Why don’t we start out by saying that there are fewer mysterious deaths today than when cinema was first gaining steam? It seems like an obvious statement to make, but we feel that we should throw that out there right up front. Over the years, investigative procedures have advanced, technologies have improved substantially, and secrets have become harder to hide. While we still get the odd mystery, they are much fewer and farther between. A good mystery has always been glamorized in Hollywood. It makes sense that this would happen. It’s as if the movie world is bleeding into the real actors being drawn into a movie scenario like the kid from Last Action Hero. We’ve always been fascinated by the deaths of stars as well. Add in even an ounce of doubt or mystery to the cause of death and we become consumed by it.
We have no statistics to back this claim up, but it seems as if, historically, actresses tend to die of mysterious causes much more than male actors. We have no proof and no reasoning for this, but it does seem to ring true. We wanted to highlight some of the more mysterious cases throughout the years involving the deaths of actresses. In some cases, it’s the cause of the death itself that interests us. In others, the mystery is in the reasoning or in the scenario leading up to the death. Each of these actresses died in ways that have had people asking questions. Some of these women became more famous after their deaths, whereas others died when they were megastars. Here are 15 Famed Actresses Whose Deaths are Still Mysteries Today.
14. Martha Mansfield
Martha Mansfield was a silent film star who made a big name for herself in Hollywood for her part in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Perfect Lover, and The Silent Command. Tragically, her career was cut short on November 29, 1923. While working on the film The Warrens of Virginia, Mansfield finished shooting and went to her car. Still in costume, Mansfield got into the back of the vehicle. A short time later, the young actress burst into flames. People rushed to vehicle to save her. Mansfield’s chauffeur ripped at Mansfield’s burning clothes trying to remove them and receiving many serious burns himself. Mansfield’s co-star, Wilfred Lytell, saved Mansfield’s face and neck from burns by throwing his overcoat over her head. While she survived the incident, Mansfield’s body was badly burned. Less than 24 hours later, she died from “burns of all extremities, general toxemia and suppression of urine.” While some bystanders said that Mansfield lit a cigarette which started the fire, others stated that a man walked by and threw a match in the car. Whether this was accidental or on purpose was never determined.
13. Peg Entwistle
The actual death of Peg Enwistle is not necessarily a mystery. We know how she died. She jumped off the “H” of the Hollywoodland sign on September 18, 1932. She died of multiple pelvis fractures. That day, before her body was found, a woman found a shoe, a jacket and a purse. In the purse was the note that read, “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Later that day, Enwistle’s body was found and her identity was revealed. Still, the suicide was curious. Entwistle had just made her first film, Thirteen Women. It seemed like her career was just blossoming, not ending. Some conspiracy theorists have pointed out that Entwistle’s suicide was symbolic. She was trying to tell us something. She jumped off the sign which, at that point, had 13 letters. Was this a connection to her film, Thirteen Women? Was she blaming Hollywood? Or was this just a simple suicide?
12. Thelma Todd
Thelma Todd was one of the biggest actresses in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. Her comedic career was at its peak when, on December 16, 1935, she was found dead. Now, the death was strange. Todd was found dead in her own car, apparently killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. The strangeness is where the car was—parked in the garage of actress Jewel Carmen and Roland West. At the time of her death, Todd was in an extramarital relationship with West. Her body was found with no major marks on it except for a contusion on her lip. Todd’s driver reported that she was distraught earlier that night, claiming that she had received extortion threats by phone. The driver was instructed to speed home, which he did. He dropped Todd at her home and left. This was approximately one block from where she died. West reported that Todd showed up at his house, but he locked her out. She then returned to her car, started it up to warm up, and died. The big question is, why, if Todd was cold and locked out as West reported, didn’t she just go home? It was only a block away.
11. Lupe Velez
Lupe Velez was one of the first successful Latin American actresses in the United States. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, her fame and popularity grew at an astonishing rate. Even though her death was declared a suicide after she wrote a suicide note and took 75 Seconal pills, multiple reports that told a different story came out afterward. This alternate account took on a life of its own and made the death into a mystery today. We acknowledge that this is nothing more than an urban legend, but it is still interesting.
What really happened was that Velez became pregnant with her fiancé, Harold Ramond. She and Ramond split a few days before her death. Velez was distraught and planned to kill herself. On December 13, 1944, she wrote a suicide note that read: “To Harald, May God forgive you and forgive me too, but I prefer to take my life away and our baby’s before I bring him with shame or killing him. [On the back] How could you, Harald, fake such a great love for me and our baby when all the time you didn’t want us? I see no other way out for me so goodbye and good luck to you, Love Lupe.” She then took the fast-acting Seconal pills and died almost instantly.
What the urban legend says happened was that Velez planned to kill herself and took the Seconal pills. Shortly after, she had the urge to throw up. On her way to the toilet, Velez slipped and fell head first into the toilet. It was there she drowned, with her head in the toilet. Because this legend was believed, people were convinced that suicide was too unbelievable, which led to rumors of murder and staged suicide.
10. Elizabeth Short
Elizabeth Short was a woman who moved to Hollywood to become an actress, but never ended up becoming one. She did, however, become one of the most famous murder victims of all time. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia, Short was found on January 15, 1947, dead with her body mutilated. Her torso had been cut in half, dissected, drained of blood, scrubbed clean, transported, and then posed where it was found. The case is still unsolved today, as there was only one witness at the time and a black sedan was all that was pinpointed. One of the main suspects, George Hill Hodel, a doctor, was investigated at the time, but no hard evidence was found. Years later, his son, a police officer, took up the investigation again, looking into his father’s past and coming to the conclusion that he did, in fact, kill Short. Perhaps we will never know for sure.
9. Jean Spangler
Jean Spangler was nothing more than a small-time actress when her disappearance made the news. On October 7, 1949, Spangler left her daughter with her sister-in-law and said she was going to see her former husband and then going to work on a film she was apparently shooting. When she never returned home, the police investigation began. It turns out that Spangler was not working on a film and had not visited her husband. There were no clues until, two days later, Spangler’s purse was found with both straps ripped. Inside the purse was an unfinished note that was addressed to “Kirk.” It read: “Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.” Spangler’s friends insisted that she was three months pregnant and was looking to have an illegal abortion. No one knew who Kirk was, although Spangler had just finished shooting the film, Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas was the star.
8. Marilyn Monroe
When Marilyn Monroe was found dead on August 5, 1962, the cause of death was declared suicide due to acute barbiturate poisoning. The suicide was not considered to be accidental because of the sheer amount of pills ingested and because of Monroe’s history with drug abuse and her mental state. Not long before she died, Monroe struggled mightily with her depression. This was made public, so the public accepted the death as suicide. Outside of some small rumors about a communist conspiracy and murder, there was no mystery about Monroe’s death until the ‘70s. It was then that Norman Mailer published her biography. In it, he opened up the JFK can of worms. He introduced the idea that there was an ongoing affair between Monroe and JFK. He told how Monroe became attached, threatening to advertise their relationship. The rumor then began that JFK had Monroe killed to quiet her. Other famous stories alleged that Monroe’s doctor administered an enema, an alleged favorite of the actress, which reacted with a drug in her system, eventually killing her. The death was said to have been staged as a suicide to protect the doctor, and that explains why the call to the police came an hour after he had arrived. There was also the question of why no water glass was next to the bed to wash the pills down. Questions, questions, and more questions. Almost definitely a suicide, but it will always be a mystery for some.
7. Sharon Tate
The murder of Sharon Tate, then pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, was one of the centuries’ most publicized crimes. Everyone pretty much knows that she was killed on August 9, 1969 because Charles Manson ordered his psychotic “family” members to kill whoever was at that house. But do we know why? Although some have disputed this, Manson was said to have attacked Tate and the other visitors at her home because he was after someone else. The previous occupants of that home were Terry Melcher, a music producer, and his girlfriend, actress Candace Bergen. Melcher had plans to record some of Manson’s music but things fell through when Melcher realized Manson was a loose cannon. Manson reportedly sent his goons to the home to kill Melcher, but he had already moved out. The new occupants were Tate and Polanski. Since Polanski was out of the country, it was just Tate and some of her friends there. The rest is brutal history.
6. Barbara Colby
On July 24, 1975, actress Barbara Colby had just finished shooting the third episode of the TV show Phyllis when she was killed without warning or reason. She and colleague James Kiernan were leaving the shoot and walking through a parking lot when they were both shot. Colby died instantly from her wounds, but Kiernan held on long enough to describe the shooting to police. He said that there was no provocation and no reasoning before dying himself. The two victims were not robbed and no motive was ever found. It was determined to be a random drive-by shooting, though many conspiracy theorists have other ideas.
5. Christa Helm
With only small parts in Wonder Woman and Starsky and Hutch, Christa Helm certainly isn’t the most well-known actress in the world. But her death is still a mystery. Helm may never have made it big in film or TV, but she was a superstar on the social scene. This is also what some believe led to her death. It’s said that Helm kept a diary of her s*x encounters with famous men. She also recorded many of these meetings as well. On February 12, 1977, Helm was leaving her agent’s home in Los Angeles when she was stabbed and killed. Helm reportedly sent a postcard to a friend before her death that read, “I am in way over my head here… I’m into something I can’t get out of.” Some also connect this death with the death of Sal Mineo, which was eerily similar.
4. Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood was a famous actress who drowned on November 29, 1981. That night, she was boating along with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, the boat’s captain, and Christopher Walken. Walken and Wood were shooting Brainstorm at the time, so the group went out on Wagner’s boat one evening to let loose. On that night, Wagner and Walken were said to have gotten into a heated argument, largely concerning Wood’s acting career. Wood got involved in the fight and left angrily to go to bed. When Wagner went to bed later that night, Wood was not there. He thought nothing of it. The next morning, Wood’s body was found in the water and the boat’s dinghy was beached nearby. The investigation concluded that Wood fell into the water when trying to board the dinghy. She had alcohol in her system as well as painkillers and motion-sickness pills which would have made the alcohol’s effects stronger. Others, however, believed that something more malicious went down. Since there was a fight and Wood’s body was found with bruises and a cut on her face, Wagner was put under suspicion. He was eventually cleared, but, years later, the case was reopened and investigated again. Even though nothing new was found, it does show just how mysterious this death was and is.
3. Tammy Lynn Leppert
Tammy Lynn Leppert was a young actress who disappeared in 1983 at the age of 18. There were suspicions that she was a victim of serial killer, Christopher Wilder, or of convicted kidnapper, John Crutchley, but no proof was ever found. Prior to her disappearance, Leppert was showing signs of paranoia and fear. She was cautious about what she ingested and even went as far as filing a police report. Still, no evidence was ever found and no one was ever convicted. Sadly, it was only after her disappearance that Leppert’s fame rose to the heights she sought out.
2. Lana Clarkson
Lana Clarkson was doing her best to make a name for herself in the film industry, but it would be her death that made her really famous. On February 3, 2003, Clarkson was killed by record producer Phil Spector. Clarkson met Spector at her work, The House of Blues, when he drove her back to his mansion. About an hour after going inside, Spector’s driver reported that he heard a gunshot. Spector allegedly called a friend and said, “I think I just shot her.” Later, Spector would call the shooting an “accidental suicide,” claiming that Clarkson had “kissed the gun,” whatever that means. Spector does have history of getting angry when women spurn him, so it’s very possible this is what happened in this case. Still, because of Spector’s insistence to stick to his weird story, we may never know the truth.
1. Brittany Murphy
When Brittany Murphy was announced dead on December 20, 2009, there was nothing really crazy about it. She was said to have died from pneumonia primarily, with anemia playing a role. There was also a decent amount of cold medication in her system which may have contributed to her death. There was no mystery until her widower, Simon Monjack, died five months later. Amazingly, Monjack died of the same thing—pneumonia with a touch of anemia. So, what happened? Well, questions were raised about mold, but those were dismissed. Pneumonia is contagious, but what was the deal with the anemia? Murphy’s father said that he had some of Murphy’s hair samples tested and they brought back the presence of heavy metals. Following this, reports of poisoning and/or foul play came up.