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Hollywood Murder Mystery

Updated on July 30, 2015

William Desmond Taylor

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Taylor, born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in County Carlow, Ireland, immigrated to the United States around 1890 at age 18. His wealthy father sent him to America after the young man tried running away to become a London stage actor. He worked as ranch hand in Kansas, then in an New York,at an antique shop, as a stage actor, an engineer and a gold miner. He married actress and dancer Ethel May Hamilton, daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, in December 1901. They had one daughter, Ethel Daisy

On the morning of February 2, 1922 the body of silent film director William Desmond Taylor was found, killed by a single bullet through his right lung, by his 39-year-old valet, Henry Peavey. For a such well-liked and man, the police had a surprisingly long list of suspects

Ethel May

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The marriage seemed to be going along fine, the couple a part of the New York society set, until 1908, when Taylor disappeared, In October 1908, He abandoned his wife and daughter. At first, his family thought " that he had wandered off during an episode of amnesia." Ethel officially divorced him in 1912.

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Taylor worked as an actor and stagehand for several traveling theater tropes, moving across the US and Canada. By 1912, Taylor made his way to Hollywood and began appearing in numerous films and directed his first movie in 1915, The Awakening. By the time of his 1922 murder. he directed over fifty films, specializing in adaptions of popular books such as Tom Sawyer and Anne of Green Gables.

During World War I, Taylor joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Leaving in April 1919 as Major Taylor. When he returned to Los Angeles, the Motion Picture Directors Association honored him with a welcome home banquet held at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. He returned immediately to work, becoming President of the Motion Picture Directors Association and directing such major stars as Mary Pickford.
On the last day of his life, Taylor spent the morning running errands, including sending his chauffeur to post bail for Peevey, who had been in arrested in Westlake Park for "lewd conduct". There has been some strong suggestion that Peevey was actually trying to "procure" a young man for his boss and that's why Taylor paid his bail. In the afternoon, he took actress Mary Miles Minter and her grandmother, Julia Miles, for a ride in his McFarlan car. Taylor's friend, comedienne Mabel Normand came over after dinner, visiting for approximately forty-five minutes, leaving around 7:45 pm. A neighbor saw Taylor walking her to her car. They blew kisses to one another as she drove away.Taylor was shot mere minutes after she left.

The Alvarado Street Bungalow

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Peavey arrived for work at Taylor's Alvarado Street bungalow around 7:30 am. He discovered Taylor dead on the living room floor, shot through the back. He later told the cops, ‘I saw his feet, and I said 'Mr. Taylor'--just like that. Then I saw his face, and I turned and run out and yelled. And then I yelled some more..." His screams brought out the neighbors and landlord E.C. Jessrum. People crowded into the apartment.
A man, calling himself a doctor, pushed his way in and declared Taylor dead of natural causes. Someone finally called the police and when they arrived, they found a crime scene in chaos Detective Lieutenant Tom Ziegler ushered everyone outside, Someone had called the studio and several men from Paramount,including studio manager Charles Eyton, arrived. They began burning documents in the living room fireplace.They also removed items, bootleg liquer, and boxes of paper from the home. They also told Peevey to clean up the apartment.. especially the large pool of Taylor's blood.

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The LAPD surmised robbery was not the motive. Taylor wore a two-caret diamond rind and in his pockets the police found a wallet containing "$78 in cash ($1,099 in 2015 dollars), a silver cigarette case, a Waltham pocket watch, a pen knife and a locket bearing a photograph of actress Mabel Normand." Under the collar of his jacket they found three blond hairs. These were later matched to hairs taken from Mary Miles Minter's dressing room at Paramount.
Neighbors told the police they heard gunshot, which were thought simply to be a car backfiring, Neighbor Faith MClean described seeing a "young man with dark hair leaving Taylor's home." The man wore a long overcoat and a hat pulled down, over his face. He seemed perfectly calm.

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The day after the murder, D.A. Thomas Woolwine received an anonymous letter instructing him, in what appeared to be a women's handwriting, to search the home of Mabel Normand. There he would find the murder weapon, a ".38 caliber pearl-handled revolver." They searched the home, but the only guns they they found were a pair of .25 caliber revolvers.

Mary and "Madcap" Mabel

The winter or 1921-1922 was a rough one form Hollywood. A rotten winter kept tourists at bay. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckles rape and murder trial [s] dragged a lot of nattiness out for the public to see. And here was one of films most respected directors dead. And out spilled more dirty secrets. From the Pittsburgh Sun, February 4, 1922, "It is absolutely useless for anyone to try to compete with the movie folks for front page scandal position." The studios desperately fought off government censorship and the public perception of Hollywood and of film people; debauched. Alcoholics and drug abusers. Wild parties and orgies. Women's groups and religious groups were constant threatening boycotts.
Mary Miles Minter, 20 years old, an up and coming Mary Pickford wannabe desperately in love with William Desmond Taylor. She starred his 1919 adaption of Anne of Green Gables.

After Taylor's murder, their relationship became a focus of intense scrutiny from both the LAPD and the press. Love letters from her were found in tucked onto a pair of the victim's boots and and hanging in the closet was a "woman’s pink silk nightgown and a lace handkerchief". embroidered with the initials M.M.

Her stage mother, Charlotte Shelby, herself a former Broadway actress, pushed for Mary's onscreen "virgin damsel" image. In reality Mary had numerous off screen affairs, including with married director, which allegedly led to Charlotte procuring her daughter an illegal abortion. Taylor was thirty years older then Mary, which made him keep his distance. Their affair seems to have been emotional rather then physical. Although, Mary would later say they were engaged. Police believed both the women had motives: Mary, spurring of her advances. In late January, Taylor told friend Arthur Hoyt that Mary "visited him the night before. She was infatuated with him, even though he was old enough to be her father, and grew hysterical when he tried persuading her to leave."

Charlotte Shelby

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Mary Miles Minter

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Mary and Taylor

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One of the Love Letters

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Detectives visited Mary at home and asked her about her relationship with Taylor. She said shed hadn't seen him in ages and the last time they only waved as their cars passed each other by.
And Charlotte had a reputation as a "pit bull" and had slipped five years off Marys age when she began working in Hollywood [using a stolen birth certificate], so "20" year old Mary was actually twenty-five or twenty-six. She tried keeping total control of her daughters whereabouts and time, as well as bank account. She'd threatened to shoot actor James Kirkwood after he and Mary tried to elope. Sneaking out, perhaps to meet Taylor, but also Charlotte was peeved, not only about her daughters constant sneaking out, but also because Mary had yet to break through and Charlotte believed the powerful Taylor was going to make that happen. She had no alibi for evening of February 1st. When they tried to question her further, she told she had a train to catch and they could direct their questions to her lawyer.
They instead spoke to Charlotte's mother. She told them Charlotte returned home dinner with friends around nine p.m on February 1st.
Was the "man" in the long overcoat Charlotte Shelby? One witness describes as having a "feminine manner."
In October, desperate for leads, the police, "with the help of a private detective... persuaded newspaper to print a fake story in which a medium claimed she’d had a vision in which Taylor's murderer had appeared to her. The fictional medium claimed the killer was a woman with a beautiful daughter with whom Taylor had been too familiar...she would give this mother two weeks to come forward and tell the truth or she would reveal her identity." Within two weeks, a lawyer came to the D.A.S office and presented the news article. He asked for the name and address of the "medium." Further questioning from the D.A. convinced him that the man represented Charlotte Shelby.
Mary made her last film in 1923, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the scandal surrounding Taylor's murder efficiently killing her career, her "image of ... youthful innocence" wiped away.

Mabel Normand's nickname was the "Queen of Comedy"; the popular star of many Keystone comedy shorts and movies. She costarred opposite the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Laurel and Hardy. Sh was one the first silent actors to direct her own films.
Mabel was brash; provocative. She once jibed to a reporter “Say anything you like, but don't say I love to work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, the prissy bitch. Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.”She smoked Turkish cigarettes in a pearl and diamond studded holder and teased reporters by acting as though she was going to lift up er dress. Friends described her as "mischievous, feisty, profane, and had a heart of gold." She also had a severe drinking and drug problems, cocaine and opium.

She and Taylor became close friends. Peevey allegedly told a reporter Taylor sent her flowers twice a week. They shared, among other things, a mutual love of books. Taylor was devoted to helping Mabel get past her cocaine addiction. He convinced her to spend a month at the Glen Springs Sanitarium.

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One theory is that he was killed a by a drug dealer, or hired hit man; over some money that that Mabel owed.She and Taylor had been romantically linked in the press and Taylor was one the highest paid directors in Hollywood. While the subject of her drug addiction has always been more innuendo then anything else, she allegedly had a substantial cocaine problem.She told the LAPD that "her repeated relapses were devastating for Taylor."Days earlier Taylor threw a dealer out of Mabel's apartment. The police quickly crossed Mabel off the list of suspects.
Mabel spent the summer of 1922 traveling in Europe before returning to work. The scandal and the loss of her close friend stressed her already fragile physical and mental health. Her career kept going, highly successful, until New Year Day 1924, when another scandal broke. Her driver shot millionaire oil tycoon and amateur golfer Courtland S. Dines after the millionaire insulted Mabel. Using Mabel's own pistol. This one killed her film carrier and an attempt to move on to theater work failed.

Mabel Normand

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Other Suspects

One suspect the police looked at hard was a man named Thomas Sands, Taylor's valet before Peevey. Although born in Ohio, Sands spoke with a Cockney accent. Taylor had trusted him enough to give him "authority over routine financial matters." In July 1920, Taylor returned from a trip to Europe and discovered Sands had stolen several thousand dollars from Taylor, as well as numerous valuable household items: enough to fill a steamer truck. He also had wrecked Taylor's sports car.
Shortly before Christmas 1920, someone burglarized Taylor's home. Among the items stolen was $1700 worth of jewelry,which were pawned at a shop on Stockton,California. The thief mailed the pawn tickets to Taylor. Taylor blamed Sands.
Believed to be in hiding in early 1921, there is "speculation that Sands was actually blackmailing Taylor with evidence of a bisexual or homosexual lifestyle." Sands did generally match the description of the man seen fleeing the murder scene.

Denis Deane-Tanner

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Denis Gage Deane-Tanner was Taylor;s brother. Born in 1876, Deane-Turner served as a lieutenant in the British Army during the Second Boer War. Following his release from the military in 1903 he followed his brother to America, joining d his brother in the antique business. He married Ada Charlton Brennan in 1908. The couple eventually had three children, daughters Muriel and Alice and son Kearns, who died in infancy.
August 25, 1912, Deane-Tanner visited Ada at the Edward Livingston Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac New York, where she was being treated for tuberculosis. He left the sanitarium and vanished from the lives of his wife and children, much like his brother before him.He spoke or contacted his family again. Taylor began sending Ada and the children $50 month.
Deane-Tanner made his way to Los Angeles and quietly reestablished contact with his brother. He even allegedly appeared in Taylor's 1914 film Captain Alvarez. After Taylor's murder, rumors swirled that is was connected to his younger brother. And that Denis Deane-Tanner was Edward Sands. Police dismissed the idea.
It's believed Deane-Tanner himself succumbed to Tuberculosis some time later.

A Death Bed Confession

Loyalty's murder remained [and remains unsolved], after nearly a hundred years.
But in 1964 little known silent actress Margaret "Gibby" Gibson brought forth another theory. On October 21, 1964, Gibson suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed to her kitchen floor. As "she lay dying" she confessed to the murder of William Desmond Taylor. According to friend Raphael Long, who held her hand as she passed "Apparently, she had just converted to Roman Catholicism and was deeply concerned with the consequences of the hereafter. She wanted a priest, which was impossible, and she wanted to confess her “sins.” She died before the ambulance arrived

Gibson began acting in films in 1914 for Vitograph, Taylor's then employer. They made four films together, both leaving the studio in 1915.
Gibson had a checkered personal history, including arrests for prostitution and blackmail. A check of the records shows there is no mention of Gibson, though she old Long in the days after the murder she feared arrest and fled the country.
The death bed confession was not the first time Gibson admitted to the murder. Once was as she watched a local TV show named Ralph's Story Los Angeles; the show featured a segment on the Taylor murder and Gibson became "became hysterical and blurted out that she'd killed him and thought it was long forgotten".

Mary Margaret Gibson

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Taylor is interred at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, alongside such luminaries as fellow director C.C. Demille and Douglas Fairbanks.
Mabel Normand died in 1930 of tuberculosis, She was only thirty-five. Mary Miles Minter died in 1984. In the 190s director and friend of William Desmond Taylor began working on book about the murder,tracking down and interviewing many of Taylor's old Hollywood contemporaries, including Mary Miles Minter. He found the former beauty, now Mrs. Brandon O'Hildebrandt obese and surrounded by the memorable of her glory days. She spent her days writing poetry she signed "Charlotte Shelby." In the rare 1967 interview, she called Taylor her "mate" and broke down sobbing over the long ago dead, "They crucified Jesus. Now they’ve crucified...They’ve crucified my mate!"

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Sources: Hickson, Jack. N.p., 2 May 2014. Web. 25 July 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.criminalelement.com%2Fblogs%2F2014%2F05%2Fhollywoods-first-murder-mystery-the-puzzling-life-and-death-of-william-desmond-taylor-jake-hinkson-director-blackmail-drugs-suspects>. Long, Bruce. "Taylorology." Taylorology. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2015. <http://www.taylorology.com/>.

Macgowan, Doug. N.p., 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 July 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.historicmysteries.com%2Fwilliam-desmond-taylor%2F>.

Phalen, Kathleen, Phalen. Thefix.com. N.p., 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 July 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thefix.com%2Fcontent%2Fsaving-mabel-normand>.

Sann, Paul. "The Strange Death of William Desmind Taylor." The Roaring Twenties | The Lawless Decade By Paul Sann. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2015. <http://www.lawlessdecade.net/22-11.htm>.

Slater, Marilyn. "Juliet Reilly." Looking for Mabel Normand. N.p., 07 Dec. 2007. Web. 15 July 2015. <http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/julietreilly.htm>.

"The Murder of William Desmond Taylor - A Body Is Discovered: Movie Movie - The History of World Cinema." The Murder of William Desmond Taylor - A Body Is Discovered: Movie Movie - The History of World Cinema. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2015. <http://www.moviemoviesite.com/articles/events/death_of_taylor/a_body_is_discovered.htm>.

http://www.wisegeek.com/who-killed-william-desmond-taylor.htm

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