The Murder of William Desmond Taylor
February 2nd 1922
404-B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles, California
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Now – let’s go to the show!
Being one of the first widely famous directors in Hollywood comes with a certain level prestige and working on such iconic pictures as Huckleberry Finn and Anne of Green Gables makes you a household name. Now add a shocking unsolved murder – and you will be forever cemented in tinsel town history. This is Hollywood’s first murder… the murder of William Desmond Taylor.
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved. I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13, so listener digression is advised.
Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story – and for Hollywood big-wig William Desmond Taylor – that is exactly what happened.
But his story came to a smashing end when his body was found in his Hollywood home with a gunshot wound in the back. A handsome, young, and rich director who made a swift name for himself in Hollywood went down in history as Hollywood’s first murder and his death would spark a controversy that would be woven into the film industry forever.
William Desmond Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in 1872 in a small town in Dublin, Ireland to a military man who he apparently did not get along with. Upon turning 18 Taylor up and left his family home and never returned.
Taylor made his way to America in 1890 where worked a number of odd jobs such a mining, antique salesman and eventually ended up as an Actor in New York where he met a young beauty named Ethel May Hamilton.
Taylor married Hamilton in 1901, but he abruptly disappeared in 1907 – abandoning his wife and small daughter. According to reports he was apparently suffering from QUOTE “mental lapses” and those close to Taylor thought that he had wandered off while suffering from amnesia.
But that seems a bit farfetched to me. A more likely story is that he decided that he didn’t want to be tied down anymore so he left. That’s not an uncommon story for that time.
Taylor spend years on the road and ended up in Hollywood in 1912. Upon his arrival – he started acting in silent films. He appeared in 27 pictures before moving to the other side of the camera. He directing debut was “The Awakening” in 1914 and he went on to direct a total of 60 pictures before his murder in 1922.
He became one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood and worked with a number of the biggest stars at the time including Mable Normand and Mary Pickford of the famous Pickford Family.
Before we dive into the murder of William Desmond Taylor – I need to tell you about another scandal that happened just before Taylor’s death and changed the course of Hollywood forever.
The Fatty Arbuckle scandal.
Rosco Arbuckle – known as Fatty Arbuckle – was a beloved silent film comedian who was known for being a pioneer in comedy at that time and was close friends with Charlie Chaplin. But his alleged involvement in the death of background actress Virginal Rapp would strip him of everything he worked years to build. (http://bit.ly/2dYjsbh) he was described of having a quality of QUOTE “playful innocence” that audiences adored. He was the original “Mrs. Doubtfire” if you will – he had a number of successful films where he played a man impersonating women that were widely hilarious. Arbuckle was greatly love across America. This was until he accused of murdering a girl in his hotel room while on vacation in San Francisco.
Virginia Rapp had a condition that didn’t allow her to drink – which she did heavily that night - and the corner report stated that she died from a ruptured bladder – Rapp’s friend, and a known scam artist, convicted the media that Arbuckle was to blame for her death stating that she was crushed by his massive weight - the media took this a ran with it. Even though Arbuckle would be acquitted of all charges – the media’s major dramatization of the scandal tainted Arbuckle’s name forever.
So with the fall of America’s beloved comedian Hollywood was scrambling to keep their image of a town of glamorous untouchables.
The studios set out strict policy to ensure that Hollywood would have time to clean up their image before another scandal broke… but that didn’t go as planned. The murder of William Desmond Taylor shattered that to pieces.
So, let’s dive into the murder:
On the night of February 1st 1922, Silent film actress Mable Normand went over to the bungalow on Avalardo Blvd where Taylor lived. The duo were known to be close and– according to reports, had ongoing intimate relations. They spent the evening chatting and drinking cocktails until about 7:45pm when Taylor walked Normand to her car which was parked on Alvarado blvd. Her driver was waiting. She blew him and kiss and left. She was the last known person to see him alive.
If you look at the map for this episode you will see that Taylor lived in a compound of other bungalows and they were all relatively close together. So if someone was shot, wouldn’t you think that everyone would hear it? Or at least the two adjoining neighbors?
According to one report QUOTE “Taylor went back into his apartment and at about 8:00 p.m. and what was thought to be a car backfire was heard by the neighbors. Faith MacLean went to the window and saw what she at first believed to be a man in a long coat wearing a muffler or with his collar turned up and a plaid cap over his face. He looked at her and casually went back inside as if he'd forgotten something. Later she said this person had an “effeminate walk” and was “funny looking”. More than a decade later during Grand Jury Testimony when pressed by the Sheriff and asked if she could be certain it was a man that she saw, MacLean answered she could not. Another neighbor Hazel Gillon stated that she just saw a dark figure after hearing the car backfire.
Taylors body was found around 9:30 in the morning by his valet Henry Peavey. It is stated that Peavey called the STUIOD where Taylor worked before calling the police and proceeded to make a scene in the courtyard. According to reports, a crowd quickly gather and a man who identified himself as a QUOTE “doctor” said that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage, yet when police arrived on scene and identified the gunshot wound in Taylor’s back, the “doctor” was nowhere to be found.
This is interesting to me for a number of reasons.
One – there is the idea that the QUOTE “doctor” was someone who was associated with the murder and sent to the scene to try to throw off the police and media as to what the real cause of death was. And Two – that this quote “Doctor” was someone from the studio system who was trying to keep this potential scandal under wraps because they were still dealing with the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial.
Now with Taylors murder coming in the wake of the Arbuckle trial – the studio system was scrambling to keep up the perception that Hollywood was this dream-filled tinsel town. Los Angeles started to get a bad rap and the studio big wigs started to panic.
So was this so-called “doctor” someone from the studios sent to the scene to try to downplay Taylors death?
According to reports, before the police arrived, reps from Paramount are said to have gone into Taylor’s bungalow and taken all of the letters they could find (with the exception of the ones Taylor had hidden) and all of the bootlegged liquor. So, needless to say the crime scene was contaminated and evidence was probably missing by the time the police arrived on the scene.
When they finally did arrived on scene they found that Taylor had $78 in cash in his wallet and was wearing a two-carat diamond ring with – because of this – ruled out the idea that the murder had been a robbery gone wrong… but what wasn’t accounted for was a large sum of money that Taylor had allegedly shown to his accountant the day before
Who are the suspects?
The first suspect is the wife Taylor abandoned – Ethel May Hamilton. Did she somehow track him down due to his success in Hollywood and murder him in cold blood for him abandoning her and the daughter they shared? But that seems a bit far-fetched considering that the two apparently made up later in life and apparently Taylor even had a solid relationship with his daughter.
The second, a most convincing suspect (if you ask me) is 19-year-old Mary Miles Minter – the former child actress who was deeply in love with 49-year-old Taylor. Minter was apparently for having known QUOTE “Daddy Issues” and was known to develop feelings for her older male superiors. She was also known to be taken advantage by them.
According to reports, during the investigation a number of pornographic photos of Taylor and his many young actress lovers were found along with lingerie belonging to Mary Miles Minter and a number of keys that didn’t fit to any locks in Taylor’s house. So was this a case of “he had it comin” Chicago reference anyone?
According to a report from the History channel’s website QUOTE “After his murder, a love note to Taylor from Minter was found in his home, along with her nightgown in the bedroom. Other damning facts came to light. Minter had once tried to shoot herself with the same type of gun used in Taylor’s murder. Furthermore, Shelby had previously threatened the life of another director who had made a pass at her daughter. And to top it off, Shelby’s alibi witness received suspiciously large sums of money after the murder.”
Oh and there’s the small fact that Minter’s mother owned a gun that almost completely matched the profile of the gun that Taylor was shot with.
So – if the gun did belong to the Minter family… and one of them shot Taylor with it… what happened to the gun? According to reports – Mary Miles Minter’s grandmother took the gun and threw it in a river. So the police never got their hands on it. How convenient.
That same account goes on to state QUOTE “Many years later, in Minter’s unpublished autobiography, she admitted that she and her mother were at Taylor’s bungalow on the night of the killing. Famous director King Vidor told people that Minter had ambiguously admitted that her mother had killed Taylor after finding her daughter at Taylor’s home.”
That same account goes on to state QUOTE "TaEd C. King, a special investigator with the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, stated in an article for True Detective magazine in 1930 that Taylor was troubled by Minter's unyielding infatuation. King interviewed Arthur Hoyt, Taylor's friend, with whom he worked out with at the L.A. Athletic Club in connection with the case.
QUOTE “Taylor swore Hoyt to secrecy, saying that if he would promise not to breathe it to a living soul, he would tell him something that was causing him a great deal of worry. Mr. Taylor then told Mr. Hoyt that the dearest, sweetest little girl in the world was in love with him, and that he was old enough to be her father. This little girl was madly in love with him--had been to his apartment the night before, coming at nearly 3:00 o'clock in the morning. She had insisted on remaining. He had insisted on her going home, whereupon this little girl had cried and threatened that if he tried to put her out, she would scream and cause a scene.
This, of course, Mr. Taylor wanted to avoid, as he had many friends in the neighborhood. He finally persuaded her to leave, driving her to her home. Mr. Taylor stated to his friend Hoyt that this little girl had become so infatuated with him that it was really becoming serious. He was worried and didn't know what to do about it.
She stated that she had not seen Mr. Taylor for a long time, the last time being on the streets of Los Angeles. Mr. Taylor was in his own car and she in hers. They merely waved to each other. This statement was not true. We were able to prove that she had been in his apartment many times, and had actually been there the night of the murder.”
There are also reports that Minters Mother – Charlotte Shelby – had a gun almost matching exactly the one used to kill Taylor. When asked about it – she apparently stated that her grandmother had thrown it in the river. They let it go.
I tell you what – that would NEVER fly today.
Charles Higham HI AM, in his book Murder in Hollywood: Solving A Silent Screen Mystery (2004), theorized that Minter did kill Taylor, but it was an accident. He suspects that Minter went over to Taylor’s bungalow that evening threatening to kill herself (of him) over her deep feeling for him. Taylor trying to calm her down, brought her into an embrace upon which the gun accidentally went off. Higham backs up this claim stating that the powder burns on Taylor's body indicated that he was shot at a close range and based on the QUOTE “just a little over five feet tall.”
According to reports – Minter does not have an alibi nor can anyone account for her whereabouts at the time of Taylor's murder.
So there is some pretty convincing evidence against Minter… but that doesn’t account for the mysterious man that the neighbors claimed to see.
There is also apparently is no clear evidence that she was in Taylor’s house that night and there was never any sort of admission of guilt on her part. Later blonde hairs were discovered and what were though were love letters from Minter as well a nightgown with “MMM” monogramed on it…
That seems suspicious enough to me…
Minter’s Mother – Charlotte Shelby – is also a suspect in this case. According to (pretty much every report I could find) Shelby was overly protective of her stunning young daughter. It is said that Shelby herself wanted to be a start, but she lacked the looks and the talent so she lived vicariously through her daughter.
Shelby is said to have been an over protective stage mother to the Nth degree – even going as far to threated men who became entangled with her daughter.
One account states QUOTE “When Minter was still a teenager she became involved with director James Kirkwood and reportedly became pregnant. Shelby paid for the abortion and is said to have threatened Kirkwood with the .38 revolver.” End quote
That just happens to be the same gun that was used to kill Taylor….
So does Shelby have an alibi for the night of the murder?
That same reports goes on to state QUOTE “Shelby's non-family member alibi for the night of the murder was actor Carl Stockdale who it has been alleged in Higham's book accepted a lifetime income for saying that he was with Shelby between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Charlotte Shelby paid Carl Stockdale $200.00 a month for life....why?” End quote
Sounds rather suspicious if you ask me.
What about the accounts of the dark figure the neighbors gave? Some theorize that it was Shelby – dressed in disguise.
I know there are a lot of suspects – but bear with me…. Because we’ve got a few more.
Another potential suspect would be the accountant – who knew that Taylor was packing the cash and sent a hitman to break in and steal money that Taylor had recently withdrawn from his account. The money was never accounted for.
In 1920 – Taylor hired Edward Sands – also known as Edward Snyder as his houseman in 1920. It didn’t take long for Taylor to learn that Sands was unstable and fired him. After that, Taylors house was broken into and vandalized by Sands more than once and he even fordger $5,000 in checks and wrecked Taylors car.
Apparently before the murder, Taylor has said that he was being stocked. He would receive phone calls where when he would answer, no one would be on the line and then they would abruptly hang up. One theory is that Sands was blackmailing Taylor – he had worked for him in his own home and known him intimately after all.
One account states QUOTE “It would seem that Sands was the murderer, with the exception of the fact that he signed in for work at a lumber yard in Oakland, California on the day of the murder. The fact that Taylor didn't do more to find Sands, indicates that Sands may have been blackmailing him. Also, Taylor's bank accounts were surprisingly low considering his salary, at the time of his death.”
Another suspect was the last person to see Taylor alive - his is former lover and beloved comedic actress Mable Normand. According to reports, Normand was quite mixed up in the drug scene in Hollywood and Taylor had – on a number of occasions – intercepted and got mixed up in Normand’s drug connections.
And then there is the death bed confession -
With any murder case, there are handfuls of false confessions made. So sometimes it is hard to distinguish those, years after the murder, if they are true or false. Especially in the case of Margret Gibson. As was in the case of Roland West admitting to killing Thelma Todd on his deathbed, Gibson did the same for the murder of William Desmond Taylor. Gibson was a silent film start that supposedly worked with Taylor in the early days of his career in Hollywood. According to reports she was a drug addict and not long after Taylor was murdered she was charged with extortion and blackmail. She was not convicted. She fled the country in and didn’t return back to the United States until 1949. But in 1964 – as she lay dying, she asked to see a priest because she wanted to confess her sins. She admitted to killing William Desmond Taylor and dies shortly after.
Another theory is that Taylor was killed by a hit man for his involvement in the movement to QUOTE “take charge” against drugs. He had apparently led a commission to do so. This theory would fit the man that the neighbors stated seeing in the court yard on the night of the murder.
Then there is the theory that Taylor was gay and was involved with his lover Henry Peavey. Being homosexual in the 1920s was quite scandalous and something that most people kept under wraps. So that would make the person who found him – Henry Peavey – the murderer.
The murder of William Desmond Taylor has been a cold case now for almost a century and with so many suspects who have so many motives who have all since passed on this case will likely remain unsolved. But if you want to try your hand at tracking down the killer of one of Hollywood’s most iconic director – as always, maps and addresses are included in the show notes and on the website. Happy Sleuthing.
Next time on Hollywoodland: Unsolved: We dive into the mysterious death of Olive Thomas. The young Hollywood starlet died after a night partying in Paris on a second honeymoon with her husband, Jack Pickford. Yep, you heard that last name right… Shortly after the Pickford family was involved in the murder of William Desmond Taylor, they were swept up again in the media frenzy that was the mysterious death of Olive Thomas.
I have to do a shout out to Brian Balzerini who does graphics for the show. Not only did he do the album cover for the show, but he does the customized albums covers for each case that you see on social media and on the website as well as hand-drawn maps for each episode. He is a total rock star. On top of being a graphic designer extraordinaire – he also hosts a podcast with two other totally rad dudes (tony and Dangles) called “The Left Coasters” where they cover all things sports in the Los Angeles area and of course- the Los Angeles Rams. So check them out! I’ve included a link to their show in the show notes and on the website.
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
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