Hollywood has had more than its share of mysterious deaths over the years, but before “The Black Dahlia”, before George Reeves, before Marilyn Monroe, there was the mysterious murder of William Desmond Taylor.
The time that the murder was committed was at the beginning of Hollywood’s ascendancy as the capitol of the motion picture industry. The “pirate” filmmakers who had gone west to escape the Edison Trust had grown into legitimate companies and silent film was entering its golden age as established stars like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd were being joined by newcomers like Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino. The formula had been established and everyone was getting rich, but then a series of scandals threatened to bring it all tumbling down.
William Desmond Taylor was a successful and well respected director having risen to prominence just as Hollywood was becoming established. He was known as a more artistic rather than realistic director and his films tended to be better accepted by the critics and performing community than the public at large, but they made money. He was probably best known as a stable and hardworking director who got good performances out of his actors and got his films done on time and within budget.
Taylor’s murder was the first big Hollywood mystery and at the time it occurred Hollywood was in the throes of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s third trial for the death of Virginia Rappe. The biggest problems in solving the case lay in the hysterical nature of the reporting of it and the gross incompetence of the LAPD in investigating it. The LAPD was much less professional than it is now and had been rocked by several scandals of its own. At the time there was no formal training of police officers in Los Angles, and as late as the 1960s there were still officers on the LAPD who had not attended a law enforcement academy  . Forensic investigation was just in its infancy and there were almost no procedures for handling a crime scene at any rate.
In the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal Taylor’s employers at Paramount took actions and made statements that led to even more lurid reporting than what would have occurred if they had just left well enough alone. Driven by competition to scoop their rivals, reporters will report rumors and innuendoes as if they were facts. That is true enough today, but in the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century, if real facts weren’t available, reporters felt free fabricate their own. On top of that, in a publicity addicted Hollywood, several people made outlandish statements to the press about the case just to get their names in the papers. In this atmosphere the chances of the crime being solved were almost non-existent. Over time the suspects multiplied until the rumor mongers began to center on the ones that they could write the most salacious stories about. It reached the point that the press coverage was driving the investigation rather than the other way around. Meanwhile best possible suspect was forgotten.
On its surface Taylor’s murder was fairly mundane. Finding someone shot to death is not all that uncommon, and for the murder to go unsolved even less so. From 1980 to 2008 there were nearly 185,000 homicides in the United States that were unsolved  . Even in this age of highly developed investigative techniques and resources, nearly one-third of all homicide investigations fail to end in an arrest  . The only thing that made this murder different was the notoriety of the people involved and the revelations, both real and fabricated, which followed it.
In this essay I will reveal the person who I think committed the crime. I rely on the available physical and circumstantial evidence along with a little supposition of my own. Before going into who did it, we need to look at the crime itself, so let’s go back…
It’s 7:30AM, February 2, 1922. Douglas and Faith MacLean had just awakened when they heard a commotion in the courtyard outside. William Desmond Taylor’s houseman, Henry Peavey was screaming hysterically that Mr. Taylor was dead. MacLean quickly got dressed and went outside to investigate. Emil Jesserun, the owner of the apartments, had emerged from his own home, and he along with MacLean went inside Taylor’s bungalow at 404-B. When they opened the door they found Taylor lying on the floor, very dead. The body was on its back and there was no apparent injury other than a small trickle of blood from his mouth. Strangely the left foot of the body was under the desk chair, which was sitting alongside the desk next to the front door. It’s the only item in the room that was seemingly out of place. The corner of the carpet was also turned up as if someone had tripped on it.
A crowd of onlookers gathered in the small living room and soon the police arrived. In the crowd there was a man claiming to be a doctor and he announced that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage. Then he left. He never examined the body or offered his name, but the police took him at his word and thinking that the death was from natural causes, allowed the crowd to remain.
There were two other men present who busied themselves gathering up items from around the home. The two men were Charles Eyton, Operating Manager of Paramount Studios, and Harry Fellows, Taylor’s assistant director. Who notified them of the death and exactly when they arrived is a matter of debate, but it is actually irrelevant because the police did nothing to stop them as they searched through the drawers and closets in the small bungalow. Because it was Prohibition they emptied the liquor cabinet, and they also gathered some letters, photographs, and other items into a wire wastebasket.
Eventually the coroner arrived to remove the body. Taylor’s corpse was in full rigor mortis and it was with some difficulty that Charles Eyton and the coroner rolled the body onto its side. When they did they found the carpet soaked with blood; Taylor had been shot in the back. The police finally took control of the crime scene and removed the casual gawkers. Taylor’s body was taken from the house and moved to the Mortuary of Ivy Overholtzer for autopsy. In spite of the fact that they had discovered that Taylor’s death was a homicide, the detectives still allowed Eyton and Fellows to depart with their wire basket of Taylor’s belongings. Nobody knows everything that was in that basket or if any of it had anything to do with the crime.
By this time word of Taylor’s death had spread and outside a crowd along with members of the press had gathered. In the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal the reporters were rabidly hoping for another sensational story to keep their readers on edge and their papers flying off of the newsstands. At about 11:30 they got their wish when a small blue runabout stopped at the curbside on Alvarado Street. Emblazoned on the door in gold was the butterfly monogram of actress Mary Miles Minter. The pretty blonde girl rushed across the courtyard and attempted to enter the house but the police and crowds barred her way. She was near hysterics when someone told her where Taylor had been taken, and she quickly returned to her car and sped off.
Meanwhile inside, the police were searching the house. A photograph of the dining room looking toward the kitchen taken shortly after the body had been removed shows a neat home, tastefully decorated in the fashion of the time  . A phonebook is opened on the table and around the perimeter of the room on a high shelf are numerous inscribed photographs of actors, actresses and other movie people. A silver tray on the table held a cocktail shaker and two cocktail glasses. Strangely there was a Chesterfield cigarette butt and burnt match on the tray as well. Over a chair near the kitchen entrance was a jacket. A second police photograph of the sitting area shows a crowded room, the tiny desk where Taylor was working on his taxes when the killer emerged is against the front wall next to the entrance. The piano and Victrola are just visible to the right. It is a heavily retouched photo with a drawing of Taylor being shot by his assailant which makes it hard to make out the details. The room is messy compared to the dining room, with books piled on the sofa and an unidentifiable piece of furniture is in the middle of the floor. It appears that someone was beginning to go through Taylor’s belongings for disposal when the photo was made, so there is not much to tell about the crime from it.
The back door, which led from the kitchen to the back yard, was locked with a hook latch, so it was clear that the killer had not departed that way. On the small desk in the living room they found Taylor’s tax records; he had clearly started working on them when the killer emerged. In the desk drawer they found some curious items. One was a pawn ticket from a Sacramento pawn shop. The ticket was for a pair of cuff links that had been stolen from Taylor in a burglary about three months before the murder. Along with the pawn ticket was a note that read:
“Sorry to inconvenience you even temporarily. Also observe the lesson of the forced sale of assets. A merry Xmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.”
The note was signed “alias Jimmy V.”, an allusion to the fictional safe cracker and escape artist Jimmy Valentine from O. Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation. The character was popularized in the stage play and subsequent film Alias Jimmy Valentine. The name on the ticket was William Deane-Tanner, Taylor’s real name. The ticket and note were mailed to Taylor about three weeks before the murder.
In Taylor’s bedroom dresser the police found a pistol, a .32 caliber Savage Automatic. Although it was loaded, it was determined not to be the murder weapon because it had not been fired recently. There was also a neatly folded pink nightgown and two lace handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs were embroidered with the name “Mary Miles Minter”. In Taylor’s closet the detectives found another handgun, a 9mm Luger carbine. This was a unique weapon that had a longer barrel than the standard Luger and also had a detachable shoulder stock. This gun had not been fired either and was also dismissed. A quick search of the outside of the house revealed one last piece of evidence, behind the shrubs on the west side of the house the police found a gold tipped cigarette butt.
At a Los Angeles mortuary operated by Ivy Overholtzer Taylor’s body was autopsied later that day. Taylor was shot in the back, the bullet entering on the left side about 6 ½ inches below the armpit. It passed between the sixth and seventh ribs and into the lower lobe of his left lung. It traversed his thoracic cavity destroying blood vessels as it went. The slug passed through the upper lobe of his left lung and out of his chest cavity just to the right of the centerline and behind the right collar bone. It finally entered his neck and lodged just below the skin where the neck and shoulder meet. When the slug was removed and examined it was found to be a .38 caliber soft lead projectile, a revolver round. While this type of projectile is still in use, the fact that the bullet lodged in Taylor’s body without having struck any bone indicated that it was a .38 short cartridge, a relatively low power round.
This ammunition could have been what is referred to as .38 Smith and Wesson today  . It may also have been a .38 Short Colt round  . This bullet was developed for guns that had been converted from cap and ball, but it could be fired in other Colt revolvers. Many writers today state that these were both obsolete ammunition at the time of the murder, but this is not true. Although supplanted by .38 Special and .357 Magnum, both of these rounds are still readily available today.
Examination of Taylor’s clothing was revealing and confusing as well. He was wearing a jacket and vest when he was shot. There were powder burns on the clothing indicating that the gun was close to Taylor when it was discharged, but not in contact with it. The holes in the jacket and vest did not line up naturally. Although the police reports were not clear as to the relationship of the holes, one of the detectives described them in an interview as indicating that Taylor’s hands were raised above his head in a “…stick ’em up…” situation. On the lapel of the jacket three blonde hairs were also found. These later proved to belong to Mary Miles Minter.
The path that the fatal bullet took makes determining the positions of Taylor and his assailant at the time of the shooting difficult. If Taylor were standing with his back to the killer and his hands held above his head when he was shot, the killer would have to be lying on the floor within a couple of feet of Taylor and firing upward or standing close to Taylor, holding the gun at his waist firing upward. Those choices are very unlikely. If Taylor were sitting when he was shot, the killer would at least have to be crouching down or holding the gun very low and Taylor would have to have his face practically in his lap, with his arms outstretched across the desk. This is also unlikely.
A third possibility has become known as the “Embrace of Death”. In this scenario the shooter is one of Taylor’s female acquaintances, usually Mary Miles Minter because of the blonde hairs that were found; but sometimes Mabel Normand or one of the married women that Taylor is rumored to have had affairs with. The theory is that Taylor and the lady have a confrontation. She produces the gun and threatens to shoot herself. Taylor is able to calm her down and they exchange a hug. While they are hugging the gun goes off and Taylor is shot. Of the three common theories of how Taylor was shot, this is the most plausible given the path of the bullet. But there are other possibilities as well.
The suspects have multiplied over the years and it can be difficult to sort them out. Below is a list of the most mentioned possibilities:
Actress Mary Miles Minter is probably the most commonly mentioned suspect today. She had worked with Taylor in four films and made no secret of the fact that she was in love with him. That love was not returned by Taylor primarily because of the difference in their ages, at the time of his death Taylor was 49 and Mary was not quiet twenty. On December 23, 1921 Mary went to Taylor’s home just after midnight and begged him to marry her. He refused and an argument ensued. After a while Mary left and returned home. The theory is that she went to his house on the night of the murder to again beg Taylor to marry her. This time she was armed with her mother’s revolver. When he refused her demand, she produced the gun and threatened to kill herself. He calmed her down, they shared a hug and, still holding the gun, she shot Taylor accidentally.
Mary’s mother, Charlotte Shelby is also a popular suspect. Charlotte was said to have been the prototypical vicious stage mother who maintained tight control over her daughter, and more importantly over her daughter’s earnings. Her motive would be her concern that if Mary and Taylor were to wed, then Charlotte would lose control of Mary’s money. An alternate theory is that Charlotte was also having an affair with Taylor and shot him out of jealousy. Charlotte owned a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver that fired the same type of ammunition that was used to kill Taylor and after the murder no one could find that gun.
Actor Carl Stockdale was a close friend of Charlotte’s. Rumors have it that he killed Taylor at Charlotte’s behest. There are reports that Stockdale was paid a stipend of $200.00 a month from Charlotte’s estate until his death.
Thomas Dixon was a veteran of the Army Air Service and the son of a wealthy East Coast manufacturer, his father was the owner of Dixon Pencils and was a personal friend of Charlotte’s. He and Mary had met while she was touring the country during the war as part of the Liberty Bond program. Of all of the men who were chasing Mary around, Dixon was Charlotte’s favorite. After the December 23rd confrontation with Taylor, Mary and Dixon had become engaged. He went home to New York for the holidays and returned to Los Angeles in mid-January whereupon Mary broke off the engagement. In her statement to the District Attorney Mary referred the engagement as a “freak of despondency”  . The despondency was certainly over Taylor. Perhaps Dixon killed Taylor to break his hold on Mary.
Marshall “Mickey” Neilan, an actor and director for Paramount was probably Mary’s closest friend. It was he who advised Mary on how to deal with the aftermath of the killing and arranged for her to be accompanied by a lawyer when she spoke to the district attorney. They had been romantically linked in the fan magazines for a couple of years although neither of them took it seriously. Neilan was considered another of Mary’s jealous suitors who may have killed Taylor.
Mable Normand was one of the premier comedic actresses of the silent era. She had made a number of films with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and she convinced Mack Sennett to give Charlie Chaplin another chance after he initially had trouble adjusting to screen acting. She and Taylor were romantically involved but he was rumored to also be having affairs other women as well. Her motive would have been jealousy of Taylor’s affairs.
Mack Sennett was the head of Keystone Studios. Sennett had been involved with Mabel before she came to Hollywood and the breakup was traumatic enough to prompt Mabel to re-evaluate her life. After leaving Keystone and Sennett, Mabel embarked on a course of self improvement that led her to writing and directing in addition to her acting duties and Taylor closely mentored her in these endeavors. It was rumored that Sennett was still in love with Mabel and killed Taylor out of Jealousy.
James Kirkwood was an actor and director who had had an affair with Mary Miles Minter when she was just fifteen and he was in his forties. Several years after the murder, he approached Mary and asked her to marry him even though he was married to actress Lila Lee at the time. She refused, saying she was still in love with Taylor. He may have killed Taylor to eliminate him as a rival for Mary’s affections.
Did drug dealers commit the murder? Taylor was rumored to be the head of a group trying to drive the drug trade out of Hollywood. He had written a few letters in the trade magazines decrying the evils of drugs, but he was far from a crusader. However, of all of the women in Taylor’s life, if he truly loved one of them, that woman was Mabel Normand, and Mabel was said to have had a drug problem. It is conceivable that in trying to get Mabel off the drugs that Taylor had a confrontation with one of her suppliers and in revenge the supplier arranged for his murder.
Finally there is Margaret Gibson. Margaret was also known as Patricia Palmer and had acted in four films with Taylor when he first came to Hollywood. She was moderately successful as an actress, appearing in 147 films between 1912 and 1929 and had been a leading actress in several. Her career faded after 1917 and she usually appeared in short films or as a supporting player. Margaret Gibson confessed to the murder on her deathbed in 1964  .
There are other suspects as well, but these are those most talked about. What follows is my theory of how the crime occurred. This is based on the available physical evidence and endeavors to explain all of the conditions that existed when Taylor’s body was discovered.
It’s 7:10 PM, Tuesday, February 1, 1922. At 404-B Alvarado Street William Desmond Taylor is sitting in his dining room with actress Mabel Normand discussing a book that he had bought for her earlier that day. Taylor made drinks for Mabel and himself, orange blossoms, a mixture of gin, vermouth, orange juice and fine sugar. As they have their drinks Mabel sits at the small dining table smoking a cigarette while they talk. Their drinks finished, they get up to move to the living room and she crushes the cigarette out on the silver tray sitting on the table.
Next door to Taylor’s home is the apartment of Douglas and Faith MacLean. In the kitchen their housekeeper is just finishing the dinner dishes. She happens to glance out of her back window into the dimming twilight and she spots a man walking in the alleyway behind the apartments. She thinks nothing of it and returns to the dishes.
Taylor and Mabel continue their conversation in the living room and Mabel comments on Taylor’s new piano on which photographs of her and Mary Miles Minter are displayed. She jokingly states that Taylor is “…getting altogether too rich…” having both a Victorola and a piano. After a few minutes Mabel gets up to leave. Taylor asks her to stay a while longer but she has a busy schedule the next day and begs off. Taylor escorts her out of his front door and across the courtyard to Alvarado Street where her car and chauffer are waiting. The time is now approximately 7:40PM. As Taylor helps Mabel into the car he chides her about the copy of the Police Gazette that is sitting on the back seat, very trashy reading in contrast to the Nietzsche they had just been discussing. They have a brief conversation at the curbside and after a few minutes Mabel drives off, blowing a kiss back at Taylor.
What Taylor didn’t know was that while he was at the curbside with Mabel, lurking along the east side of his home was a man smoking a cigarette. When the intruder saw Taylor leave with Mabel, he dropped the gold tipped cigarette on the ground behind a shrub, crept around the corner into the front door and hid somewhere in the home. Unsuspecting, Taylor walked back across the courtyard and into the house. He sat down at the desk and began to work on his taxes.
The killer emerges brandishing a gun. Taylor stands up from his desk and turns to face the intruder. The desk chair is now behind him and slightly to his right. Words are exchanged and the killer advances, stumbling a bit on the edge of the carpet. At the same time Taylor turns to his right and moves backward away from the attack. As he does so he falls over the chair extending his arms to break his fall; and at that moment the killer fires. The bullet strikes Taylor in the left side of his back and travels upward and diagonally through his chest cavity. It pierces both lobes of his left lung causing massive internal bleeding, finally lodging just below the skin at the base of his neck on the right side. Taylor was certainly unconscious within seconds and dead in a few minutes at most.
Next door Faith MacLean is at her knitting when she hears a loud pop. She thinks to herself that it must be a car backfiring and resumes knitting.
Taylor is lying face down on the floor. The killer moves the chair out the way, probably tipping it over in the process, and rolls the body onto its back. He quickly searches the body, ignoring Taylor’s wallet which contains $78.00. He also leaves the diamond ring Taylor is wearing along with his wristwatch and pocket watch. The only thing he takes is Taylor’s cigarette lighter, a small, personal item. The killer pockets the lighter, picks up the chair and places it neatly against the wall next to the door. Taylor’s left foot is under the chair. He then exits through the front door.
Faith MacLean, thinking that perhaps the sound was too loud to be a car, goes to her door and looks out over the courtyard. She sees a man, short, stocky, and strangely dressed emerging from Taylor’s home. He looks up and sees Faith looking at him. He then leans back into the door and appears to be talking to someone. The man then pulls the door closed and walks back around the corner of the house, into the alleyway, and disappears. Faith again returns to her knitting little realizing the pandemonium that was to ensue in just a few hours.
Around 8:00 PM Henry Fellows, who acted as chauffer to Taylor, returned with Taylor’s car. He parked the car at the curb and went to the house and knocked on the door. The lights were on so he assumed that Taylor was still awake and about, but no one answered the door. He tried again, but still received no answer. Thinking that Taylor perhaps was with someone and didn’t want to answer the door he parked the car in the garage and left.
This description of the crime is of course, conjecture. But it is conjecture based on the physical evidence, and witness testimony taken immediately after the crime. Given that all of the persons involved are long dead, conjecture is the best we can do. Much controversy has been made over the specific time of Taylor’s death and the times of events described by witnesses, but in a crime this old we shouldn’t get too wrapped around specific times. Time pieces were not as good as they are today and even setting a clock accurately was difficult because there was no readily available standard. Unlike today where our cell phones are all automatically synchronized to a central clock, this crime occurred even before radio became popular, so there are bound to be variations of a few minutes between the timepieces available to different people. Whether Faith MacLean heard the noise at 7:45, 7:50 or even 8:00 is irrelevant. The facts that are important are the sighting of the man in the alley by the MacLean’s housekeeper, the sound that both Faith and Douglas MacLean heard, the man that Faith saw, and the fact that Taylor did not answer the door when Henry Fellows knocked.
Who was it that Faith MacLean saw that night and why did that person kill Taylor? To investigate that question we have to look at the events leading up to the killing.
Over the months prior to the killing Taylor had expressed to several of his friends that he was concerned for his safety. In fact he was so concerned that he kept a loaded pistol in his dresser drawer. There is some confusion as to the actual identity of that pistol. Charles Eyton, who saw it at the same time as Detective Ziegler, referred to it as a revolver. Detective Ziegler specifically described it as a .32 Savage Automatic. Given that Ziegler was a police officer and certainly more familiar with firearms than Eyton, that he made a specific statement as to the make of the pistol, and that .32 caliber is an unusual round for a revolver I tend to defer to Ziegler’s statement as being correct, with Eyton’s reflecting the relative newness of the automatic pistol and the fact that many people referred to any multi-shot handgun as a “revolver”. Even though this pistol was certainly not the murder weapon, its presence is significant. The Savage Automatic was what was known as a “pocket pistol”, small and easily concealable. It was in an open box in the top drawer of his dresser where it would be easily accessible. A person who is familiar with firearms would have certainly selected a larger caliber for home defense, so although there is no testimony to support it, it is a distinct possibility that Taylor carried the Savage Auto on his person.
He had told both Harry and Henry Fellows as well as Marshall Neilan that he was being harassed, that someone was calling his home at odd hours, and when he answered the phone, the person would hang up. He thought that the caller was attempting to determine if he was at home or not. His home had been burglarized at least twice. Taylor had been an antiques dealer and as such he had a good eye for fine things. His home was full of small, valuable and easily sold items. None of this was taken. Instead the burglar helped himself to food from Taylor’s kitchen and took trinkets of jewelry, cuff links, and a box of cigarettes. These burglaries were not about getting money; they were about harassment. In the second burglary in which the cufflinks and cigarettes were stolen, the newspapers wrote that the killer had jumped on Taylor’s bed leaving behind “dusty footprints”. They cleaned it up for print. The burglar defecated in Taylor’s bed.
Periodically after the burglary Taylor or his valet, Henry Peavey, would find one of the gold tipped cigarettes somewhere around the outside of the house. In spite of these events and the urgings of the friends who he had told about them, Taylor took no special precautions beyond keeping the gun handy. Unfortunately for him, he did not keep it handy enough.
As mentioned earlier, Mary Miles Minter is the favorite suspect of most modern writers, but in order for her to have committed the crime a lot of assumptions have to be made. Faith MacLean both heard the shot and saw the killer leave Taylor’s home. This was somewhere between 7:45 PM and 8:15PM. At that time Mary was at home with her mother, grandmother, sister, two members of their domestic staff, their chauffer Chauncey Eaton, and actor Carl Stockdale. That is an awful lot of people to expect to lie, risk going to jail for lying, and take the secret to their graves.
In his book Murder in Hollywood Charles Hingham attempts to bypass this problem by having Mary sneak out her house after midnight and go to Taylor’s house where she accidentally shoots him.
In order for this to work we have to assume everything Faith MacLean saw and heard either didn’t happen or was irrelevant. We have to assume the stalking and harassment Taylor had undergone, the pawn tickets, and the note sent with them, are unrelated to the crime; that Charles Maigne, who lived in the bungalow that shared a wall with Taylor’s lied about not hearing the shot, and that Mary, having just shot the man she loves, had the presence of mind to cover her tracks and that the 5’2″ 112 pound teenage girl managed to move the 6′ 0″ 175 pound corpse, lay it out neatly, depart the house, and the only trace she left behind were the three hairs on Taylor’s lapel. In fact Hingham’s theory rests on the gushing love letters that the young girl wrote two years earlier and those three blonde hairs.
For Charlotte to be the murderer we have to assume that everyone who was in her house that evening, a total of seven people, four of whom are not related to her, is lying. The whole case against Charlotte is based on the fact that she owned a gun that was capable of firing the type of bullet that killed Taylor and that her gun had disappeared. In 1937 her oldest daughter Margaret said in a deposition that she had “protected” her mother in the Taylor case and that is enough for those who want her to be the murderer; but they fail to look into the circumstances surrounding the deposition. Margaret was suing her mother for over $40,000, and the year before Charlotte had attempted to have Margaret committed to a sanitarium for her chronic alcoholism and depression. Margaret was angry at her mother, who tried to have her committed, and her sister who stole her spotlight. Her statement was her revenge.
Carl Stockdale was a close friend of Charlotte’s and was familiar enough with the family that we would drop by unannounced. But for him to have killed Taylor we again have to assume everyone at Charlotte’s house that night lied to the police. Also we have to assume that Faith MacLean would describe the tall, lanky Stockdale as short and stocky.
Thomas Dixon was initially perhaps the best suspect. He had been engaged to Mary and she had broken it off over Taylor. Men have killed for less. Unfortunately at the time the murder was being committed he along with another man and two women had just finished trashing a Hollywood hotel room and were in the process of being thrown out by security.
Mickey Neilan was also a favorite suspect of the police, he even smoked gold tipped cigarettes, but when the murder was being committed he was on location at the Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad Station shooting the film Fools First. The entire cast and crew provided his alibi.
Mabel Normand was the last person to see Taylor alive, aside from the killer. She could not have done it because both she and Taylor were seen walking out to her car, which was parked on Alvarado Street, by William Lawrence who lived in 400A. Mable was seen to drive off with her chauffer and Taylor returned to his home.
James Kirkwood has been mentioned more than a few times as the murderer but he could not have done it. On the night Taylor was killed, Kirkwood was at sea on the ocean liner Acquitania returning from Europe. One of his fellow passengers was Cecil B. DeMille.
Margaret Gibson’s confession makes her a powerful suspect, but aside from the confession there is nothing. She and Taylor had not worked together since 1914, and although they surely had interaction with each other during those six months they were both employed by Vitagraph, there is no evidence that they socialized or even saw each other after that  . For Margaret Gibson to be the murderer we have to assume that none of the events leading up to the crime are relevant and that the stocky man Faith MacLean saw was actually a five foot tall 110 pound woman. People confess to crimes that they did not commit all of the time, and with no evidence to support it, a confession has no value.
Since all of the popular suspects have fairly good alibis, who does this leave?
The gold tipped cigarette butt found in the shrubbery indicates that the person who burglarized the house was returning to the scene of the crime. Periodically after the burglary in which the cigarettes were stolen either Taylor or Peavey would find one or more of the butts around the outside of the house. The perpetrator was returning to the scene of the crime and returning frequently. Finding one of these butts in the shrubs alongside Taylor’s house indicates that the person who burglarized the house and stole the cigarettes was lurking around the house and was probably the killer. But who was the burglar?
In mid 1920 Taylor had hired a new Valet, a man by the name of Edward Sands. Sands professed to be English and affected a cockney accent. But his real history was much more interesting than the made up one he offered his new employer.
Taylor placed great trust in Sands and when he departed Los Angeles for a European vacation he left Sands in charge of his home and affairs. No sooner was Taylor’s boat over the horizon did Sands begin to steal things from Taylor’s home and either sell them or give them to friends. He forged checks on Taylor’s account and ran up bills on Taylor’s credit. Finally he borrowed Taylor’s car and wrecked it. Needless to say, when Taylor returned home he was furious and promptly swore out a warrant against Sands for theft, but Sands had disappeared.
One of the more interesting things about this story is that almost no one in it is who they profess to be. Mary Miles Minter was born Juliet Reilly and had previously gone by the name Juliet Shelby until her youth became an obstacle to her performing professionally. To let the show go on her mother co-opted the name and birth certificate of a dead niece for her. Taylor himself was born William Deane Cunningham Tanner, but adopted the name William Desmond Taylor after he abandoned his wife and daughter in New York. Sands perhaps took this to an extreme. What follows is taken from the excellent work of Bruce Long in Taylorology #19.
Edward Sands was born Edward Fitzgerald Snyder in Marion, Ohio on April 4, 1894. In 1911 at the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy by lying about his age, claiming to be 18. It was a minor transgression and the recruiters were not too picky about such things anyway. He rose quickly and by 1914 he was promoted to the rank of Yeoman First Class and stationed on the USS Paducah. Assigned to the ship’s store, he raised the cost of items he sold to the crew above what were the established prices and pocketed the difference. He was soon caught and tried by court martial. After serving a year at hard labor in the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire he received a dishonorable discharge and was sent on his way.
Two weeks later Snyder appeared in Boston and enlisted in the Coast Guard. He apparently completed this enlistment successfully but only served a year. In October of 1917 he enlisted in the Navy Reserves which were mustered into active service for the duration of the war. He was promoted repeatedly and by mid 1918 was stationed with the commissary department at a civilian salvage firm called P.A. Scott and Company. While there he stole a car belonging to one of the civilian employees and wrecked it. Released on the condition that he would pay for the damages, his commander let him go to New York where he claimed he could get the money. Once beyond military custody he deserted but took the time to send back a taunting message that they would have to come and get him if they wanted the money. This was behavior that he would later repeat.
Just over two weeks later He appeared in Kansas City where he re-enlisted in the Navy using the name Edward Fitzwilliam Strathmore. A short time later it was discovered that he was actually Edward Sands. Once confronted with his true identity he simply deserted again, traveling back to his home state of Ohio. He enlisted in the Coast Guard again at Cleveland, OH. He was repeatedly absent without leave and after a month simply deserted again. In late May of 1919 he enlisted in the Army at Columbus, OH using the Strathmore name. Telling the finance officer that he had been a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy got him quickly advanced to Sergeant and he was given the job of drawing checks to pay expenses. He quickly cut himself a check for over $480 and forged the name of the finance officer on it. Deserting again he tried to buy a motorcycle with the forged check  .
The next time Snyder is heard from he surfaced in Los Angeles now sporting a fake Cockney accent and going by the name Edward Sands. He found himself a job at the Paramount commissary as a cook and was eventually recommended to William Desmond Taylor as a valet.
By all accounts at least initially Sands was a reliable employee for Taylor. His military experience ensured that he kept Taylor’s home spotless and he was a charming man who seemed to know the right things to say. People naturally liked him and in a short time Taylor was giving him more and more responsibilities. But Sands was also a bit strange. He seemed slavishly devoted to Taylor even at one point writing him a bizarre letter promising to be his slave for life. Sands had told some of his friends that he didn’t want to get old and intended to shoot himself when he turned 35 because he thought life would not be worth living past that point.
This was a repeat of his earlier behavior. In each of his previous incarnations SnyderStrathmoreSands would initially perform his duties to the best of his ability. He would ingratiate himself to his employers and eventually work his way into a position of trust. Once in that position of trust he would use it to steal from the very people who trusted him.
Things seemed to be going well until early 1921 when Taylor travelled to Europe. While he was gone he so trusted Sands that he left him in charge of his home and affairs. Taylor’s trust was ill placed. No sooner than Taylor’s ship was over the horizon did Sands return to his old form. He began stealing things from Taylor’s home and either selling them or giving them away. He ran up bills on Taylor’s accounts, stole his clothes and wrecked his car.
When Taylor returned he was, to put it mildly, furious. He immediately swore out a warrant against Sands, but Sands had disappeared. A short time later the harassment began. This culminated in the December 21st burglary in which Taylor’s back door was kicked in, the jewelry and cigarettes stolen, and the calling card left in his bed. That was a bad week for Taylor. On Thursday his house gets broken into and on Saturday a hysterical Mary Miles Minter appears at his door.
What is seen with Sands is a pattern of repeating and escalating behavior. In his first Navy enlistment he was an exemplary Sailor, rising quickly through the ranks to the grade of Petty Officer First Class. He was then put in a position where he would be minimally supervised. He exploited that position and stole from his crewmates who patronized the ship’s store. The theft was relatively small, but the punishment was harsh. Conditions in the Portsmouth Naval Brig were never pleasant but in the early 1900s there was almost no sympathy for miscreant Sailors or oversight of their zealous Marine guards.
After an uneventful Coast Guard enlistment he enlisted in the Navy Reserves. In the expanding wartime Navy he rose quickly to Chief Petty Officer and was put in charge of the commissary department at a civilian company that had a Navy detachment assigned to it. Last time he stole around $100, this time he graduated to a car. Threatened with court martial and with still fresh memories of Portsmouth, he ran away, sending back a taunting message.
Snyder gave the Army a try, he returned to his hometown, changed his name to Edward Strathmore, and enlisted. In a very short time he rose to Sergeant, and was again given a responsible position. As soon as the opportunity presented itself he forged some checks and deserted.
Based on the available evidence and testimony the following can be surmised as most likely correct:
1. Allowing for the possible differences in witnesses’ clocks we can surmise that the crime took place between 7:40PM and 8:00PM give or take a few minutes. The MacLean’s housekeeper saw a man wandering the alleyway at approximately 7:25PM, Douglas and Faith MacLean heard the shot between 7:35 and 7:40, Faith saw the man exit Taylor’s home at approximately 7:45PM. Henry Fellows arrived at just after 8:00PM, noticed the lights in the house burning, but did not receive an answer when he knocked on the door because Taylor was already dead.
2. As testified to at the coroner’s inquest, the body was in full rigor mortis when the coroner arrived  . This supports the established time of death of between 7:30 and 8:00 PM rather than a midnight to 1AM timeframe as theorized in some books on the murder. In general rigor mortis sets in 3 – 4 hours after death and reaches maximum intensity at about 12 hours, then subsides gradually over a period of 30 – 72 hours.
3. The harassment, the burglary and the murder are connected and are part of a progressive escalation. The perpetrator graduated from harassing phone calls, to creeping around the house, to breaking in, to burglary and vandalism, to murder. The cigarettes taken in the burglary were found around the house at various times leading up to the murder and on the day after the murder. Therefore it is likely that the person who committed the burglaries also committed the murder.
Of all of the suspects, Edward Sands is the most likely to have committed the crime for the following reasons:
1. Evidence found at the scene (the cigarette butts) indicated that the person who committed the burglaries was the killer. The handwriting on the “alias Jimmy V.” note and the pawn tickets is consistent with Sands’ handwriting  . Also Sands was identified as the man who pawned the items in question. It follows that Sands was the burglar.
2. Taylor told friends that he believed that Sands was harassing him.
3. This harassment began immediately after Sands’ firing by Taylor and escalated as time went on.
4. Faith MacLean’s description of the man she saw closely matches Sands’ general appearance at the time of the murder (He had lost weight since he had worked for Taylor).
5. Sands was seen in Los Angeles on the day before the murder.
6. Sands behavior while employed by Taylor and his “suicide at 35” statement to friends indicate that he was mentally unstable, which fits with the circumstances leading up to the crime and the crime itself.
7. On the day after the murder a policeman on Alvarado Street near Taylor’s house spotted a man whose description fit Sands. The man left as the policeman approached. One of the gold tipped cigarette butts was found where the man had been standing. Sand’s repeated enlistments in the military and repeated burglaries of Taylor’s home, demonstrated a propensity to return to the scene of the crime.
I do not believe in conspiracies. There is an old saying that “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” I take that to heart because in my experience, it has proven to be true. I also believe very strongly in Occam’s razor which tells us that all solutions being equal, the one that requires the fewest new assumptions is probably correct. These are some hard, fast rules: People do not put themselves at risk for nothing, and people will talk. Nothing needs to be added to the story in order for Sands to be the killer. There is no need for a conspiracy. There is no need for the crime to take place at a different time than what the witness statements indicate. There is no need to cover anything up, and no one has to stick to a made up story for the rest of their lives.
 Vincent Bugliosi and Kurt Gentry, Helter Skelter New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1974, Kindle Edition
 Thomas Hargrove, Unsolved Murder Rate Increasing, WEWS TV 5 Pittsburgh, PA, http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/crime/unsolved-murder-rate-increasing, Accessed 3/29/2011
 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Report, 2009,http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/clearances/index.html#figure , Accessed 4/1/2010
 Larry Harnish, LA Times, The Daily Mirror, Larry Harnish Reflects on Los Angeles History http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2010/10/movieland-mystery-photo-3.html, (Accessed 12 April 2011)
 Wikipedia.org, “.38 Smith and Wesson,” Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_S%26W (Accessed 14 April 2011)
 Wikipedia.org, “.38 Short Colt,” Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_Short_Colt (Accessed 14 April 2011)
 G.H. Boone, Statement of Miss Mary Miles Minter, Office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney, Los Angeles, CA 2/7/1922.
 Bruce Long, Taylorology #84, Commentary,http://www.taylorology.com/issues/Taylor84.txt, Accessed 4/9/2011
 Bruce Long, Taylorology #84, Commentary,http://www.taylorology.com/issues/Taylor84.txt, Accessed 4/9/2011
 Bruce Long, Taylorology #19, http://www.taylorology.com/issues/Taylor19.txt, April 2011
 E. M. Allen, William Desmond Taylor Inquest, L.A. County Coroner’s Office, Los Angeles, CA, 2/4/1922
 Bruce Long, Taylorology.com, (April 2011), http://www.taylorology.com/nonphoto/handwriting.pdf