"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 III

 The Time Element Problem

It has generally been assumed that Taylor's murder took place within the last quarter hour prior to 8 o'clock, but could this be wrong? The final conclusion that the murder took place within this time frame rests entirely on chauffeur Howard Fellows' testimony. On the other hand almost every known newspaper account of the first day after the shooting gives 9 o'clock or closely thereabouts as the time of the shooting

The following are some articles that support the 9 o'clock version as being the true one. True, it is not uncommon to find errors in the first editions, nevertheless, where they are consistent does support a case for their accuracy.

From The New York Tribune, Feb. 10, 1922:
Los Angeles, Feb. 9 -- "Evidence supporting the theory that William D. Taylor, murdered film director, was the victim of a hired assassin came to light today with the opening of a widespread investigation of the mystery by District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine.

"The 'fighting prosecutor,' as he is called, personally questioned witness after witness to lay a foundation for the grilling of at least two film stars who will be called before him tomorrow . . .

"Patrolman Albert Long, whose statement does not seem to have played a part in the investigation carried on by the detective bureau, was the witness who added new facts concerning the activities about the Taylor bungalow on the night of the shooting. The policeman said that shortly after 8 o'clock in the evening, he had seen a man loitering in the street which skirts the side of the court in which the director's bungalow is located. He said the man wore a cap, an overcoat and a 'mussy suit,' which he was unable to describe in greater detail.

"The description fits that of the man who, according to Mrs. Douglas MacLean, a neighbor of Taylor, was seen loitering about the front of the house two or more minutes after the firing of the shot that took the life of the director. If the man seen by the policeman is the murderer, it would indicate that the assassin was a cool-headed, professional gunman who, for some as yet unexplained reason, remained within a stone's throw of the scene of the killing, trusting to luck to escape should the crime be prematurely exposed . . ."

If murder happened at 9 o'clock, this would have probably been the killer before the event, not after, which only makes more sense.

The very credible testimony of George Arto, brother-in-law of King Vidor, also helps to support the case against the 8 p.m. shooting. The "third man" mentioned in these pieces with Peavey and Davis may have been a studio person who simply wished to be kept out for publicity reasons, and had connections or clout enough himself to effect this.

From The Los Angeles Examiner, February 22, 1922:
"An amplified statement secured yesterday by The Examiner from George F. Arto, motion picture writer, gives new facts which tend to change the whole theory of the crime as to its time element.

"Arto, it will be recalled, passed in front of the Taylor house on the night of the murder and, as he states, saw Peavey standing on the sidewalk talking to a man of swarthy complexion -- a rough looking character. This was at approximately 7 o'clock.

"His memory refreshed by circumstances to which his attention had been called since giving his first statement, he remembered yesterday that he returned to the bungalow court at 7:45 o'clock. He is positive of this, he said, as he phoned a young woman who lives near the Taylor bungalow, on whom he was calling. He told her in this conversation that he would be over in five minutes and, looking at his watch, he found the time to be 7:40.

"He immediately started to walk from his home at 220 South Bonnie Brae street. He reached a point in front of Taylor's house within five minutes.

"'At that time,' he said, 'I saw no one around. Miss Normand's car had gone, and Peavey was not in sight.'

"He went to the house of the young woman and sat in the front room next to the window until about ten minutes after eight.

"'During that time,' he declared, 'I heard no shot and am positive that I would have heard a shot been fired.'

"Arto is familiar with firearms, having tested guns for the Savage Arms Company and would be able, he asserts, to distinguish a pistol shot from the backfire of automobiles. As close to the scene of the crime as was either Mrs. MacLean or her maid, Christian Jewett, and in a better position to hear and observe, Arto nevertheless was not attracted by any unusual noises.

"Hence, it is now believed possible that the murder may have been committed either before or after the time fixed by Mrs. MacLean. And District Attorney Woolwine yesterday admitted the likelihood that the man seen by Mrs. MacLean leaving Taylor's front door was Howard Fellows, the film director's chauffeur.

Another curious and interesting story is this:

From The Los Angeles Examiner, February 4, 1922:
"An excellent example of habitual observation was brought to light yesterday when Mrs. Ida Garrow, a modiste living at the Rose of Sharon Apartments, told Examiner investigators that on Wednesday night as she was walking down Ocean View avenue, at the intersection of Alvarado Street, she noticed a man acting in a very peculiar manner.

"'It was about eight thirty, or possibly twenty minutes of nine,' said Mrs. Garrow yesterday, 'Wednesday evening I was hurrying to my club which meets at the corner of Grand View and Ocean View avenue. I was late for a class that was studying Hebrew which I did not want to miss, but as I have trained my observational faculties in the study of astrology, it is without voluntary effort that I perceive whatever comes within the range of vision.

"'As I came to Alvarado street, I saw a tall, slender, smooth shaven policeman, whose face I would instinctively recognize if I were to see him again, walking toward Ocean View avenue. Walking with him was another man, to whom I did not pay particular attention, because my curiosity was aroused by the peculiar actions of a man who was coming toward me a few feet in front of the policeman. Although the policeman was not paying the slightest attention to this man, the man was glancing back apprehensively over his shoulder, and at times looking in away from the street which would be directly in toward the court where the body of Mr. Taylor was found.

"'As the policeman got closer to this man, the man crossed the street, and I noticed as he crossed that he was short and stout and wore a long overcoat, but there was the shadow of a building falling at such an angle that I could not determine whether he wore a cap or a hat.'

"Who was the policeman walking down Alvarado street at 8:30 or 8:45, and what did he see? This slight clue given by a careful observer may lead to very important developments in the mysterious murder whose points are now baffling the keenest detectives of the city."

With respect to other witnesses, the following come from some of the main newspaper accounts of that first day.

"Shot down while writing at a desk by a mysterious assassin, William Desmond Taylor, well known motion picture producer and director, was found dead today in his bungalow in the Westlake District. Death was caused by a bullet wound in the back, just below the left shoulder, according to police.

"Taylor, who was 50 years old and wealthy, apparently was killed between 9 and 10 o'clock last night. The body was found today by a colored servant when he reported for duty at the house.

"Police detectives who first reached the scene reported that death was from natural causes, and it was not until nearly an hour later when an undertaker was removing the body that the bullet wound was found.

"Additional officers immediately were dispatched to the house, and a comprehensive investigation was begun. The bullet wound caused an internal hemorrhage and Taylor accidentally died a few minutes after being attacked.

"Detectives questioned neighbors who stated they heard what apparently was the report of the revolver shortly after 9 p.m., but at that time believed it was caused by an automobile.

"The police immediately began search for Edward F. Sands, former secretary of Taylor. Robbery was not the motive for the murder it was announced, as officers found $73 in the pocket of the slain man, as well as a large amount of jewelry in the house.

"Taylor's revolver was found in a drawer of the dresser in his bedroom on the second floor of the pretentious house. It had not been discharged, and none of his personal effects had been disturbed.

"The officers reported they are confident that revenge was the motive of the mysterious slayer.

"The police records state that when Taylor went to England a year ago on a business and pleasure trip he left Sands, then his secretary, in charge of his personal affairs, and when he returned, he reported to Detective Sergeants Herman Cline and E. R. Cato that Sands had robbed him of money, jewelry, clothing and a valuable automobile.

"A felony warrant was issued for Sands, and the police say he never was found. A second robbery at the Taylor residence was attributed to Sands by the police.

"Among the witnesses questioned by the police during the morning were Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and Douglas MacLean, prominent film stars.

"Miss Normand admitted having visited Taylor's bungalow in the early evening yesterday to discuss a new production and that he had escorted her to her automobile at the curb shortly before 9 p.m. Taylor was to telephone to her later in the evening. Miss Normand said he did not do so.

"Miss Purviance, who lives in a house adjoining Taylor's bungalow, returned home about midnight and saw a light burning in Taylor's study.

"MacLean and his wife, who live in the same district, stated they heard the shot fired after 9 o'clock. They thought at the time it might be an automobile exhaust. They described a strange man whom they saw in the street.

"Miss Normand told detectives that while she was talking with Taylor early last evening concerning a new picture production, the robberies of the Taylor home were mentioned. 'He told me he feared Sands and that he had a premonition of something wrong,' Miss Normand was quoted as telling officers." (9)

From The Los Angeles Evening Express, February 2, 1922:
"The slayer evidently committed the crime about near 9 o'clock last night. It was at that time that Douglas MacLean, motion picture actor, and his wife, who lived next door, say they heard the sound of the pistol shot.

"Police also believe that the slaying occurred at that time because of the opinion expressed by the deputy coroner that the man had been dead for more than ten hours when the body was found.

"The last person who saw Taylor alive, with the exception of the assassin, was Miss Mabel Normand, film star. She visited him at his home last night. She arrived at the home shortly before 7 o'clock, she said. Her statement to Detectives Winn and Murphy follows: . . .

"Douglas MacLean and his wife were having their supper in their home that also adjoins Taylor's house, but to the east, when they heard the sound of a shot. They place the time at about 9:30 or 9 o'clock in the statement they made to Detective Sergeants Wallis and Ziegler . . .

"Mrs. MacLean, however, told the officers that she noticed a man walking rapidly down the walk towards Taylor's home last evening shortly after Miss Normand left. She gave the following description of the man to officers: Height about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches, weight about 165 pounds. He had a muffler about his neck and was at the time wearing a plaid cap pulled over his eyes. She did not notice the clothing he was wearing and was unable to furnish the police with a better description because she says she was unable to see distinctly at that hour of the night.

"'I had, of course, no reason to be suspicious of that man at that time,' said Mrs. MacLean when discussing the case with the two detective sergeants. 'But now I am convinced that he was the slayer. It was after I had seen him that my husband and I sat down to dinner. That was about 8:30 or 9 o'clock, I guess.

"'We had just started our dinner when we heard a pistol shot. We did not investigate because we heard nothing further after that to arouse our suspicions, and we thought that possibly the sound we heard then was that of an automobile backfiring in the street. Now, of course, we know that it was the shot that ended the life of Mr. Taylor.'"

(See also The Los Angeles Record, Feb. 2, 1922, Boston Herald Feb 3, 1922, and Long Beach Daily Telegram, February 2, 1922.)

Despite these numerous initial reports and interviews, at the Coroner's Inquest three days later, the accounts of the key witnesses from the bungalow has the time of the shot at 8:00 p.m. What caused this change? The following item very likely suggests the woman being spoken of is Faith MacLean, the husband, Donald MacLean. Both worked for Paramount studio.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 9, 1922:
"One woman prominently identified with the investigation is said to be in possession of information which she has thus far failed to turn in. She has adopted an attitude of uncertainty in the whole matter, it is asserted. Detectives from the central police station were assigned orders to visit the woman and insist upon the facts in the case. Police informants declare she has been instructed by her husband to 'develop' a sudden loss of memory.

"Was there a special reason why, aside from those in the MacLean home, others living in the bungalow court were so reticent about or oblivious to the shot?"

From The Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 4, 1922:
"Other bungalow dwellers say they heard nothing. Mrs. Myrtle B. Pratt, who lives at the entrance to the court, says she saw no suspicious character either entering or leaving the place and that she had heard no unusual sound of any description.

"Mrs. J. K. Lawrence, who also lives at the Alvarado street entrance, said, 'There are so many automobiles passing here all of the time and their back-fire explosions are so similar to a pistol shot that we have gotten so we pay no attention to them whatever. I have no recollection of hearing anything that sounded like a shot at any particular time during the evening in which the shooting occurred, but I might have heard a dozen such sounds without feeling the slightest alarm. I think every occupant of the court should try to recollect anything he or she saw which might in any way throw light on the event.'

"Mrs. Charles Cooley, living two doors from the Taylor residence, said that she and her husband were sitting in their living room reading almost the entire evening and did not hear a sound. They had their blinds drawn and had no occasion to look out, so saw no one.

"Mrs. Arthur W. Watchter stated that she and her husband were out for the evening and returned late, but that they did not notice lights burning anywhere. Both she and Mrs. Cooley voiced the idea that people were entirely too unobservant of things going on around them, and Mrs. Cooley said, "When I think that such a kind, fine man as Mr. Taylor is said to have been, was right here helpless, at the mercy of a fiendish murderer when some of us might have gone to his aid and saved him, and we only known what was going on. It seems that we all live too much to ourselves and that there ought to be some better mode of communication between us all.'"

From The Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 12, 1922:
" . . . Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Lawrence of 400-A South Alvarado also told an interesting story.

"The family was downstairs on the evening of the murder until about 8:30 o'clock when Mrs. Lawrence went to the bedroom upstairs. 'My husband said he heard a short conversation - portions of it - a woman's laugh, a man say good-by, and then a car driving away,' Mrs. Lawrence said. (10) Their apartment is the nearest in the court to Alvarado street.

"'That is all we know.'"

End of Part III

Part I - Part II - Part IV - Part V

copyright 2000 by William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved.

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