The Death of James Dean
An Underworld Tales Article
Everyone knows that James Dean was killed in his expensive Porsche 550 Spyder. His fans were devastated to hear the news about the two-car crash that occurred on September 30, 1955. When his blockbuster hit, Rebel Without A Cause opened a month later, theaters across the nation were packed with teary-eyed, heart-broken audiences. Everyone was in shock that someone so young and vital would be snatched away so unexpectedly.
But could there be something more sinister involved in Dean’s death? Possibly. Many strange occurrences surround Dean’s death, including a jinxed Porsche Spyder, a possible curse, and black magic. On the fateful evening of his death, a malevolent force may have even been in the car with him
Many, including historians and parapsychologists, would swear that something supernatural was at work…that some unseen entity or black magic is responsible for Dean’s death and the other strange occurrences afterward. Yet, if evil was at work, it appears that some other force attempted to intervene and warn him. Amazingly, on the day the fatal accident occurred, Dean had received no fewer than four warnings about his reckless driving speed.
He didn’t take them seriously and appeared to have no idea that the day would be his last.
September 30 was pretty much an ordinary day for Dean. Early that morning, he got dressed as usual and wore his favorite red jacket from Rebel Without A Cause. Then he drove to Competition Motors where his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, thoroughly inspected the Spyder for an upcoming race that Dean intended to participate in. They headed for Salinas with Life photographer, Sandy Roth and stuntman, Bill Hickman, who drove in a separate vehicle.
When the four stopped at a roadside restaurant, Hickman warned Dean, who was nonchalantly drinking a cold glass of milk, not to drive too fast. Was this some kind of portend about the tragedy to come? Maybe not. It’s possible that Hickman was simply perturbed that the station wagon that he and Sandy were in just couldn’t keep up with the fast Porsche Spyder, and Roth wanted to get some pictures of the beloved celebrity on the road.
Though two weeks earlier Dean had told TV viewers in a National Safety Council commercial “remember, drive safely, the life you might save might be mine,” he had no intention of heeding his own advice. Everyone knew that he had a propensity for speeding, drove fast both on and off the track. When he started on location for the George Stevens epic, Giant, he was forbidden by contract to race, but the ultimatum didn’t end his fascination with fast cars.
When the shooting in Texas ended, he immediately purchased the flashy Porsche Spyder that had the number “130” painted in red on each door, and “Little Bastard” painted on the back.
Had Hickman had bad vibes when he saw the gleaming silver car that fateful day? Was he somehow sensing what was to come? If he harbored such feelings, he never breathed a word about it, and soon, the group was back on the road, heading north on Highway 99, now Highway 5. Despite Hickman’s request, Dean quickly accelerated up to 68 MPH on Grapevine Road, breaking the speed limit.
Still, Dean would get another warning about his driving speed when, at around 3:30 PM, Police Officer Otie V. Hunter pursued the vehicle and made Dean pull over. The ticket failed to dissuade the reckless young man. Immediately after the incident, he told Hickman and Roth to meet him at a place called “Rolf” at Paso Robles, about 150 miles north. Apparently, he planned to put some distance between himself and the sluggish station wagon.
He did just that. Dean passed Bakersfield on Highway 466, which is now called Highway 46, and he and Wütherich stopped at a gas station called Blackwell’s Corners. Dean ate an apple and had a coke, unaware that he only had a couple of hours to live.
While he was near Highway 466 and Highway 33, he also encountered a couple of racing friends, Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who told him that they had both received tickets for speeding that day as well. That makes three warnings! It truly seems as if something, a guardian angel perhaps, had been trying to warn Dean about the importance of slowing down…warning him that tragedy would result if he didn’t.
After the station wagon finally arrived at the predetermined meeting place, Hickman again warned Dean about the necessity of slowing down. Only this time it was apparent that Hickman had Dean’s safety on his mind, something he clearly told the actor, adding that he could hardly see the Spyder because of its color and low height. The vehicle actually seemed to blend in with the silvery gray highway around it.
Yet again, James failed to heed Bill’s warning, and when he returned to the Porsche, in typical fashion, he rapidly accelerated on the highway. Not wearing his seat belt, it was about 5:30 when he came to the crossing of highway 466 and 41 at the east of the town, Cholame. The area was considered dangerous, because it harbored a notorious “black spot,” yet Dean was driving at about 100 MPH, the sunset bright in his eyes and nearly blinding.
John R. White was buzzing down the highway when Dean passed him up, the silver Spyder seeming like a silver bullet zipping across a ribbon of concrete. He also saw the black and white Ford Sedan up ahead that was coming from the opposite direction. Apparently the driver of the 1950 Ford Tudor, Donald Turnupseed, wanted to make a left turn and had to cut across Dean’s path.
Dean also saw the other car. He told Wütherich, “That guy has to stop!”
Unfortunately, though Turnupseed did see the Spyder, there was no time to stop.
He tried to do so. Desperately! But even after he’d floored the Ford’s brakes, the car continued to roll thirty feet onto the highway. The resulting collision was swift and violent. Though the left front fender of the Ford barely touched the Porsche, it was enough to send the 1,500 pound Spyder 49 feet into the air. Rolf, also not wearing a seat belt, was brutally ejected from the convertible, his jaw-bone broken and his left thigh-bone shattered.
But James got it much worse.
The Spyder had crushed like a tin-can, burying him in sharp, twisted metal, and he sustained massive head injuries. About an hour later, he died in route to the emergency room and was later pronounced dead at the Paso Robles Hospital.
Amazingly, Turnupseed survived the accident, yet, he was forever marred by the experience. He spent the rest of his life in Tulare and refused to comment about what happened that horrible day. It would be interesting to know if the Dean “curse” continued to touch his life following the accident…like it had so many others, Rolf Wütherich included.
Though Wütherich had survived the accident, he never fully recuperated physically from the injuries, and after he returned to Germany, he died in 1981, ironically, from a car accident.
Needless to say, like so many others, he probably wished that he’d never seen or had anything to do with that Spyder. And even worse, the evil force of the car didn’t stop with Dean’s death. The “Little Bastard” continued to kill and maim.
The “bad luck” that seemed to virtually exude from the hunk of twisted metal was still alive and well in March, 1959 when a fire broke out in the Fresno garage where it had been stored. But that was just the beginning of the accidents and disasters that would be associated with the vehicle. A few weeks later, there would be another incident.
In 1959, Dean mania was still intense, the accident still fresh on everyone’s mind. Thus, the California State Highway Patrol had the mangled vehicle transported to local high schools to teach teenagers the importance of safe driving. Since Dean was supposedly driving at between 85-100 MPH at the time of the accident, it seemed that the crushed Porsche would serve as a good example of the dangers of high speed driving.
But the California State Highway Patrol would soon regret the decision.
When the Porsche was near Salinas, the vehicle transporting it was involved in a serious accident. The impact was so great that truck driver, George Barhuis, was thrown from the cab. In response, the Porsche rolled off the truck bed, landed on top of him and literally crushed him to death, claiming another victim.
Despite the latest tragedy, the exhibit was, nevertheless, popular. People came in droves to see the James Dean car, and the owner, George Barris (a name that’s amazingly similar to that of the car’s second victim) decided that the tour would extend to other states as well.
Another accident was waiting to happen.
On September 30, the anniversary of Dean’s death, a fifteen-year-old boy became the car’s next victim. He stood about twelve to fifteen feet away from the exhibit, probably staring at it in shock and awe, when three bolts suddenly snapped as if broken by spectral hands. The boy screamed as the car plowed forward and ran over him. Both of the boy’s legs were horribly crushed, but he survived.
The next victim would not be so lucky.
A few weeks later the death car was again being transported when it caused yet another mishap. This time, it literally snapped in two, slid from the flatbed of the truck, and met the gray pavement. The wreckage caused another fatal accident before it could be cleared from the roadway.
In 1960, the owner, had finally had enough, and he decided to have the Porsche shipped back home to California for a permanent retirement. The car was loaded into a boxcar in Florida, the door carefully sealed. When the train arrived in LA, the seal on the boxcar door was still intact…yet the Porsche was missing!
Despite the efforts of detectives, the car has never been located. Maybe it returned to the hell from whence it came. Or, could it be in some secret place today…still killing and wounding, and spreading bad luck to all those who encounter it?
Some believe, however, that whatever curse was placed on Dean touched not only his car, but also those he was closest to. All three lead actors from Rebel without a Cause had tragic deaths at a young age. Sal Mineo, one of Dean’s best friends, was only 37 in 1975 when he was stabbed to death in West Hollywood Alley. Another friend and co-star of Dean’s in the blockbuster movie, Natalie Wood, was only 43-years-old when she drowned in a tragic boating accident. Nick Adams, who also played a part in the movie, though it was a bit part, later went on to become “Johnny Reb” in a popular weekly television series; however, his career came to a quick end when he died at only 36 from an overdose.
Indeed, if Dean and the Porsche were cursed, how did this come about? Who in the world would want to curse the actor anyway? It seemed that everyone loved and adored him, young and old alike. Or was the car simply intrinsically evil?
Many swear that there was never a curse, but that a malevolent spirit possessed that Porsche–had been there all along. Or the car itself was evil, similarly to the Chrysler Fury in Stephen King’s Christine.
Others would swear that Dean’s death resulted from his involvement in the occult and a flirtation with Satanism, since he was also reportedly involved with a witch coven in LA.
Dean supposedly became interested in the occult when he dated Maila Nurmi, an actress who starred in Vampira. Because Dean was afraid that the affair could negatively affect his career, he publicly denied any romantic involvement with Nurmi. In fact, he told gossip columnist, Hedda Hoppe, that he’d never dated Nurmi.
Rumor has it that Nurmi didn’t take this public spurning kindly, and, as a result, she supposedly cast a black magic spell on Dean.
Or was one of the other witches he met responsible?
Whatever killed James Dean, his life and his death is something that the world will never forget. Andy Warhol said it best in Interview Magazine: “He’s not our hero because he was perfect, but because he perfectly represented the damaged, but beautiful soul of his time.”
Whatever the source of his appeal, Dean mania continues and thousands of fans who virtually worship the man meet regularly at his burial site at the Fairmount Cemetery in Indiana, and there are rumors that the supernatural phenomena concerning James Dean continues.
Many of his fans would swear that James Dean has returned from the grave. And there have been reports of a spectral Porsche cruising the highway in the area where Dean was killed. And exactly where is that Porsche Spyder or…for that matter…James Dean’s body? Someone supposedly stole the corpse from the grave, and, more recently, his headstone was taken as well, though it was returned. Little wonder that Dean might be disturbed enough to walk the earth again.
But if Dean’s spectral image does endlessly wander the California highways, it’s more likely that Dean is restless, because he just couldn’t accept his untimely death. Let’s hope that soon, he’ll find peace and be able to rest at last and that the “Little Bastard” is somewhere where it will never harm a living soul again. But, considering the car’s bloody history, it’s unlikely that it has claimed its last victim.
© 1998-2015 Bobette Bryan