The mysterious death of Thomas Ince.
Thomas Ince was a pioneer of early Hollywood. Yet many people haven’t heard of him, largely because of the mystery of his death. Was he murdered or did he die of natural causes?
The story itself is worthy of a Hollywood mystery film. The murder, if indeed it was, took place aboard a luxury yacht belonging to a super-wealthy newspaper mogul.
Aboard were actors and actresses, writers, a ballet dancer – the rich and famous of the day.
The death took place in 1924 but has its roots in the decade previously when the rich (and married) newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst met the woman who would become his mistress, Marion Davies. By 1919 they were living together.
But Hearst was considerably older than his movie star mistress and could be insanely jealous of the men she met because of her career.
By 1924, the target of his fury was Charlie Chaplin. Marion and Charlie were good friends. Hearst even had them trailed by private detectives to find out more about their ‘affair’. He decided to observe them together at first hand so arranged a fun-filled cruise aboard his luxury yacht, the Oneida. Others were also invited to make up the numbers and the guest of honour was Thomas Ince, who’d recently had his forty second birthday. But he was not to live to the age of forty three as he died on or just after leaving the luxury yacht. But how?
William Randolph Hearst
Hearst was enormously rich and powerful, thanks to his newspaper empire. He was also a man who would stop at nothing. When he met and fell in love with Marion Davies he became heavily involved in the budding movie industry so that he could help her career. The newspapers he wrote frequently extolled her virtues as an actress – even when critics in rival papers were far less enthusiastic. In truth, she wasn’t really terrifically good.
For the cruise, no expense was spared at the yacht was stocked with the finest food, vintage champagne, illegal bootlegged booze and a jazz band was hired to entertain the guests.
There are two versions of what happened on the night of the party given in Thomas Ince’s honour. One is that after dinner, Hearst realised that he hadn’t seen Marion for a while. He also noticed that Chaplin was missing. Had the two slipped away together? He went looking for them and found what he expected on a lower deck – Chaplin and Marion in an extremely compromising position.
It’s said that Marion opened her eyes, saw Hearst standing there with a gun and screamed ‘m-m-m-murder!’
Guests aboard the yacht heard her scream and ran to the location, just in time to see Hearst aiming his gun at Chaplin’s head and firing. As the man fell to the floor, everyone realised that it was not Chaplin. It was Thomas Ince.
The second version begins in the same way – that Hearst realised Marion hadn’t been seen for a while so went to look for her. In this story, he found her sitting at a table talking to a man who had his back to Hearst. Superficially, Chaplin and Ince were similar – both had the same greying, curly hair. Assuming that the man was indeed Chaplin, Hearst took out the revolver that he kept with him (to shoot seagulls,evidently) and shot the man in the head. But once again, he had the wrong man and it was Ince who fell to the floor, a bullet in his head.
It’s said that the powerful and wealthy Hearst then gathered together his guests and persuaded them all,possibly with financial inducements, to say nothing about the event. Louella Parsons, for example, was a minor columnist who worked for Hearst’s newspapers but after the events in November 1924 she became a top syndicated writer on a fabulous wage.
Other guests felt it would be a wise move to leave the yacht. Chaplin called his driver, Toriachi Kono, and arranged to be collected from San Diego (the nearest port) the following day. Louella Parson left also. Meanwhile, Dr Goodman who was a Hearst employee spirited Ince away from the yacht and into a hotel where the shot man died.
Ince’s funeral took place just two days later. His body was cremated. On the same day one of Hearst’s rival papers, the Los Angeles Times, ran a headline which read ‘Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht’. For some strange reason, the story did not appear in later editions.
Then the newspapers under Hearst’s control printed their own version of how Ince had died. Their headline was ‘Special Car Rushes Man Home From Ranch’. Their story explained that Thomas Ince had been at his country ranch when he was taken ill and rushed to his home where he lived with his wife and children. It went on to say that Ince died with his family at his bedside.
The yacht was not mentioned. But this story didn’t wash.There were many people on shore who had seen Ince board the yacht and he had told people about his plans. So Hearst simply changed the story. But members of the public were fascinated by the mystery, as were those who worked in the film industry and the district attorney was forced to take action when the rumours persisted.
So here’s the ‘official’ story
On the night of the party, Ince complained of indigestion. On the following morning (after which him he had already been shot in the other versions) he and Dr Goodman left the yacht to return to Los Angeles. (Note that Dr Goodman was a trained physician but not practising). But on the train to LA, Ince had a heart attack and Dr Goodman took him to a hotel where he called a doctor and Ince’s wife. He claimed that he then left. Soon afterwards, Ince died. Goodman had believed that Ince’s problem was severe ingestion.
With the body already cremated, there was nothing further to be said. The district attorney accepted that the cause of death was a heart attack.
Points to ponder:
- Shortly after the death, Ince’s widow went to live in Europe. William Hearst had set up a trust fund for her
- Chaplin’s Japanese driver, Kono, was well-trusted, loyal and honest. He told his friends that when he collected Chaplin from the yacht he saw Ince being carried off with a bullet hole in his head
- In his autobiography Chaplin denied being on board. He claimed that Ince had died three weeks after the Oneida cruise. Yet it’s matter of record that he attended the funeral. He claimed that during those weeks he, Marion and Hearst had visited Ince.
- One of these people was Vera Burnett. However, she stopped telling about how she had seen the trio leave for the yacht. A possible reason for this is that she was Marion Davies’ movie stand-in and Hearst was her employer
- Louella Parson insisted that she had been in New York at the time of the Oneida cruise and also denied that she had been aboard.
- The day before the party, several people had been at the Hollywood studio when they’d seen Louella Parsons and Marion Davies being collected by Charlie Chaplin in his chauffeur-driven car. It was no secret that the three were heading to Hearst’s yacht
- The district attorney -most unusually – called only one witness, Dr Goodman. He of course was in Hearst’s employ. Once the DA had heard Goodman’s ‘evidence’ he pronounced the case closed
But my question is this – who, especially a doctor, would take a man who was ill to a hotel and not a hospital?
Ince was a well-known figure in the movie business. He was successful. He could afford medical care. Even if this was only an innocent case of acute indigestion as Goodman believed, wouldn’t taking him to a hospital be considered the normal action instead of going to a hotel?