The Mysteries of Margaret Gibson

Silent movie actress Margaret Gibson (1894-1964) has over 150 film credits, but today any chatter about her tends to be about her private life and several crimes she may or may not have committed.

The daughter of two performers, Gibson became a professional herself at age 12, performing on the Pantages vaudeville circuit for two years and with the Theodore Lorch Stock Company for three. She began appearing in films at Vitagraph in 1913, mostly westerns. Three years later she, moved to Thomas Ince. She also worked fo Centaur and other studios during these early years. On a couple of occasions, she was credited as “Margie Gibson”, “Marguerite Gibson”, or “Helen Gibson”.

In 1917, her first brush with the law. She was picked up for “vagrancy” (prostitution) and also opium dealing. Obviously, she was working steadily in films at the time, so it’s unlikely that she was a streetwalker, but more likely fell into the initially gray area of accepting presents (and then more) for attention to well-heeled dates. At any rate, the resulting publicity resulted in a sea change in her career, although not nearly the fatal end one might have imagined. She changed her primary professional name to Patricia Palmer (and on at least one occasion Patsy Palmer), although on occasion when it suited her and her studio she continued under the old name Margaret Gibson. This was sometimes the case when she appeared in Christie Comedies, both shorts and features, with the likes of Fay Tincher, Bobby Vernon, and others. And she continued to have good supporting roles, pretty much to the end of the silent era, in such films as Hold Your Breath (1924) with Dorothy Devore and Naughty Nanette (1927) in which she is second billed to Viola Dana. Her last film was the FBO western The Little Savage (1929) with child star Buzz Barton and Milburn Morante. She never made a talking picture.

And the number of films she appeared slowed down a might around the middle of the ’20s. The reason was more scandal. In 1923 she was busted as part of an extortion ring. The racket was to trick or entice lascivious men into violating the Mann Act (transporting underage girls across state lines for immoral purposes) and then blackmail them. She herself was no longer underage, but she had a coterie of younger followers whom she could recruit for these purposes. This activity may have led to an even darker crime, which we shall return to.

In 1935, Gibson bolted the country and moved to Singapore (whether to avoid authorities or gangsters is not known). She married an oil executive with whom she traveled throughout Asia. It was rather a dicey time to being doing so, given the Japanese expansionism than underway that would soon lead to World War. WWII was very closely on the horizon when Gibson developed a dangerous bladder infection in 1940. With no decent medical treatment within reach, she had to risk traveling back to the U.S. for an operation. While she was there, war broke out, and her husband was killed in Malaysia a few months later in a Japanese bombing. She spent the rest of her life as a recluse in Los Angeles.

In October 1964, she was watching a loval TV news program when she caught a segment about the 1922 William Desmond Taylor murder. Witnesses reported that the show agitated her, and she claimed to have been the killer. The following day, feeling unwell, she sent for a priest, confessed the killing to him, then died of a heart attack. As we’ve written, many people figure Mary Miles Minter and/or her mother Charlotte Shelby for the killer. But why on earth would someone confess? And there is the related pecadillo with extortion racket and there are apparently connections to the Arbuckle scandal as well. A new podcast about Gibson’s confession came out just a couple of months ago which you may wish to explore. Access it here.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.