A news media frenzy hurled the quiet resort community of Pinehurst into the national spotlight in 1935 when hotel magnate Ellsworth Statler's adopted daughter was discovered dead early one February morning, only weeks after her wedding day.
A politically charged coroner's inquest failed to determine a definitive cause of death, and the following civil action continued to expose sordid details of the couple's lives. More than half a century later, the story was all but forgotten when local resident Diane McLellan spied an old photograph at a yard sale and became obsessed with solving the mystery. Her enthusiastic sleuthing captured the attention of Southern Pines resident and journalist Steve Bouser, who takes readers back to those blustery winter days so long ago in the search to reveal what really happened to Elva Statler Davidson.
About the Author
Steve Bouser grew up in Missouri, served as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army, graduated from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) and worked at papers in Wisconsin and Florida before moving to North Carolina in 1973. He is now editor of The Pilot, a prize-winning community newspaper serving Southern Pines/Pinehurst. From 1993 to 1997, he worked with media assistance programs in Russia and other former Soviet countries. He and his wife, Brenda, have a daughter, Kate, and Steve has two sons, Jacob and Benjamin, from a previous marriage. His one-man play, Senator Sam, has been produced numerous times, and his play Ben, about Benjamin Franklin, is now being prepared for production. He is working on a memoir of his Russian experiences. He has aired a number of commentaries on NPR and teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Occurrence at Edgewood Cottage
Shortly after 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, February 27, 1935, butler Emanuel Birch went to the front room of Edgewood Cottage, parted a curtain and glanced outside. It was going to be a cold, sunny morning — downright frigid for the normally temperate little inland resort colony of Pinehurst, North Carolina.
The diminutive Birch, a black man of indeterminate age whom everyone called "Mannie," expected to see an automobile sitting out there — the twelve-cylinder 1934 Packard convertible roadster whose upkeep was his responsibility. But on this morning, the horseshoe drive stood empty, except for a scattering of longleaf pine needles that had fallen onto the white pea gravel.
Birch's newlywed employers, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bradley Davidson, had come home from a night of partying at who knew what hour. Normally they would leave the car in the driveway. But they had the use of a garage at the back of the next-door neighbor's house, and on this night they apparently had decided to drive the Packard back there and put it away before they and their houseguests came inside to sleep off their hangovers.
After doing some routine chores, the butler made his morning drive to the Pinehurst Post Office to check on the box the Davidsons maintained there. It was well after 8:00 a.m. when he pulled back into the rear yard of the leased "cottage," really a ten-room mansion. He walked toward the porch with the frosty grass crunching under his feet. As he stepped into the kitchen next to his servant's quarters and took off his jacket, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee greeted him. Pearl Watson, the cook and maid, was girding for the descent of the white folks. As they waited, the two domestics exchanged clucks of disapproval about the sometimes scandalous goings-on involving the girlish mistress and older master of the house and their racy circle of friends, who acted as if this were still the Jazz Age of the twenties instead of the Great Depression of the thirties.
The usual practice at Edgewood Cottage was for the two servants to awaken the residents and guests at 9:00 a.m. if they weren't already up by then. As that hour approached, Birch helped Pearl start breakfast. But he kept going to the window and looking out at the garage across the way. Was the car there or not? What if Mrs. Davidson had taken one of her early morning drives and fallen into some kind of trouble? In any case, if the car was there, he ought to see if it needed cleaning up.
Birch put his jacket back on, went outside and crossed to the garage. Arriving at the rightmost of the three segmented wooden doors, he took hold of its steel handle and hefted it upward, waiting as it completed its smooth course along the curved metal tracks and stopped overhead. The twang of the vibrating springs faded to silence. The black Packard sat there against the right wall, having been backed in. Birch took a step inside the dim building and reached up to begin pulling the door closed behind him. Then, as the warm air inside started flowing out, it hit him in the face: the powerful, stifling odor of trapped exhaust fumes.
Birch coughed and covered his mouth. He pushed the door back open again and stepped outside to take a few gasps of fresh, cold air. Then, turning back toward the garage, he saw that the driver's side door of the Packard was open. And something was protruding from beneath it: a woman's foot, wearing a house slipper.
"I was scared," Birch would later recall. "But I walked over and looked. It was Mrs. Davidson."
She was clad in a light wool sweater and skirt that didn't seem warm enough for this bitter weather. And what was she doing in that odd, contorted position, sprawled half in and half out of the car, one knee on the running board, face downward, arms extended across the seat and floorboard? Still coughing and covering his mouth, Birch stepped around the driver's door — glancing at the dashboard to notice that the ignition switch was still on though the engine had stopped running — and tentatively approached his mistress. He knelt and placed his hand on her shoulder, which still felt warm.
"Mrs. Davidson, get up!" he cried, shaking her. But she didn't move.
* * *
Curtis Campaigne and his wife, Edna, visitors from New Jersey, were still sound asleep in the downstairs guest room of Edgewood Cottage at 9:00 a.m., so they never heard Birch's anguished cry at the door of Brad Davidson's room upstairs: "My God, Mr. Davidson, Mrs. Davidson is dead!" But they knew at once that they had a bad situation on their hands when the maid, Pearl, came banging on their door seconds thereafter and jolted them awake with an urgent notification: "Something has happened to Mrs. Davidson in the garage!"
The Campaignes followed the agitated Pearl through the house to the back door. There, Edna paused while Curtis proceeded across the frosty backyard, half-walking and half-running as he approached the three-car garage in the adjoining lot. Inside, he could dimly see the tall figure of Brad Davidson, who had thrown on a pair of trousers and a sweater over his pajamas. He was standing with the shorter Birch on the far side of the 1934 Packard, which sat parked with its chrome-emblazoned front end facing the open sliding door, its shiny black finish emitting a sinister glint.
As he walked around the open driver's side door, Campaigne saw it: the youthful, athletic body of Elva Statler Davidson, motionless as a wax museum figure and wearing a brown sweater, wool skirt and slippers, lying oddly crouched in the car's doorway, half in and half out. She looked still and small and alone, dwarfed by the massive car, her short- cropped, dark blonde head bowed in final defeat.
Brad Davidson knelt at his wife's side, feeling for a pulse and finding none. There were no funeral homes in Pinehurst, no ambulance services anywhere near. Brad had Pearl telephone the house physician for the Carolina Hotel, Dr. M.W. Marr, who lived across Linden Road and down a few houses. As Birch waited for him out by the street, Brad took hold of Elva's body as if intending to pick her up or make her more comfortable. But at that moment, Curtis Campaigne blurted something out.
"Don't touch her!" he cried.
Davidson looked up at him questioningly. Campaigne explained that he had "read someplace that a body shouldn't be touched under such circumstances, if there was a chance of murder."
Murder? Who said anything about murder? Ignoring Campaigne's advice, Brad sat on the running board and cradled his wife's head in his lap. As they waited there, Campaigne asked the seemingly distraught Brad what he thought had happened. He said he had no idea. The last time he had seen his wife, he said, was when they parted sometime before 5:00 a.m., more than four hours previously. The last words she spoke, he said, were, "Goodnight, darling."
When Dr. Marr finally arrived at Edgewood Cottage, carrying his black bag and not even having bothered to dress fully, he was quickly escorted back to the garage. There was no time for even subdued handshakes. He got right to his grim work.
As the others looked on anxiously, Marr knelt there amid the tools and garden implements, applied his stethoscope and lifted a half-closed eyelid to check on Elva's reflex responses. He took only a minute to ascertain that, alas, it was too late for him or any other person on earth to do any good. No heartbeat, no breath. Elva Davidson was quite dead. Though he thought the fit young body had begun displaying the first signs of rigor mortis, he was surprised at how warm it still felt. The coloration of the face, which Dr. Marr described as markedly "flushed," provided him with a broad hint as to the cause of death. Still, whether acting on the off chance that the girl could be revived or going through the motions in an effort to make her distraught husband and friends feel that something was being done, Dr. Marr stood up.
"Let's get her to the hospital," he ordered.
Brad Davidson, with assistance from Curtis Campaigne and Birch, wrapped Elva in a blanket, picked her up and laid her as gently as possible in the cramped back seat of the low-slung Packard. Her body, weighing about 130 pounds, was all dead weight, still awkwardly limp even if it was just beginning to stiffen. Then Brad, with Campaigne sitting next to him in the shotgun seat, pulled out onto McKenzie Road, drove up to Linden Road, turned right and stepped on the gas. Dr. Marr followed in his own car.
* * *
The new Moore County Hospital, a source of great community pride, stood three miles away on the other side of town. It fronted on Page Road, named for the family of the man who had sold the logged-over land that would become Pinehurst to James Walker Tufts in 1895. The route taken by the little two-vehicle emergency convoy, skirting the village on the south, took less than five minutes. The men got help conveying Elva to an examining room inside the hospital, where Dr. Marr and two attendants, using a respirator, began trying to revive her. They gamely continued to press their futile effort for nearly two hours before the doctor finally gave up and officially declared his patient deceased at 11:20 a.m.
Scarcely twelve hours earlier, Elva Statler Davidson, bride of a few weeks, superb athlete, hotel heiress and society darling, had been hobnobbing with other socialites at a fancy charity dinner to benefit this very hospital. Now she lay cold and lifeless in one of its rooms.
As mysterious as the circumstances leading to her death that morning were several curious details that Dr. Marr and his assistants discovered: her body bore a number of bruises, some of them evidently fresh. Despite the raw February morning, she had been dressed inappropriately for a cold snap, wearing a sweater and a mismatched skirt that seemed way too big for her — so much so, it was later said, that if she had stood up, it might have fallen off. Rolled up in the hem of the sweater were a tube of lipstick, several golf tees and about thirteen dollars in cash. And, perhaps strangest of all, she wore no undergarments.CHAPTER 2
A Melancholy Gypsy Tune
The news raced along the village grapevine like fire along a fuse. By noon, almost everyone in the close-knit winter colony knew what had happened at Edgewood Cottage out on the corner of Linden Road and McKenzie. At that early point, many of the gossipers were attaching the "s" word to it: suicide. Locking oneself in a garage and turning on the engine had, after all, become a standard way of ending it all in the three decades since the advent of the automobile.
"A horrible day," Hemmie Tufts, granddaughter-in-law of Pinehurst founder James Walker Tufts and the friend who had introduced Brad and Elva just a year earlier, wrote in her diary. "Got word Elva had attempted suicide. Then Allie [Hemmie's sister-in-law, Allie Vail] came in with the news that Elva was dead. Carbon monoxide. It all seemed so horrible after being together just last nite ... We went to movies for escape. 'All the King's Horses.' Took a walk alone. Couldn't talk about it ... All is so horrible and unreal ... Deadly sorry for Brad."
But some thoughtful residents had doubted from the beginning that a troubled Elva Statler Davidson had simply gassed herself and that was the end of the story. For one thing, there was the question of motive. "What people in Pinehurst's winter playground of the rich cannot understand," a United Press correspondent later wrote, "is why Mrs. Davidson should want to take her life. Outwardly, she had everything to live for: beauty, youth, wealth, social position and a husband who is a member of a prominent Washington family."
And then there were the nagging questions raised by the bits and pieces of evidence that had so far surfaced. No matter how you looked at them, they didn't seem to add up to a story that made a lot of sense. Whether or not there was going to be a trial, as such, this was clearly not going to be a cursory examination that would go away quickly — especially given the prominent cast of characters.
* * *
Of all the mysteries hovering around the case of Elva Statler Davidson, none was so puzzling as the inexplicable, illogical position in which her body was found. At this early stage of discussion, every plausible explanation — suicide, murder or accident — seemed to leave a big question or two unanswered.
Suicide: If a despondent young woman were determined to kill herself with carbon monoxide inside a closed garage, surely she would sit down comfortably behind the wheel, start the engine and lean back to let the gas do its work. As a poor second alternative, she might go sit or lie near the tailpipe in hopes of getting a quicker, more potent dose.
Murder: On the other hand, if someone else were intent on murdering a young lady and making it look like suicide, wouldn't he take care to place her body (presumably already dead or incapacitated through other means) behind the wheel? Surely the last thing he would do is to dump her in a pile sure to arouse suspicion and then go away.
Accident: First of all, it was hard to imagine, under the circumstances that prevailed in this case, and considering how long it takes a lethal dose of monoxide to build up, how a fit young woman could possibly end up dying by accident in that garage, which had plenty of windows that could be broken out. And even if she had, was it likely she would end up being huddled how and where she was found?
As described by that small group of heartsick and helpless witnesses who had seen her, the position almost sounded like that of one who had collapsed while climbing uphill on hands and knees. Or backing downhill. "If you were stepping out of a car backward and suddenly fainted," a shaken Edna Campaigne told others in attempting to imagine a scenario that would somehow fit the awful thing she had seen that morning, "that would be the position her body was in."
An anonymous correspondent who filed an Associated Press story on that first day seemed to lean toward the theory that Elva, known to suffer from insomnia, had taken an early morning drive and then somehow died accidentally while preparing for a trip to the golf course. But why would a young woman choose to take a drive or play a round of golf while wearing house slippers, somebody else's ill-fitting skirt and no hat, panties, girdle, brassiere, camisole or stockings?
* * *
One of those harboring early misgivings about the case was Moore County sheriff Charles McDonald.
Described as "a squared-away guy," he had one of North Carolina's most expansive counties (at more than seven hundred square miles, half the size of Rhode Island) to look after. And Pinehurst, an unincorporated village — really more of a company town — with no police department and no crime to speak of, was part of the sheriff's beat. The village had a lone constable, a man named Deese, but he seems to have bowed out early and left the investigation up to the high sheriff.
McDonald himself took his own sweet time picking up on the gravity of what had happened. It was 10:00 a.m. on that first day — while Dr. Marr was still working in vain to bring some life back to the body — when somebody called the sheriff's office in Carthage with the news of "a lady dead at the hospital." McDonald didn't arrive in Pinehurst (twelve miles away) until 11:30 a.m. The hospital called again at noon, only to find that the sheriff had gone off to his weekly Kiwanis Club lunch.
McDonald still had a toothpick in the corner of his mouth when he finally walked into the hospital a little after 1:00 p.m., but he quickly got down to business. He might have been a country boy, but he knew right away that he had a big case on his beat, and it didn't take him much longer to recognize that certain pieces of the puzzle didn't fit together quite right. He made sure that another man became involved in the investigation from the start: Acting Coroner Hugh Kelly. (Coroner Carl Fry was out of town.) McDonald and Kelly paid their first visit to Edgewood Cottage between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. Neither had ever handled a case quite like this before, and they improvised as they went along.
First of all, they wanted to find out more about what had happened the previous night, most of which the Davidsons and their friends had partied away.
* * *
The first party that the group had gone to after putting on their tuxes and evening gowns was the premier local social event of the year: the annual Hospital Ball at Pinehurst Country Club.
"Everything that can be done to make a party a roaring success has been done by the finance committee of the hospital auxiliary, which is sponsoring the Charity Ball on February 26," The Pilot had reported a few days before the event. "Fred Kibler's Casa Nova orchestra will play, and we all know what excellent dance music that is."
Mr. and Mrs. Herb Vail, close friends of the Davidsons, weren't just attending the dance. They were part of the entertainment. "At intervals during the evening," the paper reported, "the Casa Novas will be relieved by the local amateur orchestra known delicately as the 'B.O.'s,' consisting of Mrs. Herbert Vail, Herbert Vail, Bob Page, John Leland and Liv Biddle ... The dancing will take place in the regular ballroom. Specialty acts and stunts have been arranged to entertain between dances."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death of a Pinehurst Princess"
Copyright © 2010 Steve Bouser.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Occurrence at Edgewood Cottage 15
2 A Melancholy Gypsy Tune 20
3 Not Conceivably an Accident 28
4 Touched by the Breath of Scandal 35
5 A Shadow of Ugly Suspicion 41
6 No Bible to Take an Oath On 48
7 Waiting for the Hole Card 59
8 No Other Foreign Matter 69
9 Looking On with a Pained Expression 78
10 Electrifying the Courtroom 83
11 His Thin Face Smilelessly Imperturbable 93
12 Nobody Dies in Pinehurst 97
13 The Style to Which He Was Accustomed 104
14 Poor Little Rich Girl 109
15 The Many Faces of Elva 118
16 To Parts and Places Unknown 129
17 Shrouded in Verdure and Mystery 135
18 Why Did He Get the Catbird Seat? 143
19 Let Him Beware 150
20 A Chance to Blow Out the Candles 158
21 So Cunningly and Craftily 169
22 The One-Hundred-Pound Bulldog 176
23 A Faded Summer Love 183
24 A Distant and Faraway Look 190
25 The Shore of that Eternal Sea 196
About the Author 207