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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Tom Mix:
Don't Mess with the Myth

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Before the world wide web, people used to say, “I read it in the newspaper, it must be true.” Now, the internet usually gets the credit for being an all-knowing source of reliable information.

Google “Tom Mix Texas Ranger,” for instance, and you’ll find that the famous cowboy movie star served as a Texas Ranger before he took up acting in horse operas. As one columnist reported as recently as 1992, “While a member of the Texas Rangers, Mix was shot and carried three slugs in his body for the rest of his life.”

That’s absolutely not true, but why ruin a good story?

In addition to his purported state time, the rest of Mix’s Hollywood biography goes like this:

He was born in a log cabin in El Paso. (Guess they must have hauled the wood 700 miles from East Texas.) His grandfather had been a Cherokee, and his father had ridden for the famed 7th Cavalry, the outfit George Armstrong Custer made forever famous. Mix became a star football player at the Virginia Military Institute, but when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he volunteered to fight in Cuba.

On that island, he took a bullet in the mouth from a Spanish sniper, but while he may not have spit the lead out, he survived – apparently without a single scar. He stayed in the Army, also doing combat tours in the Philippines and during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Wounded again, he got orders back to the U.S. Quickly recovering, Mix went to Denver and broke horses to be purchased by the British cavalry for use in the Boer War in South Africa. Accompanying a shipment of mounts to the Dark Continent, he arrived in time to get in a little more fighting.

Back in the U.S., this time apparently unwounded, he worked as a guide for Theodore Roosevelt on some of his Western hunting trips. Well familiar by now with both ends of a firearm, Mix turned to law enforcement and worked as a sheriff’s deputy, U.S. marshal and eventually, the Rangers. While wearing the Cinco Peso, Mix single-handedly captured the outlaw Shonts Brothers, surviving yet another gunshot wound. (An Indian woman plugged him in the back, but it was nothing serious.)

Still not adverse to the smell of cordite, Mix left the Rangers to help Francisco Madero during the early part of the Mexican Revolution. South of the Rio Grande, he survived a Mexican firing squad – all of them must have missed – but he did get nicked in the leg by a rifle bullet during the Battle of Jaurez, across from his home town.

His soldier of fortune days behind him, Mix saddled up Old Blue and rode to Hollywood to become a Western star. He ended up performing in some 175 Westerns in a 24-year career that ended with his retirement in 1934.

And that’s the only thing true about Mix’s Hollywood biography, a phony history dreamed up by Tensile Town publicity agents.

Mix’s real biography is not as exciting. He was born in Mix Run, PA, a couple of thousand miles northeast of El Paso. His father was a lumber miller, not a dashing Cavalry officer. And the closest the young Mix ever got to a horse was watching a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was athletic, but never a football star.

He did join the Army when the Spanish-American War began, but he didn't make it any farther from home than the Delaware River. From 1905 to 1908, he did work as an armed security guard at various labor camps in Tennessee, Kansas and Colorado. In 1909, he pinned on a deputy’s badge in Dewey, OK.

Later that year, Mix got his big break when he went to work as a horse wrangler for a movie company filming on location in Oklahoma. They liked what they saw, and soon he was busting caps on blanks in black-and-while silent films.

Though Mix never wore a Ranger badge for real, in 1923 he did pin on a prop department Cinco Peso replica to play the lead role in the movie based on Zane Grey’s classic Western novel, “The Lone Star Ranger.”

Five years earlier, the “reel” Ranger met a real Ranger when Frank Hamer and his wife Gladys traveled to California in 1918. The couple took the westward trip after Hamer had recovered from two gunshot wounds he sustained in a shootout in downtown Sweetwater on Oct. 1, 1917. Mix supposedly urged Hamer to stay in Hollywood and join him as a celluloid cowboy, but Mrs. Hamer said no even though her husband probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.

The two men did become friends, and Mix later posed with Hamer outside the Capitol when he came to Texas. The captain even got Mix named as an honorary Ranger. When Hamer and other officers ended the career of the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde in 1934, Mix sent Hamer a congratulatory letter.

Mix got to enjoy his paper Ranger status for only a few years. On Oct. 12, 1940, he died with his boots on, one of them pressed down firmly on the accelerator of his fancy 1937 Cord Roadster when it veered off the highway near Florence, AZ.

© Mike Cox - March 19, 2014 column
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