On this day in 1940, the famous cowboy actor Tom Mix is killed in a freak car accident near his ranch in Florence, Arizona. Driving his single-seat roadster along a straight desert road, Mix apparently ignored warnings that a bridge was out on a shallow gully and was fatally crushed by a heavy suitcase that flew off the rear shelf of his car.
Mix had been one of the biggest silent movies stars in Hollywood during the 1920s, appearing in more than 300 westerns and making as much as $10,000 a week. Unlike most of the actors appearing in westerns, Mix (whose full name was Thomas Hezikah Mix) had actually worked as a cowboy, served as a soldier during the Spanish-American War, and been a Texas Ranger, so he brought a wealth of real experience to his fictional cowboy characters.
In 1906, Mix joined a Wild West show, and that led him to begin acting in motion pictures four years later. In his many one- and two-reel western adventure films—most of which have been lost because they were released on highly combustible nitrate film stock—Mix helped define the classic image of the western movie cowboy as a rough riding, quick-shooting defender of right and justice, an image that would be copied by hundreds of other actors who followed him. Mix’s real costar in his movies, “Tony the Wonder Horse,” also became very popular and helped set the pattern for the “Silvers” that followed.
With the coming of talking pictures, Mix’s movie career stalled. In 1933, he organized Tom Mix’s Circus and Wild West Show and helped create The Tom Mix Show on radio. But despite the popularity of the radio show (in which Mix did not personally act), Mix never recaptured the success he had known during the golden era of the silent western movies. When he died in 1940 at the age of 60, he had lost most of his wealth and was largely forgotten by the public that once adored him.
Yet Mix is not entirely forgotten today. A black iron silhouette of a riderless bronco marks the site of Mix’s death on the highway about 17 miles south of Florence, Arizona. The so-called “suitcase of death” is preserved at the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, along with a life-size replica of Tony the Wonder Horse.