M is for Murders & Mysteries #AtoZChallenge

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle & the Death of Virginia Rappe

One of the most notorious scandals of the silent film era involved Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. On Labor Day weekend in 1921, baby-faced funnyman Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, beloved around the world silent-movie slapstick, celebrated his newly inked, record-setting $3 million contract with Paramount by throwing a wild party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Witnesses claim that during the revelries, Arbuckle disappeared into a private suite with starlet Virginia Rappe, a heavy drinker who suffered from chronic cystitis. Nobody knows what happened next, but Rappe became ill in the room and died within days of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder allegedly caused by “an extreme amount of external force.” A close friend of Rappe’s, Bambina Maude Delmont, accused Arbuckle of raping Rappe and rumors spread faster than the brush fires that plague the hills around the city that Arbuckle had used his vast bulk to overpower the stricken Rappe and caused fatal injuries.

Arbuckle was arrested and charged with sexual assault and manslaughter. After three headline-grabbing trials (the first two ended in hung juries), he was cleared. “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle,” the jury said in a statement. “A grave injustice has been done.” But the comedian’s career was ruined — his contract canceled and his films banned. After spending a dozen years as a Tinseltown pariah, Arbuckle was finally on the comeback trail when he died of a heart attack at the age of 46, the same day he signed a contract to make a comeback feature-length film.

It was Hollywood’s first major scandal and, tragically, the real scandal was in the injustice done to a talented and wholly innocent man.

The Murder of William Desmond Taylor

The death of director William Desmond Taylor became one of the great unsolved mysteries of Hollywood.

On February 1, 1922, Taylor and silent film comedienne Mabel Normand were enjoying an evening of gin cocktails, despite prohibition, and discussing Nietzsche, Freud and movies.About 7:30, Taylor walked Mabel to her car, leaving the door of his bungalow open. With the exception of the murderer, Mabel Normand was the last person to see William Desmond Taylor alive.

The next morning, Taylor’s houseman, Henry Peavey, arrived at the bungalow and found Taylor lying dead in the living room. Peavey called the studio before the police and chaos ensued. It was originally thought that Taylor died of natural causes but once he was turned over, he was found to be lying in a pool of blood. . . .shot once in the back.

Representatives from Paramount Studios, where Taylor was employed, came and seized all the letters they could find, as well as all the bootleg liquor and instructed Peavey to clean up the blood and the apartment. They were scrambling to negate some of the damage already inflicted on the movie industry with Fatty Arbuckle’s rape/murder trial, as well as other scandals involving drug addictions. By the time the Los Angeles Police Department detectives arrived, the Taylor crime scene was severely compromised.

While Mabel Normand was never a serious suspect, rumors circulated that the suspects might include Mack Sennett and Rudolph Valentino among other Hollywood notables. A host of suspects were interrogated but the death remains an unsolved cold case in the Los Angeles Police Department archives.

The Death of Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd rose to fame as a comedic actress, making 70 films in nine years alongside the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton. Sadly, she is now remembered for the manner and mystery of her death rather than for her life achievements.

Her lively and flirtatious on-screen personality was more than matched by her riotous private life. She had so many drunken car crashes going from party to party, that the studio had to insist she have a chauffeur. In addition to her film career, Thelma was also involved in the restaurant business, where her path crossed that of Lucky Luciano, a New York mobster who was trying to gain a foothold on the West Coast. Luciano wanted to involve Todd’s business in illegal gambling, but she refused.

On December 16, 1935 Todd was found slumped over the steering wheel of her car. Her death was first declared a suicide then an “accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning.” The fact that she drank heavily and often passed out in her car after a binge supported this conclusion. But with blood at the scene, a high blood-alcohol content, and clean shoes (while the area outside the car was muddy), many believed Todd was murdered. While the theory was largely ignored by the LAPD, suspects ranged from Todd’s highly possessive boyfriend, director Roland West, to the most likely suspect: “Lucky” Luciano.

Lana Turner – Murderess?

Lana Turner was dubbed “The Sweater Girl” for the way wearing one highlighted her natural attributes. She was a gifted actress, appearing in such successful films as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1941), “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) and “Peyton Place” (1957). But she had lousy taste in men. Married eight times (twice to Steve Crane), she battled alcoholism throughout her life. In 1958, her name was in the headlines in the worst possible way.

On the evening of April 4, 1958, Lana and Johnny Stompanato, a small-time hoodlum who was very jealous and possessive of Turner, were having a violent argument in Turner’s home. Stompanato allegedly threatened to cut Turner’s face, prompting her 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, to grab an 8-inch butcher knife from the kitchen and stab Stompanato in the stomach, killing him.

The case quickly became a media sensation. Turner’s dramatic testimony at the inquest was persuasive: The stabbing was ruled a justifiable homicide. Some observers said her testimony that day was the acting performance of her life. Rumors persisted that Lana had actually wielded the knife, but there was insufficient evidence to prove it.


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