The Unexplained: The tragic life and death of a beauty queen
May 26, 2023
Sara Marie Hogg
The French police hastily ruled her tragic demise an accidental death, but was it murder?
She was a looker! Olive Thomas had the kind of mysterious beauty that was a draw for all eyes. She came from sad circumstances, but had been able to maneuver parts as a bit player in theater and silent films into a remarkable film career – as a star and leading lady. She had a series of smash hits that was producing piles of money. Olive was scheduled for a visit with her family, and had written her mother a cheerful note in anticipation. Within five agonizing days, she would be dead. What had she ingested by mouth that would end her life–with all she had going for her–and why?
She was born in 1894 in a mill town known as Charleroi. Her father, a steelworker in Pennsylvania, was accidentally killed when Olive was twelve, forcing her mother into low paying factory work. Olive and her two younger brothers went into the care of their grandparents.
In desperate need of money, Olive began modeling for questionable photographs at age fourteen. At age sixteen, she jumped into a doomed marriage with a clerk. At age eighteen, she fled to New York to stay with a cousin in Harlem. On a lark, she entered a beauty contest and was crowned The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City.
Her contest win resulted in more prosperous modeling jobs – some of them still questionable. She truly was a captivating beauty sought out by both artists and photographers.
At age 20 she became a Ziegfeld Girl and dazzled the audiences – she stood out. Olive began relationships with producers and directors in the Broadway district, furthering her career. Other starlets were envious.
Along the way, Olive captured the heart of Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s younger brother. They got secretly married in 1916. They did this because Mary did not approve of the relationship, and the established Mary was instrumental in Jack’s attempt to make it in pictures – key to his possible success.
Jack and Olive were deeply in love, but Jack seemed to be failing at everything. Olive, on the other hand, was known as The Glorious Lady, and Everybody’s Sweetheart. She was cast as the heroine in several flapper-character films.
The couple knew their marriage was in trouble, so they took a boat to France for a second honeymoon. Could they save things?
Instead, they had wild parties with rambunctious characters, and got into drunken brawls, themselves – sometimes partying separately, with different groups of people. They found themselves back in their same apartment at the Ritz one night, where fate took over.
They were both pretty wasted when Olive got up to take some aspirin for a headache. Jack asked her not to turn on the light. Olive went into the bathroom and fumbled around. There she drank a full bottle of a liquid instead of taking any aspirin tablets. The liquid was so caustic that it burned her throat. Jack was so out of it that he couldn’t be of much help, or even remember the events of the evening for authorities.
Jack did go to her aid when she demanded to know what was in the bottle – did that say “poison?” Eventually she ended up at Neuilly-sur-Seine. She could not relay anything to doctors because of the burned condition of her throat. What had happened? She went into a coma and died four days later, on September 10, 1920.
Her death is still a mystery. She had ingested a full bottle of bichloride of mercury in an alcohol solution. Why? She had gotten up to get aspirin tablets. Did she think it was a liqueur? She could not read the label in the dark – and it was in French.
The French police hastily ruled it an accidental death. Was it? Jack Pickford could not get any of his stories straight. He was too inebriated that night to be a good witness.
What was the bichloride of mercury for? It was a topical medicine for Jack’s syphilis lesions–he had had it for two years. He was also a jealous man. Did he have something to do with Olive’s drinking it?
He had tried to get her to dilute it in her system by drinking lots of water. He had called a doctor to come pump her stomach. It was this doctor who had called the ambulance to get her to the hospital.
Many, in Hollywood, think Olive had attempted suicide in a drunken stupor. Some suggest the hotel maid had tampered with, or moved bottles around, in the medicine cabinet, and Olive thought she was drinking a liquid sleeping aid.
What was the reason behind this tragic event?
Jack lived thirteen more years and died a broken and confused man at age 36.
Please click HERE to find Sara’s historical mystery, It Rises from the Pee Dee, on Amazon.