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The Murder of William Desmond Taylor

 

II)The Investigation Begins

The living room of William Desmond Taylor's apartmentWithin twenty-four hours of William Desmond Taylor’s murder, District Attorney Thomas L. Woolwine was in possession of an anonymous letter in a woman’s handwriting.   The letter instructed him to visit the apartment of actress Mabel Normand on Seventh Street and Vermont Avenue, where a search of the basement would uncover a .38 caliber pearl-handled revolver.   The letter was taken seriously because the bullet removed from the dead director’s body had been fired from a .38 caliber revolver.

Detectives King, Jesse Winn, Murphy and Cline conducted a thorough search of Normand’s apartment from basement to attic, but the only weapons they found were a pair of .25 caliber revolvers in a dresser drawer in the actress’s bedroom.

In a statement to the police, which was corroborated by her chauffeur William Davis, Normand said that she had spent the afternoon of the 2nd February in the shopping district of Los Angeles.   At approximately six o’clock she had placed some expensive Christmas gifts in her safety deposit box at the Hellman Bank on the corner of 6th and Main Streets.  While there she phoned her home and was told by her maid that Taylor had been trying to get hold of her all afternoon – he had a book for her, and he wanted her to stop by his apartment for it that evening.   Normand had Davis drive her to Taylor’s apartment, stopping on the way at Seventh and Broadway to buy newspapers, magazines and peanuts.   On arriving at the apartment shortly after seven o’clock and instructing her chauffeur to clean the car while he waited, Normand found that Taylor was on the telephone.   (In a report in the New York Times dated 3rd February 1922, Normand stated that he was talking to a woman regarding income tax, although other reports suggest it was actually his friend and well-known actor Antonio Moreno that he was talking to.   Normand would later state that she never knew who Taylor was talking to when she arrived.)

Mabel Normand

While Normand waited for Taylor to finish his conversation, Henry Peavey cleared away the remains of the evening meal.      Upon completing his call, Taylor warmly greeted the actress.   The book he had for her was ‘Rosa Mundi’ by Ethel M. Dell.   The couple discussed other books, including John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, while Peavey finished his duties.

Normand was amused by Peavey’s attire when he entered to say goodnight after locking the back door.   He was dressed in ‘green golf stockings, yellow knickers and a dark coat.’   This attire wasn’t out of the ordinary for Peavey – even though he didn’t play golf.   After the house servant had left, Normand joked with Taylor that he should buy him some golf clubs, and Taylor grew unexpectedly serious, explaining how he had put up a bond of $200 to secure Peavey’s release after his recent arrest.  

After leaving the apartment, Peavey stopped awhile to talk with William Davis, who was sweeping the discarded peanut shells Normand had left from the car.

At approximately 7,45pm on the evening of the 1st February 1922, Taylor accompanied Mabel Normand to her car.   He noticed the copy of the Police Gazette Normand had bought earlier and kidded her about her choice of reading material (She had bought the magazine because her producer Mack Sennett was struggling to find the right posed head shot for a publicity still of Normand’s forthcoming film, Suzanna, and she had thought perhaps the head pose of the beautiful girl on the cover of the magazine might be suitable).   Taylor promised to call her in about an hour – but it was a call he would never make: he would  die soon after saying goodbye to Mabel Normand.

Already hampered by a number of mistakes and oversights it had made at the crime scene, the police’s investigation of the murder made slow progress.   They determined that the fatal shot had probably been fired a few minutes before 7.45pm, either while the director was sat at his writing desk, or when he returned from escorting Mabel Normand to her car.   By the night of the 2nd they had located and taken statements from four witnesses: Douglas Maclean’s wife, Faith, who reported seeing a man leaving Taylor’s apartment immediately after the shot was fired, and described him as five feet nine or ten inches tall, of medium build and roughly – but not shabbily – dressed in dark clothes and a plaid cap.   Maclean’s maid, Christine Jewett, said she had heard someone pacing in the alleyway that ran behind the Maclean’s house for fifteen to twenty minutes earlier that evening.

Two men, Floyd Hartley and L. A. Grant, who worked at the nearby Hartley service station on Sixth and Alvarado streets, reported that a man matching this description had stopped there shortly before 6pm and asked where Taylor lived.    They described him as 26 or 27-years-old, and about 165lb.  He wore a dark suit and a light hat or cap, and the last they saw of him, he was walking towards the Alvarado apartments.   E. W. Bascomb, a street car conductor, reported seeing a man answering the description board his car at Maryland Street – which ran along the rear of Taylor’s apartment – at either 7.54pm or 8.27pm.    Police believed that, because of the closeness of their descriptions, all four people had seen the same person.   They also believed the murderer had probably slipped into the house while Taylor was escorting Normand to her car and then waited behind the open door for him to return.

Edward F. Sands

The police focused their efforts on finding this man – and also tracing Edward F. Sands, a former employee of Taylor’s whom the director had recently accused of forgery and theft.   In July 1921, the director had returned from a trip to Europe to discover that Sands, who was Taylor’s houseman before Peavey, had bought lingerie with forged cheques and wrecked his employer’s sports car.   A warrant was issued for Sands' arrest, but the houseman had disappeared.   A few months later, on 4th December 1921, Taylor’s apartment was burgled.   The place was ransacked, and jewellery and cigarettes were stolen.    A week later, Peavey discovered one of these cigarettes on the front doorstep and asked Taylor whether he had bought any of that particular brand since the burglary.   Taylor had not.    Then Taylor received a letter which read, ‘Sorry to inconvenience you, even temporarily.   Also observe the lesson of the forced sale of assets.   A Merry Xmas and Happy New Year.  Alias Jimmy Valentine.’   With the letter were a couple of pawn tickets from an establishment in Stockton for Taylor’s stolen jewellery made out in the name of William Cunningham Deane-Tanner.

The police questioned Arthur Hoyt, an actor friend of Taylor’s who lived at the Los Angeles Athletic Club on Seventh and Olive.   Under intense questioning, Hoyt revealed to the detectives that he had visited Taylor in late January to find the director in a state of great agitation.   The director confided that a young actress had visited him the night before.   She was infatuated with him, even though he was old enough to be her father, and grew hysterical when he tried persuading her to leave.   The actress was seventeen-year-old Mary Miles Minter, and she was one of the people who had gathered at the murder scene on the morning that Taylor’s body was found…

Detectives King and Wynn paid a visit on the actress at her home.   She told them she hadn’t seen Taylor for some time, and that the last time she’d seen him was on the streets of Los Angeles when they were each in their own car and had merely waved to one another.   King and Wynn weren’t convinced.   They visited the property room at police headquarters looking for the clothing Taylor had worn when he was shot but were told that the clothes were still at the mortuary.   According to King’s article in True Detective Mysteries in 1930, they arrived at the Ivy Overholtzer Mortuary just in time to prevent the clothes from being placed into an incinerator.

Charlotte Shelby

Under the collar of Taylor’s coat, the detectives found three blonde hairs ranging from one-half to one inch in length.   These hairs were later compared with hairs taken from Mary Miles Minter’s dressing room and found to be the same.   Minter was summoned to the D.A.’s office and questioned once more, but was unable to add anything to her previous statements.   However, following the interview, King and Wynn felt it would be worthwhile paying a visit on Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, to see what she knew of the events surrounding the murder.

Charlotte Shelby was not keen to be questioned by the police.   She brusquely informed the detectives that she was preparing to leave for New York on the six o’clock train and that any questions they had would be answered by her attorneys, Mr Mott and Mr Cassill, who were in the house for that purpose.   Shelby’s behaviour wasn’t out of character: not only was she Minter’s mother, she was also her business representative, and was well-known around the studios as a demanding and overbearing woman.  Both she and her other daughter, Margaret Shelby, relied on Mary to finance their pampered lifestyle.

Instead of tackling Charlotte Shelby’s attorneys, the detectives questioned Julia Miles, Shelby’s mother, who had been with Minter when she arrived at Taylor’s apartment after his body was found on the morning of the 2nd.  She told the police that Charlotte Shelby was out until approximately 9 o’clock on the evening of the murder after shopping during the day and visiting friends in the evening.  It was around this time that the District Attorney Thomas L. Woolwine, a close friend of both Mary Miles Minter and Charlotte Shelby, ordered all the evidence that had been accumulated to date to be transferred from the police station to a cabinet in his office.   Detective Ed King, in his article written for True Detective Mysteries, said that he was later informed by a colleague, Robert Herron, that he (Herron) had been instructed to take all the evidence, apart from the coat and vest, to Woolwine’s home.

 

Next: Taylor's Secret Past

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