In the early days of silent film, Hollywood was something like the Wild West. There were few rules and a motley cast of characters—not to mention, loads of money pouring in. It was only a matter of time before things got out of hand. Things were roaring in Tinseltown long before they were in the rest of the country, and it all ultimately came to a head with a series of scandals in the early 1920s; scandals that would have dire consequences for the film industry. The most well-known of these was the infamous trial of star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle following the death of actress Virginia Rappe—but another, lesser-known case was even more twisted and dark: The mysterious demise of beloved director William Desmond Taylor and the bizarre investigation that followed.
William Desmond Taylor had a wild ride long before he ever got to Hollywood. Born in Ireland, he moved to England soon after for his education. After making it over to the US, he worked on a dude ranch in Kansas before heading to New York City, where he settled with a family—but not for long. Not only did his carousing become infamous, in one strange incident, he mysteriously disappeared for days on end. Unsurprisingly, his wife divorced him, and he traveled all over North America. He began acting, which eventually led him to Hollywood.
Taylor spent less than a decade in Hollywood before his untimely demise, but he immediately made a name for himself. Within a year of arriving, he’d directed his first film. He went on to make more than 50 films—and also fight in WWI. People loved Taylor before he went off to fight, but when he returned, he became the toast of the town. The Armed Forces honored him for his service, and when he returned to directing, he worked with some of the biggest stars of the era—and then, it all ended in an instant.
William Desmond Taylor was found dead inside his home in Los Angeles on February 2, 1922. Quickly, a crowd gathered inside the small home—locking down a crime scene wasn’t really a “thing” in those days. A strange figure from the crowd, claiming to be a doctor, stepped forward to examine the body. He proclaimed that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage—then disappeared. No one ever found out who he was, and no one ever saw him again. However, when authorities examined the body, the mystery deepened. Taylor had been shot in the back. So why did the stranger claim otherwise? On top of that, there was no gun at the scene. This would end up being just the beginning of an extremely bizarre investigation.
Detectives would go on to interview more than a dozen people about the murder of William Desmond Taylor—including some of the most famous names in Hollywood at the time. The investigation would not only expose many of Taylor’s dark secrets, but also those of everyone around him. And that’s not to mention the negative attention it brought to Hollywood and the fledgling movie industry there. Taylor had a checkered past himself, and it turned out that he’d surrounded himself with similar types—from the starlets he befriended to his household staff.
The core group that detectives interviewed about the murder were like something out of a film noir. First were the two men who had worked as valets for Taylor. Authorities considered both of them suspects. Henry Peavey, Taylor’s valet at the time of the murder, found his body. In a case of bad timing, Peavey had been apprehended just three days prior for “social vagrancy." Reporters quickly discovered this juicy detail and one of them, Florabel Muir, did everything in her power to elicit a confession from him. She even orchestrated a plan where a man in a sheet confronted Peavey, pretending to be Taylor's ghost. Of course, Peavey laughed in the man’s face
Peavey’s predecessor, Edward Sands, was another suspect in the case. He had a shady past, with convictions for deserting the Armed Forces, embezzlement, and forgery. Notably, he committed the latter two against Taylor himself while he was working for him. After Taylor dismissed him for forging cheques, he actually broke into Taylor’s home and stole from him. Given this, he sounded like a solid choice for some involvement in the murder. The question was: how much of a role did Sands play in all of this? Unfortunately, we'd never get an answer, because he was never seen again.
That left a number of Hollywood contemporaries who knew William Desmond Taylor. Authorities interrogated actress Mabel Normand, the last known person to see him alive, at great length. The pair had become extremely close friends after Normand had come to Taylor for help with her substance issues. Many speculated that their relationship was romantic in nature. While detectives cleared Normand of suspicion, there were whispers that Taylor had been working with the authorities to have her dealers arrested in order to help her ongoing addiction problems, and that he may have been killed in retaliation.
Another actress whose name came up in connection with Taylor’s end was Mary Miles Minter, with whom he’d worked on Anne of Green Gables. People also speculated that they’d had a romantic relationship—a rumor that would be utterly ruinous to the starlet, as the affair allegedly began when she was 17 and Taylor was 49. Whether or not the affair happened ended up being moot, because reporters discovered that Minter had written a number of hot and heavy love letters to the director. Of course, they then reprinted these scandalous notes in papers across the country.
Of course, in this real-life murder mystery, what would the young ingénue be without the overbearing stage mother? Minter’s mother Charlotte Selby was notoriously devious and greedy, and the relationship between her and her daughter was tumultuous. At one point, her other daughter, also an actress, even accused her of Taylor’s murder. On top of the fact that she owned (and discarded) the same type of pistol that had shot Taylor, she also spent many years away from the US to avoid questioning. Either way, there was never enough evidence to charge her.
That left Margaret Gibson. Like Minter, she’d once worked with Taylor, but she’d ruined her own career with a number of scandals in the 1910s, including a charge of prostitution and another for blackmail. While records pertaining to the case never mentioned her, those who followed the case found one piece of evidence extremely compelling. Allegedly, Gibson made a deathbed confession claiming that she’d been the one who did Taylor.
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Ultimately, there was never enough evidence to charge anyone for the murder of William Desmond Taylor. On top of that, many people speculated that the studios had worked to cover up some aspects of the case. But even if that was true, the scandal's effects were still devastating in Hollywood. This, along with a number of other scandals throughout the 1910s and 1920s, brought a tidal wave of negative attention from the press to Hollywood. Soon, studios began introducing morality clauses for their stars. It also affected what appeared onscreen—censors instituted the infamous Hays Code as a response to both racy films and behind-the-scenes scandals. The aftermath of this one simple case changed the face of Hollywood as we know it and resonated for decades afterward—and it still remains unsolved to this day.