'It May Be Murder': New Book Explores 1935 Pinehurst Mystery
BY STEPHEN E. SMITH
Special to The Pilot
The frayed sepia photograph shows a bevy of dapper, out-of-town photographers milling about in front of the Community House in Pinehurst during the first week in March 1935.
In a corner of the photo, a cryptic inscription hints at wider implications: “Trial of the [questioned?] Davidson story. It may be murder but who can tell. One of those things. Pinehurst, N.C.”
When Moore County resident Diane McLellan happened upon the mysterious old picture at a yard sale, she was instantly intrigued. Davidson trial? Murder? What was that all about? She began to investigate.
And the deeper she dug, the more she began to imagine that the wealthy young socialite, Elva Statler Davidson, heir to the Statler hotel fortune, was crying out from the grave to get to the bottom of her story and tell it to the world.
It all ended up on the desk of Steve Bouser, editor of The Pilot. The story he unravels in his new book, “Death of a Pinehurst Princess,” is as compelling as any crime mystery an American writer has ever written: suspenseful, titillating, true — and set in Moore County. The book is being published by the History Press in Charleston, S.C.
For Bouser, the story began several years ago when McLellan marched into his office with The Pilot’s longtime Pinehurst reporter, the late Mary Evelyn de Nissoff.
De Nissoff was pitching a possible feature, and McLellan brought with her the faded yard-sale photograph and her obsession with the sudden death of Elva Statler Davidson on a cold February morning in the middle of the Great Depression.
“It was a dream situation,” says Bouser. “Diane had done most of the research, and she just dropped it in my lap. She had put together an amazing number of puzzle pieces from courthouses and newspaper clippings and personal interviews all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but she needed someone else to tell the story.”
Besides Elva, the other principal character in the case is Henry Bradley “Brad” Davidson, 20 years her senior, whom she married in early 1935. Brad came from a family that had lost its money.
He’d eked out a living on both coasts and suffered through a divorce before wandering down to the Pinehurst resort seeking, no doubt, a relationship with a society woman who had the money to support the lifestyle to which he aspired.
“Some people in Pinehurst continued to live in the ’30s as if it were the Jazz Age rather than the Depression,” Bouser says. “What better place to find a comfortable life?”
It wasn’t long before Brad met and married Elva Statler, 20 years his junior, and began living a cushy life of afternoon golf and late-night cocktail parties. Not long after their marriage, Elva traveled to Boston and changed her will, leaving much of her money to her husband of only two months.
Then on Feb. 27, 1935, her strangely clad body (wearing a too-big skirt and no underwear, suggesting to some that she had been placed there after death) was found in a garage adjoining the Davidsons’ rented house on Linden Road.
The body was slumped half in and half out of her 1934 Packard, the driver’s side door open as if she were attempting to crawl into the vehicle. The garage smelled strongly of car exhaust. The heiress’ mysterious death in the town “where no one dies” launched a sensational inquest that made headlines across the country.
“It became, as I say in the book — and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration — the 1930s equivalent to the O.J. Simpson trial,” says Bouser. “There’s just something that’s compelling about all this happening against the ambience of this little Southern oasis in the middle of the Depression-ridden South where all these rich people are enjoying life in a region that’s been devastated environmentally by the clear-cutting of the long-
“Add to this the fact that AP Wirephotos had just become available and you’ve got an irresistible story that captivated newspaper readers across the country.”
When Bouser asked contemporary Pinehurst friends and acquaintances about the case, few had ever heard of Elva Statler Davidson.
Although reporters and photographers had descended in droves on the village and the story was front-page fodder in most big-city papers, Elva’s death and the contentious inquest that followed had been forgotten, banished from memory by Pinehurst residents who wanted the bad publicity to go away forever.
Writing the book was a time-consuming task. “In the early versions,” says Bouser, “half of the story was about Diane McLellan and her obsession with the detective work associated with the case. She was out to find the smoking gun and prove that the bastard had done it.
“So I originally tried to tell Diane’s story, too, but there was too much switching back and forth between stories. I fancied, with some encouragement from David Woronoff, that I was writing the local equivalent of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ which is, of course, about Savannah. I finally decided the book needed to be stripped down to the basic story.”
Clues that revealed the character of Brad Davidson helped propel Bouser through his research. When he finally tracked down Davidson’s surviving grandson, who now lives in New York State, Bouser was the first to tell him that his grandfather had been a suspected murderer.
“He and his family were clueless about this,” says Bouser. “I suspected that they’d hang up and refuse to cooperate, but they were totally forthcoming, and they were anxious to find out more about the case. It turned out to be an incredible exercise in triangulation, where you look at somebody from different angles. All of a sudden this guy became fleshed out in my mind.”
The Brad Davidson-Elva Statler story doesn’t end with the March 1935 inquest in Pinehurst, which resulted in an inconclusive verdict, but picks up a year later at the courthouse in Carthage, where high-powered lawyers representing the Statler family attempted to invalidate Elva’s will to keep Brad from getting all her money.
Bouser and McLellan have tracked down all the facts — Elva’s sad childhood as a “poor little rich girl,” Brad’s mysterious first marriage, even the disposition of Elva’s expensive Packard roadster. And the book’s ending is as sensational as the story is compelling.
Almost 75 years later, Diane McLellan and Steve Bouser, their research complete and the book published, stood in front of the old Community Building in Pinehurst recently, comparing it with the faded photograph that first brought Elva Statler Davidson back from the grave and rereading the tantalizing old inscription:
“It may be murder ... ”
The Country Bookshop and The Pilot will co-host a book signing and wine reception at the Bookshop on Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. For reservations, call (910) 692-3211.
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