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Accidental death in 1920 France ended reel life for Charleroi's Thomas

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 5:57 p.m.
Olive Thomas
Olive Thomas

Part 2 of 2

The first local report of the tragic death of actress Olive Thomas, a native of Charleroi, in Paris appeared Thursday, July 9, 1920, in The Charleroi Mail via a United Press cablegram. It said Thomas, “the American movie star, was recovering from a dose of poison taken, according to friends, under the belief it was a sleeping powder.”

“It was stated that she was suffering from insomnia,” the story said. “Her husband, actor Jack Pickford, was with her at the hospital.”

A sharply contrasting United Press story on Sept. 10 in The Daily Independent in Monessen said Thomas “is near death in Paris … according to a statement by her physician, Dr. Joseph Choates of Los Angeles.” Choates was identified as being the former physician for Thomas' sister-in-law, legendary actress Mary Pickford.

“Dr. Choates stated that on September 5 Miss Thomas drank bi-chloride preparation containing 20 grams of mercury,” the UP dispatch said. “She had swallowed about eight grams when she realized her mistake and called her husband, Jack Pickford. He kept her alive by first aid, pouring water down her throat. The effects of the poison came on with unusual rapidity, Dr. Choates said. Acute nephritis, which usually takes days to develop, occurred in 24 hours, he declared.”

On Sept. 11, a story in The Mail reported that French police “have begun a thorough investigation of Olive Thomas … who died in Paris on Friday morning from the effects of a poison said to have been taken in mistake for a sleeping powder.”

“The authorities have issued a permit for the body to be embalmed but have not yet agreed to the shipment of the remains to New York City on the Mauretania, which sails from Cherbourg on the 18th,” the story said. “Investigation is also being made by the police of rumors of cocaine orgies intermingled with champagne dinner, which lasted until early hours of the morning that have been afloat in the American colony and among the habitues of the cinema world during the past week.”

French authorities ruled on Sunday, Sept. 12, that Thomas' death was the result of “a dose of poison taken accidentally.” The story said that determination was made by a Paris Police Department official, who in France does the duty of coroner, after hearing the evidence as to the circumstances of her death.

“Even the screen has never shown so tragic a history as this of the young movie queen whose death on Saturday ended five days of excruciating torture,” The Charleroi Mail said. “To the end she wanted passionately to live. When speechless and blind, she seemed to be warding off with her hands the spectre of death which haunted her bedside.”

The Mail disclosed on Monday, Sept. 20, that the body of Olive Thomas, “motion picture star, former Charleroi girl, who died in Paris following the taking of poison pills, arrived on Saturday in New York City on the steamship Mauretania and was taken to St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Funeral services will be conducted Tuesday afternoon by the Rev. Dr. Ernest Stres, rector of the church.”

Thomas was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.

Nikki Sheppick said Thomas' death was “perhaps the first Hollywood scandal, a tragedy that claimed the life of a beautiful and talented young woman.”

“It certainly caused a stir in the film industry and the entertainment world,” she said. “Remember, that was decades before instant media reports, social networking and other sources of reporting all-too-familiar stories today.”

Theaters in the area continued featuring Thomas' films after her death.

The Star in downtown Monessen, for example, offered this notice in a large newspaper ad on Wednesday, March 9, 1921: “Thursday and Friday, four acts of refined vaudeville and also Olive Thomas in ‘Everybody's Sweetheart.' This was the last picture she appeared in before her death and will be the last chance to see her in a new production.”

The Charleroi Mail reported on Monday, March 3, 1924, that funeral services took place a day earlier for Oliverette H. McCormick, 79, the grandmother of Olive Thomas. McCormick was recognized as a pioneer resident of Charleroi and had lived on Third Street until about six years earlier, when she moved to Verona.

“Mrs. McCormick had reared Olive Thomas from the time she was four years old until she entered filmdom at the age of 16 years,” the newspaper said. “She died last Thursday of natural causes.”

In 2000, with funding from Timeline Films and Hugh Hefner and his film preservation organization, filmmaker Sarah J. Baker premiered a documentary on Thomas' life, “Olive Thomas: The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The Charleroi Area Historical Society assisted in production of the documentary, which is available at the CAHS headquarters and on several Internet sites.

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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