On Saturday, 15 November 1924, the yacht of American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, set sail from San Pedro, California. It was carrying Hearst, his mistress Marion Davies, actor Charlie Chaplin, actor Thomas H. Ince, among several others. They were celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday, but ironically he was late.
While on the boat, he had a bit of indigestion and was taken off the boat by water taxi to San Diego. After being treated for what was believed to be a heart attack, he was taken back to his home in Hollywood. On 19 November 1924, he died.
His personal physician signed the death certificate, saying that heart failure was the official cause of death. But the Los Angles Times’ front page read ‘”Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!”, which were pulled from shelves within hours of publication. Ince’s body was quickly cremated, then his widow immediately flew to Europe.
Several rumours soon sprang up, including one that Davies and Chaplin were secretly lovers, and Hearst walked in on them, when he let out a shout, waking Ince, who walked in and accidentally stepped in front of Chaplin as Hearst was about to shoot him. Another popular rumour is that Ince and Davies were together on deck, when Ince, who was prone to ulcers, bent double from the pain. Then Hearst walked in and, assuming the worst, pulled out his gun. Yet another rumour tells of a story of unnamed passengers below deck struggling over a gun, when it accidentally fired, shooting through the plywood floor, and into Ince’s room.
Chaplin’s secretary added to the rumours by telling newspapers that he witnessed Ince being brought ashore and that he was bleeding from the head. He told his wife what he saw, and the story spread throughout Beverly Hills. Whether it was murder or accident, the stories spread. It got to the point that a month later the San Diego District Attorney’s office had to take action.
The DA only talked to the doctor who brought Ince ashore, Dr. Daniel Goodman,who said that Ince got sick on the train and he had another doctor look at him.
Rumours flew up around the guests who were present that night. Chaplin later denied even being there, and claimed that Ince died two weeks later, when in fact he had died less than 48 hours later. Davies made things more confusing for people by never acknowledging that Chaplin was there.
So how did Thomas Ince die? Was it natural causes? Was he murdered? If it was natural, why the rush to cremate his body? If it was murder, why didn’t any of the doctors examining his body notice a gunshot wound? It looks like we’ll never know.