You do not want to know what I went through to compile this list of silent film actors and directors who died prematurely or tragically. I included deaths up to the age of 50, and in instances of murder or suicide, sometimes went beyond that cut-off. I had the help of many members at a well-known classic film discussion board, but I was also roundly abused by others there. And they were vicious! They apparently felt that if I wasn't going to do original scholarly research and obtain an official death certificate for each entry, I was just a misinformation spreader. (One fellow accused me of being a sick, morbid ghoul, an insult I shall cherish always.) Specifically, they went into conniptions over directors Thomas H. Ince (above) and F.W. Murnau, and Danish actor Valdemar Psilander.
There have long been rumors about the possibility of murder in Ince's death; Peter Bogdanovich's film The Cat's Meow is based on those. In a 2011 biography of Ince, film scholar Brian Taves does his best to lay those rumors to rest, and his findings have been widely accepted in the academic and film buff communities. But the dispute between murder and natural causes is still given full play at Wikipedia, like it or not the world's most visited information source, with nary a mention of Taves in the relevant section. So one could not say that his interpretation has yet prevailed. Maybe it will some day. But until then, I think there is still a dispute.
Murnau's cause of death is exactly what it says in the list. He died in a car crash caused by his chauffeur. Wikipedia says the chauffeur was 14 years old, although apparently he was in fact an adult. There have been rumors over the years, spread largely by Kenneth Anger (Hollywood Babylon), that the (fairly openly) gay Murnau was giving head to the driver when the crash occurred.
Now, Kenneth Anger, a great experimental film-maker as well as a world-class gossip, is not exactly your most reliable source, and his insinuations and accusations have always angered many, including in the discussion group where I was seeking assistance. My merely mentioning Kenneth Anger's take on Murnau (in a post, not in the necrology list itself) set off a firestorm. But it seems to me that any sensible person reads Hollywood Babylon and its sequel as deliciously sordid, manifestly unfair, and rather imaginative books. I heretically insist that their existence is a great thing for classic film, because it creates an interest.
My (somewhat post-modern) philosophical position is that I cannot make a list of facts, only of what are reported to be facts at a given time. As far as "spreading lies," no one spread more lies about silent stars than the stars themselves and their studios! Their names were concocted, their backgrounds were concocted, their romances were concocted, sometimes even their marriages were concocted. Factual information about them was only put forward when it was useful for marketing the personae, which wasn't often. So let's not get too sentimental about hard-done silent stars, shall we? These people were products, and they participated willingly in their own objectification. There is a reason why it is very difficult for people who choose to be public figures to obtain convictions for slander or libel against them - they have put themselves out there for the public to talk about (and hardly in a spirit of adherence to accuracy), and it seems jolly disingenuous for them to complain when that happens. In their world, any attention is better than no attention.
In cultural studies, the history of the reception of a death is as interesting as the death itself - hell, it's more interesting. Once rumors, however outlandish, are part of that reception history, they can't be expunged from it. It amuses me that members of a popular culture discussion group wouldn't understand this, but whatever.
I can't help but note that over my many years of encountering insufferables (and who knows, maybe I'm one of them!) on Internet discussion forums devoted to movies, books, music, sports, beer, etc., I have never come across self-appointed experts more pompous and full of themselves than the ones at the silent film board I shall not name (which has been so disputatious that it naturally gave rise to a "secessionist" board that's even worse). That is saying something.
Yevgeni Bauer (1865-1917) – Complications from broken leg; pneumonia.
Paul Bern (1889-1932) – Suicide (gunshot). Mother was also a suicide (drowning).
Francis Boggs (1870-1911) – Murder (gunshot). Killed by Selig studio employee, Frank Minnimatsu, who “went postal”; studio head William Nicholas Selig was also wounded in attack.
John H. Collins (1889-1918) – Spanish flu.
Alan Crosland (1894-1936) – Car crash.
Bernard Durning (1893-1923) – Typhoid fever.
Louis Feuillade (1873-1925) – Peritonitis.
Thomas Ince (1882-1924) – Cause of death disputed; officially, heart attack (possibly related to overwork); rumors of murder.
F. Richard Jones (1893-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Paul Leni (1885-1929) – Blood poisoning from infected mosquito bite.
Willard Louis (1882-1926) – Typhoid fever, pneumonia.
F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) – Car crash (caused by chauffeur).
Lynn Reynolds (1899-1927) – Suicide (gunshot).
Albert Russell (1890-1929) – Pneumonia; died two weeks after brother William Russell, also a victim of pneumonia.
Stellan Rye (1880-1914) – Died as prisoner of war in World War I.
Lowell Sherman (1885-1934) – Pneumonia.
Harry Solter (1873-1920) – Stroke.
William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922) – Murder (gunshot). Unsolved (and one of the most discussed and written-about crimes in the history of Hollywood).
Frank Urson (1887-1928) – Accidental drowning.
Millard Webb (1893-1935) – Intestinal ailment.
William Wolbert (1883-1918) – Pneumonia.
Duke Worne (188-1933) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
John Griffith Wray (1896-1929) – Complications from appendectomy.
Art Acord (1890-1931) – Suicide (poison).
Jimmie Adams (1888-1933) – Heart attack.
Renee Adoree (1898-1933) – Tuberculosis.
Robert Ames (1889-1931) – Alcoholism.
“Yakima Jim” Anson (1888-1925) – Shot during bar brawl with Tommy Bay and Edward Red Carmichael, fellow cowboy actors; Bay was acquitted of murder.Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) – Heart attack.
Hal August (1890-1918) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Marion Aye (1903-1951) – Suicide (poison).
Agnes Ayres (1898-1940) – Mental illness, cerebral hemorrhage.
Tommy Bay (1901-1933) – Murdered by his girlfriend, although it is not clear if she was convicted.Florence Barker (1891-1913) – Pneumonia.
Anita Berber (1899-1928) – Tuberculosis, following on alcoholism and drug addiction.
Vedah Bertram (1891-1912) – Appendicitis.
Francelia Billington (1895-1934) – Tuberculosis.
True Boardman (1882-1918) – Spanish flu.
Elmer Booth (1882-1915) – Car crash (caused by driver, the director Tod Browning, who crashed car at full speed into a moving train).
Olive Borden (1906-1947) – Pneumonia.
John Bowers (1885-1936) – Suicide (drowning). (Bowers' suicide is often cited as the "inspiration" for the suicide of Norman Maine in the various versions of A Star Is Born.)
Sylvia Breamer (1897-1943) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Gladys Brockwell (1894-1929) – Car crash.
Eric Campbell (1879-1917) – Car crash.
June Caprice (1895-1936) – Cancer, heart attack.
Frank Carter (1889-1920) – Car crash.
Vernon Castle (1887-1918) – Plane crash.
Helene Chadwick (1897-1940) – Injuries from fall, reportedly exacerbated by her “highly nervous state.”
Lon Chaney (1883-1930) – Lung cancer.
Rex Cherryman (1896-1928) – Septic poisoning.
Lew Cody (1884-1934) – Heart disease.
Bobby Connelly (1909-1922) – Endocarditis, bronchitis.
Virginia Lee Corbin (1910-1942) – Tuberculosis.
William Courtleigh, Jr. (1892-1918) – Spanish flu.
Ward Crane (1890-1928) – Pneumonia.
John Cumpson (1866-1913) – Pneumonia, diabetes.
Lester Cuneo (1888-1925) – Suicide (gunshot).
Primo Cuttica (1876-1921) – Died “after a long illness.”
Karl Dane (1886-1934) – Suicide (gunshot).
Camille D’Arcy (1879-1916) – Infection from bathing in Lake Michigan.
Lya De Putti (1897-1931) – Pneumonia following accidental ingestion of chicken bone.
Florence Deshon (1893-1922) – Poisoning from gas jet; possible suicide.
Gaby Deslys (1881-1920) – Complications from influenza-related throat infection.
Patterson Dial (1902-1945) – Barbiturate overdose, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Jenny Dolly (1892-1941) – Suicide (hanging).
Lucille McVey Drew (1890-1925) – Died “after a lingering illness.”
S. Rankin Drew (1891-1918) – Killed in battle in World War I.
Jeanne Eagels (1890-1929) – Drug overdose.
B. Reeves Eason, Jr. (1914-1921) – Hit by truck.
Mary Eaton (1901-1948) – Cirrhosis.
Diane Ellis (1909-1930) – Infection while traveling in India.
Frank Farrington (1873-1924) – Choked to death.
Casson Ferguson (1891-1929) – Pneumonia.
George Field (1877-1925) – Tuberculosis.
Vladmir Fogel (1902-1929) – Suicide (gunshot).
Tom Forman (1895-1926) – Suicide (gunshot).
Henry Fragson (1869-1913) – Murder (shot by his father). The father, diagnosed with senile dementia, died less than two months later while awaiting trial.
John Gilbert (1899-1936) – Heart attack.
Myrtle Gonzalez (1891-1918) – Spanish flu.
Fred Goodwins (1891-1923) – Bronchitis.
Katherine Grant (1904-1937) – Pulmonary tuberculosis.
Joseph Graybill (1887-1913) – Cause of death variously given; possibly spinal meningitis.
James Hall (1900-1940) – Cirrhosis.
Lillian Hall-Davis (1898-1933) – Suicide (gas).
Einar Hanson (1899-1927) – Car crash.
Mildred Harris (1901-1944) – Pneumonia following abdominal operation.
John Harron (1903-1939) – Spinal meningitis.
Robert Harron (1893-1920) – Gunshot, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Dick Hatton (1888-1931) – Car crash.
Bill Hauber (1891-1929) – Plane crash.
Ullrich Haupt, Sr. (1887-1931) – Hunting accident.
Walter Hiers (1893-1933) – Pneumonia.
Thelma Hill (1906-1938) – Alcoholism.
Thomas Holding (1878-1929) – Heart attack.
Allen Holubar (1888-1923) – Complications from gallstone surgery.
Helen Howard (1899-1927) – Car crash.
Shelly Hull (1884-1919) – Pneumonia.
Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (1925-1945) – Aviation accident in basic training. (Had been in silent “Our Gang” comedies as young as age 2.)
Arthur V. Johnson (1876-1916) – Tuberculosis.
Lamar Johnstone (1884-1918) – Heart disease.
Mildred June (1903-1940) – Cirrhosis of the liver.
Gregory Kelly (1891-1927) – Heart attack.
Merna Kennedy (1906-1944) – Heart attack.
Vera Kholodnaya (1893-1919) – Spanish flu.
Allyn King (1901-1930) – Suicide (jump).
Ruth King (1898-1946) – Unknown.
Florence La Badie (1888-1917) – Car crash.
Barbara La Marr (1896-1926) – Drug addiction and alcoholism. (I once met La Marr's son Don Gallery in Puerto Vallarta, where he was working as a docent at the Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton home Casa Kimberley. Delightful guy. He was raised by La Marr's close friend ZaSu Pitts and her husband Tom Gallery.)
Dee Lampton (1898-1919) – Appendicitis.
Elissa Landi (1904-1948) – Cancer.
Florence Lawrence (1886-1938) – Suicide (poison).
Pepi Lederer (1910-1935) – Suicide (jump).
Dan Leno (1860-1904) – Cause of death not reported; suffered from alcoholism and had spent time in an insane asylum.
Max Linder (1883-1925) – Double suicide with wife (sleeping pills, morphine, cutting of veins).
Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) – Suicide (barbiturate overdose). (For my money, the most beautiful woman ever to appear in movies. Her story is told brilliantly in Stanley Kwan's 1991 film Actress.)
Ormer Locklear (1891-1920) – Plane crash while performing stunt (footage incorporated into 1920 feature The Skywayman).
Harold Lockwood (1887-1918) – Spanish flu.
Jeanette Loff (1906-1942) – Ammonia poisoning, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) – Consumption.
Fred Mace (1878-1917) – Stroke.
Charles Emmett Mack (1900-1927) – Car crash.
Hughie Mack (1884-1927) – Heart disease.
Elsie Mackay (1893-1928) – Plane crash at sea; plane never recovered.
Martha Mansfield (1899-1923) – Accidental burning.
Marguerite Marsh (1888-1925) – Pneumonia.
Otto Matieson (1893-1932) – Car crash.
Eva May (1902-1924) – Suicide (gunshot).
Marc McDermott (1881-1929) – Cirrhosis.
Paddy McGuire (1884-1923) – Complications from syphilis? Had been institutionalized for insanity two years prior to death.
Sunny Jim McKeen (1924-1933) – Measles, blood poisoning.
Earl Metcalfe (1889-1928) – Fell out of plane.
Joe Moore (1894-1926) – Heart attack.
Mary Moore (1890-1919) – Spanish flu (while serving with Red Cross in France in aftermath of World War I).
James Murray (1901-1936) – Drowning (accidental?).
Evelyn Nelson (1899-1923) – Suicide (gas).
Mary Nolan (1902-1948) – Barbiturate overdose, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Mabel Normand (1892-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) – Murder.
Amieto Novelli (1885-1924) – Encephalitis.
Bill Parsons (1878-1919) – Diabetic coma.
Marcel Perez (1885-1927) – Cancer.
Edwin R. Phillips (1872-1915) – Pneumonia, heart disease.
Jack Pickford (1896-1933) – Drug addiction, alcoholism, and syphilis.
Lottie Pickford (1895-1936) – Heart attack.
Vitold Polonsky (1879-1919) – Food poisoning.
David Powell (1883-1925) – Pneumonia.
Evelyn Preer (1896-1932) – Pneumonia following childbirth.
Marie Prevost (1898-1937) – Alcoholism.
Valdemar Psilander (1884-1917) – Cause of death disputed; officially, heart attack; possible suicide (prescription drug overdose).
Rae Randall (Sigrun Solvason) (1897-1934) – Suicide (poison).
Virginia Rappe (1891-1921) – Peritonitis.
Marvel Rea (1901-1937) – Suicide (poison), several months after she was kidnapped and gang-raped.
Wallace Reid (1891-1923) – Drug addiction.
Lucille Ricksen (1910-1925) – Tuberculosis.
Billie Ritchie (1878-1921) – Cause of death reported as complications from internal injuries caused by kick in the stomach by ostrich on set; may have been stomach cancer in actuality.
Edith Roberts (1899-1935) – Septicemia following childbirth.
Earle Rodney (1888-1932) – Pneumonia.
Ruth Roland (1892-1937) – Cancer.
Alan (Albert) Roscoe (1886-1933) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Alma Rubens (1897-1931) – Drug addiction.
William Russell (1884-1929) – Pneumonia; brother of director Albert Russell, who also died of pneumonia two weeks later.
Emilie Sannom (1886-1931) – Aviation accident (failure of parachute deployment).
Dorothy Seastrom (1903-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Larry Semon (1889-1928) – Pneumonia, tuberculosis.
Clarine Seymour (1898-1920) – Strangulation of the intestines.
William Sherwood (1896-1918) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources; Spanish flu?
George Siegmann (1882-1928) – Pernicious anemia. Had been badly hurt in Tod Browning-Elmer Booth car crash years earlier.
Milton Sills (1882-1930) – Heart attack.
Hal Skelly (1891-1934) – Passenger in a car that was hit by a train. (He entered films in 1928, so all his movies are actually sound.)Sid Smith (1893-1928) – Alcohol poisoning from bad liquor.
Jack Standing (1886-1917) – Pneumonia.
Emily Stevens (1882-1928) – Pneumonia.
William Stowell (1885-1919) – Train crash.
Lilyan Tashman (1896-1934) – Cancer, complications from surgery.
Lou Tellegen (1881-1934) – Suicide (stabbing hara-kiri style).
Olive Thomas (1894-1920) – Mercury bichloride ingestion; disputed as to whether accident or suicide.
Fred Thomson (1890-1928) – Tetanus.
Mary Thurman (1895-1925) – Pneumonia.
Thelma Todd (1906-1935) – Carbon monoxide poisoning (car in garage); disputed as to whether accident, suicide, or murder.
Wayland Trask, Jr. (1887-1918) – Spanish flu.
Hugh Trevor (1903-1933) – Complications from appendectomy.
Norman Trevor (1877-1929) – Brain malady.
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) – Peritonitis.
Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) – Heart attack.
Marie Walcamp (1894-1936) – Suicide (prescription drug overdose).
Blanche Walsh (1873-1915) – Kidney failure.
Dorrit Weixler (1892-1916) – Suicide (hanging); suffered from morphine addiction.
Pearl White (1889-1938) – Cirrhosis.
Robert Williams (1894-1931) – Peritonitis following two appendicitis operations.
Al Wilson (1895-1932) – Plane crash.
Grant Withers (1904-1959) – Suicide.
Helen Lee Worthing (1905-1948) – Suicide (barbiturate overdose).
Ralph Yearsley (1896-1928) – Suicide.
Valentina Zimina (1899-1928) – Influenza.
The bit about Helene Chadwick's "highly nervous state" irresistibly reminds me of the great scene in Wonder Boys when celebrity suicide aficionado Tobey Maguire, egged on by Katie Holmes, recites some of his knowledge to an amused Robert Downey, Jr.
Hannah Green: Mr. Crabtree was saying how George Sanders killed himself, only he couldn't remember how.
James Leer: Pills. April 25, 1972, in a Costa Brava hotel room.
Terry Crabtree: How comprehensive of you.
Hannah Green: James is amazing. He knows all the movie suicides. Go ahead, James. Tell him.
James Leer: There are so many.
Hannah Green: Well, just a few. The big ones.
James Leer: Pier Angeli, 1971 or '72, also pills. Donald "Red" Barry, shot himself in 1980. Charles Boyer, 1978, pills again. Charles Butterworth, 1946, I think. In a car. Supposedly, it was an accident, but, you know, he was distraught. Dorothy Dandridge, pills, 1965. Albert Dekker, 1968. He hung himself. He wrote his suicide note in lipstick on his stomach. William Inge, carbon monoxide, 1973. Carole Landis, pills again. I forget when. George Reeves, "Superman" on TV, shot himself. Jean Seberg, pills, of course, 1979. Everett Sloane - he was good - pills. Margaret Sullavan, pills. Lupe Velez, a lot of pills. Gig Young, he shot himself and his wife in 1978. There are tons more.
Hannah Green: I haven't heard of half of them.
Terry Crabtree: You did them alphabetically.
James Leer: It's just how my brain works, I guess.
"But, you know, he was distraught." Classic.