Story of Pinehurst woman's death still a mystery

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 2, 2011

“Death of a Pinehurst Princess: The 1935 Elva Statler Davidson Mystery,” by Steve Bouser. The History Press. 2011. 206 pp. $19.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — First, a disclaimer: Steve Bouser was my boss for a number of years, and I have reviewed his acting with Piedmont Players.
His book, “Death of Pinehurst Princess: The 1935 Elva Statler Davidson Mystery,” is a new venture. Here, Bouser uses a story “ripped from the headlines” as they say to reveal what’s known and unknown about a young Pinehurst socialite’s bizarre death.
Was it an accident? Suicide? Murder? Based on newspaper accounts, Moore County records, collected memories of the incident and much more, Bouser, who is the editor of the The Pilot in Southern Pines, takes the reader through the wild inquest, a later trial over Elva’s will, and buckets of speculation.
Elva, 22, and only recently married, is found in an odd position, half in and half out of her Packard in a garage filled with carbon monoxide. She and her husband, H. Bradley Davidson Jr., had argued the night before. They had attended a charity ball, then went to a spaghetti house in Pinehurst, headquarters for most of the after-hours fun in that enclave. While at the spaghetti house, she is seen crying and remarking how unhappy she is.
The next morning, she is dead, dressed only in a skirt and sweater and slippers — no undergarments.
The questions begin immediately, along with accusations, so that her inquest becomes a circus affair covered by newspapers up and down the East Coast — Elva was the heiress to the Statler hotels empire.
Who’s lying and why? Who’s telling the truth? Why are stories changing?
The smooth veneer of the resort town cracks enough to let scandal, hearsay and sordid details come out — but, as we later learn, some of those details were buried a little deeper than expected.
In addition, the case pits North against South, and the working class against the idle rich. It has all the elements of true crime and then some.
Bouser uses an enormous amount of detail, but the book is compact. Readers will be able to draw their own conclusions, although the weight of the episode is on the side of murder.
Elva’s husband is the one certain people wanted to blame in 1935, but no charges were ever filed.
The inquest morphed from fact-finding to accusations suggesting — with a heavy hand — that Davidson killed his young bride for her money. Elva had changed her will, disinheriting her remaining relatives, just days before her death.
The inquest’s finding is inconclusive, prompting years of interest and this fresh attempt to rearrange the pieces of information.
Elva Statler was the adopted daughter of Ellsworth Statler, who owned numerous successful hotels. Three other children were also adopted, but tragedy was a frequent visitor to the Statler family, taking first one child, then another, then the darling mother, then Ellsworth himself, leaving Elva on her own at a young age.
Her stepmother, of the wicked variety, banishes Elva and her mentally fragile brother from the family home. Elva retreats to Pinehurst, where she and her family once had happy vacations. She’s drawn by the warm air and the many athletic activities — golf, riding, tennis, swimming — to keep her busy.
Here she meets Davidson, 42 years old to her 22 years, divorced and with three children he seldom has contact with. He also doesn’t have a job.
While some of Elva’s friends described her as deliriously happy, others in Pinehurst remember how miserable she became after her marriage, arguing with Davidson, crying, claiming no one loved her.
The bulk of the book is taken up with testimony at the inquest and a recounting of a later trial over Elva’s will. Bouser includes so much detail it is impossible to summarize here. With a plethora of names, including attorneys for both sides and for various relatives, many denizens of Pinehurst and reporters from various newspapers, it might be a good idea to jot down who belongs to whom as a reference. But of course, some people switch sides.
Bouser writes the book in such a way that it seems he’s sharing a secret trove of information with the reader. Following along, the reader will often change his or her mind about what the conclusion should be.
To say it is inconclusive, like the inquest, is honest. Bouser gives all he knows about the case, makes some suggestions about how to interpret the evidence.
In his prologue, Bouser gives credit where it’s due: Diane McClellan gathered much of the material he uses, and encouraged him to use it, but leave her in the background.
McClellan is the history detective who brought this old story back into the light, and with Bouser’s help, has left another generation wondering what really happened on Feb. 27, 1935, at Edgewood Cottage in the peaceful resort of Pinehurst.