William Desmond Taylor, A True Hollywood Murder Mystery

Portrait of William Desmond Taylor, murdered director. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

William Desmond Taylor

William Deane-Tanner was born to a wealthy family in Carlow, Ireland in 1872. The theater bug bit him as a young man, but his father was unsupportive and sent him to Marlborough College in England, where he secretly took small parts in local productions. He eventually moved to the States and worked as a farmer and miner before falling in love with another actor named Ethel May Harrison, the daughter of a well-to-do stockbroker in New York City. It seemed like Deane-Tanner's future was paved in gold, but the limelight was his true calling, and after a heavy bout of depression, the man left everything behind, including his wife and child, to find his fame in Hollywood.

In 1912, he got his first role, and his career built up steadily over the years. However, it wasn't until 1918 that his ex-wife, who had been granted a divorce on account of his disappearance, saw a man onscreen who bore a shocking resemblance to her ex-husband but was credited as William Desmond Taylor. They eventually came to terms with one another, and though they never rekindled their flame, Taylor did take responsibility for his daughter. By the late 1910s, Taylor decided he preferred the director's chair and switched to working behind the scenes full time. He directed over 40 films, but in 1922, at the peak of his career, Taylor's personal valet found him shot dead in his home.

Mabel Normand. (Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons)

The Initial Suspects

The first suspect was Mabel Normand, a comedian who had been at the home around the time of his likely murder, but according to her chauffeur, she left half an hour before the neighbors claimed to have heard what they thought was a car backfiring but was later determined to have been the shot that killed Taylor. An eyewitness said she saw a man leaving his home sometime later, although she admitted she didn't get a good look at the figure and it could have been a tall woman. Nonetheless, Taylor had been such a good friend to Normand that he reported her drug dealers to the police in an effort to break her addiction. It's possible that if Normand herself didn't commit the crime, these drug dealers followed her and sought retribution against the director for ratting them out.

But there was more. Taylor had been getting odd phone calls and mysterious packages for months, and his home had been previously broken into, resulting in the theft of many valuable items. Suspicion turned toward his former valet, Edward Sands, who may have held a grudge over being fired for forging thousands of dollars worth of checks in Taylor's name. He had also been court-martialed in the past for embezzling funds. Crime, it seemed, was his bread and butter, and he vanished without a trace after the murder.

Mary Miles Minter. (American Film Manufacturing Company/Wikimedia Commons)

Charlotte Shelby

Finally, there was Mary Minter, a young actress who was fixated on the older man. Love letters, some encoded, were found in his apartment, as well as a handkerchief with her initials. It is also believed by some that the nightgown found in his bedroom was hers, but she denied any actual intimacy ever occurred between them. In fact, things seemed to be pretty one-sided, which may have angered Minter's overbearing mother, Charlotte Shelby, who was rumored to be pushing her daughter toward the successful director with the hope that he would make her a star. On the flip side, other rumors suggest Shelby was angry about her 19-year-old daughter's relationship with a man 30 years her senior.

Shelby officially had an alibi, but it was called into question after it was discovered that she'd paid a hefty sum of money to the supposed witness who placed her away from the scene of the crime. The family indeed owned the same kind of gun that was to kill Taylor, and Shelby was known to have threatened another director for making moves on her daughter. Minter wrote in her autobiography that both she and her mother had been to his home the day he died and she believed her mother committed the murder. Shelby's other daughter also stated that she knew it was her mother who slew the beloved director, but the police could never prove it. Today, the cold case remains unsolved.

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