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  1. #1
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    CA - William Desmond Taylor, silent film star - 1922

    This case has always fascinated me since I first saw it on TV as a kid. For those who may not have seen my post in the pet section of my postcards (silent stars and their pets), I LOVE silent films. LOVE them. They are so much more than modern media gives them credit for. Needless to say, this case is just perfect for me! It's a death in the time of silent film that would have made a perfect silent film!

    The Victim: William Desmond Taylor, 49, hugely popular silent film star
    Cause of death: Gunshot wound to the back.
    Date of occurrence: February 1, 1922
    Time of death: Between 7:45 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. the next morning when found
    Facts about the wound: The bullet hole in Taylor's jacket and vest were not aligned. The powder burns indicated that Taylor was shot at close range with his left arm raised as if in an embrace. The person who shot Taylor had to be just a little over five feet tall (which describes every female suspect in this case) or would have had to crouch on the ground and shoot Taylor at an angle.

    The players: Mabel Normand (silent queen of comedy), Mary Miles Minter (the gorgeous young actress), Charlotte Shelby (MMM's mother), Edward Sands (con-man turned WDT's assistant), Margaret Gibson (another silent beauty, changed name and gave supposed death bed confession to the crime).

    The story: WDT was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in Ireland in 1872. He left home at the age of 18 after falling out with his father and immigrated to New York, taking various odd jobs. He married Ethel May Harrison in 1901 and had a daughter, Ethel Daisy Deane-Tanner, in 1903. He walked out on both in 1908, going out for lunch and never coming back.

    In 1912 he became a silent film star and eventually a director. He briefly left Hollywood to go to war as part of the British army.

    He had a younger brother who followed in his footsteps to Hollywood, and interestingly enough, also abandoned wife and children. WDT paid his brother's wife weekly to support them. His own wife remarried and neither herself nor their daughter ever held any grudge against him. He reconnected with his daughter later on after becoming famous.

    WDT was heavily anti-drug and crusaded to keep Hollywood free of these substances. Despite Prohibition, he procured alcohol often much like most famous people of the day.

    Mabel Normand was the last person to see him alive. They were in a relationship and had been together in his home, he walked her to her car and said goodnight. Shortly afterward, WDT was shot and killed. Witnesses reported hearing what sounded like an automobile "backfire" around 8pm.

    Mabel is not considered a suspect, however, she may have caused his death. Mabel was a notorius drug addict and WDT had gone to great lengths to try to help her kick the habit of opium and cocaine. She was known to spend $2,000 a month (in the 20's!!!) on drugs. Some believe that the drug dealers may have murdered WDT for his tough stance against drugs and trying to separate them from such high-profile addicts.

    The person who found him called the movie studio first and they compromised the crime scene by cleaning up everything including the blood. They also removed lots of paperwork and letters, save for some that were found in WDT's boot. It is believed that the film industry's close relationship with LE kept this crime from being properly solved due to the circumstances. This murder was right on the heels of Fatty Arbuckle's rape and murder trial and the mysterious poison death of Jack Pickford's (Mary Pickford's brother) wife, the actress Olive Borden. The studios were avoiding scandal at all and any cost.

    Mary Miles Minter was the blonde haired beauty and picture of innocence, much in the style of Mary Pickford. However, she had a very unstable and unhealthy obsession with WDT. She would constantly approach him sexually and did not handle being turned down repeatedly by him well. WDT was actually worried about her obsession because he was old enough to be her father and she was becoming increasingly erratic in her behavior. She would threaten to throw tantrums if he tried to remove her from his residence and after his death, insisted that they had been engaged to marry.

    MMM had a previous history of taking her mother's gun and locking herself in her bedroom when she was younger. She fired a shot and pretended to be dead, the jumping up and scaring the family when they made it into the room. The bullet from this instance was located and matched the type of bullet used by the killer.

    Charlotte Shelby was the typical stage mother who lived vicariously through her daughter's success. She was obsessed with her daughter and brandished a gun or made threats to male actors on a regular basis.

    MMM had a relationship with director James Kirkwood as a teenager and became pregnant, CS became enraged and arranged for an abortion and threatened Kirkwood with her gun. Once, finding MMM in an embrace with popular male actor Monte Blue, CS brandished her gun towards him and said “If I ever catch you hanging around Mary again, I'll blow your godd****ed brains out."

    The most condemning instance was in 1920, when she brought her gun to WDT's residence demanding to know if MMM was there or not. MMM was not there at that time but regularly hung around the residence.

    In 1937, CS's other daughter testified that she "protected" CS from the WDT trial. Her non-family alibi was from actor Carl Stockdale, who mysteriously received payments of $200 from the family for life. MMM's grandmother is said to have thrown the gun in the river, but the gun was recovered.

    Edward Sands was a conman who bilked the Navy out of loads of money by enlisting repeatedly under different names and then forging his own discharge papers. He became WDT's personal assistant and though things were great at first, eventually he stole money and jewelry from him in large amounts. He stole WDT's car and wrecked it. He had the pawn slips from selling WDT's sent to Taylor's house in a brazen display.

    Before the murder someone was plaguing WDT with phone calls and hanging up, perhaps to see if he was home. WDT had $5,000 in money that he kept. This money was not found when the body was discovered, yet his rings were on his fingers and there was $78 found on him.

    Edward Sands committed suicide after the murder.

    Margaret Gibson (aka Patricia Palmer/Pat Lewis) was a very beautiful actress who had worked with WDT several times. In 1964, while having a heart attack, she claimed to have shot WDT. During her time as an actress she was arrested for vagrancy connected with opium dealing in 1917. She was in a house for prostitution at the time. After the arrest she became Patricia Palmer. In 1923 she was arrested again for felony charges involving blackmail and an extortion ring. The charges were dropped by the D.A. It is unknown whether this ring could have been involved in WDT or what, if any, direct contact Gibson had with the victim.

    There are also some that speculate his brother could have killed him or that WDT was bisexual and murdered because of this.

    WDT was a quiet individual who enjoyed solitude. He was intelligent, sophisticated, with excellent manners. He was well liked by his peers and respected for his active role in getting rid of drugs in Hollywood. Unfortunately he employed shady people and was involved with troubled ladies. One of these acquaintaces lead to his myterious, unsolved death.

    Links:
    http://www.classichollywoodbios.com/...mondTaylor.htm
    http://www.taylorology.com/
    The Kiss starring WDT and Margaret Gibson (youtube)
    Mary Miles Minter Interview Excerpts (youtube)

    Also on the last link is an interview with a retired detective from the case.

  2. #2
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    I LOVE this case. It's got everything. Bad women, drugs, fame, money, etc. I've always thought Mabel was innocent...but knew who the killer was.

    His wife Ethel had no idea what had happened to WDT (after he'd walked out on them)... until she saw him in a movie a few years later.
    “Maybe that's what life is...a wink of the eye and winking stars.”- Kerouac
    "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."- Tyler Durden, Fight Club
    "Work like you don’t need money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one’s watching"- Unknown

  3. #3
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    I have always thought either it was Mary Miles Minter's mother who seems to have done a heck of a lot of cover-up during those times, or someone related to the drug pushers in the movie business at the time. That seems a little too obvious though, what with all the well-known threats she made all the time.

    I don't think MMM did it. If she was that much in love with him, unless she was actually literally insane, she wouldn't have killed him. I think if anything she would have threatened to harm herself, which being a gentleman WDT would not have let happen. The only way I think she did it would have been by accident with the gun going off unexpectedly. I kind of feel sorry for her, because its really tough to be "spurned" by someone you love so wholeheartedly like that. It was a little twisted but I think she didn't know how else to express it at that age.

    I think most likely it was someone related to Mabel Normand's drug abuse. She was beautiful and talented but so tragic. Mack Sennett regretted not marrying her, believing that if he had done so maybe her life would have been different. He loved her very, very much.

    Ed Sands seems the most remote possibility, he was a conman and swindler but from what I've read were that his methods were "take the money and run." People like that normally wouldn't want to get involved in a murder investigation.

    I think Maragaret Gibson either had mental issues from old age that caused her to believe she committed the crime or it was a last attempt to make sure she wasn't forgotten.

  4. #4
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    One of my favorites too.

    Don't forget about MMM's panties embroidered with her initials alledgedly found in his home. And a love letter written to him on her stationary.

    I often read that they were involved. I've also read that Taylor and MMM's mother were involved - which is why CS shot him - he was messing around with her daughter too. And I've always read that Mabel and Taylor were very good close friends. I've also never heard the part about Margaret Gibson! I have several books with this story in it, also... I can't imagine why they wouldn't include that! Or perhaps I just forgot...

    I'll have to read up on this some more.

    I love all of the crime and shocking deaths of back-in-the-day.


    Mabel was quite the beauty, wasn't she...
    nothing seems black when i see your red shoes

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    This is one of my favorites too. I've always thought it was Charlotte Shelby who did it. I think MMM and WDT were involved to some degree but I think MMM was relentlessly pursuing him and he wanted her to back off and really didn't want to have much to do with her. Probably because he knew of Charlotte's reputation! I admit, there is an argument for it having something to do with drugs though. IIRC, he sent Mabel Normand away somewhere for detox and I think she was clean at the time of his death. But another thing that makes me lean towards Shelby as the shooter, is one of the witnesses, neighbor Faith McLean, who came face to face with the killer as she looked out the window, I believe she made the statement that it looked like a woman dressed as a man. Of course she could have been mistaken but just reading about MMM and her family, I have always thought Charlotte was more than capable of committing this crime.

    It's a fascinating one, to be sure. I haven't thought about this case for a long time and never thought about it being on here or not. Thanks for posting it Shannon2008. I like to watch silent films too on Turner Classic Movies. Whenever I watch a silent movie I think of one of Gloria Swanson's terrific lines from Sunset Boulevard. "We didn't need words, we had faces!"

    Youshouldveknown, thanks for that wonderful pic of Mabel Normand!
    Last edited by MaryLiz; 01-13-2009 at 08:38 AM. Reason: forgot to add something

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    Quote Originally Posted by youshouldveknown View Post
    One of my favorites too.

    Don't forget about MMM's panties embroidered with her initials alledgedly found in his home. And a love letter written to him on her stationary.
    I read in a couple of places that it was embroidered handkerchiefs and someone said it was a nightgown as well, but that MMM put up a $1,000 reward for anyone who could produce the so-called nightgown and no one ever did.

    I think this is one of those cases (much like Fatty Arbuckle's rape trial) where some facts got blurred over time.

    I had not heard that WDT and CS were ever in a relationship, that one's totally new to me. I find it hard to believe too, considering her reputation for being a very unliked woman.

    Yes, WDT had sent Mabel to rehab early on and some say she is the first movie star to go to such a facility. Not sure if that's a record one would want to have!


    One of my favorite MMM photos

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    This is a great case. I don't know much about it but based on what I am reading here on the thread I am wondering if Mary Minter had snuck off the WDT's house either invited or uninvited and her overbearing mother followed her and entered the house undetected determined to find out what was going on. Her mother (Charlotte) shot WDT while he was embracing Mary - which explains the hairs on his jacket and the position of his body.
    'The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated'
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  8. #8
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    http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/margaretgibson.htm

    Here's a pretty interesting biography on Margaret Gibson. I had never heard of her prior to this post (not much of a western fan) so I googled her.

    I think most of the evidence points to a woman being the shooter. I read that Gibson was involved in vagrancy (or prostitution) and drug dealing. I think it's quite possible that she got mixed up with organized crime members (wasn't Buster Keaton killed by the mafia?) and with WDT advocating abstinence from drugs and being very vocal about it, even sending Mabel to rehab, that could have really brought business down. Perhaps he knew names. I think it's quite possible they sent Margaret to kill him. She's a beautiful young woman and he had worked with her in 4 movies. She could nearly undoubtly be invited into his home. Especially if she used the cover that she heard what he had done for Mabel and wanted to get clean herself.

    I also read that she had become agitated one evening when they showed him on television, crying and saying something like 'I thought they'd forgotten about that.' Also, the only surviving witness of Gibson's heart attack and confession was young at the time and claims he doesn't remember for sure what was said because he was preoccupied with the dying woman in front of him. He did say, however, that she was talking about doing something and was 'never caught' or 'never charged.'



    One of the few pictures I've found of Margaret.
    nothing seems black when i see your red shoes

  9. #9
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    Margaret Gibson was beautiful. I remembered hearing about her deathbed confession but don't think I ever saw a picture of her.

    I also think he was killed by a woman. I always believed it was Charlotte Shelby but who knows what was going on back then that we don't know about. I think Margaret Gibson was just kind of out her mind when she made that confession but you never know.

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    Quote Originally Posted by youshouldveknown View Post
    wasn't Buster Keaton killed by the mafia?
    Buster Keaton died of lung cancer at the age of 70.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Keaton


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    Quote Originally Posted by Bargle View Post
    Buster Keaton died of lung cancer at the age of 70.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Keaton
    Thank you. It must have been Bugsy Seigal I was thinking of. He, of course, was a member of organized crime.

    Cambria, I would think this too, but because she had confessed twice and was extremely agitated by the piece on Taylor on television, it makes me question it more. If you read at the link I provided earlier, it mentions more from the young neighbor who witnessed her confession. She said she was 'never caught' and 'fled the country.' Which she did. She left for Singapore where she married her husband. She was also arrested, tried and acquitted of extortion, prostitution and drug dealing on a second occasion after she changed her name to Patricia Palmer. This leads me to believe that, after the first trial, she was still involved with organized crime members (she's never been linked to anyone but her husband, as far as I can tell, who worked with Shell Oil and was a victim of the japanese bombing in 1945) and continued with the prostitution. I believe this time, two of her johns ratted her out, but I could have read that wrong.

    Anyway, after this trial she laid low and made movies until 1929. Then, when talkies started, she left for Singapore. The murder was in 1922. She was never a suspect at the time. Neither was MMM. I'm not sure when her first or second trial occurred, but I was under the impression that the first was soon after the murder.

    This is a newsletter of sorts called Taylorology. Primarily it seems that the majority, if not all of it is old news articles from around the time. There are different subjects in each, but if you read through, there's a wealth of information. I read of other confessions that never panned out.

    http://www.angelfire.com/az/Taylorology/
    nothing seems black when i see your red shoes

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cambria View Post
    I also think he was killed by a woman. I always believed it was Charlotte Shelby but who knows what was going on back then that we don't know about. I think Margaret Gibson was just kind of out her mind when she made that confession but you never know.
    My bold.

    That's the grand problem of this case. The studio destroyed most, if not all the evidence in the name of saving face for themselves. Because of their clean-up we'll never know for certain who did it.

    Given all the absolutely bizarre crimes and/or trials that went on during the 1920's related to the movie industry, I think it was a wild time and no one was squeaky clean. We probably won't ever know half the stuff that really went on and there's no telling what else movie studios covered up.

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    Quote Originally Posted by shannon2008 View Post
    My bold.

    That's the grand problem of this case. The studio destroyed most, if not all the evidence in the name of saving face for themselves. Because of their clean-up we'll never know for certain who did it.

    Given all the absolutely bizarre crimes and/or trials that went on during the 1920's related to the movie industry, I think it was a wild time and no one was squeaky clean. We probably won't ever know half the stuff that really went on and there's no telling what else movie studios covered up.
    My bold.

    Right, I remember reading about when Jean Harlow's husband, Paul Bern, was found shot to death in September 1932, the studio was notified first. It wasn't until some studio spin doctors were there at the house for quite a while that the police were finally called. It was eventually ruled a suicide but many people think Bern's former common law wife, Dorothy Millette, was responsible because she was upset he had married Harlow. Dorothy Millette's body was found in the Sacramento River 2 days later and also ruled a suicide.

    You're right, I'm sure there are countless other situations that the movie studios "cleaned up" that we'll never know about

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by youshouldveknown View Post
    Thank you. It must have been Bugsy Seigal I was thinking of. He, of course, was a member of organized crime.

    Cambria, I would think this too, but because she had confessed twice and was extremely agitated by the piece on Taylor on television, it makes me question it more. If you read at the link I provided earlier, it mentions more from the young neighbor who witnessed her confession. She said she was 'never caught' and 'fled the country.' Which she did. She left for Singapore where she married her husband. She was also arrested, tried and acquitted of extortion, prostitution and drug dealing on a second occasion after she changed her name to Patricia Palmer. This leads me to believe that, after the first trial, she was still involved with organized crime members (she's never been linked to anyone but her husband, as far as I can tell, who worked with Shell Oil and was a victim of the japanese bombing in 1945) and continued with the prostitution. I believe this time, two of her johns ratted her out, but I could have read that wrong.

    Anyway, after this trial she laid low and made movies until 1929. Then, when talkies started, she left for Singapore. The murder was in 1922. She was never a suspect at the time. Neither was MMM. I'm not sure when her first or second trial occurred, but I was under the impression that the first was soon after the murder.

    This is a newsletter of sorts called Taylorology. Primarily it seems that the majority, if not all of it is old news articles from around the time. There are different subjects in each, but if you read through, there's a wealth of information. I read of other confessions that never panned out.

    http://www.angelfire.com/az/Taylorology/
    My bold..

    You're right, she can't be totally ruled out. I'm questioning the confession now myself, wondering if it was her. I usually dismissed her confession in the past, not really having read that much about it.

    I actually discovered the Taylorology website about 8 years ago. It's fascinating reading but I haven't been back there for years. Thanks for the link. I'm definitely going to re-read more about it there!

  15. #15
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    Two books on the case:
    "A Cast of Killers" by Sidney Kirkpatrick
    "A Deed of Death" by Robert Giroux

    Each favors a different suspect.

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