Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mysterious Death of Superman

The Evidence

The private investigator looking into the Reeves case found the following inconsistencies related to the evidence suggesting that his death was not a suicide:

  • No fingerprints were found on the gun.
  • There were no powder burns on the head wound, which would imply the gun was held several inches from the head at the time it was fired. This is unusual for a suicide. The victim usually has the gun held directly against the head.
  • His hands were not tested for gunpowder residue, so that's no help one way or the other.
  • The spent shell was found under his body. How could that have happened?
  • Other bruises were found on his body. How did they get there?
  • The gun was found between his feet. In nearly all suicides involving a gun, where it falls is usually consistent. If the victim is sitting or standing, it falls to his or her feet. If he or she is lying down, it would fall next to the head. It is believed that Reeves was lying down at the time.
  • The police were not called for at least half an hour to 45 minutes after the death. The theory is that Leonore and the houseguests had to sober up so they could get their stories straight.
  • Over the years, the general assumption has been that Reeves was depressed over the Superman show's cancellation, and this depression caused him to take his own life. He was supposedly unhappy over being "typecast" in the Superman role and unhappy over not being able to get any other roles. However, his supposed "slump" was over by the time of his death, and his friends agreed he was happier than had been in years. He was looking forward to his marriage and to another season of the popular TV show, which had just been rescheduled for the following season. Money wasn't a problem either; he got residuals from the Superman reruns and other sources. In addition, he had reportedly signed a five-picture deal with Paramount Pictures.

Light heavyweight champion Archie Moore
Light heavyweight champion Archie

Some accounts, supported by scenes in the movie, say that he was being forced to consider going into professional wrestling just to sustain himself. However, aside from appearing publicly with some well-known professional wrestlers, there is no credible evidence to suggest that he ever took this prospect seriously.

Moreover, the day after his death, he was scheduled to box with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Why would someone take their own life when they were given the chance to shine in the spotlight of such a high-profile event?

Over the years after Reeves' death, Jack Larson and Noel Neill both insisted that Reeves did not commit suicide. However, neither of them were there when it happened.

Noel Neill as Lois Lane posing with Reeves as Superman
Noel Neill as Lois Lane posing with
Reeves as Superman

But there is some credible evidence that could be used to back the suicide theory and verdict. It was reported that Reeves had suffered a concussion in an auto accident shortly before his death, which resulted in a doctor prescribing heavy-duty painkillers. This leads some to suspect that his mental health may have been compromised, and he could, indeed, have been driven to take his own life. He also had a drinking problem at one time but had reportedly gone on the wagon about a year before his death. Nonetheless, the blood-alcohol content found in his body shortly after his death was revealed to be .27, two and a half times the legal intoxication point.

On the Straight Dope website, which tries to give straight answers to urban myths, a staffer and Reeves expert identified only as "jumblejim" examines all the evidence and known facts, and concludes that Reeves' death was a suicide. Among other things, he believes that Reeves was sitting up when he shot himself, which would make it logical to find the gun by his feet and the spent bullet casing under his body. The casing could have fallen on the bed and Reeves could have fallen on top of it. The bullet hole in the ceiling, too, could be easily explained if Reeves had been sitting up.

No fingerprints were found on the gun but if, as had been reported, the gun had been recently oiled, it would have been impossible to get a reliable set of prints. Fingerprints do not hold in oil any better than they would in any other liquid.

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