Thomas Ince was a member of the early Hollywood elite and considered the “Father of the Western”. He was also the man who made Mary Pickford’s career, dubbing her “America’s Sweetheart”. He was the most successful producer in 1924, and worked out of a 20,000-acre studio called ‘Inceville”. However, his death is one of the biggest mysteries in old Hollywood.
Ince was invited to celebrate his 42nd birthday aboard the luxury yacht of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst owned ten of the largest newspapers in the US. On the side, he cleaned up money from the gold, silver and copper mines he had inherited. The man was swimming in money. Hearst had been carrying on an affair with actress Marion Davies since she was 14 years old. He was trying to butter up Ince to let him rent his studios to make Davies’ movies. Hence the birthday invite to cruise on the Oneida.
Ince wasn’t the only guest on the Oneida, however. Famous actor, Charlie Chaplin was also invited along with Aileen Pringle, Seena Owen, Theodore Kosloff, Elinor Glyn and several of Davies’ sisters. Noted gossip columnist Louella Parsons was also present. This is a guess as no one really knows the complete or accurate guest list for that weekend to this day. All we know for sure were there were Ince, Chaplin, Davies, Hearst and Dr Daniel Carson Goodman, a licensed but non practicing physician in Hearst’s employ.
The choice of Chaplin is extremely odd as the New York Daily Times had reported Chaplin was paying “ardent attention” to Davies. Hearst was insanely jealous and had Davies watched at all times to ensure she was not having an affair. He was right, but that is besides the point. Perhaps Hearst was thinking he could catch Davies and Chaplin together or perhaps confront them both. Who knows? What is known is the Oneida left Los Angeles on Saturday November 15, 1924. Ince did not join the party until that Sunday as he had a premier to attend. What happened Sunday night is a mystery.
The official story was that Ince had a bout of stomach problems and was taken off the yacht that night. All of the other guests departed at San Diego and Dr Daniel Carson Goodman escorted Ince to the train home. By the time they reached Del Mar, Ince was worse so they left the train and went to a hotel where Goodman called Ince’s wife, Nell and another doctor. Ince was then moved to his home in Benedict Canyon, where he passed away on November 19, 1924 of heart failure. A local coroner signed an incomplete death certificate and Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed. Both of these actions were against California law. However, as we have seen with previous posts, coroners at that time were political appointees and did not even have to be doctors. (Please see these posts for more on the reform of the coroner’s office and CSI methods: http://www.historynaked.com/frances-glessner-lee-dioramas-death/ and http://www.historynaked.com/chuck-norris-prohibition/ )
However, much of this story has been disputed throughout the years. One tantalizing story is that Chaplin sent a telegram to his long time valet Toriachi Kono to meet him at the quay in San Diego. He claims he saw Ince being removed from the yacht into a an ambulance, and later told his wife it looked as if Ince’s clothes were wet and there was a visible bullet hole in his head. Also, the morning headlines of the non-Hearst Los Angeles papers were “Producer shot on Hearst Yacht!!!” These headlines were ignored and later all traces of the papers disappeared. The Hearst papers ran a competing headline “Special Car Rushes stricken Ince Home from Ranch” to reinforce the official story. Hearst originally did not even want to acknowledge anyone had been on the Oneida that weekend, but Ince was seen boarding her on Sunday so he had to backpedal. Everyone else backpedaled as well claiming they weren’t on the yacht either, with Louella Parsons claiming she wasn’t even in California that weekend. They were never questioned by the police or the District Attorney despite an investigation opened- not into murder but into illegal alcohol consumption which might have caused Ince’s “stomach problems”. Eventually, Chester C. Kempley, the District Attorney of San Diego stated, “I am satisfied that the death of Thomas H. Ince was caused by heart failure as a result of an attack of indigestion….as there is every reason to believe that the death of Ince was due to natural causes, there is no reason why an investigation should be made.” However, not many people truly believed that.
Theories have abounded that Ince was shot by Hearst. Japanese servants aboard the ship reported Hearst shot Ince after catching he and Davies in flagrante delicto on the deck. One theory says Chaplin and Davies were talking below deck and Hearst saw them and became insanely jealous. He went to his room to retrieve his famous diamond studded revolver, which he usually used to shoot seagulls, and headed down stairs. Chaplin had left by this time leaving his hat. Ince found Davies alone and was speaking with her, and had put Chaplin’s hat on as a joke. Hearst shot Ince in the back of the head by mistake thinking it was Chaplin. Another theory is Hearst shot at Chaplin and missed, and shot Ince in the head through a porthole. Yet another theory says Ince was breaking up a fight between Chaplin and Hearst and was shot in the scuffle. All of these stories place Hearst’s finger directly on the trigger.
Hearst must have been involved in something as he took great care to hush up the whole affair. Ince’s wife, Elinor, was rewarded with the luxurious Chateau Elysee Apartments. Elinor Ince lived there until her death in 1950, and was the landlady to such famous tenants as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Errol Flynn. Louella Parsons was rewarded for the story she didn’t write by becoming the chief movie critic for the entire Hearst syndicate of papers. No matter who she attacked or what she wrote, Parsons had the backing of Hearst, and she became the most hated woman in Hollywood. As for Hearst, no one was allowed to say the name Ince in his presence, and if anyone did he turned white as a ghost. It was said by D.W. Griffith years after Thomas Ince’s death, “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 to touch.”
The death of Thomas Ince will always remain a mystery. We do not even know where his remains are. Witness have reported to seeing Ince’s ghost climbing the stairs in the main administration building towards the executive screening room in Culver Studios. It is no wonder he does not rest in peace.