There is something harsh and cruel about a clock
It isn’t just the clock itself,
So steady, inexorable—
It’s time itself; so slow, yet quick,
Ticking our lives away with its measured stroke
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

~Helen Clevenger

July 16, 1936

1:06 a.m. – Taxi driver Casey Jones is talking with his dispatcher on the phone outside Battery Park Hotel when he sees a man run out of the manager’s office and across the porch of the hotel toward the balcony railing. A hotel employee bursts out of the hotel’s front door, shouting, “Where’d he go?” The two see the fleeing man—who they later estimate to be about 5’10” and 160-170 pounds—make the dangerous jump over the balustrade and take off running.

1:15 a.m.The Battery Park hotel night watchman is sent to the second floor after reports of a women screaming in room 224. The watchman finds it all quiet and returns to the main floor.

8:20 a.m. — Hotel guest William Clevenger leaves his room, 231, and rounds the corner to collect his eighteen-year-old niece, Helen, in room 242. She does not answer his knocks and to his surprise, he finds her door unlocked. Tentatively opening it, he is shocked to see Helen’s bloody body just inside the door, face up, her legs folded underneath her. He rushes out, frantically calling for help.

8:22 a.m. — Hotel manager Pat Branch is alerted to the tragedy. Instead of calling the police, he informs the in-house doctor, David Buck. William Clevenger is taken to his room by the assistant manager and told not to leave. Room 242 is not contained.

8:41 a.m. — Nearly twenty minutes after being awakened, Dr. Buck arrives on the scene and pronounces Helen Clevenger dead. He estimates the time of death as 1:00 a.m. He calls the coroner who is out of the office. He awaits a return call.

9:30 a.m. — Having waited in vain for the coroner, Pat Branch finally calls the sheriff’s office. Deputies Tom Brown and Leet Sluder rush over. Sluder proceeds to William Clevenger’s room while Brown goes directly to room 242.

Sluder learns from Clevenger that his niece had just completed her freshman year at New York University and was accompanying him on his summer travels across North Carolina as a dairy extension specialist. A Staten Island native, she was eager to tour the American South for the first time. Although she was troubled by the racism she observed there—which contradicted her devout Baha’i faith with its emphasis on the unity of all humankind—she nevertheless enjoyed meeting the people they encountered at the ice cream, dairy, and cheese-making facilities on her uncle’s route.

Clevenger describes his niece as studious and responsible: Valedictorian of her class and involved in many extracurricular activities at school, she had received two scholarships to NYU and planned to follow in her father’s footsteps as a chemist. She had no acquaintances in Asheville. Clevenger appears genuinely distraught.

When Pat Branch escorts him to room 242, Deputy Brown finds a master key (able to override the interior key) in the exterior of the door. Branch denies it is his and Brown pockets it. The owner of this pass key is never identified. There are eleven such keys in existence and all eleven are later produced by their rightful owners.

Helen Clevenger’s room key is found under the radiator on the far wall, covered with blood. A bullet casing lays near her body. Nothing else appears out of place except a light bulb which had been removed from the desk lamp and placed on the chair beside the bed (the light switch is still in the on position). Testing finds no fingerprints on the lamp or bulb.

10:18 a.m. — When the coroner finally arrives, he confirms the cause of death is a single shot to the left chest. Gunpowder burns around the wound indicate close contact and the downward angle of the bullet’s trajectory suggests she was on her knees at the time, perhaps pleading for her life. Several deep wounds on her face—likely from blows from the gun—were probably made in an attempt to quiet her, perhaps because the gun jammed. The coroner believes death occurred approximately fifteen minutes after she was shot. There is no evidence of a sexual assault.

11:13 a.m. — Deputies interview the hotel guests for anything they may have heard or seen. Erwin Pittman in room 220 also heard a woman’s scream. He rushed to the door but found the hallway empty. Going back inside for his bathrobe, he returned to find a “stocky” man half hidden in the doorway of room 224. “I wonder what that noise was? It sounded like someone was in pain,” said Pittman. “That’s what I was wondering myself,” said the shadowed man in what Pittman described as a “cultured” voice. Seeing and hearing nothing further, Pittman returned to bed.

1:08 p.m. — Sheriff Laurence Brown (brother of Deputy Tom Brown) sends a Western Union telegram to Helen’s parents, Joseph and Mary Clevenger. They are devastated; Helen was their only child.

July 18, 1936

1:15 p.m. — Detectives notice a watch clock at the end of the hall right next to room 223. Each floor has such a clock that the watchman is supposed to punch each time he makes his hourly rounds. The clock is punched every day, every floor, and every hour except the 1:00 a.m. time slot on second floor watch clock. When questioned, the night watchman has no explanation for his oversight. The sheriff does not believe the watchman is responsible for the crime but he does think he knows more than he is telling and holds him in custody for more than three weeks.

July 22, 1936

11:35 a.m. – Helen Clevenger is laid to rest in her father’s hometown of Fletcher, Ohio, in a small ceremony including only family and friends.

July 25, 1936

7:00 p.m. — Sheriff Brown brings in William Clevenger for further questioning. Inquiries into his background revealed that the fifty-two-year-old lifelong bachelor is considered somewhat “peculiar” by colleagues and not given to socializing.

Clevenger expresses his deep remorse for choosing the Battery Park Hotel rather than the Inn at 100 Main Street, where he normally stays when in town, but says the women he worked with had recommended the luxury resort for his niece because of its safety. He vigorously asserts he never fondled or kissed Helen and always made sure to take a room far removed from hers. He is so vehement and repetitive in these assertions that it raises the sheriff’s suspicions. Clevenger is also adamant that his niece would never have opened her door to a stranger in the middle of the night and a master key must have been used.

July 27, 1936

3:00 p.m.Deciding that Clevenger has no involvement in the murder, the police release him from custody.

August 2, 1936

Orr focuses on two Black hotel employees—Tom Banks and Lem D. Roddy, Jr.—since both are said to have possessed guns. Although Roddy is discovered to have been fired from the hotel since the murder, he is released when he is confirmed to have been at a nearby restaurant with the hotel’s bell captain at the time of the killing.

11:48 p.m. — After four days of grilling, Taylor finally tells detectives to look into Martin Moore who owns a .32 automatic. “He claims he lent it to Lem Roddy two days before the girl got killed, but I don’t believe him. I asked Roddy and he said he didn’t get any gun from Martin. And I’d rather believe Lem Roddy.”

Martin is a twenty-two-year-old hallboy at Battery Park Hotel. He had not fallen under suspicion since he had gotten off work at 9:00 p.m. the night of the murder and his distinctive appearance does not match the description of the fleeing man. Not only is he dark skinned and lanky rather than stocky, but most obviously, he is conspicuously tall. He towers over most men and is even several inches taller than Sheriff Brown, who is 6’4”. With only a sixth grade education, he also does not speak in a manner which could be described as “cultured.”

August 9, 1936

2:15 a.m. — Detectives storm Martin Moore’s house and demand he produce his gun. He explains that Lem Roddy borrowed the gun two days before the murder and returned it the day after the murder. When he retrieves it, it is bloodied and has two blonde hairs on it. One bullet has been discharged and the remaining cartridges bear the same highly distinctive stamp as the one that killed Helen Clevenger. Moore is taken into custody.

1:30 a.m. — Lem Roddy is picked up again. He denies ever borrowing the gun. Police put Roddy, Moore, and Taylor in a room and surreptitiously listen to their conversation. Roddy and Taylor try to get Moore to deny he loaned out the gun while Moore insists Roddy admit to borrowing it. They must be separated by detectives when they nearly come to blows.

6:10 a.m.— After six hours of interrogation, Moore signs a confession which states that after his shift ended at 9:00 p.m., he spent nearly four hours in the employee locker room reading unobserved, then went into room 242—which he found unlocked—with the intent of robbery. When the girl inside screamed, he shot her, then hit her twice with the gun. He unscrewed the light bulb, placed it “somewhere,” and left. On his way out, he encountered a man in a room across the hall wondering about the scream. “It’s what I was wondering myself,” he responded, then left through the ballroom and jumped over the banister to the street. The language of the confession is clearly not Moore’s.

9:07 a.m. — Sheriff Brown has Moore re-enact the crime. The law officers correct him when he “shoots” the man portraying the victim too low and again when he drops the light bulb on the floor instead of placing it on the chair. However, the deputies do not coach him about his purported avenue of escape—through the ballroom rather than the manager’s office—a half-story above the porch from which the running man jumped.

August 17, 1937

2:00 p.m. — Eight days after his confession, Moore’s trial begins. His court-appointed lawyers have one week to prepare. They do not pursue the rumor in the Black community that Roddy re-lent the gun to a white man—possibly one of Pat Branch’s sons.

August 18, 1937

A child pulls names from a hat to pick the all-male jury. The lone Black man selected brings a doctor’s note asking to be excused, a wise decision since Blacks were routinely beaten or jailed by Asheville authorities for having the “audacity” to show up for jury duty.

August 20, 1937

9:07 a.m. — The State presents forensic evidence establishing Moore’s gun as the murder weapon and submits Moore’s confession. The defense calls five witnesses to establish that Moore was at his girlfriend’s house for her birthday at the time when he was at the hotel reading according to his confession. Moore takes the stand and says he was whipped with a hose by Tom Brown and two detectives who demanded he confess or be beaten to death. The State’s doctor attests to bruises on his torso and the courthouse janitor testifies that a two-foot length of hose was missing when he came to work the day after Moore signed his confession. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled coerced confessions inadmissible just six months earlier, Moore’s confession is allowed to stand.

August 21, 1936

2:09 p.m.In his final argument, the prosecutor Nettles declares, “In the name of womanhood, put this murderer and rapist in the gas chamber. He is a menace to our society and as long as he walks the streets of our fair city your wife or daughter or your niece is in peril. … This Martin Moore is guilty and must die.” 

5:12 p.m.Fifty-six minutes after they begin their deliberations, the jury arrives at a verdict. Despite the coerced and inaccurate confession, five alibi witnesses, and his extreme dissimilarity to the witness descriptions of the fleeing perpetrator, the jury convicts Moore and the judge sentences him to death.

August 30, 1936

The Charlotte News reports Walter Orr plans to claim the $1,000 reward for the arrest of the perpetrator in the Clevenger murder. In describing his contribution to the case, he boasts that he knew he would arrest one of the Black hotel employees before he even left Charlotte.

December 9, 1936

5:17 p.m. — Moore is baptized in prison. After his request to Roddy’s brother to induce Lem to admit he borrowed the gun had gone unanswered and his appeals were denied, Moore had taken refuge in prayer and reading the Bible. Baptism was his final request. After he is returned to his cell, he is informed that the governor—his only remaining hope—will not intervene in his case.

December 11, 1936

10:00 a.m. —Moore prays in his cell with two ministers. “They’re set to kill an innocent man,” he tells them.

10:20 a.m. — Moore is led to the gas chamber. He joins the clergymen in singing a hymn. Sixteen cyanide tablets are dropped into a pan of sulfuric acid.

10:30 a.m. — Martin Moore is declared dead.

There is something harsh and cruel about a clock
Ticking our lives away
Tick-tock, tick—

Based on the true story as told in Anne Chesky Smith’s Murder at Battery Park Hotel: The Search for Helen Clevenger’s Killer. Some dates and times are approximate.