William Desmond Taylor, A True Hollywood Murder Mystery

By | August 26, 2022

test article image
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.

test article image
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.