"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 V

The Investigation

From The Los Angeles Evening Express, January 3, 1922: "'The job is not worth it.' Such was the statement made by Charles A. Jones, chief of police, today after he announced he will appear later in the day before the mayor and pension board and ask to retire. This announcement follows the circulation of many rumors for last three months that the chief intended to retire. Political wrangling both inside the police department and at the City Hall followed his appointment by Mayor Cryer after the latter's election. Rumors about the central station are that either Capt. R. Lee Heath or Police Commissioner De Coo will be named to succeed Jones.

"Chief Jones, following the announcement of his proposed retirement issued a burning statement in which he said: 'No one man can run the Los Angeles police department. There are too many meddlesome so-called reformers and others who interfere with the work of the officers. They insist that the police department devote its entire efforts to running petty gamblers out of business instead of devoting itself to the more important work of protecting the lives and property of our citizens and the visitors in our midst. Not only that, but within the department itself, among the men and officers, there is too much bickering and conniving to 'get' each other's jobs.'"

From The Los Angeles Herald, Feb. 6, 1922: "There was some friction in the police probe of the slaying today, and it was reported that certain detectives had asked to be given other assignments rather than continue investigating the murder with asserted misunderstanding existing.

From The Chicago Herald-Examiner, Feb. 9, 1922: Los Angeles -- "Members of the sheriff's office made an outright declaration that they were being hindered in the Taylor investigation by an 'iron-clad conspiracy between police and members of the film colony,' with regard to giving information concerning Taylor . . ."

From The San Francisco Bulletin, Feb. 9, 1922: Los Angeles -- "Police have been bribed, witnesses silenced, evidence suppressed, in a gigantic plot engineered from behind the scenes in filmland to defeat the ends of justice in the Taylor mystery -- these sensational charges were under investigation today by District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine, hurriedly summoned from his vacation . . ."

From The Los Angeles Record, Feb. 9, 1922: "Officials Muff Taylor Murder Probe Hopelessly for Week; Will Woolwine End Police Chaos?

"So many things have gone undone in the investigation of William D. Taylor's mysterious murder in the brilliantly lighted living room of his Alvarado street apartments eight days ago, that the heralded centralization of sleuthing by the district attorney's office comes as a distinct relief after a long list of official blunders.

"BLUNDER NO. 1 -- First in the list of blunders was the summoning by detectives of a physician whose lack of thoroughness is evidenced by the fact that he pronounced the death from hemorrhage without examining the body, thus postponing for two hours knowledge that murder had been committed.

"BLUNDER NO. 2 -- Second was the failure of the detectives to obtain the physician's name.

"BLUNDER NO. 3 -- Third was the wanton destruction of vital evidence--fingerprints of the murderer -- by either detectives or curious spectators. The chair that had evidently been carefully lifted by the murderer and placed over one leg of the dead man must have retained impressions of the criminal's finger ridges -- those physical markings that never vary from childhood to death and that never are exactly duplicated in any two human beings. If fingerprints were found lacking at least the information would be obtained that the murderer had worn gloves in careful preparation for the crime. However, this chair was handled by detectives and by perhaps scores of the curious who thronged the house, even while the murdered tenant still lay stretched on the floor. When investigators thought to examine it, the chair was in another room. Many other objects might have yielded fingerprint evidence -- the recently used liquor glasses, for instance.

"BLUNDER NO. 4 -- Fourth was the failure of authorities to obtain an accurate and complete photographic record of the scene of the crime as it was when discovered. Official photographs of the room and house from every angle before the body was removed or the position of anything altered would do much to aid in investigation. Only the camera lens records permanently; the human retina depends upon memory to retain its impressions and memory is often faulty, especially in murder cases. As it is there is only the description of the room made by the first few persons who found the body and unofficial newspaper photographs, sketches and diagrams made hours later.

"The exact way in which the carpet was rolled under one foot of the murdered motion picture director might be highly important in establishing where Mr. Taylor stood when he was shot, or whether his body was carefully arranged after he fell.

"BLUNDER NO. 5 -- The fifth serious blunder was the failure of the police to exclude the morbid and curious from the scene of the crime. The house was made a thoroughfare and playground for members of the public whose presence was unwarranted and interfered with the proper investigation. Because of this it would be almost impossible to say whether any article found missing from William D. Taylor's effects was removed by the murderer or by one of the souvenir-seeking spectators.

"BLUNDER NO. 6 -- The sixth blunder in the investigation of this most mysterious crime was the lack of cooperation of various offices during the first week of the work. Four city offices were working on the case, possibly at cross-hazards most of the time. The city administrator's office was not certain that all papers were removed and in fact did not complete its work until yesterday--the seventh day. The police detective bureau, the prosecuting attorney's office and the sheriff's office have also worked on the case--all independently and without apparent cooperation. Happily an end is to be put to this condition at once.

"However, the Mabel Normand letters were not discovered until yesterday, and then under circumstances indicating that they had been taken early in the investigation, examined and later surreptitiously planted so that officers could "find" them. An officer testified at the inquest that only one gun was found in the house -- a Colt .32. Yesterday the officers discovered Taylor's Luger pistol, with its detachable rifle stock, which friends of the slain director had been asking about since the second day.

"BLUNDER NO. 7 -- Seventh in the list of blunders is the inadequate way in which important witnesses were questioned and their testimony followed up. No secret was made by Taylor's chauffeur, Howard Fellows, of his return to the house about 8 o'clock of the murder night, when the telephone was unanswered, and his return of the car to the garage when the doorbell likewise was unanswered. Yet the murder was six days old before Howard Fellows was questioned by the police.

"BLUNDER NO. 8 -- Eighth and perhaps most reprehensible in the series of blunders, is the fact that detectives recognized early in the investigation that information was being withheld, and took no steps to force witnesses to disclose all facts in their possession. At least one witness refused, point-blank, to answer the questions of detectives--not reporters -- working on the case. And got away with it.

"In view of these facts, and if in spite of them the Los Angeles authorities do not run to earth the assassin of William D. Taylor, the scandal will be known to the entire nation. For the United States has its eyes on this mysterious murder case in which the "best loved man of the motion picture community" was coldly murdered from behind."

From The New York Herald, Feb. 10, 1922: "A dramatic clash between the police and the sheriff of Los Angeles is the newest feature in the kinema murder mystery.
The sheriff formally charges the police authorities with succumbing to the influence brought to bear by powerful interests connected with the kinema industry with the object of checking further investigation into the circumstances in which Mr. Desmond Taylor, or Deane-Tanner, the film director, was shot in his residence at Hollywood last week.

"The most important clues, states the sheriff, have not been followed up, and blind trails have been started in order to lead investigations away from certain persons high in the industry and stop the publicity which the case is receiving to the detriment of the film industry."

From The New York Morning Telegraph, February 21, 1922: "The search -- if one can call it a search -- being made for the slayer of Motion Picture Director Taylor in Los Angeles is getting on the nerves of everybody, and the police should either produce the killer or turn the job of hunting for him over to competent persons. It seems as if every one who knew Taylor or could in any fashion be connected with the case has been interrogated at least a half dozen times. The police and the fame-seeking District Attorney of the California metropolis apparently have questioned persons who had no more to do with Taylor's murder than the residents of the Canary Islands. One Woolwine, District Attorney, made what he called an independent investigation, with a camera-man tagging him around and reporters in his following. Woolwine posed in the Taylor house with an assistant taking the part of the picture director ?this being done to "reconstruct the crime." How would that help find the criminal? In their efforts the police and the Woolwine force have sent several reputable actresses into retirement, suffering from nervous prostration, and have cast some slight suspicion on a few persons who could not possibly kill another. The time has come for these Los Angeles sleuths and Woolwine and his actors to get off the job, and devote their time to whatever business may be at hand. Skilled detectives should take over the case and follow it to the end. Motion picture makers of Hollywood have raised a fund to hunt down Taylor's slayer, and they can put it to good use by dealing with a reputable detective agency and ignoring the incompetents of the police force and the District Attorney of Los Angeles." (13)

From The Santa Monica Outlook, February 22, 1922:
"An article in a Canton, Ill, newspaper quoting a Los Angeles man in an attack on the film colony and the citrus conditions was the subject of resentment of F. H. Hamilton, secretary of the Sawtelle Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Hamilton has written letters to several newspapers and commercial bodies in this section calling their attention to this article.

"Mr. Hamilton said that C. E. Snively, Jr. was formerly assistant chief of police in Los Angeles and his misrepresentations should be corrected. The article in the Canton Daily Register containing the headline, 'Says Film People Are Covering Up in Murder Mystery,' reads as follows:

"'Regarding the Taylor murder case, C. E. Snively, Jr. of Los Angeles, writing his father, C. E. Snively of this city, says: "Everybody is stirred up over the Taylor murder mystery. It is a nasty, smelly mess, and the film people are doing a lot of 'covering up.' I do not believe Sands shot Taylor, but the blame may be attached to him to save others, and Sands will disappear on a life pension, or will turn up a suicide, or be assassinated to prevent the real story from coming out; that's my forecast.'"

From The Los Angeles Record, Jan. 7, 1930: "'You didn't tell this at the coroner's inquest?'

"'No. They wouldn't let me. They tried to shake the story I told them before the inquest. They threatened me. I didn't change my story, because it was true, but I left out that part about the row at Mr. Taylor's house. Then I knew they would make more trouble for me, so I left Los Angeles right away.'" (14)

Role of Charlotte Shelby and Mary Miles Minter in the Case

Mary Miles Minter and Charlotte Shelby have been frequently brought in as suspects to the case, and with good reason. Yet neither was very likely the killer, since based on what we are saying it would be too fantastic to think that they themselves would have been involved with the gang of burglars.

From the Los Angeles Police transcript of interview of Marjorie Berger, taken at her office, Mar. 11, 1926, as recorded in King Vidor Papers, University of Southern California, Film Library, Special Collections

"Ques. What I want to find out Miss Berger is this . . . three questions I want to find out whether you called Mrs. Shelby or whether she called you in the morning the second of February . . . whether or not you knew at the hour you called whether Taylor's body was found.

"Ans. Will you let me alone for a few minutes while I talk to Mr. Marguetti? (attorney)

"[appointment is made to answer question next day]

"Ques. I asked you yesterday the question whether or not you had ever a conversation with Mrs. Shelby on the morning of February 2, 1922, following the death of Taylor.

"Ans. I did

"Ques. At what time?

"Ans. At half past seven in the morning Mrs. Shelby called me.

"Ques. And would you care to relate to me what that conversation was, Mrs. Berger?

"Ans. Absolutely, gladly. I arrived at my office between 7 and 7:30 on the morning of Feb. 2, 1922. My telephone was ringing. I answered the phone. Mrs. Charlotte Shelby said "Marjorie, I have something terrible to tell you. The man that was in your office yesterday afternoon is no more. He is dead." I said what do you mean?" She said, "He was found dead this morning." I said, "Who told you? What do you know about it? Where are you now? She said I am at the New Hampshire home." I said, "Well, aren't you afraid to be alone?" She said, "Well, Mr. Smith15 stayed in the house last night." I asked her whether she had informed the family of this terrible thing and she said yes. No, I better not say that, I think she said yes. I then hung up the receiver because I was greatly shocked and grieved. That's all.

"Ques. Was anything further said between you and her in connection with the case? I will say at or about that time did she tell you how she communicated or given the information to the rest of the family?

"Ans. I do not recollect. I am not sure. She did state that Lasky Studios had called her up and informed her about half an hour previous to her calling me.

"[Berger goes on to state that Shelby called her around 6 or 6:30 and the other time at 8 or 8:30 (P.M.?) looking for Mary, the night of the murder.]"

Based on this testimony, Shelby, as well as Minter could have found out about murder not longer after the Lasky people did that night, through certain channels, including perhaps family friend District Attorney Thomas Woolwine. This was perhaps why Deputy District Attorney Jim Smith was with Shelby that night -- to protect her. Maybe Minter, along with other certain studio people, entered bungalow that night after the murder to see Taylor's body, which would account for the blonde hairs. Though admittedly unlikely, it cannot necessarily be thought impossible.

As to the claim Shelby had most motive to kill Taylor, Shelby answered herself when she said that if she had killed Taylor because of his alleged violating of Mary, why would she not have killed James Kirkwood, who had gotten Mary pregnant a number of years earlier?

The Identity of the Murderer

"Undersheriff Biscailuz late in the day admitted the Sheriff's office is working hard on three 'leads' tending to connect prominent film people with the slaying. The Sheriff's office holds little credence in the theory that Sands committed the crime." (16)

Almost right after the murder, any number of extraordinary stories and witnesses came forth, a pattern carried on for many years afterward. No doubt many stories were concocted by publicity seekers and newspaper people cashing in on the drama. But it is conceivable that some of the stories were actually brought about through the efforts of the killer (and perhaps the efforts of his friends) in an effort to cover-up his crime,

If the killer was merely one among a gang of poor criminals (bootleggers, drug dealers) who would have felt the need to invent stories and produce false witnesses to protect them? Not probable since they would not have resources to employ actors and pretend witnesses or suspects. A very rich and powerful industry person, who hired a gunman, on the other hand, could be easily in such a position to do so. The killer may have been found out within first day or so, but because he was so powerful, he could black mail others, including the D.A., and so the various cover-ups may have begun at this point. As well if he were very powerful he could use blackmail (given his penchant for invading others lives) on certain officials if in a given instance it might be necessary. If the killer was well-to-do, we do not mean the gunman per se, but rather someone who employed the gunman.

It is conceivable then that if the killer was an industry higher-up that he participated in the cover-up on some level, and orchestrated false suspects and witness to confuse everyone. Because of perhaps a certain disdain for Normand and Taylor, some of his associates, whether knowing of his guilt or not, people were more willing to cooperate than they otherwise might have been.
The following is a list of some of Hollywood's most powerful figures at the time. This is not to necessarily imply guilt to anyone only to say who might have been in such a position to have pulled off such a scheme: Frank Garbutt, Jesse Lasky, Charles Eyton, Sol Wurtzel, Abraham Lehr, Carl Laemmle, Joseph Schenck, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, Richard Rowland can be named but there is nothing particular about anyone of these to lead us offhand to think they would be suspects, except perhaps for Sennett. However, Sennet's being the killer is highly unlikely, for a number of reasons, not least of which it is interpreting him as someone powerful enough to have manipulated city hall.

Where the inquiry can be taken from this point, I leave for others to take up and consider.

(1) The vast majority of articles came here were taken from this rich resource, presently located at: http://www.angelfire.com/az/Taylorology/
(2) William Desmond Taylor A Dossier, p. 216-217
(3) Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 17, 1921.
(4) Mabel Normand, who said she was standing outside while it was taking place, was suspicious of this call as well. However, it is since generally accepted (though we can't know for sure, of course) that the call was from actor Antonio Moreno, and according to Moreno was of merely a business nature.
(5) see also Los Angeles Express, Feb. 2, 1922
(6) Taylor may have fired his chauffeur Earl Tiffany, in Aug. 1921, because he believed Tiffany was in league with Sands. See Dossier, p. 218.
(7) See N.Y. Herald, Feb. 6, 1922, T62.
(8) The latter would seem to imply Mary Miles Minter would be such a person, however, it seems unlikely she would have been involved in this "secret" search. The explanations for the blonde hairs and silk nighty, as explained by Bruce Long, can be explained on the basis of:

The 1926 press reports (after Keyes' briefcase was stolen) only said that blonde hairs were found by King on Taylor's body. King's 1930 article discusses finding the hairs on p. 288 of my book, but it's unclear which date he is referring to. However, since King was not assigned to the case until Feb. 3, then the hairs were not found before that date. Possibilities:
a. On Feb. 3, Minter visited Taylor's body at the undertaker's, which is where the hairs were later found on Taylor's clothing. Could Minter have touched and hugged Taylor's cothing, when she was there? If so, that is a possible explanation for the hairs being there.
b. In King's article, he admits fabricating a previous public statement (regarding a psychic's phone call) in order to hopefully draw an incriminating statement from Shelby/Minter. Although blonde hairs were certainly found on Taylor's body, perhaps the identification of the hairs as belonging to Minter was similarly fabricated. Indeed, if the hairs truly had been identified as belonging to Minter, then it is very strange that Sanderson doesn't
mention it in his 1941 letter, which leads me to feel that the hairs may not truly have been identified as Minter's.

In 1922, the police made no statement regarding the nightgown. Reporter Frank Bartholomew was the one who said he saw it, with initials, and he broke the story. Cline later stated that the nightgown had no initials. Peavey said the nightgown had been there long before the day of the murder. I think the nightgown probably had no initials. Taylor certainly had several of Minter's handkerchiefs, and its logical that those handkerchiefs would have been in the same part of dresser as the nightgown. Perhaps Bartholomew just had a quick glance inside that drawer, saw the initialed handkerchiefs on top of the nightgown, and mentally transposed the initials onto the nightgown.

(9) Long Beach Daily Telegram, Feb. 2, 1922
(10) It's interesting that Mabel and Taylor are identified by inference and not specific recognition. Might it possibly have been two other people that Lawrence heard?
(11) See the 1941 police report of Detective Lieutenant Sanderson, found in William Desmond Taylor: a dossier.
(12) James Quirk, Photoplay, May 1930
(13) For further articles on District Attorney Thomas Woolowine, his sometime outrageous character and administration, see Los Angeles Examiner, June 24, 1915, Los Angeles Record, August 17, 1916, Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1916, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1918, Los Angeles Evening Herald, March 16, 1921, Los Angles Times, May 20, 1922, Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1923, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1923, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1925, Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1925

(14) Peavey is talking about quarrel between Mabel and Taylor. But, whether true or no, his remarks clearly show theer was cover-up going at the time of the Coroner's Inquest.
(15) i.e. Deputy District Attorney Jim Smith
(16) Los Angeles Times, Feb. 9, 1922.

The End

Part I - Part II - Part III - Part IV

copyright 2000 by William Thomas Sherman. All rights reserved.

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