The Quick 10: 10 Shocking Hollywood Deaths

atosan/iStock Editorial via Getty Images
atosan/iStock Editorial via Getty Images

Does it seem like only 15 years ago that we were all plastered to the screen, watching a white Bronco speed down Interstate 405? That's because it was. Although it's definitely up there in terms of media coverage, it's far from the first scandalous murder to befall Hollywood. Here are 10 others that stunned the world.

1. Virginia Rappe. In what was one of Hollywood's first big murder scandals, huge (literally and figuratively) film star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping actress Virginia Rappe, who then died, allegedly of injuries she sustained during the rape. Arbuckle and Rappe were both guests at a party at the St. Francis Hotel. Rappe, who had a reputation for such things, became rip-roaring drunk and started tearing her clothes off and screaming. She somehow managed to stumble into Arbuckle's bathroom; he walked in and very unexpectedly found her vomiting in the toilet. She swore she was dying and loudly told anyone within earshot as much. And she was right - the next day she died due to a ruptured bladder. The friend she had been at the party with told police that Fatty had raped Virginia and police concluded that her bladder had ruptured under Arbuckle's immense girth. The problem is that it seemed completely out of character for him - people testified that he was a very shy man, especially with women, and was probably one of the most chaste men in Hollywood. After three trials and more than seven months of sensational newspaper headlines, Fatty was unanimously acquitted by a jury who also issued a written apology to the actor. But the harm was done - his career was pretty much over, his marriage was ruined and he was too far in debt to his lawyers to recover. It was later thought that Virginia's ruptured bladder was the result of a recent abortion - one of many - gone wrong.

2. William Desmond Taylor. Taylor was well-known in Tinseltown, directing the likes of Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid and Mary Miles Minter. It was quite a shock when he was found shot to death inside his L.A. bungalow in 1922.

The crime scene was shockingly sloppy - people traipsed in and out, items were removed and Paramount's general manager went in and destroyed evidence. It's speculated that this was allowed because the police were highly influenced by Adolph Zukor, then head of Paramount. Because of all of the tampering, we don't know who shot Taylor to this day. Suspects include two of his lovers (Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter), Minter's mother, Taylor's valet and his former valet, and an actress named Margaret Gibson. The latter confessed to his murder on her deathbed in 1964.

3. Charles Lindbergh, Jr. It's every parent's worst nightmare: a kidnapping. The 20-month-old baby Lindbergh was discovered to be missing from his crib on March 1, 1932. A handwritten note demanded $50,000 and said that further instructions would come. Coming up with the money wasn't a problem - the government offered $25,000 on top of the $50,000 the Lindberghs were willing to give up. No less than Herbert Hoover said he would "move Heaven and Earth" to find the baby, but it was to no avail. On May 12, a truck driver pulled off to pee in the woods just 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh house and found the corpse of a toddler. It was badly decomposed and it was obvious that the kidnappers hadn't waited long to kill Charles, Jr. And yes, I know that the actual kidnapping didn't take place in Hollywood, but because of the elder Lindbergh's star status, I'm counting it.
4. Johnny Stompanato. Blonde bombshell Lana Turner had been dating mobster associate Johnny Stompanato for over a year when, learning of his crime ties, she decided to break things off. But he wasn't ready to break things off and followed her to England, where she was filming Another Time, Another Place with Sean Connery. The story goes that Stompanato thought that Lana was having an affair with Mr. Bond and stormed on to set with a gun; Sean Connery quickly dispatched him and punched him in the face. Whether that's true or not, Stompanato had a nasty habit of showing up on airplanes and in hotels where Lana was staying even after they broke up. He wouldn't let her break up with him, essentially, and even beat her pretty badly on at least one occasion. Finally, on April 4, 1958, it all came to a head. In the middle of a fight at her house, Stompanato threatened to ruin her face and, therefore, her career. Lana's 14-year-old daughter had been listening to the whole argument from her room, and, fearing that her mother was in danger, rushed in and stabbed him in the stomach. She sliced a kidney and punctured his aorta and it was basically all over for Stompanato. It was decided that the murder was justifiable homicide based on the fact that Lana's daughter thought she was protecting her mother and no one served any jail time.

5. Thelma Todd. This comedic actress of the late '20s and early '30s was found dead in her car in the garage of another actress. It appeared to be a suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning, but things didn't add up - she had no obvious motive to kill herself and had been in good spirits at a party just hours before her body was found. There are a few theories, including that she accidentally fell asleep in the garage, but since this post is about murders, we'll focus on that one. The first murder theory says that it was her ex-husband, whom she had had a public spat with earlier in the evening. The second says it was Lucky Luciano, because supposedly she wouldn't allow her club to participate in his illegal gambling schemes. And a third says that her current boyfriend locked her in the garage to keep her from going on to another party and accidentally killed her with carbon monoxide. Murder or not, the true reason behind Todd's death was never discovered because her body was very quickly cremated - another reason to suspect foul play, say conspiracy theorists. The reason listed on her death certificate is accidental poisoning.

6. Sharon Tate. Everyone knows this sad tale - young, beautiful and pregnant, Sharon Tate, along with Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski, was brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family on August 8, 1969. The murders, along with the LaBianca murders that happened the following night, went unsolved for several months until Family member Susan Atkins bragged to a fellow inmate that the murders were her doing. The Hollywood community was shocked and scandalized, convinced that someone was hunting down celebrities. Dominick Dunne later reported that Steve McQueen was so concerned that he brought a gun to Jay Sebring's funeral.

7. Dominique Dunne. Speaking of Dominick Dunne, he endured tragedy in 1982 when his daughter, the actress who played the oldest daughter in the Poltergeist movie, was killed by her ex-boyfriend. He surprised her in the driveway of her home, and, after a short fight in which she refused to get back together with him, he strangled her. She was in a coma for five days before dying on November 4. The boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, was found guilty of manslaughter but served less than four years in prison.
8. Natalie Wood. Another "accident" that maybe wasn't so accidental. On November 29, 1981, Natalie was out on a yacht with husband Robert Wagner and family friend Christopher Walken (yep, that Christopher Walken). Not much is known about exactly what happened, except that Natalie apparently left the yacht in a small dinghy in the middle of the night when waters were quite choppy. Some reports say Walken and Wood had been getting quite chummy, even going ashore without him while he slept, and that Wagner made no bones about his displeasure. Over the years, Wagner and Walken have given contradictory statements to the media, so what really happened that night might not ever be known.

9. Bonnie Lee Bakley. E Tu, Baretta? Robert Blake started dating Bakley sometime in 1998. She got pregnant and told Blake he was the father - but she also told Christian Brando that he was the father, because she had been simultaneously dating him. She had a history of pursuing older celebrities - Bakley unsuccessfully tried to woo Frankie Valli and when that didn't work, set her sights on Jerry Lee Lewis. She even moved to Memphis to try to encounter him more often. Knowing her history, Blake insisted on a paternity test, which proved that the little girl was indeed his. He reluctantly married her in 2000. She moved into the guest house on his Studio City property, but things were less than peachy. On May 4, 2004, the two of them went out to dinner at Vitello's, one of Blake's favorite haunts. When dinner was over, they were just getting ready to pull away when Blake remembered he had left his handgun inside - he always carried one. He ran back inside to get it, and when he came back out, Bakley had been shot twice and was slumped over in the seat. She was dead before the paramedics got her to the hospital. Police reportedly suspected that he was involved just hours after her death. He wasn't arrested until nearly a year later. Two stuntmen came forward and said that Blake had tried to hire both of them, on separate occasions, to kill his wife. After standing trial, Blake was found not guilty on March 16, 2005. Bakley's children filed a wrongful death suit, however, and won $30 million. Blake filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

10. Lana Clarkson. Even if you don't know Phil Spector, you've almost certainly heard one of his albums - he produced everything from River Deep, Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner to Imagine by John Lennon to End of the Century by the Ramones. That was all well and good until February 3, 2003, when the body of actress and nightclub owner Lana Clarkson was found in his house with wounds that suggested someone had put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. The two had first met on February 2. Spector insisted it was a suicide, but both his valet and his butler said that when he called them to report the death, he stated, "I think I killed somebody." Coroner's reports said that the bruising on her tongue indicated that someone had shoved a gun in her mouth pretty forcefully, and people testified that Spector was prone to pulling firearms when he was drunk. Spector's first trial was declared a mistrial; the second found him guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 19 years to life on May 29 of this year.

Whew! That's a lot of scandal. Let me know which ones I missed. And for scandals not necessarily involving death (some do and some don't), there's this old chestnut from last year.

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Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Unsung Heroes of the Underground Railroad

An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Considering that the massive network of hidden paths and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad stretched from the Deep South all the way to Canada, it makes sense that hundreds of people were involved in its operation. Some, like Harriet Tubman, were “conductors,” who led the rescue missions, while others—John Brown, for example—were “station masters,” hosting fugitives in their homes and arranging safe passage to freedom. Here are nine other valorous heroes who risked life and limb to help people on their way to liberty.

1. William Still

A sketch of William Still from Wilbur Henry Siebert and Albert Bushnell Hart's 1898 book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom.Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born to formerly enslaved parents in New Jersey in 1821, William Still moved to Philadelphia at age 23 and took up the abolitionist mantle in more ways than one. He taught himself to read and write, got a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and advanced through the organization until he was named chairman of its new Vigilance Committee in the early 1850s. In that position, Still oversaw the region’s network of safe houses—his own house among them—and raised money to finance key rescue missions, including a few of Harriet Tubman’s.

It’s estimated that Still ferried about 800 people to freedom during his tenure; one of them was his brother Peter. But there’s another reason he’s often referred to as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of more than 600 escapees and published them all in a groundbreaking volume called The Underground Railroad in 1872, making him the only Black person ever to write and self-publish a firsthand account of activity on the Underground Railroad. He hoped that the “extraordinary determination and endeavor” exhibited in the harrowing narratives would inspire Black Americans to continue the struggle for civil rights.

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence they were digged,” he wrote in the introduction. “Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

2. John P. Parker

Parker's house in Ripley, Ohio.Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When John P. Parker was 8 years old, a merchant separated him from his enslaved mother in Norfolk, Virginia, and sold him to a doctor in Mobile, Alabama. There, Parker apprenticed at an iron foundry—and learned to read and write, with the help of the doctor’s children. At age 18, he persuaded one of the doctor’s patients to purchase him and let him gradually buy back his freedom with his foundry earnings. The plan worked, and Parker left for Ripley, Ohio, where he built a house, started a family, and patented a few popular mechanical parts for tobacco machines during a successful career as a foundryman.

Through it all, Parker made regular excursions across the Ohio River to spirit fugitives from Kentucky back to Ripley’s safe houses (one belonged to John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who lived less than a mile from Parker). Parker’s rescue missions were especially dangerous, partially because bounty hunters looking for fugitives knew who he was, and partially because Parker himself was dauntless. Once, an enslaver suspected a married couple would attempt to escape, so he took their baby and put him to sleep in his room. Parker snuck into the room, carefully plucked the child from the bed—where the enslaver also lay sleeping—and dashed back through the house. The enslaver awoke and tore after him, firing his pistol, but Parker and the family managed to escape across the river.

Parker recounted these rescues to journalist Frank M. Gregg during a series of interviews in the 1880s, but the manuscript sat forgotten in Duke University’s archives until historian Stuart Seeley Sprague unearthed it and published it in 1996.

3. and 4. Harriet Bell Hayden and Lewis Hayden

A portrait of Lewis Hayden from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.The Liberator, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1812, Lewis Hayden watched enslavers tear apart his family not once, but twice. First, his siblings were sold to a different enslaver; and later, his wife and son were bought by Kentucky senator Henry Clay [PDF] and sold somewhere in the Deep South. Hayden never saw them again. In the early 1840s, he married an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell, adopted her son, and soon began plotting their escape.

With the help of Calvin Fairbank, a minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher, the Haydens fled their enslaver’s estate and eventually arrived safely in Canada. By 1846, they had returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where they opened a clothing store. Before long, Lewis and Harriet had joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and turned their home into a boarding house, which became a highly trafficked stop on the Underground Railroad.

A drawing of Harriet Bell Hayden from her obituary in The Cleveland Gazette.The Cleveland Gazette, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could still be found and returned to their enslavers in the South. The Haydens fearlessly protected hundreds of people from bounty hunters who tried to do just that. Ellen and William Craft, for example, had garnered widespread attention for their risky escape from slavery in Georgia, which involved Ellen impersonating a white man and William posing as her Black servant. When bounty hunters pursued them to the Haydens’ house, Lewis announced that he’d readily blow up the whole property with the two kegs of gunpowder he kept inside if they tried to kidnap the Crafts. The bounty hunters didn’t chance it, and left empty-handed.

Lewis also helped recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—one of the Union’s first all-Black military units—and was even elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1873. When he died in 1889, Boston’s city council praised him as “one of the pioneers in the freeing of this country from the curse of slavery.” Harriet, who died in 1893, donated her entire estate to Harvard Medical School for the purpose of establishing a scholarship for Black students, which still exists today.

5. Henrietta Bowers Duterte

A photo of Henrietta Bowers Duterte with one of her children.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1852, Henrietta Bowers, a 35-year-old tailor, married a Haitian-American undertaker named Francis A. Duterte. They both came from well-respected Philadelphia families, and Francis’s mortuary was successful; in other words, it should have been a long, happy union. But by the end of that decade, Henrietta was alone: Her children had all died young, and Francis had also passed away suddenly. Instead of handing the mortuary business over to a man—which would have been expected at the time—Henrietta took it over and, in addition to running the mortuary, turned it into an especially clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.

Not only did Henrietta use funeral processions as opportunities to help disguised fugitives slip unnoticed through the city, but she also sometimes smuggled them out of Philadelphia in actual coffins. The mortuary continued to be lucrative, and Henrietta funneled the profits into organizations that served Philadelphia’s Black community, like the First Colored Church and Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. In 1866, she helped arrange the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to support formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.

6. David Ruggles

A political cartoon depicting a slave owner raging against Ruggles and two other abolitionists who had helped one of his servants escape.Edward Williams Clay, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

David Ruggles, born free in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, moved to New York City at age 17 and opened a grocery shop, which he staffed with emancipated Black Americans. Before long, Ruggles pivoted to lending and selling abolitionist books, pamphlets, and newspapers, too, making him the nation’s first Black bookstore owner. In 1835, Ruggles and other local abolitionists founded the New York Vigilance Committee, an interracial organization which, like the one in Philadelphia, helped people escape from slavery. Not only did he provide legal aid to Black Americans targeted by bounty hunters, but he also housed many fugitives in his own home on Lispenard Street.

One of these temporary guests was Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and arrived in New York penniless and famished in 1838. He was rescued, he explained in his 1845 autobiography, “by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget.” Douglass wrote to his fiancée, Anna, who joined him within a few days, and Ruggles even arranged a marriage ceremony in the house. Soon after the wedding, Ruggles gave the couple $5 and booked their passage on a steamship to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Throughout his years as an Underground Railroad station master, Ruggles distributed countless anti-slavery publications and advocated for “practical abolitionism,” or the idea that each person should actively take part in emancipating Black Americans. He wasn’t without enemies: twice his shop was burned down, and he was physically attacked on several occasions. By his late twenties, Ruggles’s health was failing, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child encouraged him to come live with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a self-sufficient community in Florence, Massachusetts, that championed equal rights for all. There, Ruggles regained some of his strength through hydrotherapy, and he eventually opened his own hydrotherapy hospital, where Douglass often visited him. When he died at age 39, it was Douglass who wrote his obituary.

7. and 8. Harriet Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis

A daguerroeotype of Robert Purvis from the 1840s.Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Robert Purvis, the son of a white man and a free Black woman, was active in practically all facets of Philadelphia’s anti-slavery movement from the 1830s through the Civil War. He helped found and lead the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and its Vigilance Committee, which offered boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and northern passage to fugitives; and he also worked alongside prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society a few years later.

Since women weren’t originally allowed to be members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert’s wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, joined Lucretia Mott and other activists in forming the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833. Harriet, like Mott, would go on to become a leader in the suffrage movement, too.

Robert and Harriet had both come from extremely successful and respected Philadelphia families, and they used their influence—and financial resources—to assist escapees in any way they could. Their house on Lombard Street became a well-traversed thoroughfare for fugitives heading north.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of the travelers upon that road,” read Robert's 1898 obituary in The New York Times.

A portrait of Harriet Forten Purvis circa 1874. ExplorePAhistory.com // Public Domain

The couple’s high-profile work sometimes made them a target for those who opposed the upward mobility of Black Americans. In August 1842, a parade celebrating the eighth anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies devolved into violence when an Irish mob—resenting their own low position in society—attacked the revelers and began looting and setting fire to Black-owned buildings along the street. The rioters planned to progress to the Purvises' house, where Robert stood armed and waiting, but a Catholic priest reportedly diverted them.

After that, Robert and Harriet moved their family to a farmhouse in Byberry, a northeastern neighborhood of Philadelphia, and promptly turned their new estate into another station on the Underground Railroad. Robert approximated that between 1831 and 1861, he had helped emancipate about one person per day (though it’s possible that this calculation included his broader work with various anti-slavery organizations).

9. Samuel D. Burris

A sketch of Samuel D. Burris from William Still's book The Underground Railroad.Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Samuel D. Burris worked tirelessly during the 1840s to lead fugitives through his home state of Delaware and into Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and children. Though Burris was a free man, he could be imprisoned and sold into slavery if caught helping fugitives in Delaware—and in 1847, he was.

Officials apprehended Burris when he was trying to smuggle a woman named Maria Matthews onto a steamship. Since they set his bail at $5000 (more than $157,000 today), he was forced to spend months in jail while awaiting trial. “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on,” he wrote from his cell, in a letter that was later published in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

On November 2, 1847, Burris was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 more months in prison. After that, he’d be sold into slavery for 14 years. While Burris was serving his 10-month sentence, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists amassed $500 and sent a Quaker named Isaac Flint to pose as a trader and purchase Burris at the auction. Luckily, Flint ended up being the highest bidder (though according to William Still’s account in The Underground Railroad, luck had little to do with it: Flint savvily bought off a Baltimore trader who had tried to top his bid).

“[Burris] was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone,” Still wrote. “The joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”

As Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz told CNN, Burris continued helping fugitives after his release, and angry Delawarians actually petitioned the government to discipline him more severely. After officials enacted legislation that recommended public whipping as punishment for anyone caught a second time, Burris halted his operations in Delaware. Instead, he moved to San Francisco, where he raised funds to help newly freed people establish themselves.