The Tragic Death Of Jayne Mansfield

After the last of her two performances at a supper club in Biloxi, Mississippi, actress, pinup, and Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield decided to travel on to New Orleans in a 1966 Buick Electra. The Playboy model and several other passengers in the car that night would die in a terrible car wreck, one of the most infamous accidents in all of Hollywood history (via Biography). Not only did the wreck kill Mansfield, who was a massive star at the time she died, but the terrible incident also spawned many grisly rumors about Mansfield's fatal injuries. The wreck also brought about a modern-day safety feature on tractor trailers that are still in use today.

It was a clear June night in 1967 when Mansfield and the other passengers in the car embarked on their journey. Mansfield, who was 34 when she died, was scheduled to make a TV appearance in New Orleans the following day, based on reporting from NOLA. Along for the ride were Mansfield's boyfriend and divorce attorney, Samuel Brody, and three of her children, including then 3-year-old Mariska Hargitay, the modern-day star of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," as well as Hargitay's two older brothers, who were all asleep in the backseat. The plan was for the party to reach their destination, the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, later that morning, but they never made it.

19-year-old driver Ronald Harrison was behind the wheel

It was on a rural road just before 3 a.m. when driver Ronald Harrison, who was driving the Buick Electra when the accident happened, followed a truck into a cloud of what is now believed to be mosquito spray (via History and FOX News). Though it's unclear whether the truck that Harrison followed was in fact a mosquito truck, it was common at that time for trucks to drive through certain areas or for machines to be placed on the side of the road, spraying DDT in a plume of white smoke as a means of controlling mosquito populations. The practice endured until 1972 when DDT was banned, based on reporting from the Staten Island Advance.

It's believed that on that fateful night in 1967, the smoke that Harrison drove the car into likely obscured his vision. And for this reason, Harrison failed to notice the truck that he followed had slowed down, too. The Buick crashed into the back of the truck, driving the car under it and shearing off the top. All three adults — along with Mansfield's dog — were believed to be instantly killed instantly in the wreck. Miraculously, all three children in the back seat survived. The death of such a massive star was sure to make headlines, even in the pre-internet era of Hollywood. Police photos of the accident scene also provoked lurid speculation that fueled urban legends about Mansfield for decades.

Wild rumors in the aftermath of Mansfield's tragic death

Despite a career on stage and screen, starring in such features as "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Kiss Them For Me," many today associate Mansfield with the long-disproven story that she was decapitated in the accident. The police report did indicate that the upper portion of Mansfield's head was severed, according to Snopes. The misunderstanding was likely driven by photographs appearing to show a head and hair among the wreckage, but what was most likely a wig. Jim Roberts, the undertaker who prepared Mansfield's body for burial after her death, insisted (via the Irish Mirror) that "her head was attached as much as mine is."

Despite the graphic story being disproven, the reality is that the nature of her injuries was quite severe and included "crushed skull and a partial separation of her cranium." Speculation surrounding Mansfield and her shocking death only worsened in the years after her accident. In her lifetime, she was allegedly romantically linked to Anton LaVey, the self-described head of the Church of Satan (via Britannica). And for this reason, some bought into the outlandish theory that Mansfield's terrible accident happened as the result of a curse. Grisly gossip aside, what's true is that the nature of the accident in which Mansfield and the other passengers were killed changed the way trucks are manufactured, according to federal law.

Semi-trucks now have Rear Underrun Protection systems

The severe nature of the injuries that killed Mansfield, as well as how the accident happened, led to changes in the trucking industry. In the aftermath of the wreck in 1967, federal transportation authorities recommended the industry-wide use of so-called Rear Underrun Protection Systems in tractor-trailers like the one that Mansfield's Buick rear-ended, as NOLA goes on report. In the event of a back-end collision, those bars, which are now commonly known as "Mansfield bars," prevent a car from sliding under the much larger vehicle. In 1998, those Rear Underrun Protection Systems became mandatory.

Buried in Pennsylvania, the tragic death of Jayne Mansfield and the other passengers continues to fascinate us even today, and the stretch of highway where it happened is now something of a tourist destination. According to PR Web, the car that Mansfield was in when she died was in the hands of collectors since shortly after the accident happened, and as of 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Mansfield's death, the vehicle was put on display at the "Dearly Departed Tours and Museum" on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.