Was It Murder? The Thomas Ince Mystery

 Who was Thomas Ince? We don’t hear the name today, but in the Twenties, he was very well known in California. Ince was one of the earliest and most successful producer/directors in Hollywood, a real pioneer of silent movies. His mysterious death prompted rumors that have never been proven or disproven—even Snopes rates the case “undetermined.” And undeterminable. Which explains my own interest in the incident. I’m always looking for a good historical mystery that I can twist into fiction.

In a nutshell, Thomas Ince got onto William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, Oneida, in November, and got off dead. The yachting party consisted of about 15 people with some names you may know, including Hearst’s mistress, film star Marion Davies; Charlie Chaplin; and a relatively unknown columnist named Louella Parsons who would become a very famous gossip columnist. Not to mention a large crew and musicians. There was also lots of illegal liquor on board (remember, this is Prohibition) and at least one gun.

Hearst, the wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate, was known to be highly jealous of his mistress and not inclined to share, so if he heard the rumor that Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin were having an affair, he might have been gunning for Chaplin that weekend. A critical detail may be that Ince and Chaplin were of similar build and appearance.

The facts are muddled because there are so many conflicting stories. Any investigations were perfunctory at best—this was a time when the authorities were easily corrupted. And professional Hollywood was keen to keep scandal out of the public eye for fear of damaging the popularity of this new entertainment form, the movies.

One early report said that Ince got sick at Hearst’s ranch and was taken home by a doctor where he died the next day of a heart attack. Too many people saw him get on the yacht for that to stick. Some said Ince got sick on the yacht, was taken off and taken home, where he died of heart failure. But Chaplin’s secretary (a Japanese man who was waiting on the dock) said he saw Ince’s body with a bullet hole in his head. By great coincidence, no-name reporter Louella Parsons got a prominent job for life with Hearst’s newspapers—a payoff for keeping her mouth shut?

Supposedly, the L. A. Times (rival to Hearst’s newspaper) published headlines that read “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht” on the morning edition of the Nov. 16, 1924 paper, but the afternoon edition didn’t mention the incident. Hearst is said to have forced the newspaper to bury the story. However, I’ve tried to find that newspaper in on-line archives and haven’t been able to, so that may be another myth. (If anyone can produce a copy of that paper, I’d love to see it.)

The DA made a hasty, sloppy investigation. Ince’s body was cremated before a coroner could examine it. Ince’s wife received a huge trust fund from Hearst and he paid off their mortgage. Chaplin insisted he was never on the yacht. Davies, too, claimed he wasn’t there. Others insisted he was. D. W. Griffiths, the movie mogul, was quoted as saying, “All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince’s name. There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big.”

A 2003 movie, “The Cat’s Meow,” theorizes how Ince’s death may have played out. According to that scenario, Hearst saw Chaplin and Davies together, ran to get his gun, and when he came back, Chaplin had gone, and Ince happened to be standing near her. Hearst killed Ince by mistake, then covered it up by paying everyone off with money or jobs or acting roles. It’s a good movie, if you’re interested.

So what really happened to Thomas Ince? Plenty of people knew the truth, but the secret died with them.  

Want more information? http://www.welcometosilentmovies.com/news/newsarchive/catsmeow.htm

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  1. […] If “God” were so determined that Miss Vicky save the world, you might think He would have provided an opportunity for her to use “clean” money — and not the tainted megabucks from a man 1) for whom the phrase “yellow journalism” was coined, 2) who indulged in a style of decadence beyond your wildest dreams, 3) whose long (and quite public) extramarital affair with Marion Davies was overshadowed in the early annals of Hollywood debauchery only by the affairs of Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor and Charlie Chaplin, and 4) who might have been a murderer. […]

  2. My grandmother, who had been in the Follies at the same time as Marion, as well as in silent films, said that everyone who was on that boat came out well. She pointed out a large apt. house in Hollywood that she said Hearst had bought for one of the people, I forget which one, but I think it was a woman.

    • Various investigations have failed to turn up a solid story about that day. Your grandmother’s “take” could be true. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth.

    • Your grandmother was probably referring to the Villa Carlotta and the Chateau Elysee; two luxury apartment houses built by (hum…) Thomas Ince’s widow. She ran them for many years-Louella Parsons was one of the tenets at the Villa Carlotta!

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