Tom Mix: Real Life Hero or…?
”I was born a cowboy, have lived as a cowboy and will die a cowboy,” Tom Mix liked to say and he was as good as his word–or was he? I’ll let you be the judge. Born in Texas, Tom grew up on a ranch near El Paso. In his teens, he ran away and joined the circus and later fought in the Mexican Revolution, joining Pacho Villa’s army. He was saved within an inch of his life from being shot by a firing squad. Undaunted, he fought in Cuba, China and both sides of the Boer War—and had the medals to prove it. As a sheriff and Texas Ranger he was shot by horse thieves and Indians, and single-handedly captured…
Hold Your Horses This is beginning to read like fiction—which of course, it was. Some was made up by his publicists, some by Tom, himself. The stories of his life are so convoluted that even his biographers have trouble separating fact from fiction. The ironic part is that his real life was even more interesting that his made-up life, but this was Hollywood and, back in the early days, they wanted their cowboys to be real and their heroes to be, well, heroes.
Will the Real Tom Mix Please Stand up?
Thomas Hezikiah Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880, the son of a lumberman. He reportedly never liked his middle name and always signed his name Tom E. Mix, E for Edwin. When Tom was nine, his family moved to Dubois, where his father worked as handyman and stable man. Tom loved hanging around the stables and, after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, decided he wanted to be a cowboy.
At 18 he joined the army to fight in the Spanish American war but saw no action. He reenlisted but went AWOL after marrying his first wife and was listed as a deserter, though the Army never pursued him or, for that matter, discharged him.
As far as anyone knew, he was never more than an honorary Texas Ranger. Richard D. Jensen writes in The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies that Tom worked as a night marshal in Oklahoma territory rounding up bootleggers. This appears to be the extent of his lawman days except on screen.
He eventually joined the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show. His big break came when he landed a job as a bronc buster in the movie Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. His action based sequence started him on the road to box office success.
What About All those Gun Wounds?
Though he was never shot by Indians or desperados except on screen, he was in actuality shot twice—once when he was 12 and once by his fourth wife. The first time occurred while he and a friend were playing with a pistol. Since his family couldn’t afford a surgeon the bullet remained in his leg for years before it was removed. This episode may have had something to do with his dropping out of school and having only a fourth grade education.
As for being shot by his fourth wife: According to a 1933 Berkeley Daily newspaper, his wife shot him through the shoulder, claiming self-defense. Tom Mix testified that he was shot after “I came home and threw a gigolo out of our place.” Apparently Tom didn’t learn his lesson as went on to marry a fifth time.
King of Cowboys
The first to be called King of Cowboys, Tom Mix made an estimated 300 movies including nine talkies and eventually wrote and directed his own films. He was the highest paid western actor of the times, making in excess of $17,000 a week. Known for his fancy high hats, he reportedly owned over 600 pairs of custom-made boots. Tom’s horse Tony was almost as famous as his owner. Tony died following a hip injury and was replaced by Tony II.
Though Tom’s heroic real life claims were mostly fabricated, on screen he was the real McCoy His movies were full of action and no one could match his daredevil stunts, which he did himself. Not only did he jump off horses, fall off trains and face real bullets, he suffered as many as 80 injuries during his career, including knife wounds, broken ribs, and a near fatal brush with dynamite.
Tom’s death in 1940 was almost as strange as his life. During an Arizona traffic accident a metal suitcase in his car hit him on the head causing fatal injuries. He was 60 years old. His popularity continued for most of the ‘40s through his radio show and comic books.
Two years to the date of his death, his faithful horse Tony II died. We can only imagine what kind of tall tale Tom would have spun from that.
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