Wednesday, February 24, 2016

History's Rich With Mysteries with Earl Staggs: "WHO KILLED SUPERMAN?"

After considering the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance last month, author Earl Staggs is back this month with the mysterious death of actor George Reeves.


When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.


By Earl Staggs

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!" That's how we were introduced to the greatest superhero of them all -- Superman, the Man of Steel, who "fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!"

Actor George Reeves became famous for portraying Superman in a 1950's television show. Unfortunately, the part about outrunning a bullet was not true for him. On June 16, 1959, the forty-five-year-old actor died from a gunshot to the head.  The official ruling was suicide, but there were many who believed it was a homicide.

Born George Keefer Brewer in 1914 in Woolstock, Iowa, young George grew up in Ashland, Kentucky, and Pasadena, California. In California, he took up boxing and compiled a record of 31-0 by the age of 20.  His headstrong mother, however, insisted he preserve his good looks and try acting. George did and soon began landing movie roles.

His first movie role was in the great classic Gone With the Wind. He was one of two brothers wooing Scarlett O'Hara in the opening scene. By then, his name had been changed to George Reeves. Other small parts followed, but his burgeoning career was detoured when he was drafted into the Army in 1943.

At the end of the war, George returned to Hollywood but found his acting career had faded, and he had trouble getting parts. In desperation, he signed on to make a low-budget movie called Superman and the Mole People, which was to be a pilot for a TV series. The series became a huge hit, and he became famous as the caped superhero from Krypton.

Offscreen, he became involved in an affair with Toni Mannix, wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix, allegedly a former crime boss who worked for the studio.  In 1958, George broke off that relationship and began dating Lenore Lemmon, a former New York showgirl with a reputation as a hotheaded troublemaker. After dating for a year, George and Lenore announced their plans to get married.

On June 15, 1959, three days before they were to be married and leave for a honeymoon in Spain, the engaged couple went to dinner with friends, then returned home to party some more. George grew tired and went upstairs to bed early. Hours later, the revelers heard a gunshot and ran upstairs to check. They found George lying across the bed naked with his feet on the floor, a bullet hole in his temple, and .30 Luger on the floor between his feet.

The official ruling was suicide, but some people felt they had good reasons to believe someone murdered him:

. . .There were no fingerprints found on the gun, leaving some to wonder if it had been wiped clean. If George had shot himself, he certainly could not have wiped the gun.

. . .The spent shell casing was found under his body. While it is conceivable the ejected casing landed on the mattress before the body fell on it, it is not likely.

. . .Fresh bruises were found on his body but were never explained.

. . .The bullet passed through his body and lodged in a wall, but the bullet's path did not line up with the entry and exits wounds on his body.

His fiancee, Lenore Lemmon, said George felt “typecast” as Superman and committed suicide because he could not get any other kind of roles. She denied suggestions that she and George had a fierce argument, possibly because he had decided not to marry her, and she shot him.

Reeves' mother never accepted the conclusion that her son killed himself. She hired a private investigator who concluded the gunshot was not self-inflicted. In spite of this, the official ruling remained suicide.

Noel Neill, an actress who played Lois Lane in the TV show, said. "All I know is that George always seemed happy to me, and I saw him two days before he died and he was still happy then.”

Jack Larson, who played Superman's sidekick Jimmy Olsen on the show, originally doubted the suicide ruling but later accepted it.

In 1999, Los Angeles publicist Edward Lozzi claimed Toni Mannix confessed to a Catholic priest in his presence that she was responsible for having Reeves killed because he broke off their affair. She allegedly used her husband's conection to find a hit man to do the job. Others believe her husband Eddie Mannix, the former mobster, had George killed because of the affair.

So we're left with strong arguments on on all sides, leaving us the option to decide for ourselves. Did the Man of Steel take his own life, or did someone else do it?

If I had to make a guess, it would be that Toni Mannix hired a professionl hit man to kill George. She had given him money, cars, and even bought the house he lived in for him. When he dumped her for another woman, she couldn't take it. It would have been tricky for a killer to enter the house, go upstairs, shoot George, then get away without being seen by the others in the house at the time, but professionals are clever at that sort of thing.

That's only a guess, of course. We'll never know for sure and must file it away as another unsolved mystery in the pages of history.

Earl Staggs ©2016

Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year.  He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. 

He invites any comments via email at

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


Barry Ergang said...

As usual, Earl, a good article.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Barry. I'm enjoying doing these.

Susan said...

Great article, Earl. Strange how after almost 60 years Reeves' death still fascinates us. He truly reached a lot of us in our youth, didn't he? Personally, my vote is for one of the Maddixes - or both!

M.M. Gornell said...

Earl, Superman was one of my favorites, so found your post very interesting! My vote is murder. Not a hard call, given the evidence presented.

Patricia Smith Wood said...

Really good article Earl! I never believed George Reeves committed suicide. And the way you describe the scene of his death makes no sense as a suicide. I mean, come on. If you were going to kill yourself, would you strip down to your birthday suit?

Marja said...

You've done it again, Earl. I don't believe it was suicide either, and the items you brought up convince me of it. Excellent post!
Marja McGraw

Kaye George said...

I'm with you, Earl. Definitely not suicide, with that evidence. (What is wrong with the justice system sometimes???) The mob hit is the most likely. Poor guy, to get mixed up with such awful people. I LOVED Superman and he's the Original Man of Steel.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I don't think he committed suicide. I suspect a lot of "suicides" are murder.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, I agree with you about whodunnit. Too bad they were never charged.

Earl Staggs said...

Madeline, how strange that the police did not pursue the case as a homicide, but that's Hollywood for you.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Marja. I appreciate you taking time to leave a comment. Especially since you agree with me. ;-)

Earl Staggs said...

Patricia, you're right. Very rare for a suicide to die in his birthday suit. I didn't mention this, but he also did not leave a suicide note, which is also common in a suicide.

Earl Staggs said...

Kaye, I think many of us loved the original Superman and felt a great loss when he died. You don't want to get me started on what's wrong with the justice system. I could go on for days.

Earl Staggs said...

Hi, Caroline! Thanks for dropping in. You could be right about many suicides being murder. If a killer makes it look like the victim took his own life, it's the perfect crime.