Thanksgiving Day in 1923 was a working day for silver screen star Martha Mansfield. She was on location in Brackenridge Park in San Antonio, Texas, shooting a Civil War drama called The Warrens of Virginia. After a take, she went to her car to relax with some colleagues. But what happened next would be as horrific as it was unexpected.
Mansfield was born Martha Ehrlich on July 14, 1899, in New York City. Her parents were Maurice and Harriet Ehrlich. Her father abandoned the family when she was just 13 and left her mother to support Mansfield and her younger sister Edith.
Mansfield is said to have had a burning ambition to take to the stage from an early age. She started on the boards in 1912 with a minor part in a Broadway version of Little Women. She then had a part in a musical the following year. Supporting roles followed and she played famous New York theaters of the day such as the Winter Garden and The Globe.
In 1917 Mansfield broke into film – silent in those days – winning a six-month assignment at Essanay Studios. She made three short comedies with Essanay, a company that became famous after making a series of movies with a certain Charlie Chaplin in 1915. Mansfield’s screen name at Essanay was Martha Early.
Then in 1918 she was invited to join the Ziegfeld Follies, a lavish revue show loosely modeled on the burlesque performances of the Folies Bergère in Paris, France. Consequently, she rubbed shoulders with many of the top stars of the day, such as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers.
After two seasons with Ziegfeld, Mansfield became something of a celebrity and famous beauty, known back then as an “it girl.” In 1918 she acted in her first feature film, Broadway Bill. And in 1919 she announced to her public that she would henceforth devote herself to the cinema.
After a spell as Martha Early, Martha Ehrlich now became Martha Mansfield. Some biographers have claimed she chose the name because she was born in Mansfield, Ohio. But her birth and death certificates both give New York City as her birthplace. In fact, her mother had lived in Mansfield, where she’d ended up after arriving from Ireland. And that was the source of her screen name.
Mansfield now did some work for a production outfit called The Famous Players-Lasky, playing lead in some of the company’s movies. She also made a film for Florenz Ziegfeld, a movie-maker on the side when he wasn’t running his famous Follies extravaganzas.
But after that dabbling, she finally made her way to California. Here, she acted in her first Hollywood movie in 1920, Civilian Clothes. This was a silent comedy made by the company she’d worked for before, The Famous Players-Lasky. In this romp Mansfield played a Salvation Army recruit whose supposedly dead husband comes back to take a job as the family butler.
Now Mansfield bagged a part which substantially heightened her profile. She played the character of Millicent Carew in a 1920 adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic yarn, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Carew is the fiancée of the handsome Dr Jekyll played by John Barrymore, one of the most famous actors of his day. Barrymore, of course, also played the part of the evil Mr. Hyde.
Mansfield continued to take important parts in a range of silent movies but she didn’t leave the stage. In 1921 she toured around America’s vaudeville theaters in between her movie commitments. Keeping her flourishing career on the boil, she also appeared in a couple of independent movies in 1922.
Mansfield came to the end of a contract she’d signed with Selznick Pictures in 1923. She now joined the Fox Film Corporation. The actress made three films with them before that fateful Thanksgiving Thursday in 1923, when she was shooting the The Warrens of Virginia movie.
As we’ve seen, the Fox Film crew and actors were at work in a park in San Antonio. The Warrens of Virginia was a Civil War tale, with Brackenridge Park the location for the battlefield at Appomattox. This is where the Unionists led by Ulysses S. Grant defeated the Confederates under Robert E. Lee in 1865.
The film’s plot hinged on a love affair between one Ned Burton, a Union soldier, and Agatha Warren, played by Mansfield. Warren’s sympathies lie with the South but despite this she saves the life of her Yankee lover. The two subsequently marry. The Warrens of Virginia was originally a stage play from 1907. And there had already been one movie production of it in 1915, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
In a September 1924 report, the San Antonio Express described the dress that Mansfield wore on that day of filming. “Beautiful […] Mansfield was making a picture in San Antonio of Civil War times, and a pretty costume of that period was made for her, all filmy and fluffy, dainty as a portrait.”
Mansfield’s elaborate costume would become her undoing. As she sat in her car, a lit match somehow dropped onto her dress and it immediately caught light, blazing like a Roman candle. Her co-star, Wilfred Lytell threw his coat over her and this saved her face. Her driver then sustained severe burns to his hands trying to extinguish the flames.
By the time the fire had been tamed, Mansfield had sustained grievous burn injuries. At first, there seemed to be an optimistic prognosis. The next day, the San Antonio Express reported, “After being taken to the hospital, […] Mansfield was removed to her hotel where she was under treatment by physicians, Thursday afternoon.”
And the Express quoted the movie’s director, Elmer Clifton. “The filming of the picture will not be delayed as scenes in which […] Mansfield does not appear will be shot until she recovers.” The San Antonio Light remained equally confident of her recovery. “Her injuries were characterized as painful but of a minor nature and it was predicted she would rejoin the company in a week.”
But this apparent optimism would be sadly misplaced. In fact, Mansfield never made it back to her hotel. She died in hospital at 11:50 a.m. on Friday 30 November, the day after the accident. Her body was later taken to New York, where she was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Exactly how the accident happened is unclear to this day. Some reports said that a lit match had been dropped on to Mansfield’s dress by someone else. Others averred that she had herself been lighting a cigarette and the match fell from her fingers. Whatever the truth is, it was a tragic and horrible way for this 24-year-old actress to die.