Martha Mansfield was a silent film star and vaudeville actress, but she has gone down in history for meeting a terribly gruesome end.
Born in 1899, Mansfield caught the acting bug at the age of 14. She fought for a role in a Broadway production of Little Women, and from there on out, there was no slowing down.
Mansfield worked as a model, appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, and broke into Hollywood in 1920. She was on the fast-track to stardom, but little did she know, she only had three more years to make a name for herself.
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On November 29, 1923, her nightmare began. On location for the film The Warrens of Virginia, Mansfield would never make it out of San Antonio, Texas alive. The actress—decked out in an elaborate Civil War costume—wrapped up her scenes and returned to her car. Without warning, her dress caught fire. Her hoop skirts and delicate ruffles never stood a chance.
Complete chaos ensued. Mansfield’s chauffeur tried to get her out of her burning clothes and severely burned his own hands, while the film’s leading man, Wilfred Lytell, also joined the frenzy. He threw his overcoat over the flames, managing to save the actress’s neck and face from being completely engulfed. But it was already too late.
Mansfield had sustained severe burns, and though doctors tried to save her, she succumbed the very next day to “burns of all extremities, general toxemia and suppression of urine.” She was only 24 years old. From then on, theories about how the blaze began ran rampant.
Some witnesses claimed to have seen a match thrown into Mansfield’s car, while others believed that a lit cigarette had been tossed into the folds of her skirts. Some even blamed Mansfield herself for lighting up in the car—a theory that her mother vehemently denied.
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