Last fall I sat down with two Elon students for coffee at The Oak House, a popular spot downtown across from the main campus for coffee by day and something a little more potent at night. I was meeting them as part of their newspaper internship with the Burlington Times-News. Elon’s School of Communications requires its students getting credit for internships to learn about the history of the newspaper where they are reporting. Because I helped them get the internships and by all appearances looked to be a relic from another time, they chose me to interview.
We had a great conversation. They are smart young women — like most Elon students — but at that time unsure of what they wanted to do after graduation, which for them was this past Friday (May 22, 2020). We talked about the history of the Times-News and all of its different stages of change and ownership. I brought along a special section we published on the newspaper’s 125th anniversary a few years back to ensure the years when things occurred were correct. Then they began to ask me about my career in journalism. Highs, lows — that kind of thing.
“What was the biggest story you ever covered?” one asked.
It was a logical question but I had to think a second or two. It’s not easy to quickly sort through 30-plus years of reporting, writing and editing. During my 15 years with the Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina we covered Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps installation on the East Coast. Major news seemed to happen there every week especially after 9/11 when we covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan — the training, deployments, and the deaths of service members in action. National media outlets routinely came to the area for any number of stories. We could tell because their satellite trucks camped in the parking lot of Wal-Mart. Over the years we reported on aviation tragedies, training mishaps, hazing investigations, toxic waste sites and courts-martial over misconduct on base and in combat.
That kept us really busy at the Daily News, especially factoring in non-military things like the regularly occurring hurricanes and tornadoes — not to mention murders, a quirky sheriff, fatal fires and a 25-million gallon spill of hog manure into a waterway.
So I decided to keep things local for the two Elon students. “I’m not sure this was the biggest story but it was the toughest to cover and the weirdest. It was the most intense newspaper experience of my 34 years in journalism. It was the most competitive and emotionally and physically draining. When the story began to unfold I had never seen anything like it and when it ended — and it hasn’t really ended — I have yet to see anything like it since.”
And then I began to tell them the twisting, turning and disturbing story of Blanche Taylor Moore.
As I mentioned in a previous post from a few days ago, the story started for us like many do. We got a tip and assigned a reporter to check it out. Alex Martin wasn’t our usual cops reporter but we had no idea we were dealing with a possible crime — that wouldn’t be clear enough to become a fact right away. By itself this made the story immediately tricky and uncomfortable. We simply heard that a popular pastor of a local church was on his honeymoon in New Jersey when he became violently ill. We thought it sounded like a human interest story and something of a mystery.
I was the city editor and was still a rookie at it myself. Alex was the available reporter so he got the assignment to call the pastor’s wife to learn more details. When she picked up the phone, Alex asked the question tentatively. He was a rookie, too — reporters at newspapers the size of the Times-News usually were back then. The woman on the other end of the line was Blanche Taylor Moore, new bride of the Rev. Dwight Moore, pastor of Carolina United Church of Christ. She sobbed loudly and said, “he’s very, very sick,” and hung up the phone.
Alex would be the last reporter to speak with her for a long, long time. But she would loom over our news pages for years. A couple of books, a TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery (of “Bewitched” fame) and multiple TV programs would be produced about the case, including a very recent episode of the TV crime show “Snapped” on the Oxygen network. A link to it is here. I recommend it for the interviews alone, which include my friend and former newspaper colleague Jay Ashley, retired Burlington police detective Steve Lynch, former N.C. Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts, and Blanche Moore’s daughter, Cindy Chatman.
The case was interesting from the beginning. Dwight Moore’s condition continued to deteriorate while he was being treated in the hospital, which puzzled doctors who still had no clear idea of what had made him so sick. Told by Blanche Moore that her husband had used herbicides recently at their home, they began to screen for those substances. What they found was startling. He had 20-times the amount of arsenic in his body that a human would normally have. At the time it was the largest amount of that poison doctors at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill had ever seen in someone still alive. Arsenic at the time was the killing ingredient in ant poison. It could be purchased at any hardware store. That would soon change.
We got a tip that the pastor wasn’t getting better and was in fact getting worse. We also heard that the hospital had limited his visitors to only hospital staff. Blanche Moore was not allowed to see him. And ominously, law enforcement was notified. A police investigation began. Our young cops reporter, Frank Maley, drew the assignment but every single reporter at the Times-News over the next year wrote stories about it one day or another.
From that point on, Alamance County became a bubbling cauldron of rumors, accusations, fear, exhumations, autopsy reports, press conferences and reporters — lots and lots of reporters. It was a soap opera plot come to life.
Unlike now, newspapers were hyper competitive back then. The Times-News wanted to make sure it had details and breaking news ahead of nearby larger newspapers like the Greensboro News & Record, Durham Herald-Sun, Raleigh News & Observer and importantly the Winston-Salem Journal. And we really wanted to beat the TV stations. Newspapers have always felt that they supply the journalism of record and history and TV news is too superficial, cut corners, and copied print sources without doing the legwork print reporters normally supplied. There was real antipathy by newspapers now fueled even more by raw competition. Being beaten by a newspaper reporter in Greensboro or Winston-Salem didn’t have nearly the sting, or possible penalty, of being beaten by someone on TV.
As the police investigation began in Burlington, the pressure to find new facts and details drove our news staff to distraction from all else. It soon became obvious that Blanche Moore was the person of most interest to police but because she had not been charged with a crime all the news organizations walked a very tight line — some tighter than others. If she was innocent and never charged and we treated her like a convicted killer that would lead to another set of problems. And Blanche Moore had a history of suing companies that wronged her. She successfully sued her former employer, Kroger, for sexual harassment.
As Dwight Moore’s condition began to improve, police began looking at suspicious deaths of people close to Blanche Moore. Her most recent boyfriend before Dwight Moore was Raymond Reid, who died in 1986. Reid, of Kernersville, became violently ill and was taken to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. His condition, first attributed to shingles and later to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, got steadily worse as Blanche Moore, his dutiful girlfriend brought him milkshakes, banana pudding and soups to eat — something noted on his medical chart by the nurses. No one became suspicious when he passed away.
But when Dwight Moore became ill, police got interested in what really happened to Raymond Reid.
Multiple law enforcement agencies were now involved, including the State Bureau of Investigation and district attorneys in two counties. Journal reporters had their Forsyth County sources with news tips. We had ours in Burlington and Alamance County. Judges OK’d the exhumations of Raymond Reid and Blanche Moore’s first husband, James Taylor who died in 1971 of a suspected heart attack. Three more exhumations were also ordered before all was said and done, including Blanche Moore’s father.
When exhumations began at Pine Hill Cemetery in downtown Burlington it set off a frenzy in the community. Pine Hill Cemetery was across the street from the duplex apartment where I lived at the time. I always knew when an exhumation was going to take place because Burlington police would block all entrances and exits. Police in Burlington were inundated with people reporting that someone they knew who died was given food by Blanche Moore and sought autopsies. People started calling Pine Hill Cemetery “The Blanche Moore Landfill.”
As exhumations were ordered and autopsy reports released, reporters scrambled for every scrap of new information they could find. Meanwhile, Blanche Moore was still not charged and visible. Public opinion reached a pitch that had to be unbearable for Burlington investigators, led by Lynch. I can still recall going to a press conference at the police station with probably 100 people jammed into a room. Lynch sat at a table with others involved in the case to take questions. His knees were nervously moving in and out at the speed of a jack hammer.
New details seemed to emerge daily as the story began to take shape. Frank Maley, the lead reporter on the case, was run ragged. Frank was used to regular exercise and for a reporter actually tried to eat healthy foods. But as he started missing sleep, he also missed workouts and grabbed whatever food he could. He worked a lot of long days and tried to develop sources in the Medical Examiner’s office and via the Forsyth County district attorney, where a lot news emerged. He was often shut out in those efforts.
I can still remember one night during the height of interest in the case a TV reporter whose name I don’t recall reported something we had never heard before on the 11 p.m. telecast. My boss, an unreasonable managing editor, drove to my house at 11:15 p.m. to complain loudly about Frank. He told me point blank that I needed to “fire his ass.” I told him to come in the house, have a beer and calm down. “This isn’t worth firing anyone over,” I said. “Frank is working hard. He’s doing the best he can. Sometimes you just get beat. If you still want to talk about it tomorrow, we can. But I’m not for it.”
And Frank stayed on the case.
Blanche Moore was charged on July 18, 1989 with murder in the deaths of Reid and Taylor and with assault on Dwight Moore — more than four months after the latter became ill on their honeymoon. Her arrest tamped down the insanity in town a bit, but not the amount of breaking news and reporting. The investigation and criminal court matters were moved to Forsyth County where Reid had died because it was the stronger case and the death penalty could be applied.
Throughout the investigation, arrest and trial the Blanche Moore story drew incredible interest. All the national TV networks reported about it. Newspaper reporters at metro newspapers from Florida to New York came to Burlington to file stories. We set up a system to sell photos taken during our coverage and we received orders from magazines in Europe. The idea of a Southern black widow killer who used ant poison on her victims fed a Southern Gothic narrative that intrigued nearly everyone who found out about it.
Ultimately, Blanche Moore was tried and convicted for the cruel arsenic poisoning death of Raymond Reid. Our reporter, Lisa Ashmore, covered the trial in Winston-Salem. She thought at the time the jury didn’t believe Moore’s testimony that she never fed Reid while in the hospital even though nurses testified to it and it was written in his medical chart. The verdict on Nov. 14, 1990 was carried live by local TV stations — something I hadn’t seen before or since. She was sentenced to death but was never executed. As of today, May 26, 2020, she’s the oldest inmate on North Carolina’s death row at age 87.
The story had more bizarre twists than any I was ever involved in. It exhausted our reporting staff just trying to keep up with it all. We had strong days and bad days, but mostly we managed to move forward. The case had a little bit of everything, including a deathbed confession of a third party contained in a note we struggled to read and then make sense of. Later investigators determined after a handwriting analysis that it was likely Blanche Moore was the author. There was an ambitious assistant district attorney in Forsyth County who prosecuted the case whose life took several strange and tragic turns. Notably, Blanche Moore has provided spiritual guidance to other inmates during her time in prison. The daughter of a preacher, she offers the Word to her fellow prisoners. She was always billed as a church-going lady.
After more than 30 years, the story of Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore still has the ability to fascinate a new audience. As I told the two Elon students about the case last fall they had multiple questions and wanted more information. I sent them all I could find. A couple of weeks ago I congratulated them on their graduation from Elon and gave them a head’s up about the program coming on Oxygen. One wrote back: “I look forward to checking out the Blanche Moore documentary, that case is still so interesting to me!”
Some things never change.