Martha Mansfield

Martha Mansfield (born Martha Ehrlich, July 14, 1899 November 30, 1923) was an American actress in silent films and vaudeville stage plays.

Martha Mansfield
Mansfield in 1922
Martha Ehrlich

(1899-07-14)July 14, 1899
DiedNovember 30, 1923(1923-11-30) (aged 24)
Cause of deathToxemia and burns of the extremities
Resting placeWoodlawn Cemetery
Other namesMartha Early
Years active19121923

Early life

She was born in New York City to Maurice and Harriett Gibson Ehrlich. She had a younger sister, Edith, born in 1905.[1] Although many biographies state that Martha was born in Mansfield, Ohio, her birth record and death certificate both have New York City as her place of birth. Her mother, Harriet, was from Mansfield, Ohio, having emigrated there from Ireland in 1885. Martha later adopted the name of the town as her stage name.[1]:239 By the early 1910s, Mansfield and her mother had moved to the Bronx and were living on 158th Street.[2]


At the age of 14, she became determined to become an actress. She lobbied for, and won, a role in the Broadway production of Little Women in 1912. She also began working as an artists' model and dancer. She danced in the musical Hop o' My Thumb in 1913,[1] still using her birth name.She also acted in The Passing Show of 1915 and Robinson Crusoe, Jr. before changing her name.[3] As a model, she posed for illustrator Harrison Fisher and was the subject of more than 300 photographs by Alfred Cheney Johnston.[2]

Using the name Martha Early, she was signed to a six-month contract with Essanay Studios in 1917 where she appeared in three films with French actor Max Linder. In 1918, she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies. Later that same year, she made her feature film debut in Broadway Bill, opposite Harold Lockwood. In early 1919, Mansfield announced that she had decided to pursue a film career full-time. Before she relocated to the west coast, Mansfield played leads in films produced by Famous Players-Lasky. In October 1919, she appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's The Midnight Frolic.[1]:237-238

Her first Hollywood movie was Civilian Clothes (1920) directed by Hugh Ford. She gained prominence as Millicent Carew (originally offered to Tallulah Bankhead) in the film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which starred John Barrymore. She then signed with Selznick Pictures where she was cast with Eugene O'Brien in The Perfect Lover (1919). In 1921, Mansfield returned to the stage in a vaudeville tour. She appeared in two independent films the following year: Queen of the Moulin Rouge and Till We Meet Again. She spent the remainder of the year touring the vaudeville circuit.[1]:240

In 1923, Mansfield completed her contract for Selznick and signed with Fox Film Corporation. Her first film for Fox was The Silent Command, starring Edmund Lowe and Béla Lugosi.[1]:242 The final completed features in her short film career were Potash and Perlmutter and The Leavenworth Case, both from 1923.[4]


On November 29, 1923, while working on location in San Antonio, Texas on the film The Warrens of Virginia, Mansfield was severely burned when a tossed match ignited her Civil War costume of hoop skirts and flimsy ruffles. Mansfield was playing the role of Agatha Warren and had just finished her scenes and retired to a car when her clothing burst into flames. Her neck and face were saved when leading man Wilfred Lytell threw his heavy overcoat over her. The chauffeur of Mansfield's car was burned badly on his hands while trying to remove the burning clothing from the actress. The fire was put out, but she sustained substantial burns to her body.[5]

She was rushed to a hospital where she died the following day of "burns of all extremities, general toxemia and suppression of urine".[1]:243 Mansfield was 24 years old. Accompanied by actor Phillip Shorey, Mansfield's body was transported back to her home in New York City.[4] She was interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.[1]:244 It was never determined who threw the match that ignited Mansfield's clothing. Some witnesses said they saw a match enter through the window of the car Mansfield was sitting in. Another theory was that a nervous Mansfield decided to smoke a cigarette in the car to calm her nerves and accidentally ignited the dress with a dropped match or a cigarette. Mansfield's mother, Harriett Ehrlich, dismissed this theory as she said smoking made her daughter "uncomfortable".[1]:243


When the Warrens of Virginia was finally released in late 1924, Mansfield's role had been edited down, and Rosemary Hill was promoted as the female lead.[2]

Mansfield left an estate valued at $2,473. She bequeathed $22,000 in Liberty bonds to her mother. She also left her mother two life insurance policies worth $25,000 each.[6]


Year Title Role Notes
1917 Max Comes Across Short film
1917 Max Wants a Divorce Max's Wife Short film
1917 Max in a Taxi Short film
1918 Broadway Bill Muriel Latham Lost film
1918 The Spoiled Girl Short film
1919 The Hand Invisible Katherine Dale
1919 The Perfect Lover Mavis Morgan Lost film
1919 Should a Husband Forgive?
1920 A Social Sleuth Short film
1920 Women Men Love Ruth Gibson
1920 Mothers of Men Paulette
1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Millicent Carewe
1920 Civilian Clothes Florence Lanham
1920 The Wonderful Chance Peggy Winton
1921 His Brother's Keeper Helen Harding
1921 Gilded Lies Hester Thorpe
1921 The Last Door Helen Rogers
1921 A Man of Stone Lady Fortescue
1922 Queen of the Moulin Rouge Rosalie Anjou
1922 Till We Meet Again Henrietta Carter
1923 Is Money Everything? Mrs. Justine Pelham
1923 The Woman in Chains Claudia Marvelle
1923 Youthful Cheaters Lois Brooke
1923 The Little Red Schoolhouse Mercy Brent
1923 Fog Bound Mildred Van Buren
1923 The Silent Command Peg Williams, the vamp
1923 Potash and Perlmutter The Head Model
1923 The Leavenworth Case Mary Leavenworth
1924 The Warrens of Virginia Agatha Warren Released posthumously, lost film


  1. Ankerich, Michael G. (2010). Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. BearManor. p. 236. ISBN 1-59393-605-2.
  2. Golden, Eve (2015). Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. McFarland. pp. 88–90. ISBN 9780786483549. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  3. "Martha Ehrlich". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  4. "Burns Are Fatal To Star Of Film". The Milwaukee Sentinel. December 1, 1923. p. 8. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
  5. "Martha Mansfield, Movie Star, Dies As The Result Of Burns". Meriden Morning Record. December 1, 1923. p. 1. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
  6. "Martha Mansfield Left All to Her Mother In "Partial Return" for Care Given Her". The New York Times. September 26, 1924.
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