"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 IV

The Credibility of Howard Fellows

It has been taken for granted by most scholars that the late arriving testimony of crucial witness Howard Fellows, brother of Lasky employee Harry Fellows, is not to be doubted. Fellows' testimony is critical because it supposedly places almost exactly when the murder was to have taken place. I s it possible, however, that Fellows, as part of a cover-up, was lying? Harry Fellows, his brother, was one of those who, along with Charles Eyton, searched Taylor's bungalow the morning of Feb. 2. (11)

From The Los Angeles Examiner, February 8, 1922:
"Declaring that he called William D. Taylor at 7:55 o'clock Wednesday night and receiving no answer, went to the apartment of the film director. Arriving there at 8:15 o'clock, rang the doorbell and still met with no response, Howard Fellows, chauffeur for the murdered director, last night definitely fixed the time within which the crime must have been committed and added facts regarded as of first magnitude importance in their bearing upon the crime.

"Strangely enough, this young man, who had been Taylor's driver for nearly six months, had not been questioned at length until yesterday, when an Examiner representative called on him at his home, 1622 Shatto Place. He is brother of Harry Fellows, who was Taylor's assistant director.

"Yesterday Detective Sergeant Tom Zeigler took Howard to the Taylor home, 404-B South Alvarado Street. He was partially identified by a resident of the neighborhood as the person he had seen seated in a car on the night of the murder near the scene of the crime and about the time it was committed.

"Fellows denied this and convinced Zeigler that the man was mistaken."

"One of Fellows' most interesting statements, other than that relating to his movements and observations on the night of the assassination, had to do with an alleged quarrel between Taylor and Mabel Normand.

"'I was driving Mr. Taylor and Miss Normand from the Ambassador Hotel where they had attended a New Year's Eve party, to her home,' said Fellows. On the way they had a quarrel. I don't know what it was about, but both were very much excited. Mr. Taylor took Miss Normand home and then returned to his apartment. Upon arriving there he broke down and wept. On the following morning he did up some jewelry in a package and took it to Miss Normand at her home.' Henry Peavey, Taylor's colored valet, confirms this.

"'Mr. Taylor and Miss Normand were very affectionate,' continued Fellows. Questioned independently, Peavey said Taylor often caressed her.

"As to these matters Fellows spoke casually, but when he entered upon the events of the night of February 1, his narrative became astounding both as to its content, and because he never told it before.

"'I left the house (Mr. Taylor's) about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon," Fellows began. Mr. Taylor told me he might be going out in the evening and instructed me to be sure to telephone by 7:30. I went to the home of a young lady friend and was there until 7:55. I recall the time accurately because I had it on my mind to call Mr. Taylor and ask him if he would need the car. I called him two or three times before that hour, but received no reply. I left the house of my girl friend at five minutes to eight and drove directly to Mr. Taylor's. I reached there about quarter past eight. There was a light in the living room. I was surprised that Mr. Taylor should be home and not have answered the telephone.

"'I rang the doorbell. Silence. I rang again. Still, no response. I must have rung three or four times. Then I concluded: `Well, he has some one there and doesn't want to answer. So I put up the car, I was around back of the house, and it is peculiar that persons in the neighborhood should have heard me walking and not have heard me put up the car. I made a good deal of noise doing this, as the garage is difficult to get into, and I guess I must have backed the car up four or five times. I am satisfied that I am the man Mrs. Douglas MacLean saw standing on the porch and leaving the house, I wore a cap and a raincoat. I noticed no cars in the immediate vicinity and saw no one who aroused my suspicions. Naturally, I am convinced that both when I phoned and when I rang the doorbell, Mr. Taylor was lying there on the floor murdered.'

"Taking the testimony of Fellows and Miss Normand together, it is now possible to fix the time of the murder within fifteen minutes. Miss Normand said she left Taylor between 7:30 and 7:45 o'clock. Fellows called at 7:55. The murder was committed between Miss Normand's leave taking and Fellows' phoning. Hence, for the first time, the police have a picture of the murder as it relates to the time when and in which it was committed.

"Before Fellows' statement became available there was no conclusive evidence as to the time the bullet of the assassin struck the film director down. testimony as to the shot being heard was so vague as to be unconvincing. It could not be said with finality that the murder did not occur at midnight or at any hour of the night.

"The acts of the drama leading to the murder must have been brief. It would appear, indeed, that there were no preliminaries, that the intruder, concealed in the room, stepped out and fired the shot. It is therefore deduced that it was a premeditated crime and not one precipitated by a quarrel or any sort of scene more than of momentary duration. One group of police investigators and most of the deputy sheriffs working on the case are now convinced that the visit of Mabel Normand was the immediate antecedent occasion for the crime.

"This theory naturally takes for granted that Miss Normand had not the slightest intimation that her dear friend was to be shot to death, but officers cannot help but believe that the murderer found the way for his crime paved in some way by the visit of Miss Normand."

From The San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 10, 1922:
"Walter Vogdes: In contrast was Howard Fellows, Taylor's chauffeur, who followed Peavey. Fellows, a lad with a weak, somewhat furtive face, sat on a bench in Woolwine's outer office and with twitching fingers lit one cigarette after another, each one on the preceding one.

"When his turn came to enter the inner office he literally ran inside, the way a timorous man runs into an ice cold plunge. When he came out his expression was frightened as he pulled his cap over his eyes and streaked it down the hallway . . ."

Why did Fellows insist it was he whom Faith MacLean saw? How could he be so sure? Is it possible no one heard Fellow's starting his car because he wasn't there in the first place? Finally, it should be noted, Fellows disappeared from public view just after being questioned for hardly more than a day.

From The Los Angeles Examiner, February 6, 1922:
"[Mabel:] 'There is a doubt yet in my mind but that the murderer was not in the house secreted during the time of my short visit with Mr. Taylor,' she said. 'I can't understand how he could have been brazen enough to have entered during the brief interim when Mr. Taylor came with me to the curbing.'"

And added to this, how the much more astonishing that Howard Fellows should be knocking at Taylor door only 15 minutes later, with the killer having committed the deed nicely in between.

Judgment from on High

If there was a deliberate effort on the part of some major studio heads, and cooperated in by some of the police, including D.A. Woolwine, to change the reported time of the shooting from 9:00 pm to 8:00 pm, what could have been it's purpose?

This, of course, can only be speculated at present. It might be argued it was done to mislead the killer, as to what they knew. However, there is another possibility. That is, smear Mabel Normand by tying her more closely in with the crime, yet without formally implicating her of any guilt. Why would they want to make things more difficult for Mabel?
1. Some important people were very angry with Mabel. Emotionally, they blamed her for what happened. And perhaps, though through no fault of her own, they were right, inasmuch as someone may have targeted Taylor out of jealousy over Mabel.
2. As of the Arbuckle scandal, Hollywood was already in the process of cleaning house. In the occurrence of the Taylor case, here was a perfect opportunity to rid themselves of suspected drug user Normand.
3. Mabel was known for a devastating wit which might have got her into trouble with someone. This was then, their bitter "joke" her.

To make this distortion of the facts all the more easily to accomplish -- even if this interfering with justice were somehow brought to light, the damage would still have been done, and their would be little sympathy for Mabel, and probably more sympathy for the would-be do-gooders who, it could be said, were only looking out for public morals.

"....Mabel was the Patsy who got the blame for what other people did. She suffered humiliation and disgrace in silence when she could have set herself right -- by 'telling on' some one else..." (12)

End of Part IV

Part I - Part II - Part III - Part V

copyright 2000 by William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved.

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