Normally we don’t spend a lot of space in these columns discussing popular figures of the Old West that most folks are familiar with: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Wild Bill Hickok, etc. Those people are subjects of dime novels and people who are interested in their stories are pretty familiar with their exploits. We concentrate here on the lesser known figures and stories of the era. But, this week I thought it might be interesting to introduce some facts about another “hero” of the west – Tom Mix.
Most folks who are old enough to have seen the movies in which Tom was a star are familiar with his ability to ride, rope and shoot. Yes, his acting was adequate and his charm was charming enough, but a little background on this man might be interesting.
His manner struck a lot of Prescott, Arizona residents as a bit too flamboyant and out-going for them. Some said he was practically useless as a ranch hand, but no one denied that he had that certain “showman” quality – or that he had real guts when it came to stunt-riding at a rodeo. Why, he even became national rodeo champ in 1909 – some say the rodeo was more of a staged show than a true contest, and that he more or less had it fixed.
Tom Mix had wandered into Prescott like a lot of other cowboys around 1900. He had a lot of odd jobs around town. He even served, for a short time, as a sort of undercover U.S. Marshall in Yavapai County. Perhaps it was here that he began his career as a “play actor.” In order to gather information to be passed on to the Marshal in Oklahoma, Tom often played a dim-witted drifter – until he could get enough information on the bad guys to send coded telegrams to the Lawmen.
When the movie makers came to Prescott to shoot westerns, Tom was there waiting, and he was a natural. In just a few short years he became the biggest cowboy star the silent films could produce. He lived the high life: private railroad cars, platinum belt buckles with his initials set in diamonds, a million-dollar house in Beverly Hills, and a parade of wives – five of them. He made over three-hundred “two-reelers”. He was rolling in money.
Then disaster struck – talkies! Tom’s high-pitched voice just didn’t cut it. So – he retired, spending time back in Arizona where his best friends lived.
Ed Echols was one of those friends, a former rodeo and circus performer and now Sheriff of Pima County. On October 12, 1940 Tom Called Ed from Oracle Junction and said he was driving his flashy new Cord convertible to Phoenix to visit Sheriff Lon Jordon of Maricopa County. He’d meet Ed there the following day.
Less than an hour after that phone call Echols got word that Tom was dead beneath the wreckage of the Cord. The highway patrol found $6,000 in cash, $1,500 in traveler checks and a sack of diamonds worth a fortune in the wreckage. Everyone surmised that Tom was carrying the backlog to keep it out of the hands of creditors and ex-wives.
Tom Mix had come to Arizona as a penniless cowpoke. He only had his talent for stunt-riding and showmanship. When Tom left Arizona, he didn’t take any of the riches he had gained, but his well-earned reputation as one of Arizona’s best-loved residents still follows him in celluloid.