court. They were not admissible. Police can't beat the confession out of you and then take that into the courtroom and say, oh, yeah, he said he did it. So now we believe him. It took it all the way to the Supreme Court for that standard to be established in our justice system, and it had just passed. And yet the Asheville Police Department was using these tactics of intimidation and aggression and in some case, physical violence against Martin Moore to produce this.
And they were just doing it blithely as though they had never heard of the United States Supreme Court at all.
[00:22:20.570] - Anne
Well, and this is too another I don't know if controversial is the right word, but it's another one of these sticking points because it doesn't come out until the trial that Martin says he was beaten into confession and the trial is a whole other very biased occurrence. But it doesn't come out till then that he says he was beaten into confession and he specifically blames the beating on the New York Detective, that it was him, one of the New York detectives, and actually the Sheriff's brother, Tom Brown, that were the two aggressors. And this Sheriff does admit that he did promise Martin that he would talk to the judge some kind of leniency if he would get this off his chest. But that's all that Sheriff Brown admits to, and no one else admits to anything else. But certainly we can be pretty sure that there was definitely some violence that occurred in that room
[00:23:43.870] - Ben
Let me ask you. Once Martin is returned to prison and the pretrial proceedings get underway and jury selection takes place, which is a farce I mean, anyone who could be remotely considered his peers immediately excluded, he's going to be tried by a bunch of good old white boys, and they're going to make sure that this black guy is put away for good. Right. That's very apparent from the start. I was struck and by your depiction of Martin almost as having given up from the start. I mean, he's been forced into this confession. It's been exacted from him. He didn't make it voluntarily, and his demeanor changes so much. Some folks who know that they're being brought in on trumped up charges are defiant and willing to fight it and have this kind of steel spine that they carry with them all the way to the end. But Martin has a really hard time in custody, and I was really moved by your account of his struggle. Can you help us just understand what was going through his mind at the time or why this reaction became so apparent?
[00:25:13.330] - Anne
Unfortunately, you don't get to hear Martin's voice very often. There's a few snippets that the reporters pick up, specifically some moments where he actually has a little bit of a sense of humor. It's a very dark sense of humor about it, but he does kind of seem not entirely resigned to his fate, but more like if I just keep doing what they're asking me to do, things will be okay. He's obviously putting his trust in the wrong people, but he's been brought up in this world where the system is against him from the beginning. And even one of the employees of the Battery Park Hotel, who in the 80s gets an interview and every interview that I found with Booker T. Sheryl, who worked at the Battery Park for his whole career and ended up actually living in the hotel when it became apartments. Every interview he gives, he always brings up this murder. It was huge. And he says, I didn't think Martin did it. I thought he was a scapegoat. But you don't speak up and work here and do well. And so even though he had these thoughts, he knew he would be fired if he said anything, he would lose his livelihood or he would be brought in for questioning and potentially become the scapegoat.
And so that was, I think, very apparent to everyone that that was how the system was built at the time. And what really hurts him is that he continually confesses. He doesn't confess once. Every time he thinks somebody has been sent up, either by the Sheriff or by the man who eventually becomes the prosecutor. Every time they come up or it's someone that he thinks that they've sent, he confesses again because he thinks that that's how he's going to get leniency is that by being a good boy and telling them what they want to hear. And so he'll Alternatively say he'll deny everything to some people, and then the Sheriff's representatives come in and he'll confess again, and that really works against them and works again. You see parallels today of people who have been coerced into confessing, and that is the evidence against them. Juries think if they confess, they must. Why would someone confess if they didn't do it? But then you watch these interrogation techniques, and I mean, how can anyone withstand that? You just tell them what they want to hear to make things stop now.
[00:28:08.690] - Ben
So let's take a look at the trial he is assigned. Martin is assigned a public defender who does not want to do the job. It is totally perfunctory for this attorney. And he makes no secret of what he thinks of his own clients guilt or innocence. This is about a month now after Helen was killed. We're in sort of the middle of August as things are beginning to take shape in the courtroom and the prosecution assembles its witnesses, and they even call Sheriff Brown to the stand as a sort of fairly dramatic series of moments. What transpires over the course of those days, can you describe for us the strategies of both the prosecution and the defense?
[00:29:08.070] - Anne
Sure. So the trial starts a week after Martin has been arrested. They have a week to prepare for trial. All these confessions that he's made have been made without a lawyer present. When he finally is assigned a lawyer, he's assigned it's interesting because I came up as the director at the Swan and Noah Value Museum in black mountain. So I still know some of them have passed away now. But the relatives of both Sheriff Brown and Scroop Styles, who was the attorney. So he's assigned these court appointed lawyers to have days to come up with a defense. The defense focuses on they do bring up the Martin's allegations of being beaten, and they do even bring up a janitor at the courthouse who says that a length of rubber hose was missing from his janitorial closet. And Martin says that he had been beaten with the rubber hose. So they do bring up a few of these things. Their main witness is Martin himself. And they asked him about what happened and where he was. And he says, well, it was my girlfriend's party. And they bring up the girlfriend and several other people who are at the party who testify that, yes, he was at the party.
And then, of course, the prosecution is just all about all these cross examinations. They bring up his alibi witnesses. They say, well, they've been arrested for alcohol so they can't be trusted. And of course, they're also black women and men. And so their word is not taken very well by the jury, who is all white men. They'd gone through this whole kind of facade of drawing 150 men. Of course, there was one black man that was potentially eligible to serve on the jury that had been drawn from the jury box. And he came with a doctor's note that said he couldn't serve and likely for good reason. There is evidence that there was intimidation, at very least, if not violence, against black men who came to serve on juries in Luncom County. And the prosecution just uses incredibly racist language, even just in their prosecution, in his prosecution and cross examination and ends up in his crossexamination of Martin basically taking they do throw the initial confession out because they say coerced confessions can't be used. But then the subsequent confessions where Martin is confessing to these people who Sheriff Brown has sent, they're able to use those.
But the prosecutor uses these confessions, uses these transcripts of like the reenactment to ask questions and say, did you do this during the reenactment? And tries to catch him in some kind of syntactical trap. And Martin really doesn't realize what's happening. But the audience and of course, there's this huge audience of observers at standing room only, people are packed in to watch this trial. And so everybody's kind of gasping that Martin implicated himself just by agreeing that's what he did in the reenactment, that's not what he did in life, but that's eventually how they get them. They've had him the whole time. There's really not been a chance. And Scrup Styles has been very vocal from the beginning in front of the jury that he is doing this because it's his obligation as a defense attorney. And when the jury deliberates, they deliberate for less than an hour and they come back with a guilty verdict, and the automatic penalty is death. There's no other option. And what's even worse is that they tried him on the murder charge, but he also had a burglary charge as well. And so if he'd somehow been acquitted on the murder charge, he could have been tried on the burglary charge penalty for guilt.
And that would also have been the death penalty, which is extraordinary. Insane.
[00:34:01.270] - Ben
So it's interesting because you see the wider politics of the justice system emerging in this trial and other ways to other employees, Limaratti and Banks Taylor, Sheriff Brown looks at this and he says, well, if we can get Martin, maybe we can also start charging these guys with things like accessory after the fact because they knew something about the weapon or maybe they helped to hide the weapon, or you get the sense of the Sheriff just piling on the black community at this point, and still nothing conclusive was ever established tying any one of these men to the actual crime. That doesn't matter to Sheriff Brown. He's interested in other things. He's interested in his political career. He knows he's got this reelection campaign coming up. And as is so often the case, we've looked at this in other instances around the Jim Crow South, the interest is in maintaining the status quo, ensuring that order remains. I wanted to ask you, as you were examining these sources, did you think there was ever any real hope for Martin Moore in this particular trial? Did you ever think that there was a chance that one technicality or one aspect of, say, the coerced confession could have just at the very least resulted in a mistrial, even if not an initial conviction?
[00:35:47.590] - Anne
Even though I knew from the beginning, just because of the nature of how my research progressed, what happened to Martin, there's still that hope. And I think we see this even when we rewatch movies we've watched before that we hope this time that something different happens, that we see this sense of just injustice and kind of self righteous anger against what's happening, and that it has to be different this time, even though we know it's not going to be just because of the nature of it. But there's always this hope that maybe this time that I look at it and think about it, there will be a different outcome, but it's hopeless at that point.
[00:36:38.530] - Ben
There is some back and forth before his execution. He is sentenced to death, and there's a period of a few weeks between the moment of his sentencing and the date of his execution. There are some delays. There are some appeals that go forth. None of them, unfortunately, are effectual. And there are also no real further breaks in the case. We don't have any evidence turning up. We don't have any sort of surprise witness testimony that wants to retract anything that had been said or other people remembering certain things like Erwin Pittman claimed he did. Any execution becomes for this community in Western North Carolina, it becomes a destination event, doesn't it? It's just so sad. They just want to see this man put to death because they have already decided that he did it. And they actually don't care if there is another story out there, if there is a truth that could be uncovered, do they?
[00:37:53.470] - Anne
Right. So the local NACP actually takes up Martin's case, his other court appointed lawyer. So scrub styles rotates off the case right before the verdict is announced or no after the verdict, but before the sentencing is announced. And so he's got this other court appointed lawyer who does try to appeal, but then files the appeal late. And eventually it comes down to the governor is the only one who can pardon Martin. But the NAACP takes up his case and goes to the warden at the jail, who ultimately kind of advises the governor on what to decide. And they just say, we don't want to stand in the way of justice being served if Martin did this. But there are lots of points of this case that we have questions about, and we don't want to see an innocent man die. We just need more time. Give us more time. We have an idea that there is another person who could have committed this crime. And there are these rumors all through the trial of this. It comes up as the son of a prominent white man. There's these just various rumors that appear in different places that maybe the perpetrator is the son of a prominent white man.
And I think that's what the NAACP is looking at. But because of libel laws at the time, they can't publish any name. There's criminal penalties associated with it. So it's still unclear to me right even now who they might have been referring to, but they definitely had questions and they just wanted more time to look into it. I felt like that's probably all they felt like they could ask for and potentially get because of how the system works, that they were asking for the bare minimum and they wouldn't be granted it. The governor did not part in Martin.
[00:40:06.790] - Ben
And he ended up in the gas Chamber, December 1936. This is now about five months after Helen had died. He is uncommonly resigned to his fate, isn't he, in his last weeks?
[00:40:30.430] - Anne
Yeah, he gets to the point, and sometimes people will come by and ask him about it, and he still denies it, but he tells them, come back, they're going to be putting an innocent man to death. I'm going to tell you what's going on. He says something to the fact of like, I wish Lyn Roddy would just tell the truth. But, yeah, I mean, he asked basically at the end, as his execution date approaches, he asks for religious literature Baptist Minister to come and baptize him. He's baptized in a bathtub at the jail or at the prison at the central Prison in Raleigh. This is all reported on. And the central prison is just a horrible place. I'm sure it's not a great place today, but it was really in disrepair at that point. It was December, it was freezing. The roof was leaking, and he walked the short distance to the gas Chamber. His family isn't able to make it. All the tickets for the execution, which is just grotesque, but there are tickets to execution are given to the law enforcement officers from the county and the city. So he's alone. When he goes in there, the ministers come and start singing at him, which he kind of joins in.
He's obviously terrified, crying as he's strapped into the chair. And it's a horrific way to die. And it's over, but not easily. It's pretty traumatic to even read about. I can't imagine being there.
[00:42:24.330] - Ben
I want to take a look at some of the aftermaths here on Crime Capsule. We always try to hold those in view as we look at these cases. After Martin dies, the case almost fades from view entirely, doesn't it? I mean, it just disappears. The sensation is over. The drama is over. And according to this white community in Western North Carolina, justice has been served, and that's it. And Helen's family, of course, is in. They're totally distraught as far as the loss of their last living child goes. And they sort of retreat inwards. And we don't hear much from them after that. But the case just goes totally quiet for the next 50, 60 years, doesn't it?
[00:43:27.670] - Anne
Yeah. It's interesting. After the trial is over, you see a few reports of what Martin is doing in prison, but then after the execution and what's interesting, too, is there are white run papers and black run papers. And the black run papers don't really pick up the case until they switch to look at black employees. But right after Martin is executed, like the next day, the black run papers start running this article by William Pickens, who is a black journalist and activist, social justice activist. And he points out all the problems that we've already talked about about the height and weight from the witnesses, the racist way that Erwin Pittman rephrased what he heard, all these various problems that we've already kind of picked apart. But what he says is there was a made in Asheville, and this was not reported in any of the papers. And he mentions that he says there's a black woman who was working for a prominent white family, and she answered the phone. And the person on the other end of the phone thinking that she was actually the lady of the house, whoever that was. And they don't say who it was.
They said they figured out they've got the guy who killed Helen Clevenger. And they say it was the Degenerate son of. And then they say blank because of course, they can't print the name, so we don't have a name. And so it all comes back to the son of a prominent white man in town who somehow keeps his name out of the papers, keeps himself from being even arrested or mentioned as a suspect, even though there's these rumors circulating throughout town. And I think it's because of these rumors that actually when the NAACP takes up Martin's case, they get funding for these appeals from both members of the white and black community in Asheville because there is definitely a certain contingent of people that really feel like he is a scapegoat. And the white community specifically, are able to actually stand up and say something without, like a huge fear of retaliation, although there are huge arguments between families, friends about people who are on one side versus the other. I mean, this is like daily conversation topics in Asheville. And so once Martin has been killed, then some of these rumors start coming out, and even the Clavinger family files kind of a wrongful death lawsuit against the hotel.
And even at that point, the hotel says, well, we're not going to pay this because Martin Moore is innocent. So it wasn't our employee who did it. And we're starting our own investigation.
[00:46:39.310] - Anne
Well, they end up settling that case rather than 50 grand, which is what the club insurance had asked for. They end up settling out of court for $6,000 or something around that. And that's kind of the last investigation into the case. There's not much mentioned about it after that, except for in the center of between the trials and the execution, all these true Detective mystery, very sensational accounts come out in these magazines. And that's where a lot of the kind of insider stuff comes from, because even though it's written by a journalist, it's always billed as this is Cher Brown's telling of the story, or this is Deputy Brown and Love Gutter, who was another deputy his telling of the story. So you get the sense that these are the true stories from the law enforcement officers. And that's really where the Erwin Pitman statements come into play because they think they are geniuses for breaking the case open by shifting the focus from white men to black men based on this statement. Like, this is just a huge crack in the case. And that phrase is never repeated in the papers until it comes out in those magazine articles.
Even at trial. Erwin Pittman testifies under oath. That the transcript. Is that's what I was wondering. There's not any of that racism underlying that particular statement at trial under oath. So we can go down some crazy rabbit holes. But it gets really interesting.
[00:48:27.870] - Ben
So let's put on our Detective hat for a second, because I think there is something worth just kind of pulling apart here for a second. But there's a little thread I'd like to tug on. You mentioned that decades after this is all faded from view, you have this longtime employee, Booker Tshirt, who gives us oral history. And as he's describing, he mentions that Pat Branch, the hotel manager, has these two sons and this sort of ties in with the notion that you have the degenerate son of a prominent white citizen in town. Okay. Right. I'm going to take a leap here, and I'm going to ask you to do some sleuthing. Assume for the sake of argument that one of Pat Branch's two sons, you had Pat Jr. And he had Jean. Okay. One of these two sons might have been a person of interest in the case that was never examined, never interviewed, never brought in. But look, their father ran the joint. They probably knew their way around the hotel. You said last week that witnesses observed this culprit, this assailant run into Pat Branch's office. Okay. And that was sort of a prominent moment in his escape plan that suggests maybe trying to get help from Manager Branch dad.
Right. Dad, I've done something wrong. I messed up. I need some help. Wasn't there? Okay. Move on. Try to escape. Try to get clear the question that I have for you. There's some sort of plausibility that matches up with that fact pattern. Right. Okay. What I really want to know and this is where the Pat Branch Sun theory falls apart for me, or at least I run into kind of an obstacle goes back to the murder weapon. Right. If this was, in fact, Martin Moore's gun, we know by the shell casings he admitted he owned the gun. He had just loaned it to Limaratti. How do we explain how Martin Moore's gun was used by somebody else, such as Pat Branch's sons or someone else on the night? Where does that play into the notion that this shortish white assailant who we know was sort of spotted with his really weird escape path? Where does the gun come in? And I need the smoking gun here. How does it work? I can't make it work.
[00:51:31.930] - Anne
This is where a lot of interpretation comes in. But you're right. Detective work here. And a lot of times as historians, we like to talk about it being like Detective work and digging through historical archives and papers. So, okay, we already have these rumors of this prominent white man coming in kind of throughout, and we see even in newspaper reports, and they're always shoved, like at the bottom of the article in the back of the paper about rumors of an arrest of the son of a prominent white man, but he was cleared and they never named him. And so those rumors are kind of filtering through. And then there's this. Yes. Oral history much later done in the 1980s with Booker T. Sheryl, who had worked there forever. And he says he always brings up in every oral history he does the murder because it was such a huge thing in his life and also because the day they arrested Martin Moore was his wedding day. As an aside, he actually married Ruby Taylor, who was thanks, Taylor's sister. And I haven't really found the super tie there, but there's something there that I haven't been able to really pull apart.
So he remembers that day because it was also his wedding day. And he says in the interview, we always thought Martin Moore was a scapegoat. We thought maybe the manager's son has something to do with it. And, of course, he doesn't actually name which son. So there's two. And there's a significant age difference between them. The younger son is College age. He's probably home for the summer that summer. There are also rumors that the managers that Pat Branch's son was working at the hotel that summer, and then he was never seen again. I've never seen that in any kind of primary documentation, but I've heard that rumor before. And then the older son, Jean, is a hotel manager, but he's working up in Winchester, Virginia. And what's interesting, and I never know whether or not Sheriff Brown has heard these rumors. And that's why he ends up writing this letter, which is found in the archives at Swan and Noah Valley Museum that he keeps. But he writes a letter to the chief of police of Winchester, Virginia, and says, Will you look into Eugene Branch and let me know if he has a reputation for whiskey, women, et cetera?
There's no record of whether he gets to reply. There's no record of why he's investigating Eugene Branch. Does he actually have an inkling that Eugene could be involved, or is he just hearing these rumors and he feels like he needs to check it out? And then, of course, we think Pat Branch, the younger son, is in town, so he wouldn't have needed to maybe write a letter to investigate him. So we don't have a lot to go on, but to actually go around and answer your question about the gun. There is a very small article in a newspaper after Martin is executed that says something to the effect of Lynn Roddy said he loaned the gun to the son of a prominent white man during that time. And this is like another it's just like a tiny newspaper article. And why in the world he would borrow a gun from Martin to give to a white man without them? Like, I mean, that really goes into the track of a huge conspiracy in a premeditated murder or rape situation at that. Whoever this prominent white man, the son of a prominent white man, had this intention to go in there and assault Helen Clevenger, needed a weapon to do it that wasn't tied to him.
So asked his buddy Limb to acquire a weapon for him. So that's the scenario that potentially makes sense. But really, it's just hard to envision conspiracy of that magnitude within law enforcement. I mean, it's certainly not unheard of. I think it's a lot easier to think about why they needed a scapegoat. So they found one. But that is the level of premeditation that's really striking.
[00:56:06.110] - Ben
Well. And it is also the magnitude only grows when you realize that Helen had only been Helen and Uncle Billy had only been in and out of that hotel for a few days their first trip. And then they come back and it happens. I mean, they were unknowns, right? They were total unknowns. This whole thing would have had to take in shape extremely quickly in order for that to be the case. And typically, conspiracies are especially that order. Conspiracies have been brewing for quite some time. It's hard to imagine that they could have just pulled it off at lightning speed like that. But I don't know. I mean, anything is possible. Who are we to say?
[00:56:52.180] - Anne
Yeah. And especially when you know how the system works like that, if you're going to do this and you don't want to get caught and you want to pin it on someone, maybe that's how you do it and it's already horrifying. But then to think about it in that context, it's a whole other level of this plan, essentially, not only the plan, at least assault of Helen, but also they knew what would happen to Martin. So then on another level, there's a whole other planned murder in that sense. And so you can go down some crazy spirals of trying to figure this out. But we know it was not as straightforward as justice was not carried out.
[00:57:51.450] - Ben
Well. And thank you for taking us through all of this. It is such a murky case, and there are still so many questions left to be answered. And you say that you're continuing your research on it and that you hope one day to uncover more of these sort of boxes of files that may shed light on certain aspects. The last question that I have for you. We've been doing a series on prominent women in true crime history. In the past several weeks, we have looked at a female vigilante, a lady named Helen Spence over in Arkansas. We have looked at a female perpetrator, a murderous Emma Hepperman, up in Missouri. And now we're looking at a very, very prominent female victim, of course, with Helen Clevenger. I wanted to ask you, what impact did this case have on women's history of the day or women's history in that moment going forward?
[00:59:09.010] - Anne
It's sad to think about, and certainly, I think we see this often, especially in that era. But even still moving into today is just a very actually negative impact of this idea of white women being victimized by black men. And the way that the system but also our way of thinking has been shaped by media, by law enforcement, and thinking of that dynamic between if it's a white woman that was sexually assaulted and murdered or potentially sexually assaulted and murdered. The prevailing thought was it had to have been a black man and you see the incidences of lynchings going up during this time and people fighting against it. And there was even talk of once Martin Moore was arrested of fear of a lynch mob arriving at the jail. And in Helen's individual cases, individual. She had such a promising future and she was beautiful and so we think about that and what she may have done if she had survived and gone on to work and have a family. And then we also kind of romanticized it in that way Because she was a young white woman with such a promising future. But at the same time, would it have been any less horrifying if she hadn't been all those things like if she had just been made at the hotel or some other person?
I mean, certainly her case would not have been as covered if she was a different person. But I think that's worth thinking about as well. It's just the dynamic in women's history of who's valued, whose voices we hear, Whose lives we hear about and certainly why that is. I mean, certainly we would know probably nothing about Martin Moore Had he not been the one involved in this or about any of the other employees at the hotel Just because of the dynamics of the time. And I think we obviously still see a lot of those dynamics in play today. A lot of what current movements in the last couple of years have really helped us start to contend with.
[01:01:56.150] - Ben
Well, your sensitivity to the lives of the dispossessed Is on clear view in this book And I wanted to just thank you for the way in which you wrote about that. It was very moving and very powerful. You have told such a compelling story and called attention to these injustices that we have to continue to work to overcome. So thank you. It has been so good to have you on the show and we really appreciate the time that you've taken out for us.
[01:02:28.610] - Anne
Absolutely. I'm happy to do it. I think it certainly got some important implications for the 20th and 21st century, So I appreciate the time to talk about it.