Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

Olive Thomas: The Poisoned Chalice Tales of History and Imagination

Trigger Warning: This episode deals with premature death (I know, not unusual in this blog)… and sexually transmitted infections (somewhat more unusual in this blog).

Situated northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and covering around 80 square kilometres, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple planned to set up a ranch on the land, but soon found they had no aptitude for ranching. Their plan B; to build a community based around their moral outlook.

Harvey was heavily religious, and a prohibitionist -so determined Hollywood would become a Christian settlement; free of the temptations of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. He died in 1891, only four years into the establishment of Tinseltown. Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took the reins following her husband’s passing. She picked up approximately where Harvey left off, announcing free land to anyone who set up a church in Hollywood. All denominations were welcome.

Daeida was devoutly religious, like Harvey – but at thirty years his junior – she had a very different view on what it meant to be God fearing. she wanted to make Hollywood a place of beauty. She dreamt of a cultured town, where cultured people mingled at the theatre. The kind of place where young lovers might meet at a barn dance. The kind of a place where those young lovers might want to find work marry, settle down, and bring up their own families. One early settler to this upscale neighbourhood, H.J. Whitley, was instrumental in helping Daeida build Hollywood. In 1902, Whitley brought a bank to Tinseltown.
Whitley secured electricity, and a post office. With Daeida, he set up a hotel, a market, and Hollywood Boulevard.

Daeida passed on in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios arrived in Tinseltown, but nearly a decade before the famous Hollywoodland sign went up. The people of Hollywood honoured her, in death, as the ‘Mother of Hollywood.’ 

The first Hollywood movie scene was shot in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs filmed most of the ‘five act play’, The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago. Disruptions in shooting led to a relocation to Hollywood to finish the silent film. The first film shot there entirely was ‘In Old California’, a 1910 Western directed by D.W. Griffith. More productions followed in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies were operating in Hollywood.

A large number of sunny days each year meant more filming days than back east. It also made for great light to film in. Add a diverse landscape and a rapidly growing population to draw from (California was a rising agricultural and industrial area – full of people looking for work,) and Tinseltown was the ideal place to shoot a movie. 

The late nineteen-teens, up to the Great Depression was a time when people could afford nice things, including distractions from their everyday lives. An emergent film industry focussed on narrative-driven film making, filling a need for escapism for many Americans. This was a boom time for movie makers. But one could imagine the ghost of Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave – figuratively speaking. A booming industry flush with cash, and full of talented, young, well-paid people – rumours soon got out about how decadent Hollywood had become.

And of course sober, religious wowsers – people much like Harvey Wilcox – continued to exist. They were riding high on their recent victory against the demon drink. In 1919, the Government passed the 18th Amendment, banning the recreational use of alcohol. The amendment got teeth soon after, with the passing of the Volstead Act, 28th October 1919.
These killjoys had a new target in their sites – those decadent, and dare I say it – as antisemitism was part of the reason they were targeted – often Jewish, film makers out in Hollywood.

By 1930, the industry would voluntarily bind itself to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known.

Will Hays, a former postmaster general briefly associated with the incredibly corrupt presidency of Warren Harding in the early 1920s, was put in charge. For decades this would have a detrimental effect on the movie industry, and long-lasting effects on society as a whole – conservative values making it past the censor far easier than progressive values. Two examples – under Hays code America, miscegenation – couples of differing ethnicities – were barred. A lack of representation normalising mixed-race relationships made it easier for racist lawmakers to continue to enforce real world miscegenation laws. The rule also made for ridiculous situations on film now seen, rightly, as offensive.
Take Anna May Wong. America’s greatest Chinese-American actor was passed over for a role in the 1935 blockbuster The Good Earth – a film about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese family – because MGM had already cast the white Paul Muni in the male lead. They would rather have both leads in ‘yellow face,’ than break miscegenation laws by casting a real Chinese and fake Chinese actor opposite one another. German-American actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of the housewife O-Lan – something Anna May never really got over.

The LGBTQI+ community were also relegated to characters whose essential nature could only be alluded to in a coded way. Under Hays’ code they were often sinners, baddies or lunatics – and as such had to be punished by the end of the film…

This was a far cry from, for example, Wings – the 1927 film which won the first Oscar for best picture. The film’s protagonists are two male pilots who vie for the love of the same woman – but who slowly come to realise they really love one another. The film reaches a climax after Dave, one of the pilots in gravely injured. Unrequited lover Jack rushes to his side, and the two share their true feelings for one another – then, a passionate kiss – before Dave passes of his injuries.
The ‘bury your gays’ trope would continue under the Hays Code of course – but love in it’s great diversity would be left on the cutting room floor for decades.

How did Hollywood find itself in such an awful, and restrictive state? There were a series of high profile scandals that made moral policing seem unavoidable.

Over the next three episodes, Tales of History and Imagination goes Hollywood, as we delve into three of those scandals.

As we need to start somewhere, let’s begin in the early hours of September 6th 1920. The location, Paris legendary Hotel Ritz – popular amongst the rich and famous for it’s luxuriousness – including being among the first hotels anywhere to have electric lights, telephones in all the rooms and – pertinent to our tale – an en-suite bathroom in every suite.

Among the guests that evening, Hollywood actors Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford. The night before the couple took in Paris’ vivid nightlife. The couple imbibed freely, and one presumes partied hard well into the morning. They returned to their suite, the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. As the couple had a flight booked for London that morning, Jack went straight to bed. Olive, was not yet ready to turn in, and took a seat to jot down letter to her mother in the USA. She wrote until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and fumbled through the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed Olive shrieked “Oh My God!” Before collapsing as if struck dead. What would unfold would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal. Sadly, it also proved an early example of how well tragedy sells. But before we jump into that I really should introduce the cast.  


First, our heroine. Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. When she was aged 12 Olive was sent to live with her grandparents, after her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, finding work selling gingham in a department store. In April 1911 she married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, but by the age of 18 she left Bernard – having moved to New York in search of fame and fortune. She made her first big break in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive the beauty queen parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. She took work as an artist’s model – featuring in a number of magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) that was modelled on Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She caught the eye of the impresario, and soon they were an item.

By all accounts she was no great dancer, but Olive was extremely good looking – people commented particularly about her violet-blue eyes, which I can only imagine as similar in colour to Elizabeth Taylor’s. She was also dating the guy in charge – so her profile within the troupe grew, until she caught the attention of the movie people. By 1916, Olive Thomas was cast in small roles in films. In 1917 she caught the eye of Triangle Pictures film producer and innovator Thomas Ince
(an aside but Ince is a man you may know of now for the strange manner of his own death. Before he passed he had largely defined most of the roles in film making and was an early adopter of the modern film set.)
Olive signed up a six year contract with Triangle Pictures in 1917, and quickly became popular with the film going public for her innocent, girl next door characters.

Not meaning to cast shade on Ms Thomas, but real life was anything but girl next door. In truth she was far more interesting than all that. In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as much of an A lister as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, Mary was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d go on to win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types, though nowhere near as famous as his sister.

Olive and Jack secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were both heavy partiers. Jack especially was a very heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from monogamous. There was a buzz around those in the know in Hollywood he’d contracted syphilis from one one night stand or another while partying. This earned him the nickname ‘Mr Syphilis’ among his friends. There wouldn’t be an effective cure for syphilis till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943, so Mr Syphilis would only have had treatments like mercury bi-chloride ointments to fall back on. This effectively meant burning off syphilis sores as they arose, slowing the illness. I should mention mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat syphilis in the mid 16th Century by the Swiss Polymath Paracelsus – is also highly poisonous. 

Post-elopement, Olive continued her career. She was popular, though never an A-lister. She had a string of moderately successful films with Triangle, before leaving for Selznick Pictures in 1919. Early in 1920 she played the lead in The Flapper – a film which lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s – though her own role was not terribly flapper-ish.

She was signed up to an eight picture a year deal with Selznick, and it appears something may have happened there in the lead up to her French holiday. I’ve yet to come across a detailed explanation, and any explanation by myself would be guesswork – but by time Olive and Jack set sail in August 1920, Olive had been removed from Selznick’s payroll.
Jack continued to party hard following their marriage – but nearly brought himself to disrepute in a different way entirely in 1918. As the First World War ground towards a conclusion, Jack – a Canadian born Canadian citizen – volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to war. A number of sons of wealthy Americans – some of whom were drinking buddies – had been signing up for the Navy – as they had a high ranking connection who would ensure they were not sent to war – and accept a hefty bribe in return.
Jack was among those caught, named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal indictment – but his own image, and the good name of the Pickfords was tarnished because of this. 

He continued to work sporadically, picking up one or two roles a year following the scandal.

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with some more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So, back to The Ritz, September 6th 1920. Olive has collapsed in the en-suite – a bottle of poison lays on the floor beside her. Jack calls for a doctor, and proceeds to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding gullet, hoping she will vomit the dangerous substance from her body. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (the mercury bi-chloride usually came in tablet form) thinking she’d grabbed a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a painkiller or sleeping pill down with what she thought was a glass of drinking water – instead imbibing a glass of Jack’s diluted medicine. Mary Pickford, trying to avoid further damage to brand Pickford, later claimed an errant maid must’ve left poison behind after cleaning the bathroom. A doctor arrived, and pumped Olive’s stomach three times. She would not be taken to hospital till five hours after she collapsed. At this stage it was too little, too late. Olive Thomas died of her injuries 10th September 1920.  

Concerned Olive’s death would damage their own reputation, the Pickfords sprang into damage control mode. The day Olive passed, Mary’s recently divorced ex husband Owen Moore fronted up to press. He claimed Olive had been extremely unwell for some time – and died of natural causes. No specific details of her alleged sickness were shared with the press, but the family’s wish for privacy to mourn their loss most definitely was. 

Unsurprisingly, this only urged the press on to muck rake for whatever they could find. Whether true or otherwise – stories emerged of Olive’s last night of Parisian debauchery.
Did Olive and Jack go to a nice restaurant, and from there out dancing – or were they hanging out in shadowy opium dens?
Did they go sightseeing, or were they hanging out with career criminals at fight clubs – where they bet on female bare knuckle boxers – as men bit the heads off live rats? Did Olive drink bootleg rocket-fuel that night, that contained toxic levels of ethanol? This line of the couple hitting seedy clubs run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper put it, dominated a number of newspapers. One can imagine the pearl clutching back in the USA – sure that Pickford kid is a bad-un… but Olive Thomas? She was the ‘girl next door’ right?

And then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding. An American former army captain named Spalding was sentenced to six months’ prison at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? He was caught smuggling cocaine into France. Rumours abounded of this Captain Spalding organising cocaine-fuelled orgies for wealthy Americans in Paris. A rumour did the rounds Spalding had a little black book of clients and Olive’s details were in it. If this Captain Spalding did in fact know Olive, he was unlikely to have had anything to do with her death – A newspaper article ran on the man on the day of Olive’s death covering his capture and trial – ongoing at the time.

But it was cause for speculation. Cocaine was wildly popular among the rich and famous in the 1920s. Coincidentally, it was claimed the American film Studio Famous Players-Lasky had a dealer known as Captain Spaulding who provided the actors with cocaine whenever they needed it – something some Hollywood history bloggers claim Groucho Marx was tipping his hat to in naming his character in the movie Animal Crackers (1931) Captain Jeffrey Spaulding. Hooray for Captain Spaulding indeed.

As we know, if a lie – a lie can certainly travel halfway around the world in the time it takes the truth to put it’s shoes on. Rumours well preceded any sensible examination of facts, and for some, they stuck.

The rumours of Jack’s syphilis also emerged in the days following Olive’s death. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive contracted syphilis from Jack, and despondent at what was almost certainly a death sentence – chose to take her own life. This was the narrative that stuck the most with the public.
People started to blame Jack for her death. Hot on the heels of this scandal, another rumour – Had Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive? Was he a callous murderer?
Could this explain why Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing (Which he did, unquestionably do)? Did he send his ex brother in law, Owen Moore to make a statement to press as he worried the press would see through his ruse?
This certainly wasn’t helped when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow and star of Broadway named Marilyn Miller. They married two years after Olive’s passing, which some people said they felt was too soon.
It probably should be noted the couple divorced after five years, due to Jack being an abusive husband. Marilyn herself died young, when surgery on her nasal passages went wrong.

Public opinion fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by a Hollywood aristocrat whose crimes included draft dodging, sleeping around, heavy drug use – and quite possibly murder. One could imagine Jack Pickford’s Hollywood career as the boy next door was as good as over. 15,000 mourners gathered outside Olive’s funeral. People clamoured for her old films, which were all re-released at cinemas across America. All became blockbusters in the weeks following her death. 

Another sector of the public – the wowsers who killed legal alcohol – took notice too. Their take was quite different. Olive Thomas was not their focus. The alleged Parisian bacchanalia was. This only served to confirm their belief that Hollywood was a den of iniquity, hell bent on corrupting American society. To them Olive Thomas was a cautionary tale, and, for now, Jack Pickford was the devil incarnate.  

I generally don’t want to speculate on these cases. At a push the accident scenario seems more likely to me, but the case lacks evidence, and has become bloated with wild speculation. Was Jack an abusive husband? Subsequently it appears so. Did he take out a policy on his wife, then intentionally poison her? No evidence has been presented of an insurance policy to date.
Did Jack Pickford take syphilis medication? These is some evidence for this. He returned to Paris in late 1932, for a shopping holiday. While there he collapsed, and died a few days later, on January 3rd 1933. His cause of death is listed as “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” Alcoholism – and it should be pointed out Marilyn Miller claimed Jack was an alcoholic in her divorce petition – can cause neuritis. Syphilis was a common cause of neuritis also – so, pass??

To me Olive Thomas’ case is doubly tragic, first for her early passing and second because her became fodder for a culture war. Next fortnight’s episode, the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – Virginia Rappe case is similarly ambiguous – but in my opinion altogether more disturbing.

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