Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ziegfeld Girl Burns to Death in Brackenridge Park, Thanksgiving 1923

Martha Mansfield was a silent film star shooting on location in Brackenridge Park, the week of Thanksgiving, 1923. When she attempted to light a cigarette, the match head broke off and accidentally lit her dress instead. Her clothing torched up and set the interior of her car on fire. Mansfield panicked, leaping out of the car and onto the ground. Her co-star, Wilfred Lytell, used his coat to put out the fire; but not before Mansfield suffered burns on over sixty percent of her body. Martha Mansfield died at the San Antonio Physicians and Surgeons Hospital the following morning.
Figure 1: Martha Mansfield c. 1923
"Beautiful Martha 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. Miss Mansfield lit a cigarette while working on location, the broken end of her match slipped from her hand and in a second her costume was a pillar of flame."1

Initially, the doctors thought Mansfield might recover.

"After being taken to the hospital, Miss Mansfield was removed to her hotel where she was under treatment by physicians, Thursday afternoon."2

The director of the film, Elmer Clifton, reassured the press that the show must go on and that Mansfield would indeed return.

"The filming of the picture will not be delayed as scenes in which Miss Mansfield does not appear will be shot until she recovers."3

But, Martha Mansfield did not recover.

"Her injuries were characterized as painful but of a minor nature and it was predicted she would rejoin the company in a week. Miss Mansfield, however, was not removed to her hotel. She remained at the hospital until death came at 11:50 Friday morning."4  Mansfield was just twenty-four.

Figure 2: Mansfield as "Dove of Peace," Ziegfeld Follies of 1919
Martha Mansfield was born Martha Ehrlich in New York City, 1899. Her father left when she was thirteen and her mother worked to support the family, so Mansfield quickly adapted to life on her own. She began auditioning as a chorus girl in low-budget Broadway productions. Sometime around 1916, Mansfield landed several supporting roles in shows at the Winter Garden, the New Amsterdam, and the Globe. In 1917, she co-starred opposite Max Linder in three short comedy films. Mansfield was on the map. 

Within a year, Florence Ziegfeld approached her to join the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. Mansfield shared the stage with the likes of Eddie Cantor, the Fairbanks Twins, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Fannie Brice, and Bert Williams. Mansfield was quickly becoming a new "it" girl and stayed with the Follies for two seasons (see figure 2). 

Figure 3: Mansfield in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920

After making half-a-dozen more low-budget films, Mansfield moved to Hollywood where she immediately found success. In 1920, she starred opposite John Barrymore in the most popular silent film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see figure 3). Mansfield signed a contract with Fox Studios in 1922. 

The Warrens of Virginia was a Civil War-era stage-play originally written by Cecile B. DeMille's younger brother, William. The DeMille brothers produced a film version 1915 but it is widely considered as one of Cecil B. DeMille's worst films. Fox studios decided to revive the story in 1923 and hired Elmer Clifton as director.

Figure 4: Mansfield featured in the San Antonio Light, 1933 5
The plot of The Warrens of Virginia is reminiscent of other Civil War movies of the time. The male lead, Southerner Ned Burton (played by Wilfred Lytell), enlists in the Union army and leaves his childhood sweetheart, Agatha Warren (played by Mansfield) behind at home. The Warrens side with the Confederacy and their love affair becomes complicated. At the end of the film, Ned faces hanging as a spy but Agatha asks Union soldiers to save him. They reconcile and marry.

...Or so that's how it was supposed to go.

Following Mansfield's death, the film needed to be reworked. Certain scenes were re-shot and Mansfield's role was taken down to a smaller supporting part. Elmer Clifton changed Ned's love interest to Agatha's sister, Betty, played by Rosemary Hill. The film opened in spring 1924.

Figure 5: Showing at the Princess Theater, 1924 6
Nationally, The Warrens of Virginia had a rather mediocre box office draw. In San Antonio, however, the film appears to have done rather well. The film ran at both, the Empire Theater on St. Mary's Street and the Princess Theater on Houston Street, through December of 1924. I think audiences delighted in spying the familiar landscape of Brackenridge Park but were also eager to see a film in which the heroine died in a freak accident.

Most of the film is likely lost today. The Library of Congress lists a finding number for a reel copy but no efforts have been made to restore it. In fact, upwards of ninety percent of silent films made during this era are lost forever.

Following her death, Martha Mansfield's body was transported back to New York City and buried in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx. Fox Studios paid out $600 on her contract to her mother. The next film shot in San Antonio was Wings, the first silent film to win an Academy Award.

Internet Broadway Database, Silent Film Archive, San Antonio Express, San Antonio Light

1. "Martha Mansfield's Death," San Antonio Express (28 Sep 1924), 62.6.
1. "Movie Actress Catches Fire," San Antonio Express (30 Nov 1923), 10.3.
2. Ibid.
3. "Inquest Unlikely for Dead Actress," San Antonio Express (1 Dec 1923), 18.2.
4. "Ten and Twenty Years Ago: November 30, 1923," San Antonio Light (30 Nov 1933), 14.7.
5. "Warrens of Virginia on Princess Screen," San Antonio Express (14 Dec 1924), 66.2.


  1. This is the first time I have read that SHE was the one who was lighting a cigarette. Every other thing I have read about this was that an unknown man in the group she was with carelessly threw out the match. Wonder what the truth actually is.

    1. She didn't cause it herself - the newspaper clipping: http://blog.mysanantonio.com/vault/2013/12/actress-dies-from-burns-in-1923-freak-accident-on-s-a-film-set/

  2. This is the first time I have read that SHE was the one who was lighting a cigarette. Every other thing I have read about this was that an unknown man in the group she was with carelessly threw out the match. Wonder what the truth actually is.

  3. Martha didn't smoke, her mother tould the press. She said " smoking made Martha uncomfotable ". I read on a newspaper of that time. It's online. Look for ir . I don't remember it' name.

  4. The Library of Congress does not hold a reel of this film. There are no known reels in existence. The LOC holds copyright information on the film only. You might be confusing it with the 1915 Warrens of Virginia, which the LOC does have in its collection.

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