A Tragic Death in Western Film

I must have driven State Road 79 to Phoenix a dozen times. On each of those travels I’d pass the Tom Mix Wash and, in passing, wonder who Tom Mix was and what he did to be famous enough to have a wash named after himself. It wasn’t until his name came up in connection with a certain Santa Rita Hotel that I remembered the name “Tom Mix” long enough to look him up. That’s when I learned that Tom Mix Wash was where silent film star Tom Mix spent the last moments of his life.

The names Clint Eastwood and John Wayne have been synonymous with western film for as long as I’ve been alive. What I didn’t know was that there was another name that had made the genre popular long before I was born. That fellow was Tom Mix.

Cowboys of the Silver Screen

Tom Mix is one of four western film actors honored in the April 17, 2010 USPS commemorative stamps titled "Cowboys of the Silver Screen".

Young Tom Mix

Thomas Hezikiah Mix was born in Mix Run, Pennsylvania on January 6, 1880. He grew up in Dubois, Pennsylvania where he worked on a local farm owned by John Dubois.

After seeing Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show, Tom Mix began fantasizing about being a cowboy. This eventually inspired the boy to quit school after only receiving a fourth grade education. He immediately began his “training”. As a kid Tom Mix “learned to ride anything that could walk”– his mother even caught him riding a cow home in the rain so he wouldn’t get his shoes muddy. It was also around this time Tom, then twelve, was accidentally shot in his leg. Twenty-five years later, the bullet would be removed.

Mix’s U.S. Military Career

Mix was a restless spirit and when the Spanish-American War broke out, he immediately signed up for active duty in the United States military. On April 25, 1898 in Washington, D.C., he took his pre-enlistment medical exam and on April 26th his enlistment papers were signed and he was assigned to Battery M, Fourth Regiment, United States Army Artillery.

Tom had told enlistment officers that he was 21 years old at the time of his enlistment. He was only 18. This could have been because of difficulty getting his parents, who were in Dubois, to sign the consent in case of minor form. Tom also listed Driftwood in lieu of Debois as his place of residence, possibly because Driftwood was a larger town where he’d spent several years of his younger life. The medical records from his enlistment are also interesting in that they provide a full physical description of Mix including several distinctive scars as well as his height and weight at the time.

Beginning May 1, 1898, Battery M was first charged with protecting the DuPont powder works at Montchanin, Delaware. As boring as it sounds, it was quite an important and dangerous job in that the powder works produced the bulk of brown gunpowder or “cocoa” for the United states government. On July 1, 1898, Mix was promoted to the rank of corporal. On December 31, 1898, Tom was promoted to the rank of sergeant. By August 1898, the Spanish-American war was over and Mix’s heavy artillery unit never left American soil.

On April 17, 1899 Tom Mix was transferred to Battery O of the same regiment (Fourth Regiment) and moved to Fort Monroe, Virginia where he remained stationed for the remainder of his enlistment. On November 18, 1899, Tom Mix was promoted to First Sergeant. A year later, on November 13, 1900, he took his first furlough home to DuBois. At the culmination of his three years of service, on April 25, 1901 at Fort Hancock, Tom Mix was honorably discharged.

Reenlisting & Desertion

The Spanish-American War had come and gone with no action for Mix. Likewise, the Philippine Insurrection had come and gone. In January 1901 the Boer War had started and was still going strong, so immediately after being discharged from the U.S. military Tom Mix reenlisted. Once again, the medical records of his enlistment provide a complete physical description of Tom Mix at that time. Notably, his hair had darkened, he’d grown several inches taller and his shoulders had broadened. He was no longer a boy.

There is a lot of speculation about Tom Mix’s life during the first year of his reenlistment because there isn’t a lot of documentation of him doing anything noteworthy. Some have speculated that the U.S. Military allowed Mix to help the Boers in the Boer War, but there are no records in Battery O which indicate Tom left at this time. The National Archives and Records Service also stated that Sergeant Mix never served in the 1st Regiment United States Volunteer cavalry, which is also called the “Rough Riders”. Nor at any time was Tom Mix wounded in action. He did not receive any decorations or medals. The only “real” military action Tom Mix would see happened between September 14 and September 15, 1902, when he was involved in war games.

Much of Mix’s military career has been sensationalized by Tom Mix himself in an article called “My Life Story” which he wrote for Photoplay Magazine in February 1925. The story within the article seems to be the source of the misinformation that has been perpetuated by the media ever since.

After reenlisting, Tom Mix took a fifteen day furlough to visit friends at Fort Monroe where he met Grace Allen. During his next furlough, Thomas E. Mix married Grace I. Allen on July 18, 1902. The remaining twelve days of Mix’s furlough served as his honeymoon. He returned to active duty, but three months later Grace forced Tom to choose between her and the military.

By then, Tom had earned the highest rank a non-commissioned officer in his battery could achieve. He was most likely “tired of firing artillery at imaginary enemies and playing nursemaid to a bunch of army horses and mules” (Mix Bio p39). On October 20, 1902, Mix left on furlough. On October 25, 1902, Tom’s final furlough expired and he was listed as absent without leave (AWOL). On November 4, 1902 he was officially listed as a deserter.

Regimental records from the time show it was common for the number of desertions to rise after the war. Even fewer are the number of entries for prosecutions of deserters. Tom’s commanding officer never issued a warrant for his arrest. Without knowing if the army was looking for him, Mix decided to move west.

Grace and Tom settled in Guthrie, Oklahoma; but when Grace’s father discovered Tom had gone AWOL he had their marriage annulled.

Finding His Niche

While in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Tom taught a physical fitness class in the old Carnegie Library. He also became the Guthrie high school athletic director and football coach. Mix also worked at the Blue Belle Saloon as a bartender and he broke horses near the railroad station.

After Grace left, Tom was depressed, but his association with Zach Mulhall of Mulhall Ranch landed him a job in the Oklahoma Cavalry Band. The band attended the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 where Tom Mix met Will Rogers. It was at the World’s Fair that Rogers earned his notoriety and his role on the Ziegfeld Follies. It was also at the World’s Fair that Rogers introduced Tom to Olive Stokes, who would later become Mix’s third wife.

After the World’s Fair, the band returned to Oklahoma City. Mix stayed in Oklahoma City finding work as a bartender. In March 1905, Tom joined Seth Bullock’s Cowboy Brigade, which had been created to celebrate President Theodore Roosevelt’s second term as President. In Washington, D.C., Mix met up with friends in the Mulhall Wild West Show, but he returned to his bar-tending job in Oklahoma City.

Tom Mix met and courted his second wife, Kitty Jewel Perrine at this time. The couple postponed their marriage because Tom didn’t feel equipped to support a wife on a bartender’s salary. They would eventually marry in the Perrine Hotel, owned by Kitty’s father, on December 20, 1905, after Tom had secured a position in Colonel Joe Miller’s 101 Real Wild West Ranch.

Wild West Shows & Law Enforcement

1906 marked Tom Mix’s first season with 101 Wild West Ranch. His job at that time primarily consisted of breaking horses and acting as host to “dude” cowboys and cowgirls from back east.

Several of the ranch hands had no idea the dashing Tom Mix was married, though they did believe he had a steady girlfriend. It’s not surprising to hear Tom’s marriage to Kitty did not last long. She did not like being married to a roustabout cowboy who also worked as a freelance lawman between seasons. Tom had no desire to settle down and it was difficult to get him to stay in one place. The couple divorced and Mix began to court Lucille Mulhall until Colonel Zack Mulhall ran him off at gunpoint.

During the off-season for the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, Tom Mix is known to have served as a lawman. The town of Le Hunt, Kansas (now a ghost town) was booming with growth and the Hunt Construction Company was building the Western States Cement Plant. They needed someone to restore law and order in the labor camp, so Ellis Soper, the construction engineer for Hunt, hired Tom Mix as the labor camp peace officer. Tom’s law enforcement in Le Hunt is only briefly mentioned in the April 23, 1906 Independence newspaper when he “arrested some ‘woolies'” who had drunkenly stolen a horse and buggy.

In November 1907, Oklahoma was admitted to the union as the 46th state. Tom Mix is documented as being a deputy sheriff in Dewey in 1908. He was responsible for curbing the cheating and gambling in the area, but rather than shut all gambling down, he instituted a fine for cheating. The proceeds from the fine went towards repair and upkeep of the town. There’s also a story written by Tom Mix circa 1920– about the time prohibition went into effect– titled “Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum! I Smell Smuggled Rum”. It chronicles Tom’s uncanny aptitude for detecting “old John Barleycorn”. Given his affinity for storytelling, who knows which portions of the story are autobiographical truth and which portions have been given a dramatic flair by their author.

In the ten years from 1903 to 1913, Tom Mix was allegedly a man of many trades. He seems to have been a bartender and bouncer, a Wild West show performer, an officer of the peace, and a budding Selig silent film star. There’s a story of uncertain origins that on September 22, 1905, Tom ended up in Company B of the Texas Rangers after matriculating down to Waco, Texas. It’s likely that the certificates for his time with the Texas Rangers and alleged time as a US Marshal are merely honorary as they are rumored to have occurred around the time Soper signed Mix on as a deputy at the construction camp in Le Hunt, Kansas. The 1925 issue of Photoplay has another autobiographical story about the time he served as a marshal in New Mexico and he single-handedly captured the notorious cattle rustlers called the “Shonts Brothers”. These events, though chronicled repeatedly by the papers as truth, are not supported by evidence and have a mythical feel to them.

Tom worked with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show for a third season, finishing in December 1908. When he returned to Dewey, Oklahoma, Mix fell head over heels for Miss Olive Stokes. In her book, The Fabulous Tom Mix, Stokes details their quick courtship and their wedding, which she initially thought was a joke, as Tom was also known for his horseplay. The wedding was held after a farewell dance in Olive’s honor. The pair was married on January 19, 1909 by Nels Nichols, a justice of the peace and friend of Mix and Stokes.

After their honeymoon, the newlyweds joined the Widerman Wild West Show in Amarillo, Texas. Their time in the Widerman Wild West Show was brief, and the couple left to start their own traveling Wild West Show after a dispute with Widerman over the value of Tom’s roping act, which was one of the top attractions. Olive and Tom rented the Western Washington Fair Grounds and put on their own Wild West Show. It was successful enough to mount a robbery attempt of the show’s proceeds by three men. Tom was wounded in the hand during the encounter, but the money was secure.

In late 1910, Tom returned to the Miller Brothers Wild Wild West Show. At some point, he broke his leg and had stabled a borrowed horse with the Mulhall Ranch while he was in the hospital. The horse disappeared and Tom Mix arranged to pay the $1000 bond owed for the horse by appearing in the Miller Brothers Wild Wild West Show that winter.

Breaking Into the Film Industry

Tom Mix’s breakout role was in the Selig film Ranch Life in the Great Southwest (1910). He was originally asked to handle the animals and act as a safety man, but Tom asked director Francis Boggs if he could be featured in the film. The director featured Mix in the “Bronco Busting” sequence in the film, launching his career as an actor. Mix stayed with Selig until 1917, when he began acting for Fox Studios.

Tom Mix was an agile and skillful rider and roper. He could mount his horse and perform a stunt almost faster than the old motion picture cameras could film. One could say he was the Bruce Lee of those old, Wild West silent films. Tom’s dexterity and strength saved actress Kathlyn Williams from being mauled by a leopard on the set of the 1911 jungle film Back to the Primitive when the animal performed an unscheduled attack. The cowpuncher wrestled the rogue cat to the ground with his bare hands.

Tom Mix films were well-known for their authenticity, and he loved performing his own stunts along with his stunt horse. Old Blue was the first range horse Mix used in films. Old Blue was retired in 1914 and Tom bought his trusty steed, Tony, from his friend Pat Chrisman. Tony, who was trained by Tom Mix, would flawlessly perform all manner of tricks from jumps to untying roped hands. Tom and Tony did all their own stunts and, when they became too valuable of an asset for Fox Studios, Mix had to insist they continue doing their own stunts. Tom tried to keep up with the increasing physical demands that filming and his audience wanted to see, and the result was a lot of broken arms and legs as the cowboy-actor performed more and more daring stunts, which he crafted to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Tom even had his own, permanently constructed sets at Mixville (also called the “Tom Mix Rancho”)

It was paramount that all of Tom’s films be family appropriate. He loved to boast that he never smoked or drank on screen and that any mother could take her child to see a Tom Mix movie. He took pride in the wholesome family values that his films provided his audience. By 1917 Tom was a well-known Western film star, but William S. Hart retained the crown “King of the Cowboys” for his authentic western films until Mix finally unhorsed him in 1920.

Tom’s success in the film industry was so sudden that it had an averse impact on his marriage. In 1913, Tom and Olive had moved to a ranch in Prescott, Arizona. After Tom’s film career took off, his marriage with Olive turned rocky. The couple divorced in 1917. The following year, Tom married Victoria Forde. Forde was frequently the female lead in Tom’s films.

The 101 Wild West Show sued Tom Mix for a breach of contract in 1924, when he bailed on the 1924 season to make a series of westerns for Fox Studios. The movies paid better, but Tom ended up working the 101 shows between films to make up for the breach of contract. His last films for Fox were made in 1928, just before the Great Depression hit. Tom Mix was 48 years old then.

The Depression Years

1929 was an especially bad year with the economy in upheaval. Tom branched out and created his own troop called the Sells-Floto Circus, which he ran from 1929-1931. Life was not kind during those years. In October 1929, Tom shattered his shoulder when his horse fell during a show in Dallas, Texas. His shoulder had to be wired together, and re-wired together. It wasn’t until November 1930, over a year later, the wire was finally removed.

June 1930 continued the downward spiral of luck when Ruth Jane, Tom’s daughter, eloped to Yuma, Arizona with Douglas Gilmore. He cut off her $225 a month allowance, which he’d been giving her since 1917. The marriage was annulled on July 9, 1932.

Tom’s fourth wife, Victoria Forde, obtained legal separation from Tom on November 26, 1930. Their divorce would finalize on Christmas Day 1930.

The actor’s appendix would burst in November 1931. Luckily, on November 25, 1931, a serum was flown to Tom, saving his life. He would recover.

Tom found love again, marrying his fifth wife, aerial performer for the Sells-Floto Circus, Mabel Ward, in February of 1932. Mabel would be his final love interest.

Tom Mix Wash

In 1935, Tom Mix spent $400,000 to buy the Sam B. Dill Circus. He renamed it the Tom Mix Circus. After a quick trip to Europe, Mix returned to the states. On October 12, 1940, tragedy would strike. On a publicity trip for his circus, Tom would lose control of his vehicle and his life. Tom’s final moments were described in the Tom Mix Biography on page 209 as follows:

Tom Mix Newspaper Portrait

The portrait of Tom Mix that ran in Arizona Daily Star immediately following the fatal accident.

Before Tom Left, he gave Walt Colburn an autographed copy of his book, Roping a Million. In it, Tom described the number of wounds and injuries he received in his real life adventures and criticized scriptwriters and motion picture conferences that he felt unduly overburdened at the cost of five-reel motion pictures. Tom felt he could save the studios a lot of money by being the star, the producer and the director and by furnishing his own horse.

Sheriff Ed Echols took Tom back to the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson but apparently Tom was not ready for bed. He joined Maurice Carl and other members of the hotel’s band for a drink. Then Tom invited the group to his room, where it was rumored they partied until about three in the morning. At about that time, Tom put an end to the party by telling the boys he was tired and had to get up early the next morning to drive to Phoenix.

Sheriff Ed Echols returned to the hotel the next morning and talked briefly with Tom outside the hotel. Before Tom left, he asked the hotel to call Walt Coburn and let him know he would not be returning for lunch. The request was forgotten until several hours later, however.

Tom Mix in Arizona Republic

A clipping from the Arizona Republic regarding Tom Mix's death in a fatal car accident.

Tom checked out of the hotel around noon, after talking that morning with Tucson police officer Dick Lease and hotel manager Nick Hall. Lease gave Tom directions and cleared the way for him as he left the hotel’s parking lot.

After 2 P.M., Santa Rita Hotel manager Nick Hall called Walt Coburn to tell him about the misplaced message Tom had left, saying he would not be coming for lunch because he was headed to Florence to see his former son-in-law, Harry Knight. A short time later, Nick called Walt back again, informing him that Tom Mix had just been killed at about 2:15 P.M. in an automobile accident about 18 miles from Florence, Arizona.

On hearing the news, Echols left immediately for the site of Tom’s fatal crash; an ambulance and the coroner followed him. Patrolman Dick Lease also heard about the accident and headed for the site. Hotel manager Nick Hall telephoned Tom’s daughters and the Hollywood studios with the sad news.

Tom Mix Monument Inscription

Tom Mix Monument Inscription

Tom Mix sped down Highway 89 (now Arizona State Road 79) towards Florence, Arizona at about 80 miles per hour. The 1937 Model 812 supercharged Cord, at the time of the accident, was cigarette cream with red piping and a black mohair top. As it raced down the road, construction workers tried to flag the vehicle down, but the driver did not slow and the vehicle crashed into a wash near the construction site. The impact would send a metal suitcase careening off the rack of the car and into the back of Tom Mix’s head. This blow would end his life. (In the television show Mythbusters (2005), Episode 36 “Killer Tissue Box”, they determined that objects with a mass of over 3 pounds can be deadly if they fly forward in a crash. This was based on the Tom Mix crash.) Tom died wearing his boots, a diamond-studded belt buckle, and his white 10-gallon Stetson. He also had $6,000 in cash, $1,500 in traveler’s checks, and jewels in the car.

Mrs. Mix Arrives AZ Star

A newspaper clipping from the Arizona Daily Star describing the arrival of Tom Mix's wife.

Tom’s body was taken back to Tucson, where it would be retrieved days later by his wife, Mrs. Mabel Ward Mix. His body was then transported to the Pierce Brothers’ Mortuary, and the service was held at the Little Church of Flowers. Monte Blue, a close friend, read a Masonic ritual. (This indicates Tom Mix was a Freemason, but I found no mention of if he was one or when he became a Mason.) Rudy Vallee sang “Empty Saddles”, Tom’s favorite song. Some Hollywood notables in attendance included Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, William S. Hart, Gene Autry, and Gary Cooper, among others. Tom was wearing his favorite white, western dress suit when he was buried in a bronze casket.

Two years to the day, on October 12, 1942, Tony the Wonder Horse, at the age of 40, died humanely. The riderless horse depicted on the memorial marking his owner’s grave finally retired to the alfalfa pastures on high.

In Closing

As time wears on, fewer and fewer people know the significance behind the monument on the “back road” to Florence. I had no idea who Tom Mix was, but the more I learn about the history of the southwest, the more connections I see. Because I found it interesting to learn that not only was Tom Mix a soldier, a lawman, a roper, a rider, a stuntman, and a movie star– he was a great man, a comedian, a man of strong moral character who was beloved by his fans, friends, and family.

While my generation isn’t very familiar with Tom Mix, we are familiar with John Wayne… who got his start moving props on the back lot of Fox Studios after a football injury caused him to drop out of USC. Tom Mix got him that job, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tom Mix Monument

The Tom Mix Monument during a full moon.

There is apparently a lot of misinformation on Tom Mix out there– most of which are stories copied and re-copied by media outlets more interested in a good story than the actual facts. It also doesn’t help that in his youth, Tom Mix loved to spin a good tale. In the end, I found the most accurate information contained in books by Paul E. Mix whose research has brought to light the truth behind his ancestor. Thank you, Paul, for your hard work and research!

* Mix, Paul E. The Life and Legend of Tom Mix. A. S. Barnes, 1972.
* Mix, Paul E. Tom Mix: A Heavily Illustrated Biography with a Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995.
* Mix, Olive Stokes with Eric Heath. The Fabulous Tom Mix. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957.
* “Tom Mix Dies In Car Crash Near Florence: Screen And Circus Star Is Pinned Under Auto.” The Arizona Republic (Associated Press) 13 Oct. 1940: p1. (Associated Press)
* “Tom Mix Dies in Auto Crash Near Florence: Famed Movie Hero Loses Control of Car on Road Detour.” The Arizona Daily Star (Associated Press) 13 Oct. 1940: p1.