The William Desmond Taylor

It was the Roaring 20's and Hollywood was full of scandals!  On February 2, 1922, Henry Peavy, the valet and cook for director/actor William Desmond Taylor walked into his bungalow and found him dead.  


"Fatty" Arbuckle had already had two mistrials in the murder of a woman and getting ready to start his third trial; while the public knew that there was a lot of 'scandalous' parties going on what they did not realize was that many of the beloved stars were addicted to alcohol and drugs which led to the said parties; and Hollywood was already on the fringe of getting a bad rap for being 'too sexy' or 'immoral' in their movies.  Granted, if you were to watch one of these movies now, it was still the "silent" era, you would likely laugh at how something would seem to immoral or the like but you have to remember that in 1939, nearly 20 years later, the movie Gone with the Wind, was given a R rating because it said the word "damn."


The big wigs in Hollywood knew they needed to clean up the image and prevent more things from happening so they brought in a man by the name of Will Hays to start getting things straight.  The murder of William Taylor definitively made things worse rather than better but it has always been theorized that money and the fear of bad reputations are what kept this an unsolved murder.


William Taylor's personal life was pretty scandalous in itself.  He has suffered from what was described as "mental lapses" throughout his life.  In 1908, before he even reached Hollywood,  he simply "vanished" after it was discovered that he was having an affair with a married woman.  He deserted his wife and daughter (funny enough his brother, Denis did the same thing in 1912 only left a wife and two children).  He was not to hear from his daughter again until 1921, a few short months before his murder, it was then that he made her his legal heir.  His wife, Ethel May Hamilton, came from money so she was not left destitute, however, his brother's wife was not so lucky and it was reported that when she found William he began paying her $200.00 a month until the day he died.


Sometime between 1908, when he deserted Ethel and their daughter, Daisy, and December of 1912 he had changed his name from William Cunningham-Deane Tanner to William Desmond Taylor.  The reason for this is not technically known but it is not unusual for actors to change their names, especially back then to a better "sounding" name.  Little is known where he was in those four years or what he was doing and apparently Ethel did not know either as their divorce was not final until 1912.  


William started out in Hollywood as an actor but fell into the director's chair and became more recognizable in this role.  William was also very active in the movement to clean up Hollywood.  He was very good friends with, and some say in love with, Mabel Normand.  By all accounts she was the last person to see him alive when she left his home about 7:45pm the night before. She was addicted to cocaine and it seems she was one of the first visitors of the 1920's version of Celebrity Rehab!  However, like many addicts she came out and had fallen back into the addiction.  It was rumored that William was trying to have her suppliers charged and arrested.  Whether that was true or not cannot be fully proven but it was widely known that he was against illegal drug use and was very vocal about it.  While he may very well have loved Normand, she was not unique when it came to her illegal activities in Hollywood. 


When Henry Peavy found William's body laying on his back, instead of calling the police he called the Studio heads. Charles Eyton, the GM of Paramont Pictures, and several others entered the home and went through things, moved and removed things before the police were ever called, compromising the crime scene.  There also was apparently spectators in and out before the police also.  One was reportedly a doctor who without touching William announced that he had died of a heart attack.  No-one knows who this supposed doctor was and it was speculated that he was too embarrassed to come forward later because after the body was turned over it was discovered that it was not his heart that killed him.  Well, not unless the bullet in his back penetrated his heart that is. It was determined then that the gunshot had been of "a small caliber" but none was found on the scene.


Police quickly decided that robbery was not a motive.  On his body was $78 in cash, a silver cigarette case, a gold locket (with a picture of Normand) and a 2 carat diamond ring on his finger.  It was reported that he had shown his accountant $5,000 he was keeping and that it was supposedly missing.  It was later determined by medical examiners that the time of death was close to 7:50 the evening before, so just after Normand left.


Many things caused this case to never be solved.  Many police officers involved over the years reported whenever they began digging or presumably came close to solving the case they were told to lay off either by their supervisors, the district attorney or even industry insiders.  It also did not help that this was the beginning of what we now call today Tabloid writing.  It appears that much of the difference is the fact that the reporters, especially dealing with this case were allowed to print whatever they pleased, many times misreporting, misrepresenting, misquoting or flat out lying to sell newspapers.  I would like to think that our modern day Tabloids are a bit better than back then.  Today they are a bit more careful at what they report due to being sued by someone.  That did not happen during the 1920's, at least not often if it did.  


There were several people who were suspects, especially in the beginning.  Of course the first was Normand since she was the last to see him, and the murder occurred soon after she left.  A neighbor reporting hearing what she had thought at the time was a car backfiring about 8:00pm and that she had looked outside. She saw a man emerge from William's home, go back inside, then come back out, look at her and smile and leave.  She said the person was dressed like a "movie burglar" and had a lot of movie make up on.  Another neighbor reported seeing someone emerge from the area and described them as looking like a woman who wanted to appear as a man.  Whether either of these reports were actually made or are accurate it is hard to tell.  Normand was found to have a solid alibi and was quickly marked off the suspect list.  However, there are some that believe that while she was not involved in any way that William could have been killed by her suppliers that William was supposedly tried to have charged.


Henry Peavy became another suspect that by police standards at any rate was cleared quickly.  The press was another story.  In fact one reporter lured him out to the cemetery in which William was buried and had someone one pose in a sheet as the ghost of William to attempt to get him to confess.  Reports are Peavy laughed at the idea because the reporter, or the person playing the "ghost" did not realize William had a British accent.  The sad thing is that I believe aside from the fact that he found the body the next morning there was much prejudice surrounding Peavy because he was African-American... hence the reporter who tried to scare him did so because she heard African-Americans were scared of ghosts.  Peavy did have a few arrests under his belt.  Most recently he had been arrested for public indecency with underage boys.  William had paid his bail and was to go to court with him on the day his body was found.  So Peavy had no real reason to murder him.


The subject the police tried to keep attention on was Edward Sands.  He had previously worked for William.  In fact, Peavy had replaced him.  Sands, it was determined, was a criminal with an extensive past and many aliases.  In the summer of 1921 he had forged some checks on Williams account, stole items and wrecked William's car when he was out of the country.  Before William got home Sands was gone.  William reportedly received a pawn ticket several months later in the mail purportedly from Sands (using another alias) for some of his things but other than this Sands was never heard from again.  The DA, Thomas Woolwine, however at least publicly focused on him.  In 1923 a body was found in Connecticut from a presumed suicide that was determined to be Sands.  Woolwine was informed of this but did not publicly report it and allowed resources to still be used in the search for Sands.  Many speculate that this was for a few reasons, one to make it appear he was investigating the murder and two, that he was being bought off by the next two suspects... a mother and daughter.


The daughter was Mary Miles Minter.  Her mother was Charlotte Shelby.  Most believe that the murderer was one of them. Some of those beliefs may have been based on some false reports that were in the press.  One of the big ones involving Mary was that after William's death a nightgown was found in his bungalow with the initials MMM on them.  I am not sure if the press stated this was found by the police or whether it is one of the items they claim was taken by the studio heads.   However, there were some letters taken by the studio heads that Mary had written William and apparently there were some that were missed.  Some of those were published and it was obvious that Mary was in love with William, despite their more than 20 year age difference.  Mary was in fact only three years older than William's daughter, Daisy.  Until that time Mary's public reputation was of a very demur and "good girl."  Apparently the language in the letters tarnished that.  She could not outright deny she was in love with him, that is for sure.


Mary had been acting since a young child.  Charlotte Shelby, her mother, was the ultimate stage mother.  It has been said that Charlotte wanted fame and fortune but lacked the beauty and the talent so she pushed Mary into the business.  Charlotte was known around Hollywood as a pushy and abrasive woman and many men, including William were threatened by her to stay away from Mary.  It is believed that she wanted to not only maintain control over Mary and her career but she was ensuring that Mary depended on her too.  Charlotte did not want her getting any ideas of getting involved with a man hence her head may get off her work and she would leave Charlotte with nothing. Friends of William's say that he was not in love with Mary and had often rebuked her advances, not because of Charlotte but partly because of the age difference.


Mary apparently had learned manipulation from her mother.  She was nearly determined to get her way and what she wanted.  She once was in her room and shot a gun making others in the house believe she had attempted, or succeeded in suicide by "playing dead" until she heard someone agree to what she had wanted.  Many speculate that she would not have accepted William's denials.  One theory is that she left her home in the middle of the night and gone to William's house.  They theorize that she took a gun with her and was threatening suicide and there may have been an accident in which William was shot.  The problem with this theory is that the gunshot, and person were seen and heard around 8pm... not in the middle of the night.  

Personally I do believe she was in love with him and was likely throwing herself at him every chance she got.  She was probably doing that to a lot of men just to see who was brave enough to go up against her mother and get her away from her.  

Then there was Charlotte.  My money is on her... not because she was a stage mother and the petty things, although those are true too.  My money is on Charlotte because a) it was found she had a .38 caliber gun and that the bullets from said gun were similar to the one found in William: b) because said gun was never found and supposedly thrown in the Louisiana Bayou; c) because she was good friends with DA Woolwine; d) because supposedly $75,000 went unaccounted for that year (speculated to pay off people); e) because "odd" people were basically drawing a "pension" from Charlotte from about the time of the murder, for life; f) because not only was Woolwine, but both of his successors failed to allow there to be proper questioning or investigation of Charlotte and all three were eventually indicted on charges of bribery (not associate with this case however).  In later years one of Charlotte's other daughters testified to a Grand Jury that Charlotte was not home as she said she had been the night of the murder. 


Not only do I think Charlotte paid people off to keep the secret, I think many would have kept it anyway.  While Charlotte was not a screen actress herself, the fact that her daughter was made her at least partially Hollywood elite.  This means she ran in the circles that the studio heads were trying to protect.  Imagine the horror if it was found out that the mother of their Golden Girl (well, was until the letters surfaced) murdered one of their top directors all to keep him away from her daughter.  Of course the reason why she would have done it has varied too.  Just as many will tell you Charlotte killed William because she wanted him and he spurred her advances too.  


It should be said that in the late 80's, I believe it was, a story came out that in 1964 a woman by the name of Pat Lewis made a deathbed confession to the murder.  Pat Lewis had been an actress in the 1920's.  She had had her own run ins with the law for petty things and had issues and even changed her name to try to avoid her past before she married and became Pat Lewis.  There was evidence that she probably knew William and worked with him very early on but there has never been real evidence that she was involved.  This story was supposedly told to a good friend of hers who later told her son who told the reporter/author who was looking into the issue.  I was unable to find any validity to the claims but felt it should have been told.  


It has been over 90 years since William was murdered in his home.... his murder will never be solved.






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