Olga Worth’s Final Bow

Marcia Smith
6 min readMar 21

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Olga Worth, Miami News, May 19, 1940

Can a human body spontaneously combust; that is, can a person suddenly burst into flames without an outside source of ignition? Is that what happened to Olga Worth?

A well-known stage actress during the Roaring Twenties, Olga caught fire while sitting alone in a parked car on East Grand Avenue in Dallas. Eight days later, on October 23, 1964, she succumbed to injuries so numerous they required three lines on her death certificate.

The car, it was reported, did not burn, nor were there any combustible materials inside the vehicle. The 79-year-old’s clothes disintegrated. Olga suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, which caused her lungs to collapse.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the actress died under “mysterious circumstances,” that the woman who gave Clark Gable his first acting role inexplicably was turned into “a human torch.”

Miami Herald, January 10, 1920

Such a dramatic death was oddly fitting for a woman who spent decades traveling from town to town producing and starring in shows that filled theaters with audiences eager for live entertainment. Her name on local newspaper advertisements was prominent, suggesting it ensured a crowd.

In the early days, Olga joined a stock company that took her to mid-size towns in Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky. She met fellow actor Francis Sayles, and in the fall of 1913, the two married in Richmond, Indiana. The marriage didn’t last long. Sayles moved on to Hollywood and enjoyed a movie career characterized by small, uncredited parts.

Francis Sayles in 1935’s “Midnight Phantom”

In the fall of 1916, Olga married again. She and husband Gene Lewis formed their own stock company, and the newlyweds spent their years together on trains and theater stages. Newspapers from 1916 through the 1920’s — stretching from Miami to Dallas, Milwaukee to Houston, Memphis to Fort Worth — not only ran advertisements announcing their appearances, but reviews praising their productions. Olga and Gene famously gave Clark Gable his first acting job, during a run in Houston.

They staged Broadway and Buttermilk, Brewster’s Millions, The Gorilla (“the greatest mystery play of all”) and Madame X, about which a reviewer said Olga’s performance was “exactly as played by Sarah Bernhardt.” As newlyweds, Olga and Gene co-starred in Tess of the Storm Country. A St. Louis reviewer highly praised Olga, calling Gene’s performance as a young minister “pleasing.”

The couple divorced sometime before 1935, and like his predecessor in Olga’s life, Gene went to Hollywood, where he found work as an actor, writer and dialogue director. Olga married once more, in Florida, in the spring of 1935. Although she and Ralph A. Stephens divorced a decade later, she retained ties to Florida.

Olga didn’t much take to marriage — and apparently motherhood wasn’t in the picture — but she did have family. That, in fact, is what brought her to Dallas — and to her excruciating end — in 1964.

Olga was born August 19, 1885, in Omaha, Nebraska. Her father, Charles, was a first-generation American; his German-born father and Irish-born mother were said to have met on a boat coming to America. Olga’s mother, Margaret Simmons, was one of 13 children; her parents were among the earliest settlers of Florida’s western coast.

Olga had two brothers: Charles Edmund Worth, a Tampa attorney and real estate broker, and Hal C. Worth, who arrived in Dallas in 1917. Hal was a theatrical producer and proprietor of the Dallas Costume Shoppe on Main Street, established by a “Mr. Lester” at the turn of the century, according to the shop’s current owner, Michael Robinson.

Hal and wife Edna rented costumes for historical pageants from Mr. Lester in the early 1930’s, then bought the shop, Robinson said. After Hal’s death in 1957, Edna and Fortunato Mata, whom the couple had adopted, ran the shop together. After Edna died in 1986, Mata took over.

Olga alternated between her brothers and their mutual interests: Florida real estate and show business. She was “in and out of Dallas a great deal” and, Robinson said, Olga and Mata were “thick as thieves.” Robinson bought the costume shop from Mata.

Both Mata and Edna were with Olga on the day she went up in flames. According to the Dallas Morning News account, Mata had stepped out of the car parked on East Grand to buy a cold drink. Edna left to purchase a gift for a nurse tending Olga, who was receiving treatment for high blood pressure while in Dallas.

There are no witness accounts of what happened before or just after fire consumed the elderly actress. Olga was rushed to Bristol General Hospital, where she lingered for eight days. An autopsy was performed; the incident was ruled an accident.

In the decades since her death, Olga Worth has become at least as well known for her fiery death as for her acting career. Those who subscribe to the pseudo-scientific notion of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) know her as one of its victims. The internet abounds with stories of those who have succumbed to the phenomenon, as well as with scientific explanations that drain the events of mystery.

Studies of SHC note that it’s often associated with the elderly and alcoholism. Obviously, the elderly and/or the intoxicated may be less mobile and unable to escape or react to a flame from, say, a cigarette. Olga was not a young woman; no report of her fiery death mentions that she was either drinking alcohol or smoking.

An extensive 1984 report published in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators concludes that reports of SHC often omit the fact that victims were close to a fireplace, candle, or other flame source, omissions designed to create an aura of mystery around the event. Olga was sitting in the back seat of the car on East Grand. Is it possible the driver or passenger in the front had been smoking?

The 1984 report also mentions that “combustible fuel” in a fiery death can mean more than liquid accelerants. Clothing, blankets, floor coverings and chair stuffing also fuel flames, the investigators found. Would that not also include upholstered car seats?

The car in which Olga was sitting reportedly was undamaged. Again, the arson investigators’ report notes that nearby objects often remain undamaged because fire tends to burn upward, but burns laterally with some difficulty. The fires in question are relatively small, achieving considerable destruction by the wick effect, and relatively nearby objects may not be close enough to catch fire themselves.

Following Olga’s death on Friday, October 23, friends and presumably fans attended a rosary recital October 24 and, on October 26, a requiem mass at St. Edward’s Catholic Church on Elm Street October 26. Also on that day, she was buried at Oakland Cemetery, in section 31, lot 55.

Photo courtesy of Findagrave.

NOTES: News accounts of Olga’s death give her age as 75. She was, in fact, 79.

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Marcia Smith

The former newspaper reporter and English teacher is the author of the book, The Woman in the Well and Other Ancestories.