How the top western movie star Tom Mix gained fame on a horse, and lost his life in a car

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Western star Tom Mix killed in car crash (1940)

Tom Mix, mightiest western actor, refused to play guitar

By Don Dedera – Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) December 6, 1956

TOM MIX MONUMENT — A statue of a horse, saddled but riderless, trails its reins at the place where my boyhood hero died. Tom Mix could not sing, and he could not play a guitar.

He never rolled his eyes, and he had no talent for swiveling his hips like a man with a chunk of ice in his jeans. But hero he was. And he will live as long as the memories of millions of boys, now men.

He was born in Mix Run, Pennsylvania, in 1880, and he died here at Tom Mix Wash, 18 miles south of Florence, October 12, 1940. In those 60 years, he succeeded at enough careers for a half-dozen lesser men.

Vintage Tom Mix autographed portrait

AS A SOLDIER, he saw action in the Philippines, where he opened his mouth and took a Spanish bullet which emerged from his neck, and in the Boxer Rebellion in China, where he won a medal and citation. A shell fragment almost scalped him while he was serving with the British in the Boer War in South Africa.

His cowboy role was honestly come by. It was his trade in most of the Western states. He became foreman for a huge Oklahoma ranch, and won national riding and roping contests in Canon City, Colorado, and Prescott.

Always, he did things by hunches. He was a Texas Ranger, deputy U.S. marshal in Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona. and New Mexico, and was sheriff of counties in three states. He was wounded twice while wearing a badge.

His prowess at rodeoing caught the eye of a Hollywood agent who offered him $100 a week. Tom Mix gulped. The agent said $150. And the man who was to make the horse opera the nation’s premiere form of entertainment, accepted. His standard role was that of a hard-fisted cowboy with a fast gun and the biggest hat west of Nantucket Light Ship.

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Tom Mix - Film history - Hands Off silent movie - 1921
Tom Mix – “Hands Off” silent movie – 1921

On screen, women to Tom Mix were creatures of rescue, not love. And in all of his pictures he never smoked, and he never took a drink. I remember him best as a radio performer (in person and impersonated, which I long thought were synonymous).

Until I was almost grown, I believed that if I ate enough Ralston cereal, I would become his double, complete with faithful horse, Tony.

NEVER WAS THERE, or has there been, a better man than Tom Mix at dispatching a villain with a single smite. But most heroic of all, in my eyes, was his refusal to be seen picking a banjo in places no real cowboy would pack a musical instrument.

“I’ll quit motion pictures before I’ll learn to play a mandolin,” he once said. “And none of my fans will ever hear me desecrating the atmosphere of a theater by yodeling.”

The last 10 years of his life, Tom Mix spent in Wild West shows. On the day he died he was traveling alone, from Tucson to Phoenix, as advance agent for an old cow waddy buddy, Ken Maynard.

No one witnessed his death. Apparently his glistening green Rolls Royce speedster went out of control in a bridge detour, and overturned. The men who found him said a flying suitcase broke Tom Mix’s neck.

They also remembered that Tom Mix had passed them down the road, stopped for gas, then passed them again. They recalled that the second time he went by “he sounded a siren.”


An old hero’s image is happily renewed

By Don Dedera – Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) January 8, 1963

PRESCOTT, Arizona — From now on, my Ralston [hot cereal] is going to taste much better, thanks to Frank Bartlett.

To me and everybody else my age, Tom Mix was an unadulterated hero of the radio and the silver screen. So great was my faith until I was 12 years old I wondered how the radio people managed to string microphone wires out to where Mr Mix was galloping after outlaws.

I’d eat Ralston dry, cooked or cold, because the Old Wrangler said it was good. I sent off box tops for everything offered. If I heard a snatch of “Round-up Time in Texas,” like Pavlov’s dog I’d salivate.

And with the news of Tom Mix’s death in an automobile wreck in Arizona, I found a corner and wept. I wouldn’t have minded as much if he had been pitched off Tony.

Tom Mix doing a stunt with his horse Tony

Anyway, a few years ago at the highway marker south of Florence, I wrote a nostalgic piece about Tom Mix. Later some skeptics stated that Tom Mix’s alleged career as soldier and lawman was likely invented or embellished by some Hollywood press agent. He was probably a phony along with so many celluloid cowboys.

MY DOUBTS lingered until the other day, when I met Frank Bartlett. There isn’t anything phony about him. He is 85, a lifelong peace officer, a veteran of the Spanish-American War.

Bartlett’s own adventures would sell breakfast cereal. Most of his law enforcing was for the Santa Fe, in New Mexico, Arizona and California. When Ash Fork had nine saloons and four dance halls, he was railroad detective for the Santa Fe’s first western double-track line there.

He broke up train robberies and solved freight burglaries. He had to wound two men in the line of duty. Once he disguised himself as a hobo to crack a case.

It must have been about 1911 when the Yavapai sheriff called Frank Bartlett, and, in secret, displayed the U.S. deputy marshal credentials of Tom Mix. “I’m keeping them in the safe,” said the sheriff. “Mix will be working undercover. He’s out here from Oklahoma looking for some men, and if they know he’s a lawman, they’ll kill him.”

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BARTLETT got to know Tom Mix pretty well. Mix later was taken into Prescott’s Joe Wheeler Camp No. 5, United Spanish War Veterans.

During his stay in Prescott, Mix played the part of a dumb drifter. He didn’t make arrests. He just moved from job to job, alert for clues, relaying his facts by coded telegrams to his boss.

Every once in a while, another marshal would swoop into Yavapai County from Oklahoma, and quietly arrest and take away a wanted man.

According to Frank Bartlett, it was one of the best pieces of detective work he ever saw. So pass another bowl.

Tom Mix monument - Arizona - 1957


Tom Mix dies in car crash near Florence [Arizona] (1940)

Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) October 13, 1940

Screen and circus star is pinned under auto

Florence, Oct 12 — Tom Mix, cowboy actor and hero of scores of western thrillers of the silent film era, was killed 18 miles south of here today when he was pinned under his overturned automobile on a highway detour.

It was the 159th fatality resulting from motor vehicle accidents in Arizona since January 1.

Idol of millions

Mix, whose colorful career as a circus performer, soldier, law enforcement officer and motion picture star, made him the idol of millions the world over, was traveling alone from Tucson to Florence and Phoenix.

E O Devine, coroner, said Mix, 60 years old, apparently died instantly after losing control of his car. There will be no inquest. The body was brought here.

Met Tom Mix - Western movie star and his horse Tony - 1929

Neck is broken

Two highway employees, John Adams of Oracle and E A Armenta of Casa Grande, discovered the overturned vehicle.

Martin Younkers, Beloit, Wis, and Anthony Monts, Rockford, Illinois, who said Mix had passed them on the highway north of Tucson, helped pull the actor’s body from under his racing model.

Younkers and Monts said a heavy suitcase had fallen against Mix’ head, burying his face in the soft ground. A physician reported later the blow broke his neck.

Local investigators said Mix, who left Tucson at 1pm, was serving as an advance agent for a circus scheduled to show in Phoenix soon. The cowboy star was carrying $6000 in cash, $1500 in travelers checks, and several valuable jewels.

Mix was a native of Pennsylvania. He worked as a cowboy in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana and won national riding and roping contests at Prescott and at Canon City, Colo, in 1909 and 1910.

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Tom Mix Western comic book cover from 1951

Hard-riding roles

During the years when he was identified with pictures, Mix always was cast as a hard-riding, gun-toting hero out to thwart unlawful acts in the day of the Wild West.

In recent years, he has appeared in Wild West circus shows and for a time operated his own circus, the Tom Mix Wild West Show. He also made frequent vaudeville tours and in 1938 and 1939 made personal appearances in Europe.

Mix served with the United States Army in the Philippine Islands, in the Spanish American War and during the Boxer rebellion in China, winning a medal and citation. He was with the British Army at the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer war in South Africa.

Kansas, Oklahoma Sheriff

As a law enforcement officer, Mix was sheriff of Montgomery County, Kansas, and Washington County, Oklahoma, and later saw service as a deputy US Marshal in the Eastern Oklahoma district and with the Texas Rangers.

He was livestock foreman of the Miller Brothers “101” ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma, from 1906 to 1909.

With the advent of talking pictures, Mix turned to circus and vaudeville work exclusively.

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Vintage Tom Mix movie scene


Final tribute paid to Tom Mix

Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) October 17, 1940

Glendale, Calif, Oct 16 – Tom Mix, peace officer, soldier, cowboy, movie hero and circus star, received the last respects of hundreds of friends today. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, last resting place of many film notables.

The little church where the rites were conducted could not contain the mourners, many of whom were friends of his film life and others of an earlier age of days on the open range.

On the lawn outside, 2000 curious onlookers gathered, some had pocket cameras and some had autograph books, as if they expected to see a multitude of celebrities.

There was little need for the cameras, none for the autograph books. The prominents who came to the funeral were few and they kept respectfully in the background. The best-known faces were those of other cowboy stars, Gene Autry, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, George O’Brien, William S Hart and Tex Ritter.

Rank and file movie cowboys formed the bulk of those admitted to the church. There were bushels of expensive flowers.

SEE MORE: Horse-riding silent film actor Tom Mix was known as a roping Romeo

Western movie star Tom Mix in the 1920s
Western movie star Tom Mix in the 1920s

Los Angeles county’s sheriff, Eugene Biscailuz, who had known Mix for a quarter of a century, spoke of him as an officer and a gentleman “whose upright life inspired millions.”

A Baptist minister, J Whitcomb Brougher, paid an unusual tribute: “I do not know many men in his sort of public life whom I would invite into my pulpit. Tom Mix was one of them.”

Rudy Valee sang “Empty Saddles” and a squad from Tom’s Spanish War Veterans’ post fired a volley over the grave.

Mix, who was 60 years old, was killed last Saturday in Arizona when his auto overturned.

Top photo: Tom Mix with his 1937 Cord 812 Convertible

1928 ad for Tom Mix in Silver Valley movie


Film world mourns Tom Mix, killed in auto accident (1940)

The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pennsylvania) Oct 14, 1940

Tom Mix, cowboy, peace officer, soldier, actor, showman … was making his last personal appearance today. The body of Mix, killed Saturday in an automobile accident at Florence, Ariz., lay in state in the chapel of Pierce Brothers’ mortuary.

He was dressed in his rangers coat and white breeches. His prized, diamond-studded belt was buckled around his waist. Only his ten-gallon hat was missing.

Paul Mantz, movie stunt flier and chauffeur for film celebrities who eloped by airplane, flew the body back yesterday from Florence. Only a few intimate friends were at Union Air Terminal when the coffin was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the mortuary.

Tom Mix

His death stunned Hollywood. William S. Hart, one of his closest friends, said, “It’s just too awful. My recollections of Tom are still very vivid. He was wonderful.”

The 60-year-old Mix, native of DoBois, Clearfield County, Pa., had been a Texas Ranger, a soldier in the Spanish-American War and in the Boxer Rebellion, a sheriff at various times of three counties, a U. S. marshal, and a guide to the late President Theodore Roosevelt, but it was as a cowboy actor that he won his fame.

In late years, he had traveled with a circus in which he owned a major interest. He was traveling as an advance agent for it when his automobile swerved on a dirt road, overturned and killed him instantly.

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One Response

  1. Hi,
    My mother was Tom Mix’s cousin. I can remember she had signed pictures from him to her n a few other things of his in a trunk from her Grandmother’s house when she passed away in DuBois Pa. It was nice to see more history of his and of my mother’s history.

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