Howard Hughes was a film director who, in 1942, met struggling actor David Bacon, and signed him to a three year contract and brought him to Los Angeles, California. He had intended on Bacon playing Billy the Kid in The Outlaw. However, after a screen test, it became clear that the clean cut man from New England was unsuitable to play the role. For the forthcoming year, Bacon remained under contract for the Hughes Studio where he was considered “ a high-class gentleman” but there was just “nothing for him to do.”
Bacon came from a prominent Boston family; he was the son of Lt. Colonel David C. G. Bacon. He studied at Harvard University before attempting to make it as an actor. While in Los Angeles, Bacon met Austrian singer, Greta Keller, and later on in her life, she would confess that she was a lesbian and that Bacon was gay. Their marriage was what would be referred to as a “beard” and allowed both parties to maintain their façade in Hollywood. According to Keller, Bacon “liked tall blonde boys best.”1
In early September of 1943, Bacon finished his role as the Masked Marvel in a 15 chapter movie serial at Republic Studios. During the filming, four of the five actors who were to play the Masked Marvel had been injured during filming a fighting scene. Bacon joked that he will “probably get hurt going home in the car.”
As it turned out, this was an eerie premonition.
Shortly after 5PM on the 12th of September, 1943, a Sedan was spotted driving erratically and meandering through Washington Blvd., barely missing a telephone pole before crashing into a bean field near Thatcher Ave. A man emerged from the wreckage wearing just a pair of white swimming trunks. He was covered in blood and stumbled into the field before collapsing. Wayne Powell of 1022 Harrison St. was the first to rush to the wounded man. “Please help me, please help me,” he said before bleeding to death.
The man was soon identified as David Bacon.
While at first glance, it appeared as though Bacon had been the victim of a tragic automobile accident, a medical examiner found a single knife wound to his back just below the lowest rib that had punctured the lower portion of his heart. The medical examiner determined that somebody with such a wound could have survived for 20 minutes. His body bore no other wounds or bruises indicating that there hadn’t been a struggle. It became clear that this was no accident; David Bacon had been murdered. Upon hearing of her husband’s murder, Keller – who had been pregnant with their child – suffered a miscarriage.
Keller told investigators that Bacon had been at the beach that afternoon; she had planned to go with him but had been feeling under the weather and opted to stay home. However, it was noted that Bacon didn’t take his three dogs with him – when he went swimming, he always took his dogs. This led investigators to theorise that Bacon had possibly been planning on meeting with somebody that afternoon. Several witnesses claimed to have seen a man and a woman in the car with Bacon earlier in the day. Another woman said that shortly before the crash, she had seen two men in the car. She noticed them because she thought that Bacon – who was driving the car – was naked.2 She described the man as having black hair and a dark complexion. It was theorised that this could have been someone Bacon had arranged to meet or possibly even a hitchhiker.
Robbery as a motive was quickly ruled out. Neither of the valuable rings Bacon was wearing had been stolen and neither had his wallet or the $13 inside. An extensive search of the car and crash scene failed to turn up the knife or any unidentified fingerprints. A wool sweater was discovered in Bacon’s car which would be identified as the type given to Venice High School athletes around six years prior. Short blonde hairs and three small feathers were also found. An examination of the feathers in the car determined that they had come from some kind of waterfowl leading investigators to surmise that Bacon had possibly met a young, blonde, man at the beach who was wearing the sweater or carrying it.3
It was determined that the knife used to kill Bacon was around 6 inches long with a handle that would make it a foot long. Therefore, medical examiners deduced that it was unlikely that such a knife could have been used with such force in a small car leading them to believe Bacon was stabbed elsewhere or potentially even stabbed as he was leaning forward in the car. They also theorised that the angle of the stab wound indicated “a left-handed, short-statured man” was the killer.
Due to the time frame, investigators were stumped as to why Bacon didn’t get out of the car earlier and search for help. It was determined he had been stabbed around 15 – 20 minutes before he died in the field. One theory was that he had been attempting to drive to a hospital. An investigation into the murder revealed that Bacon had rented out a small nearby cottage. Even more peculiar, police found a camera in the back seat of the car. After having the camera developed, they found one single photo showing a nude and smiling David Bacon, posing on the beach. Police theorised that Bacon’s killer had taken the photograph and killed him shortly thereafter.
At one point in the investigation, a friend of Bacon claimed that he had told him that he was being blackmailed. The following day, the friend recanted their statement. Rumours began to circulate around Los Angeles that Bacon had been in a secretive relationship with Howard Hughes and that he was panning on publishing a book in an effort to blackmail Hughes. While Keller claimed she knew nothing about the blackmail aspect, she did say she had believed the two men were secret lovers.4
One early person of interest was Erwin Shaum, who had been hired as a gardener by Bacon.The reason he became a suspect was because investigators had claimed he was left-handed and that the sweater found in the car could have fit him. He was arrested at his home in Monrovia, California, where he confessed he had been hired by Bacon nine days earlier. However, Shaum claimed that he had not seen his prospective employer since that day. He was quickly ruled out as a suspect. Another suspect was Blakely C. Patterson, who sold his so-called confession to two reporters. However, he too was quickly ruled out as a suspect; he had just been trying to get a quick buck.
While Bacon had a number of small roles, he never got any big breaks but his mysterious and gruesome death saw his name and face emblazoned on newspapers across America. In death, he reached the celebrity status he dreamed about while alive. Over seven decades have passed, and the murder of the “Masked Marvel” still remains unsolved.
- New York Daily News, 21 May, 1944 – “What Has Happened?”
- The Boston Globe, 14 September, 1943 – “Masked Marvel Murder Case for Ellery Queen”
- The San Francisco Chronicle, 24 Otober, 1943 – “Hollywood’s Real Thrillers Challenge It’s Cleverests Movie Sleuths”
- Los Angeles Examiner, 18 April 2012 – “Who Killed the Masked Marvel?