The trial for arson: The once grand Carolina Beach Hotel (part III)

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The Carolina Beach Hotel
Carolina Beach Hotel pictured here from the May 30, 1926, edition of the Wilmington Morning Star. (Courtesy of Federal Point Historic Preservation Society)

CAROLINA BEACH — The trial for hotel owners H.T. Ireland and J.L. Byrd was slated to begin on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 1928, but was continued to Thursday, Jan. 19, by Judge N.A. Sinclair because a witness subpoenaed by the state was a no-show on Jan. 18.

Mrs. S.R. Petty of Greensboro was believed to have important information regarding the whereabouts of a certain unnamed party on the night of the fire. It was also believed that Mrs. Petty was in Ohio and had been there for a while, having left unanswered another subpoena from Jan. 3.

The state contended her testimony would have important bearing in the case. But Judge Sinclair decided the trial would proceed on Thursday without her.

Read more: New and luxurious: The once grand Carolina Beach Hotel (part I)

                          Smoldering ruins: The once grand Carolina Beach Hotel (part II)

The state began with testimony from the treasurer of the Carolina Beach Corporation, W.W. Walsh of Winston- Salem, who stated that the sale of the hotel was, in reality, a trade for a business property in Winston-Salem.

The CB Corporation got the Winston property with a mortgage of $50,000 and John R. Baker got the hotel with 75 lots and a mortgage of $85,000. Mr. Baker was supposedly purchasing the hotel for a Mr. R.L. Nisson, who planned to move his family to Carolina Beach to live while implementing plans of vast improvements for the hotel and lots.

As it turned out Mr. Baker bought it for himself and immediately sold it to Sam Jackson of Mecklenburg County, who sold it to Highway Park West Inc. Ireland and Byrd were two of the owners of that company.

Mr. Walsh also testified that the hotel had to turn away guests “by the hundreds” for July 4, 1917, but by August, business had dropped off considerably owing to the beach season coming to an end.

There is an idea that being a summer season hotel may have influenced their decision to sell it, coupled with the location. It was eight blocks southwest of the boardwalk, the pavilion and all the many activities there. This may have created a problem for hotel guests, as it was a long walk back and forth to the boardwalk, and they would have to drive.

Guests at the Bame and Greystone Hotels could walk out the front door to the boardwalk and ocean. Also, the fresh water lake may have turned out not to be as much of a draw as anticipated and the guests would have to walk or drive four blocks for ocean bathing.

Indeed, on the trial’s second day, the Wilmington Morning Star reported that the “Defense Counsel poked fun at the advertised slogan that the hotel was located in front of the only freshwater lake located within a few hundred feet of ocean along the Atlantic coast.”

CB Corporation Treasurer W.W. Walsh also touched on the location by testifying that the hotel was 3,000 feet from the ocean to be closer to the fresh water lake and the lots owned by the corporation. I can’t quite see the advantage of the hotel being close to potential neighborhoods full of homes. But, of course, the corporation didn’t own any lots on the ocean.

Further testimony by Marsden de Rosset of the firm de Rosset and Hazlehurst, fire insurance agents, revealed that Mr. Ireland purchased $28,500 additional insurance on the hotel on Sept. 6, 1927. That was seven days before the fire on Sept. 13. Oddly, the premium was paid on Sept. 16, three days after the fire. The additional insurance meant the hotel was insured for over $100,000.

The State called W. W. Lewis, who lived about a block north of the hotel, who testified about hearing shouts and gun shots about 2:30 in the morning of Sept. 13. He ran to the hotel where he helped rescue Byrd and Ireland from the porch roof of the burning building and described the scene there.

Also testifying at the end of day one was Captain W. A. Scott of the North Carolina Fire Commission. He explained the details of the department’s investigation against the pair leading to their indictment, but the newspaper account of his testimony was almost nonexistent.

The second day began with defenses’ unsuccessful motion of a direct verdict of not guilty as to end the trial.

The defense then proceeded with a lengthy list of character witnesses. The witnesses included J. Elmer Long, Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina; B.T. Baynes, president of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce; C.L. Story, Sheriff of Alamance County; Dr. W. W. Harvey, coroner of Guildford County; bank presidents, real estate developers, builders, insurance executives and attorneys, among the many prominent citizens who testified to the defendants’ character.

The three defense attorneys, led by Wilmington attorney John Bright Hill, then gave ending arguments without calling a single material witness. The judge spent 20 minutes instructing the jury who returned in 50 minutes with the verdict. This is the headline in the Morning Star’s Saturday, January 27, 1927’s, edition:

Carolina Beach Hotel Part III Headline
(Courtesy of Federal Point Historic Preservation Society)

One can only wonder why the state’s failed witness, being from Greensboro, was in Ohio at the time of the trial ignoring two subpoenas. And, one can further wonder if that witness’ testimony could have had a different bearing on the case. That, we will never know.

-Content provided by Elaine Henson, President, Federal Point Historic Preservation Society

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