"The William Desmond Taylor Case"

By William Thomas Sherman
Excerpted from Mabel Normand: A Source Book to Her Life and Films; revised edition
Copyright 2000 William Thomas Sherman

Part II

The Night of the Murder

The commonly accepted story told about the night of Taylor's death is: On Feb. 1, Mabel Normand was having a friendly visit with Taylor in his bungalow home between 7:00-7:45. Books were the primary topic, and nothing of particular significance took place (although Peavey later claimed the two had argued.) When it was over, Taylor escorted Mabel to her car, during which time someone snuck into the bungalow. The killer concealed inside, Taylor returned to his home and was shot by him. The gunman then makes a clean escape. While there were people who passed the scene, including Howard Fellows who actually knocked on Taylor's door, during the night no one other than the killer knew that Taylor had been killed. Next morning, Henry Peavey, Taylor's houseman, comes to work and finds Taylor's body shortly after 7:30 am.

For our purposes here, let's see if a different scenario might not fit better what actually happened, followed by accounts and testimony to sustain such an interpretation.

Mabel visits Taylor between 7:00-7:45 pm, Feb 1. Taylor walks her to her car, and having said farewell, goes inside. The killer, however, is not inside. Taylor sits down to go through his canceled checks and account books, having casually left open his door, as was often his habit, even in winter. Despite the previous assaults on his home, he may have thought it unmanly to need to be too cautious. As well, the good mood he was reported to be in that evening may have caused him to let down his guard. Sometime then before or about 9:00 p.m., the killer, a member of our "gang," is stalking outside Taylor's house. In his moving about, and possibly pausing to prepare himself, he sees the door open, stealthily sneaks up, and rushes inside. Before Taylor can be aware of what has happened the gunman has Taylor stick his hands up (possibly getting him to turn around first). Something perhaps is said between by one and or the other. The killer with the gun sticking right into Taylor's back, pulls the trigger -- perhaps with a vengeance.

As he leaves, he is spotted by neighbor Faith MacLean. However, his nonchalance prevents her from being suspicious of him.

At some point from within the next hour or so, someone discovers that Taylor is dead. Who found him? This may have been Taylor's chauffeur, Howard Fellows (although it may be that Fellows was not even at the bungalow at all that night). Returning with Taylor's car sometime around 9:30 p.m. or later, he knocks on Taylor's door. At the same time as he gets no response to his repeated knocks, he notices that the light is on in Taylor's bungalow. Curious, he peers through a crack in the window blinds, and, to his shock, sees Taylor lying in blood murdered. There is no mistaking it is murder. Fellows contacts his brother Harry Fellows.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 10, 1922:
Los Angeles -- ". . . Dumas said that on the night of the murder he had noticed that Taylor's study window shade was up several inches so. Anyone could have looked into the room and have seen him lying dead on the floor."

Another scenario would have the word spread first by the killers themselves, via, the gang. A note, with perhaps a joking tone to it, is sent by a dupe messenger.
In any case, word gets to Paramount manager Charles Eyton who then disturbs Jesse Lasky's evening with the disastrous news. Police are not formally informed until Lasky can figure out what needs to be done to make sure studio interests are protected. What exactly followed after this point can only be left to speculation. It may be that Taylor's home was re-entered during the night by the studio people which might account for why Taylor's body lay so neatly on the floor, as well as some of the other evidence later alleged to be found on the scene, such as the three blonde hairs found on his coat lapel. (8) This would also possibly explain why Taylor's window curtain was partially up.

From The Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10, 1922:
"Mr. Dumas, director in the Cal-Mex Oil Company, was among those who responded to the alarm after the murder. He also saw the blind in the front room of the Taylor apartment raised about four inches when he came home on the night of the slaying about 11 o'clock. The light was on at that time, but the fact that the curtain was raised was unusual, he said."

Whether or not the crime site was entered during the night, the studio people decide to wait till morning to go through the bungalow, rather than risk creating too much of a disturbance, and unnecessarily implicate themselves. Using his enormous clout as head of Paramount, Lasky goes directly to police heads, and after telling them what happened, says he needs their help to protect studio. It is not difficult for him to convince them he is not real killer, for the simple case that he isn't, and can make his case as such. His purpose is to keep the scandal contained as best it may be, and the police fully understand. They decide then that Peavey should find the body in the morning, so as to avoid having to later explain how the body was actually found (and perhaps even handled), or why there was a delay in officially bringing police onto scene with respect to its first discovery. Peavey is rousted in his bed. After being informed what has happened, they tell him that he is going to be the one who finds the body, while the police, then studio people, will await their cue to come on the scene. Far from viewing themselves as conspirators, the studio and police, in looking out for the studio's interests, see themselves as the city's first line of defense.

The Charade

Next morning, Peavey does his ordinary run for Taylor's milk of magnesia (to make things look routine as possible), and finds the "body" even though he knows well in advance what he will find. Even so, it is no less distressing. In his earliest accounts of finding Taylor's body on the morning of February 2, Peavey states that he found his dead employer lying in a pool of blood. Interestingly enough, this crucial detail he gives in his first interviews, is omitted entirely in all his later versions. Although prepared in advance, Peavey is naturally still very affected by what had taken place.

From The Los Angeles Record, February 2, 1922:
"'Good night, Henry, good night,' he said to me when I left him yesterday,' said Henry Peavey, Taylor's colored valet, between sobs as he told of the tragedy that ended the life of his beloved employer last night. 'Good night, Mr. Taylor,' I said to him, and that's the last I saw of him until I opened the door this morning and found his dead body, his feet stretching toward me on the floor.'

"The negro broke into soft sobs and then declared passionately: 'I wish I could get the man that did it. I'd go to jail for the rest of my life if I could get him.'

"As Peavey talked, he was taking some white cloths clotted with blood from a wire paper basket and placing them in the court incinerator.

"'His blood,' the negro said, pathetically. 'We just used the cloths to clean up the room.'

"'Mr. Taylor was the most wonderful man I ever worked for, and I don't see how anybody would want to kill him. I have been with him six months.'

"Peavey said that he came to Taylor's apartment early today, intending to go through the usual round of his duties.

"'I was going to fix his bath water for him,' said the valet, 'and then give him his dose of medicine. After that I was going to fix his breakfast a couple of boiled eggs, some toast and a glass of orange juice.

"'When I opened the door, I saw him lying there stretched out on the floor, his feet toward me and the floor all bloody.

"'I turned and screamed and the landlord came rushing in.' Peavey said he lived at 127 1/2 Third Street. 'I have not been staying with Taylor during the night, but have been sleeping in my room.'

"Peavey's theory was that somebody slipped into the open door of Taylor's apartment when Taylor took Mabel Normand to her car late last night, and shot him from ambush inside the room."

From The Los Angeles Examiner, February 3, 1922
"'I've worked for a lot of men,' he went on, 'but Mr. Taylor was the most wonderful of all of them. I came here this morning intending to fix his bath and get his breakfast, which I always does. And before the bath I'd bring him a dose of medicine. It was always just the same -- for breakfast two soft-boiled eggs, toast and a glass of orange juice. And having it in my mind to make everything just as nice as I could, knowing he would be pleased and say a kind word, I opened the door. And then I found him stretched out on the floor, which was all bloody and his feet toward the door.

"'And then I backed to the door, pretty near overcome with horror, and yelled for the landlord. The way I figure it is that somebody slipped in last night when Mr. Taylor took Miss Normand to the car and shot him from hiding. But how could any one kill such a man as he was?'"

Three days later, at the Coroners Inquest, Peavey came across to reporters this way:

From The Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 5, 1922:
[Coroner Nance] "'What did you see?'

"'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 ­ '

"And then Henry broke into high pitched laughter as he recalled his fright and terror. Laughed as he thought of himself going in and speaking to a dead man. It was a huge joke -- no doubt about it. And the joke was on him.
Of course, he laughed, and those in the room laughed with him . . ."

From the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Feb. 5, 1922:
"'Who was the first person that you told Mr. Taylor was dead?'

"It was then that the negro began laughing in a hysterical manner. He doubled forward in the chair. His shrieks of laughter caused a real sensation. A number of women spectators appeared frightened by the actions of the witness who was finally quieted. He was then asked . . ."

The story subsequently related of a mysterious doctor (who strangely never later turned up) coming on the scene, and pronouncing Taylor as having died from a hemorrhage is a complete phony, inasmuch as the doctor was a phony. The purpose of this charade was to allow studio people to rummage the place, before the coroner arrives, without suggesting they are tampering with crime scene. Again, the police have no reason to think the studio has any purpose other than to look after its important interest, by recovering anything which might, if found as evidence, be thought of as injuring Paramount studio. There is no suggestion that the killer is being covered up for they all are sincere in expressing their wish to see him apprehended. Only what was done was done, and now what mattered was that the bad publicity needed to be smothered as best it might be.

End of Part II

Part I - Part III - Part IV - Part V

copyright 2000 by William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved.

Return to Articles and Essays page