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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Who Murdered William Desmond Taylor?

     Along with other Hollywood scandals, William Desmond Taylor's murder in February 1922, which also involved two of Hollywood's biggest stars at the time led to a frenzy of sensationalist and often fabricated newspaper reports. The murder remains an official cold case. Taylor was shot in his home in the middle of the night and his death right in the midst of a slew of show business scandals and his murder led to titillating stories about life in Hollywood. 
     Police discovered the body of film director William Desmond Taylor in his Los Angeles bungalow and when they responded to a call about a “natural death” at the home of Taylor they found actors, actresses and studio executives rummaging through the director’s belongings. He also found Taylor lying on the living room floor with a bullet in his back. 
     By the 1910s, the motion picture industry was beginning to take off and so was the Taylor’s career. He started as an actor and became a director, but ultimately, what Taylor came to be remembered for most was his murder and the mystery surrounding it. 

    Taylor was born in Ireland on April 26, 1872 and was sent to a finishing school in Kansas when he was 18 and fell in love with America. Between 1914 and 1915, he landed roles in several silent films and made his directorial debut with The Awakening.
     Over the next seven years, which included a stint in the Army during the end of WWI, Taylor directed at least 40 more films. In his role as Captain Alvarez in 1914, he rode a horse at full gallop across a rope bridge, a stunt that the publicity department dubbed the most dangerous in cinema history. Taylor was also made the president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. 
     On the night of February 2, 1922, a valet named Henry Peavey had just found his boss dead on the floor of his duplex with a bullet between his neck and shoulder. When Peavey discovered the body the first people he notified wasn’t the police department, it was Taylor’s employer, Paramount. The movie studio immediately sent people to search Taylor’s home for letters, illegal liquor and other items that could prove incriminating to either the director or the studio’s stars. 
     By the time the police showed up, papers had been removed and the crime scene was being cleaned. The investigation proceeded, but with so much physical evidence lost or compromised coupled with allegations that the police force was corrupt, there was little chance of solving the murder. But, when police did inspect the scene, they ruled out robbery and said there had been no forced entry. 
     Those were the facts. Everything after that consisted of revelations about the secret life of Hollywooders, conflicting witness accounts and gossip. 
     During the investigation that followed details flooded the police reports. Neighbors reported hearing a gunshot sound on the night of the murder and a few witnesses claimed to have seen a man with dark hair leave Taylor’s apartment the night before. It was reported the actress Taylor was seeing at the time, Mabel Norman, was the last person to see him alive. A neighbor may have seen the murderer leaving Taylor's bungalow and said the person with whom she made eye contact and who smiled at her may have been a woman dressed as a man. 

     Her story was that she stopped by to grab a couple of books and Taylor expressed worry over his valet Peavey, who he had just bailed out of jail for soliciting young men and over his secretary, who had disappeared after forging checks. 
     Adding to the confusion was the fact that Taylor had allegedly been dead for twelve hours before the police showed up. There was also gossip that when the police did show up, Hollywood executives were burning papers in the fireplace. 
     A list of suspects was drawn up. It was rumored that actress Mabel Normand was a cocaine addiction and it was also rumored that Taylor had gone to the federal government to help catch the dealers who were selling to her. Hence, the rumor that the drug dealers put out a hit on Taylor. 
     Another actress who Taylor supposedly had an affair with, Mary Miles Minter, was also a suspect and there was a possibility the murder was committed out of jealousy. Throw in Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, as a suspect because it was known that she was enraged with the 49-year-old Taylor for his affair with her teenage daughter. 
     Further, the investigation turned up that Charlotte Shelby allegedly owned a rare .38-caliber pistol and some unique bullets which were very similar to the kind that killed Taylor. That evidence was deemed insufficient for an indictment of Shelby. 
     Edward Sands was another suspect. He was a con artist who worked as Taylor’s houseman, stole $5,000 from Taylor and disappeared after leaving Taylor a note in which he mocked him. A few days before his death, Taylor began receiving hang-up phone calls. Who was making them was never determined. 
     Then things got even stranger. Two days after the murder, it was discovered that Taylor had a secret past working as a traveling thespian, an antique dealer, a hotel night clerk and a Yukon prospector. It turned out that William Desmond Taylor wasn’t his real name; it was William Cunningham Deanne-Tanner, and he was married to a woman in New York named Ethel May Harrison and the two had a daughter. He had abandoned both to move to Hollywood. 
     Harrison, who was a member of a popular dance troupe called the Florodora Sextette, hadn’t heard from her husband since October 23, 1908. He had just up and vanished and she was surprised to see him by chance in the moves in 1919. It was equally weird that Taylor had a brother, Dennis Deane Tanner, who disappeared from New York in 1912. 
     After the murder, 300 people around the country confessed to the murder, but there was never enough evidence found to arrest anybody and to this day, the case is unsolved. 
     Silent film actress Margaret Gibson was said to have confessed to Taylor’s murder on her deathbed in 1964. She had worked with Taylor on various films, but not much is known about their relationship or her alleged motive for the crime. 
     Gibson herself was an interesting person. On November 2, 1923 (21 months after Taylor's murder), she was arrested at her home in Los Angeles on federal felony charges involving an alleged nationwide blackmail and extortion ring. 
     She was subsequently charged with extortion when a victim told authorities he had paid Gibson $1,155 to avoid prosecution for a reputed violation of the Mann Act, a law that made it a crime to transport women across state lines "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." Gibson was also said to be connected to two convicted blackmailers who had pleaded guilty the preceding week to extorting $10,000 from Ohio banker. The charges were later dropped by the district attorney's office. 
     On October 21, 1964, living in Hollywood, Gibson suffered a heart attack at her home. Becoing distraught, sensed that she was dying and having recently converted to Roman Catholicism she asked for a priest and then confessed to neighbors that she had murdered Taylor. 
     She had made similar remarks during the early 1960s. While watching a local television program, which featured a short segment about the unsolved murder of Taylor 40 years earlier, Gibson supposedly became hysterical and blurted out that she'd killed him and thought it was long forgotten. 
     Gibson was in Los Angeles at the time of the murder, but her name was never mentioned and no documentation refers to any association between Taylor and her after 1914. Because Taylor was murdered at the same time that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was was on trial for manslaughter involving the death of an actress, the question of motive comes up. Did it have anything to do with blackmail and revelations concerning the secret lives of Hollywood celebrities?
     The case will forever remain a mystery because all of the police files and physical evidence relating to Taylor's murder had disappeared by 1940.

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