Wikipedia: Murder and Myth – Part 1

Wikipedia -- Wallace Beery

As longtime readers know, the L.A. Daily Mirror is usually a Wikipedia-free zone. I consider it a sinkhole of myth, mistakes, rumors and folklore that is created and maintained by “citizen scholars,” crackpots, coding tweakers, factoid zealots and folks in tinfoil hats. (There – that should get a rebuttal from the usual suspects).

Yes, it’s good for looking up “When was the War of 1812?” or “What color was the old gray mare?” and if you’re seeking a painfully detailed plot summary of every episode of “The Simpsons” or a lengthy biography of Eric Cartman, this place is for you. Otherwise, no.

However, I stumbled across this little jewel and when I managed to get my jaw off the floor, I thought it might be a good way to explore Wikipedia’s fundamental problems and at the same time delve into Hollywood myth. This is going to be a long, tedious examination of Wikipedia and the historical record on a molecular level.  Stooge fans, I think you’re going to enjoy this.

Previously
Me vs. Wikipedia
Wikipedia Hoax Exposed
A World Without Wikipedia – Not Such a Bad Idea

Here’s the quote. Or at least here’s the quote as of April 14, 2013, at 8:40 a.m. In one of Wikipedia’s fundamental flaws, entries are prone to endless revisions, “revert wars” and general mayhem in which a page is blanked and replaced by something like “Jason is gay – ha ha.” What I see may not be what you see in a week, a month or even in the next five minutes.

According to E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers (about MGM’s legendary “fixers” Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling), Beery, gangster Pat DiCicco, and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli (who was also DiCicco’s cousin and eventual producer of the James Bond films) allegedly beat comedian Ted Healy to death in the parking lot of the Trocadero nightclub in 1937. The book claims that Beery was sent to Europe by the studio for a few months, while a story was concocted that three college students had killed Healy. Immigration records confirm a four-month-long trip to Europe on Beery’s part immediately after Healy’s death, ending April 17, 1938.[4] A pencil drawing of Beery survives that was done on a film set by Healy, an amateur artist as well as movie actor and the organizer and original leader of The Three Stooges.

To which I say: Oh really?

Interestingly enough, we find almost the identical wording in the entry on Thelma Todd. Someone has thoughtfully added the date of the beating as Dec. 21, 1937 – this being Wikipedia, it is, of course, the incorrect date, but we’ll leave that for later:

Wikipedia -- Thelma Todd
Similar language is used in the entry for “The Good Old Soak,” a 1937 film featuring Beery and Healy. Notice that the “pencil drawing” has become “a superb pencil drawing.” Wikipedia, you make this all too easy.

Wikipedia -- Good Old Soak

Let’s see where else we can find this tale:

Wikipedia -- Broccoli

Here’s the entry on Albert Broccoli, one of Beery’s alleged accomplices. Notice that in this version, Healy was killed in a barroom brawl, rather than in the parking lot.

image

In the entry on the Trocadero, Healy dies shortly after a fight in the parking lot, beaten by Wallace Beery and MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix. Yes, Mannix has gone from fixer to killer! Really, folks, shooting holes in Wikipedia is child’s play.

How about the Mannix entry?

Wikipedia -- Eddie Mannix
This one says Healy was beaten to death in the parking lot.

And the Strickling entry?

Wikipedia -- Howard Strickling
It says Healy “died of injuries suffered in a brawl.”

And what do we find in the Ted Healy entry?

Wikipedia -- Ted Healy

We have two competing versions, one mentioning “three college boys” and the other listing Beery, et al.

So we have a total of eight entries that mention this incident. Two of them are almost identical and the rest vary, in some cases tremendously. As far as I am concerned, the degree of conflicting information shows the fundamental flaws of Wikipedia – even without examining the purported source material. This would be intolerable in an actual encyclopedia. But in a fan-created and maintained website, it’s business as usual.

The question now is whether any of these entries have a factual basis. Nearly all of them cite E.J. Flemming’s “The Fixers” as a source. But who says that’s a reliable book in the first place?

To be continued.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1937, Film, History, Hollywood, Homicide and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Wikipedia: Murder and Myth – Part 1

  1. Stacia says:

    Coincidentally, I came across all this just a few months ago! I was doing a post on Gloria Swanson for my blog and was reading Beery’s Wikipedia entry, saw the story, and started digging around. Never could find anything about this that didn’t come straight from The Fixers.

    Back when I was editing Wikipedia, I saw a lot of people ask the same question you did: How can you be sure a book is reliable? Hollywood Babylon isn’t, for example, and I know one book on Marie Prevost is filled with errors. But I can’t correct anything that uses those sources because my research is what they call “original research” and Wikipedia doesn’t allow me to use it. Someone else could, but not me. Editors get around this by blogging their “original research” under a different name and using their own blog for a source on Wikipedia.

    Also, I discovered not too long ago that people will add content that isn’t true and use a fake source, knowing if people see a footnote after a sentence they will just assume that means the source really does support that specific fact. If I edit anything nowadays, it’s to remove the fake info and jot down on the talk page why I did it.

  2. Undine says:

    Good work. That pernicious site can’t be mocked too often for me.

  3. Benito says:

    Ted Healy’s beating by “an anonymous trio” and death is described in “From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons, The Three Stooges, An Illustrated History” [1999] by Michael Fleming [aha! another Fleming!], at pages 50 to 51. Albert Broccoli, identified only as “a Long Island man”, is quoted. In essence he said that a drunk Healy hit him and he didn’t hit back, then Healy left in a cab. Allegedly, police cast doubt on this version because B. didn’t come forward until after the case was closed. Healy’s widow is quoted as saying that witnesses approached her with their stories, but their versions are not included. No sources for these quotes or claims are given, and The Fixers is not mentioned in the sketchy prologue. Healy gets a fair amount of attention and evidently he was a stellar eccentric and mean drunk, but he’s not the main focus. Oh well, Fleming is/was a columnist for Variety and this was his first book. It is “official and authorized”, has a foreword by Mel Gibson, great stories and photos, and good summaries and stills of the 3 Stooges shorts and movies, but scholarly it ain’t.

  4. aryedirect says:

    From what you’ve shown, Wikipedia seems like a game of telephone without the actual instrument.

  5. LC says:

    How did The Times (NY or LA) cover the story?

  6. JAMES says:

    That pencil drawing of Wallace Beery by Ted Healy is excellant. Healy was a great artist.

  7. JAMES says:

    I once read an original L.A. newspaper account of Ted Healys death. On the same page was a story that Henry Fonda and his wife just had a baby girl named Jane.

  8. I’m thrilled you’re tearing into this, Larry. I’ve long been intrigued by the Ted Healy case, however inconsistencies in the various vox populi accounts are a little bewildering. If you can’t sort this out, nobody can. Kudos for your usual dogged pursuit of the truth. Looking forward to your articles, as always…

  9. Found your excellent blog via Mike Evanier’s News From ME.

    Ted Healy’s death IS fascinating … Google up old news articles and you get seemingly conflicting stories. For example:

    The Pittsburgh Press – December 22, 1937, Foul Play Ruled Out In Ted Healy’s Death

    Autopsy shows Comedian Died of Heart Disease and Lung Congestion – Discolored Eye and Cuts Had Let to Belief Fight Injuries Were Cause

    By the United Press

    Hollywood, Dec. 22 – Ted Healy, famous stage and screen comedian, died of heart disease and lung congestion, with no evidence of injuries from foul play, Coronoer F.A. Nance announced today following an autopsy.

    A discolored eye and two clips holding a wound over the other eye led police to believe the actor’s death may have resulted from injuries suffered Sunday night when Mr. Healy was making the rounds of the film capital’s gav [sic] night spots.

    Coroner Nance said Mr. Healy’s death was “wholly due to natural causes.”

    Died Yesterday

    Mr. Healy died suddenly yesterday and it was at first announced that death had been due to a “stroke.” But his physician, Dr. Wyland Lamont, refused to sign a certificate setting forth the cause of death.

    Sunday night, police learned Mr. Healy had been seen in many of Hollywood’s best known drinking places, including the Trocadero, the Brown Derby, and Clara Bow’s “It” cocktail room. He talked long and loudly, like other fathers have since time began, about the merits of his new son.

    Somewhere along his route, they surmised, another reveler, as yet unidentified, objected. Mr. Healy and his self-appointed critic argued, then fought. And Mr. Healy fell, with blood streaming from his temple. A doctor treated him for the wound, and, sobered, repentent, and ashamed, he went home and said nothing about it.

    Suffered Convulsions

    Monday he suffered one convulsion after another. There was frequent vomiting – all symptoms of a fractured skull or brain concussion. Finally, when a physician was brought in for the second time, it was too late.

    There were reports that Mr. Healy had engaged in a terrific fight at the Trocadero, rendezvous of the movie stars.

    Man Mountain Dean, the behemoth wrestler, who accompanied Mr. Healy to a Hollywood doctor’s office for treatment, reported he had been standing in front of the Plaza Hotel at 2:30 a.m. when a taxicab rolled up and the comedian staggered out. He was bleeding from a cut over one eye.

    Mr. Dean said Mr. Healy blurted out an incoherent story that he had been struck at the Trocadero Cafe, but was in such a condition he did not know who had hit him.

    http://tinyurl.com/9odx49u

    I look forward to more future Healy posts !

  10. Michael Powers says:

    An odd thing about this whole controversy remains that I actually grew up believing that Healy had died from a beating administered by three college students. I first learned this from a tiny booklet about the history of the Stooges published in the late ’50s or early ’60s that was mailed to members of some sort of Three Stooges Fan Club during their television-driven revival of that period. I think I also heard and read that in a variety of other places over the years before Fleming’s opus appeared. I’m not particularly certain that Los Angeles newspapers in the 1930s, considering that era’s studio clout, would be much more trustworthy than Fleming, Wikipedia, or even that Stooges Fan Club booklet. One thing’s for sure, though: you’re so right about it being hard to envision Ted Healy competing with Wallace Beery any more than Larry Fine could have played Rhett Butler or Shemp Howard might have supplanted Spencer Tracy.

    • lmharnisch says:

      Having read all the local newspapers’ accounts from 1937, I have to say there is nothing about the “three college students” rumor. And I would say that the studios’ sway over all four major papers (the Examiner, the Herald-Express, the Daily News and The Times) was probably not as great as conspiracy theorists might think. The Hearst papers especially dealt in scandals.

  11. Michael Powers says:

    And one more thought about that initial Wikipedia paragraph: we have to admit that it did say, “According to E. J. Fleming’s book…..” rather than simply presenting the story as fact. And Beery does appear to have gone to Europe for a while, more or less the moment his busy filming schedule permitted him to do so, at least to judge from a cursory reading of this fascinating series very late last night (you kept me awake, fighting sleep, until I’d read every word).

    • lmharnisch says:

      True… Which is why I pursue the question of whether a dubious book like “The Fixers” is suitable for an online encyclopedia — or any encyclopedia. I think of it as “fact laundering,” in which a problematic book gets cited in Wikipedia and then gets picked up by other sources until it becomes “widely known.”

      There is quite a bit still to come on the death of Ted Healy…. I had no idea how long this project would take when I started. We will get to the Forrester brothers’ book and Michael Fleming’s book on the Stooges and look at their versions of Ted Healy’s death.

  12. Michael Powers says:

    And for my final comment for the evening: you’re also basically right about Wikipedia in general and this is the funniest article about its vagaries that I’ve ever seen. The precision of the descriptions of some of the typical behaviors was sublime and screamingly funny.

  13. Michael Powers says:

    Where do you think those phantom “college students” came from? An intriguing question to say the least. Most interesting that there wasn’t a word about them in the newspapers of the period, which dashes Fleming’s version more than any coroner’s report as far as I’m concerned.

    • lmharnisch says:

      I’m sure it has an origin, but I’m not sure what it was. It apparently predates Michael Fleming’s book, which is the earliest published version I could find… Much more lies ahead, believe me.

  14. Pingback: Playground to the Stars » What Really Happened the Night Ted Healy Was Beaten at Cafe Trocadero?

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