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The Murder of William Desmond Taylor


I) - A Body is Discovered

Taylor's Alvarado Court apartment c.1922

At approximately 7.30 on the morning of Thursday 2nd February 1922, Henry Peavey, William Desmond Taylor’s 39-year-old black house servant, picked up a copy of the day’s newspaper from the porch of the director’s home at the Alvarado Court Apartments on South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles.   In his hand he carried a bottle of milk of magnesia he had purchased from a drug store on 5th and Los Angeles to sooth Taylor’s stomach cramps.   Peavey had been in Taylor’s employ for six months, and administering the medicine to Taylor was part of his daily routine.   First, he would run Taylor’s bath and then, after giving the director his medicine, he would prepare a simple breakfast of two soft-boiled eggs, toast and a glass of orange juice.

This day – which was to become so extraordinary – was already likely to be a difficult one for Peavey; earlier that week he had been arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ at Westlake Park, and Taylor was due to appear in court as a character witness on his behalf that afternoon.  However, any thoughts Peavey may have had about court appearances would have been abruptly shattered when he opened the door of the apartment to find Taylor’s lifeless body on the floor in front of him.   Later, at the coroner’s inquest, he would describe the moment when he discovered the body: ‘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—‘

Henry Peavey

Peavey’s hysterical shrieking alerted neighbours and E. C. Jessurun, the landlord of the apartments, who was the first to actually enter Taylor’s home following the discovery of his body.   It wasn’t long before the police were called.   By the time Detective Lieutenant Tom Ziegler, responding to a call of a ‘natural death,’ arrived on the scene quite a crowd had gathered both in and outside the director’s apartment.   Ziegler found Taylor’s fully-clothed body lying on the living room floor.   Taylor’s head was turned towards the east wall with his feet towards the front door, and his left leg under a chair.   Ziegler ushered the onlookers out.   An unidentified doctor carried out a preliminary examination of the body without moving it while Ziegler waited for the Coroner to arrive.   He reported that Taylor looked to have died of natural causes, possibly from internal haemorrhaging.

 The next person to arrive on the scene wasn’t the coroner but Charles Eyton, the General Manager of Famous-Players-Lasky and a personal friend of Taylor’s.   Permitted entrance into the apartment by Ziegler, with whom he was also acquainted, Eyton went directly to Taylor’s bedroom.   There he removed a number of letters and documents which he later took away from the crime scene and destroyed.   When questioned later about why he had done so, Eyton claimed that they were love letters from married women, and that he had destroyed them to protect Taylor from becoming posthumously embroiled in a scandal.

 Eyton returned to the body and shared a few words with Ziegler, who repeated the unknown doctor’s opinion that Taylor had died of natural causes.   The film actor Douglas Maclean, who lived in an apartment close to Taylor’s and was also in attendance, said he had and his wife had heard a shot the night before and that he believed the body should be turned over once the Coroner arrived.   When Deputy Coroner William MacDonald eventually arrived he placed his hand under the body and found blood.   MacDonald initially thought the blood had trickled from Taylor’s mouth, but in his testimony to the inquest into the director’s death, Eyton said that, although Taylor’s head was lying in a pool of blood, there was no trail running down.   He then opened Taylor’s vest and discovered blood on his left side.   It was at this point that he and MacDonald turned the body over to reveal the bullet wound.  Realising they were now dealing with something more sinister than death by natural causes, Ziegler phoned headquarters and summoned the Flying Squad, which consisted of Ed King, William Cahill, Ray Cato, H. H. Cline, Wiley Murphy and Jesse A. Winn.

 The bullet that killed William Desmond Taylor had traveled upward from an entry point in his left side before coming to rest in the right side of his neck.   The bullet had lodged just beneath the skin, but had pierced its surface to cause some bleeding.   Investigators mistakenly thought this exit wound was actually the entrance wound and that Taylor had been shot in the neck, but the post mortem proved otherwise.

Ziegler questioned Douglas Maclean and his wife further.   Mrs Maclean said she had heard a shot at about ten or fifteen minutes to eight, just after they had finished eating dinner.   Her husband had gone upstairs to fetch a cribbage board, so she opened the front door to her apartment, which was adjacent to Taylor’s, and saw a man standing in Mr. Taylor’s doorway.   The man looked at her before walking down the steps to Taylor’s apartment, turning left, and walking around the corner.   When questioned, the landlord Jessurun also said he might have heard a shot, but had dismissed it at the time as the noise of an automobile backfiring.

Once the Deputy Coroner’s work was done the body was removed, leaving the police officers free to search the apartment, which consisted of five rooms.   An upright piano stood in the corner of the living room, which was filled with mostly philosophical and sociological books, and a small roll-up desk with pigeon-holes stood directly in front of the door.   War memorabilia and signed framed photographs lined the room’s walls.   Another autographed photograph stood on the piano.   This one was of the popular actress Mary Miles Minter, and it read, ‘For William Desmond Taylor – Artist, Gentleman, Man.  Sincere good wishes.   Mary Miles Minter. -1920-‘

On the desk lay an open cheque book and a pen, and in one of the drawers was a half-completed income tax report.

 The police found $78.00 in Taylor’s wallet.   He was also wearing a two-carat diamond ring and platinum watch – sufficient reason for the investigating officers to immediately rule out robbery as a motive for the director’s murder.

Other pieces of evidence discovered by the police were more intriguing: a woman’s pink silk nightgown and a lace handkerchief.   Some reports stated that both articles were embroidered with the initials M. M. M. while others reported that the nightgown was plain.   Two letters were found – by journalists, not the police.   They were love letters, written in code and signed ‘Mary.’   Ed King, a detective involved in the case, later recounted some of the contents of the letters in an article he wrote for True Detective Mysteries in 1930:

 "What shall I call, you wonderful man?" began one of these letters. "I

want to go away with you--up in the hills--anywhere--just so we can be alone.

"Wouldn't it be glorious to sit in a big comfy couch by a cozy warm fire

with the wind whistling outside, trying to harmonize with the faint strains

of music coming from the Victrola?

"I would sweep and dust (they make the sweetest dust caps, you know).

Oh, yes, and fix the table and help you wash the dishes, and then, in my

spare time, darn your socks.

"I'd go to my room and put on something scant and flowing; then I would

lie on the couch and wait for you. I might fall asleep, for a fire makes me

drowsy. Then I would awake and find two strong arms around me and two dear

lips pressed to mine in a long, sweet kiss..."

Another letter, written in the same code, simply said: "I love you--Oh,

I love you so. God, I love you so. I love you--I love you--I love you."

The things they found – letters, handkerchief and nightgown – were taken to the police station with the intention that they be used as evidence when the killer was eventually found.

 But the killer never would be found – and the evidence would mysteriously disappear…


Next: The Investigation Begins

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