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Murder of William Desmond Taylor

Updated on May 4, 2014

William Desmond Taylor

William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor | Source

Mary's Mother, Charlotte Shelby

Charlotte Shelby
Charlotte Shelby | Source

Vidor's Story of the Cast, A Cast of Killers on Amazon

A Bag Of Peanuts & Murder

Officially, this remains an unsolved case, however, King Vidor, a famous film maker from the golden age of Hollywood, uncovered the mystery in 1967 while setting out to make a movie based on they murder of William Desmond Taylor. He never spoke publicly of the case again. But, in 1986 when Sidney Kirkpatrick was assigned to write Vidor's biography after the great director's death, he found amongst King's belongings a strongbox that contained the details of what he had uncovered in 1967.

The original story goes;

On February 2, 1922 William Desmond Taylor's home was crawling with police and detectives. Taylor's body had been discovered by his valet, Henry Peavey, and appeared to have at least one gunshot wound in the torso.

Taylor has been in Hollywood since 1912, and had been a successful actor appearing in numerous silent movies while gradually learning his craft. He directed his first film in 1914, and at the time of his death he had directed over 50 movies. Taylor had directed Mary Miles Minter in a number of movies and it was rumored that she was in love with him, but her protective mother would never have approved of a relationship between her twenty year old daughter with the forty something year old William Desmond Taylor.

Taylor was a distinguished gentleman who was admired by many Hollywood actors, and actresses because he was cultured, and well read. Young aspiring stars befriended Taylor because they could learn from him, and better themselves.

One such actress who had hit a point in her career where she wondered what else there was in the world was Mabel Normand. She had been in slapstick movies since her early teens and had very little formal education. Taylor had been lending her books, as Mabel was now very interested in improving her mind.

On February 1, 1922 Mabel Normand arrived at Taylor's to return some books he had instructed her to read. Normand was a lighthearted, good spirit who had a bag of fresh peanuts with her, and she shared some of her snack with her friend as they discussed poetry. Taylor gave her some new books to take with her and walked her to her car. This would be the last time she would see Taylor alive.

At approximately 7:30 AM Taylor's valet, Harvey Peavey, discovered his employers body lying face up in the living room.

Mabel Normand was the last known person to see Taylor alive.

Some time between the moment Mabel waved good-by to Taylor and the next morning when Peavey, discovered his bosses body on the floor of his bungalow, someone had shot and killed William Desmond Taylor.

The Newspapers

The newspapers sensationalized the murder, drawing attention to the fact that Mabel was the last person to see Taylor alive, and further stirring the pot by mentioning some love letters that were discovered by police written by the young actress Mary Miles Minter. Speculations were going in all directions, such as Mable Normand could have killed Taylor out of jealousy about his relations to Mary Miles Minter, or perhaps Mary Miles Minter killed Taylor due to jealousy about his relationship with Mabel Normand and then there was the speculation that Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter could have killed Taylor because he was flirting with her daughter who was Charlotte's meal ticket.

The case went all over the place, even suggesting that Taylor's ex wife, whom he had deserted to come to Hollywood years before, was out to get him. Another popular theory was that Taylor was being blackmailed by some underground drug dealers. Ultimately the case grew colder, while more, and more bazaar stories about Taylor's personal life materialized.

King Vidor in the 1950s

Source

King Vidor

King Vidor was a retired movie director in 1967 who as toying with the idea of making a movie about the sensational Taylor case. Vidor was a William Desmond Taylor contemporary who had met Taylor on several occasions and was friendly with many who knew Taylor. After years of being puzzled by the case but being too busy to give it a second thought, Vidor now had time on his hands and found himself thinking about the case often.

Vidor intervied dozens of Taylor's friends who were still alive in the mid 1960s. He then used his influence and connections to become acquainted with the police and detectives who were on the Taylor case. Most of these men had long been retired, but one was still active, and he gave Vidor a "hush hush" entrance to the actual police files that those outside of law enforcement are not allowed to see.

Vidor discovered that there were indeed a few people within the law who actually knew who killed William Desmond Taylor.

Vidor found a few holes in the files and came across a few things that did not make sense. There was no solid evidence that could convict anyone but it was clear that the alibis of Mable Normand and Mary Miles Minter were airtight. Vidor wondered why the law enforcement allowed the newspapers to go on allowing these two actresses to be treated as suspects when it was clear from the police files that they were cleared.

The killer was Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter's mother. There was no physical evidence to convict Shelby, but Vidor did find something else.

Mary Miles Minter

Mabel Normand

The Killer, Charlotte Shelby

Mary Miles Minter was an unhappy girl who was being dragged around by her bossy mother and just wanted to find happiness outside of her tormented home life. Taylor looked like the perfect catch. He was the ultimate father figure who could teach, guide and support a young, naïve girl to greener pastures.

It seems that after a fight with her mother, Mary ran to Taylor's home. Possibly ran inside while Taylor was walking Normand to her car, and declared her love for him after he walked through his front door. Mary's mother was either already in the home too, or arrived shortly after. A few old timers even stated that they believed that Shelby herself had designs on Taylor. He was close to her age, though still older than she, well to do, and charming. Who wouldn't be attracted to Taylor?

Out of jealousy, rage, loss of control, or all of the above; she shot Taylor at close range.

Shelby had connections. Her daughter was commanding a huge salary,and hobnobbing with the who's who of theater and business. Mrs. Shelby also personally knew Thomas Woolwine, the Los Angeles District Attorney, and apparently arranged to be let off the hook by giving D.A. Woolwine large sums of money.

Whenever a detective would become too knowledgeable on the William Desmond Taylor case, Woolwine would immediately take him off the case. He also never discouraged the press from printing stories that presented Mabel Normand as a suspect, when the police files clearly state Miss Normand's alibi as air tight. A few detectives caught on to Woolwine and were well aware of the charade the D.A was playing. One detective who became Woolwine's successor was Buron Fitts.

After interviewing police officers, detectives who were on the case from the 1920s- 1930s Vidor concluded with the help of Leroy Sanderson, a smart officer and detective from the original case, that Buron Fitts continued to collect from Shelby just as Woolwine had done, allowing Charlotte Shelby to get away with murder.

Thomas Woolwine

Buron Fitts

Source

Bill Cahill, One of the Detectives assigned to the case

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    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 7 days ago from Texas

      This is a very interesting hub, there are many killers who get away with murder, at least in this life.

    • profile image

      Anna 2 years ago

      Just going back and looking at the pohtos of the apartment, I think that might be D. W. Griffith in the photo of the man wearing a white hat and smoking a cigar.That mysterious letter and then all the description of this man asking for directions and then seeming to appear all along the way to Taylor's apartment seem very interesting, particularly when you go back and see that there are cruncked out cigarettes in the fancy holder on the desk in the room. Could the man have confronted Taylor over something?

    • profile image

      Nicolew88 3 years ago

      Skarlet, as someone who has looked very deeply into this case, I must tell while entertaining, The Cast Of Killers is a book which contains many factual errors, hearsay and conjecture. My ancestor Thomas Lee Woolwine who you mention above was highly involved and passionate about this case and respected Mr. Taylor immensely as did many people in Los Angeles at that time. What I can tell you for a fact is that despite what Mr. Vidor claimed, my ancestor never took bribes in this case, and especially not from Mrs. Shelby. The real reason for the confusion upon Mr. Vidor and other historian's parts is that my ancestor Thomas Lee Woolwine was intimately involved with Mrs. Shelby an had a great affection for Mary. Whether Mrs. Shelby committed the murder I don't know, but I know that my ancestor was a very able prosecutor who's interest first and foremost was getting justice served. The thing many people don't know was from the beginning Taylor's studio had their hand in covering up the crime and the evidence on the scene. Once Tom Woolwine got involved, they threatened both him and his office to stay out or else and made the investigation very hard. Until the day of his death,Tom Woolwine insisted that his view ( and the view of many people today) was that Mr. Taylor was probably killed by what we know today as a hit man, as the murder scene in no way speaks of a crime of passion, Tom believed the hit man might have been hired by a drug peddler or even the studio themselves. If you would like anymore information on this, please let me know. I will conclude in saying, like everyone else I have no idea who killed poor Mr. Taylor, but I hope one day we find out.

    • Skarlet profile image
      Author

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you Cleverality,

      I am pleased to hear that WDT is not forgotten in Ireland. I will most definitely visit these links.

    • profile image

      Cleverality 5 years ago

      Nice one Skarlet. We're really into our local boy here in Carlow Ireland and to celebrate the 140th anniversary of his birth (and sadly the 90 anniversary of his death) here's a thing we're putting on. Come on over and visit us for it...

      http://william-desmond-taylor.org/

      http://twitter.com/Taylorfest

      http://www.facebook.com/Taylorfest

    • Skarlet profile image
      Author

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you Man from Modesto.

      A little bit. I just can't help it. But, The book,"A Cast Of Killers, presents the evidence that supports what my

      conclusion is.

      There really is not logical alternative:)

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 5 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Great story. It seems like you did a little sleuthing here.

    • Skarlet profile image
      Author

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you Michele and Angela.

      This is one of those stories I am forever fascinated by. I have read several different books on the case.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      Great one, Skarlet -- I was unaware of this guy so the whole story's new to me! Good writing and very interesting. Best/Sis

    • Michele Travis profile image

      Michele Travis 5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

      Wow, what an amazing hub! Thank you for sharing it. It is another one I will bookmark so I can read the hubs linked to it. Voted up.

    • Skarlet profile image
      Author

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you billybuc.

      This is really a fascinating case, and worth reading about.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, Skarlet, you did it...you named a case I'd never heard of. Now I have to go research further. Thanks for the great hub; one more down for you. I do believe you are going to pass me and beat me to 200.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Skarlet...I'm glad to meet another true crime fan. Yes, they can be very fascinating...as well as educational....in terms of excavating inside the the human mind. If stories like them were not so intriguing, it would not be a multi-billion dollar business.

      The nice thing is, you never run out of reading material....Crime is a way of life, I'm afraid!

    • Skarlet profile image
      Author

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you so much Paula.

      I truly appreciate your thoughtful comments.

      I am also very intrigued by true crime. I have done my share of reading the creepy, crazy stories. They can be really fascinating.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Skarlet....I LOVE true crime. I would say it's my number one choice when I'm in for a good book and some entertainment. Our fellow hubber, Kim Cantrell concentrates on True crime and I've read all her work.

      This is one I'd never heard of. Very intriguing....thanks for the reference! You presented this well!