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William Desmond Taylor

For this week’s third assignment, I found the coroner’s inquest of William Desmond Taylor, a Hollywood actor and director in the 1910s-1920s. The inquest was filed on February 4, 1922 in Los Angeles, California. It stated the William Desmond Taylor, a 45-year-old male, married native of Ireland was found dead on February 1, 1922. He suffered a “gunshot wound of the chest inflicted by some person or persons unknown…with the intent to kill or murder.”

Charles Eyton was the first person interviewed in the inquest. He was the General Manager of the Famous Players-Laskey Corporation and a friend of Taylor. Eyton confirmed that Taylor was the identity of the deceased body in the adjacent room and that Taylor had been born in Ireland, was approximately 45 years old and married. Eyton was told about Taylor’s death by his assistant director, Harry Fellows. When Eyton arrived at Taylor’s apartment, Police Detective T.H. Ziegler was there along with a doctor and Douglas McLean, Taylor’s neighbor and fellow Hollywood actor. A little while later, the Deputy Coroner arrived on the scene. The nameless doctor had stated that Taylor died of a stomach hemorrhage, but had not been allowed to turn the body over to examine it further. The body was lying on its back with the feet a few yards from the front door. The coroner, on being told the doctor’s cause of death, quipped they had better turn the body over to be sure. He reached his hand under the corpse and discovered that Taylor was lying in a pool of blood. With Eyton’s help, the coroner turned the body over and began searching for a source of the blood, a bullet wound in his upper chest. Eyton confirmed that the body was “stone cold and very stiff and rigid.” He was also asked about the location of Taylor’s gun, the gunshot supposedly heard by Mr. and Mrs McLean, and about the state of the deceased clothing.

Mabel Normand

Dr. A.F. Wagner, Los Angeles county Autopsy surgeon and physician, was interviewed next about the post-mortem he performed on Taylor’s body. He discovered a bullet wound on the left side of the body about six and a half inches under the armpit. The bullet passed through both lobes of the left lung and exited the body on the right side below the collar-bone and lodged just beneath the skin in Taylor’s neck. Wagner is certain that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the chest. Actress Mabel Normand was the next interview. She was the last person to see Taylor alive other than his killer. She had visited Taylor in his home on Wednesday night from about 7pm til roughly 7:45pm. She stated that Taylor’s manservant, Henry Peavey, was with them until about 15-20 minutes before she left. Peavey left the apartment and talked for a while with her chauffeur on the street before he headed home for the night. Taylor had asked Normand to take a late dinner with him but Normand stated she was tired and would go home. He walked her to the limousine at approximately 7:45pm and was supposed to call her on the phone an hour later.

Henry Peavey confirmed Normand’s account of the events. He added that when he left, William and Mabel were seated in the living room near the dining room discussing a red, bound book. Peavey locked the apartment as usual and left through the front door. Peavey was the person who discovered Taylor’s body the next morning at 7:30am. He first saw Taylor’s feet and left the apartment yelling for help. He attracted the notice of Mr. Desmond; Mr. Jessurum (the building owner); Mr. McLean; and another neighbor but he could not recall that person’s name. Peavey was interrogated on the state of the apartment. Nothing seemed out-of-place and the body still had an expensive watch and diamond ring. It, also, did not appear that anything of value was taken from the home. Detective T.H. Ziegler was the last person interview during this inquest. He arrived on scene just before 8am. He found Taylor’s body on its back and made sure it remained so until the Coroner’s arrival. He had ascertained from Mr. Jessurum and Mr. McLean that they had heard a gunshot the night before but neither chose to investigate the sound, assuming it had been a car backfiring. He talked to Mrs. McLean, who stated that at 7:45 or 7:50 pm she had heard a gunshot and looked out her front door. She saw a man standing in the doorway to Taylor’s apartment. She looked at him, he looked back at her. Then he turned and walked down the steps, turned left and went to the street. She did not investigate further and assumed like her husband that she had heard a car backfire. Ziegler was asked if he had located Taylor’s gun. He did in an upstairs drawer in a box. The gun had five shell loaded in it. The caliber of ammunition was A-32 automatic savage which did not match the 38 caliber bullet located on the body.

Aside from not allowing the body to be moved, Detective Ziegler did little to control the crime scene. Evidence was bound to get corrupted with so many people in and out of Taylor’s apartment. It also strikes me as odd that no one reported the gunshot to the police when they heard it on Wednesday night, instead of waiting until the body was discovered Thursday morning. How Mrs. McLean, who in all probability actually saw the murderer, could convince herself that what she really heard was a car backfiring, is beyond me. For these reasons, and probably many more, this case remains unsolved. And many questions are left: Who wanted Taylor dead? Who benefitted? Why was he murdered but not robbed? How did the murderer gain entry? Why was there no signs of a struggle or forced entry? Did Taylor know his killer? Did he let the killer into his apartment? Did the killer sneak in through an open upstairs window? Why didn’t Mrs. McLean report the suspicious person lurking around Taylor’s apartment and the gunshot to the police?

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