Seeking the feel of an era when trying to write historic fiction requires time-consuming research, but distracting detours are so seductive and somewhat justified as snippets gleaned slip into the pages you type.
Take Oliver Perry Wilson Bailey (1897-1978), tagged with an ambitious-sounding name. The 1910 Census, when he was but a lad of 12, recorded him as a professional rabbit-raiser living on South Alamo Street, now part of Hemisfair, in San Antonio. By 1913, he was an accomplished screen writer. Yes, the son of a reporter of the San Antonio Express already had sold screenplays to three different companies.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, lions and wildcats can be heard crying out from the San Antonio Zoo by people living in neighborhoods more than a mile away from Brackenridge Park. Or so they say. I’m not convinced that some of those cries might not be a woman’s screams….
Shortly before coming to San Antonio to star in a silent film shooting in San Antonio in 1923, Martha Mansfield predicted what fashions stylish women would be wearing that fall:
The straightline frock, slim and narrow, is back for another season…. in lustrous satin of white or pastel shades.
The Hamilton News, July 2, 1923
After breakfasting in the company of friends at the St. Anthony Hotel on the morning of November 29, she unfortunately traded a narrow, fashionable frock for one of yards of fabric billowing over layers of crinolines. She donned the gown for her role as a daughter of the Confederacy falling in love with a Union soldier in The Warrens of Virginia, written by William Churchill de Mille, Cecil’s older brother. Brackenridge Park was selected for the day’s shooting because it:
contained a picturesque group of rag pickers’ shacks that would do very well for the servants’ quarters of the Southern plantation….
The Ogden Examiner, December 30, 1923
Her chauffeur parked the car near the set, and, during a break in filming, Martha retreated inside to relax. Shortly thereafter she emerged “screaming from her limousine, a flaming torch.” Leading man Wilfred Lytell threw his jacket over her head and face to protect her from the flames as the chauffeur frantically flailed to extinguish them. Although she was rushed to the hospital, she died from the severe burns on November 30.
How the fire started and enveloped Martha so quickly remained a mystery; police termed her death accidental. Some say the cause was a match tossed away carelessly by a fellow cast member; others speculated she herself dropped a match while lighting a cigarette. The Ogden Examiner hinted at foul play, perhaps the actress had not been alone:
What was it that turned the picturesque gown into a fiery funeral shroud?…. What started the flames that swept over her crinoline costume and wrapped her in a deadly embrace….
Born in New York as the new century dawned, Martha Erlich quickly progressed from the Ziegfeld Follies to star in silent films under her stage name of Martha Mansfield. The young starlet quickly was cast in numerous films, with a role opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 her most famous.
After her life was extinguished in San Antonio, her body was shipped to New York. Papers reported 1,000 people crowded into the funeral chapel, with another 5,000 held at bay by police outside. Among the films released after her death was The Silent Command, a story of “temptation and disgrace of a naval officer” by a ring of spies led by Bela Lugosi. The Washington Post reported the film was “heartily endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy and by General Pershing.”
So perhaps there is another ghost haunting Brackenridge Park, joining poor Helen Madarasz whose body went up in flames the year Martha Mansfield was born.
I promise I am not actively seeking spirits to populate the park. Helen is the only one I stumbled across on my own. Pursuers of the paranormal based in Austin recently led me to Martha after reading my earlier post about Helen. Just in time for Halloween. And Sarah found an additional four men who all perished in 1906 and 1907 in the portion of the park that bore Helen’s name – Ernest Richter, Otto Petrus Goetz, Sam Wigodsky and William Berger.
Let me know if you see or sense any of them. Or perhaps hear their screams.