Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories Recap: “Lights. Camera. Murder.”
“Police have been bribed, witnesses silenced, evidence suppressed, in a gigantic plot engineered from behind the scenes in filmland to defeat the ends of justice in the Taylor mystery.” – San Francisco Bulletin
Fueled by drama and scandal, newspapers across the country publish sensationalized stories about William Desmond Taylor’s murder investigation. Despite all the sleuthing by police, journalists, and the District Attorney’s office, the killer manages to escape justice – that is until Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie discovers who is responsible.
On the morning of February 2nd, 1922, William Desmond Taylor’s houseman Henry Peavey finds the acclaimed silent movie director dead and screams for help. A crowd quickly gathers and a man claiming to be a doctor steps in. He examines the body and tells the crowd that William died from a stomach hemorrhage.
The alleged doctor disappears before the police arrive and is never seen from again. It is speculated that he was a fake sent by Paramount Studios as a delaying tactic.
The ploy works and crime scene erupts into utter chaos. There is a significant delay before the coroner arrives on site and declares William’s death a homicide. Before police can secure the crime scene, men from the studio go through all of Taylor’s belongings and burn incriminating materials including photographs. Individuals who later become suspects, such as Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand, are also present, doing who knows what to contaminate evidence. Thankfully, not all of it is destroyed.
Three blond hairs are found on the suit jacket William was wearing when he died and police suspect they belong to Mary Miles Minter. Police also find a .38 caliber bullet, which is extremely rare at the time. Neighbor Faith Cole MacLean comes forward and says that after she heard what she thought was a car backfiring, she saw a woman dressed as a man walking away from William’s apartment. The police begin searching for such an individual.
They also learn that William Desmond Taylor was not really who he said he was. Born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, the director was actually an Irish immigrant that came to the States when he was 18. Prior to his Hollywood career, William lived in New York with his wife and daughter and was an antiques dealer. He abandons his family for reasons unknown and over a four year period makes his way to the west coast and film industry.
It’s not until years later that his wife and daughter realize what became of him. They are watching a feature film in the movie theater when suddenly they see him on the big screen. When interrogated about this by the police, they claim there were no hard feelings.
After the investigation is well underway, William’s chauffeur Howard Fellows suddenly comes forward with a statement. He tells police that William expected to go out on the night of his death but instructed Howard to call ahead first at 7:30pm. When Howard calls two or three times without an answer, he goes over to the house to check on William. The living room light is on and Howard rings the doorbell several times, but William doesn’t come to the door. Howard leaves and later tells police that the “woman” Faith saw was likely him.
The police use Howard’s testimony to determine time of death and dismiss Faith’s eyewitness account. Considering how long it took for Howard to come forward, and that his brother worked for Paramount Studios, parts of the chauffeur's testimony were likely sanitized and meant to discredit Faith’s story. It’s possible the studio was trying to protect someone, perhaps even the real killer.
Regardless, all the scandal, intrigue and corruption was fodder for sensational news. Reporters from all over the country come to Hollywood to report, interview and in some cases, outright fabricate stories. One reporter even hires a man to pretend to be the ghost of William Desmond Taylor, a failed attempt at getting Henry Peavey to confess to the murder.
By the end of the episode, Unsolved Murders hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie narrow down the list of suspects. Carter believes Mary Miles Minter’s mother Charlotte Shelby is the murderess. Charlotte Shelby had a rare .38 caliber pistol, the same kind of gun used to kill William. When the fact became public, Shelby allegedly threw the gun into the Louisiana Bayou. Mary Miles Minter also admits in her unpublished memoir that she and her mother were at the bungalow on the night of the murder.
Wenndy, however, surprises us with a new suspect. She believes the killer was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson and reveals that in 1964, the former silent film star confesses on her deathbed that she killed William Desmond Taylor. The motive appears to come from William’s refusal to place her in one of his productions. Suspiciously enough, following William’s death, Margaret Gibson was placed in four Paramount Studios films.
Both Charlotte and Margaret look good for the crime, but who do you think murdered William Desmond Taylor? Was it one of these women or someone else? We want to hear what you think.