The following article is from the book Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.
A woman is found dead...a well-known celebrity is charged with murder...the whole world follows the trial. O. J. Simpson? Nope—Fatty Arbuckle. In the early 1920s, the Arbuckle trial was as big as the Simpson trial. Here’s the story.
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
On the morning of Saturday, September 10, 1921, two men from the San Francisco sheriff’s office paid a visit to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, then Hollywood’s most famous comedian, at his home in Los Angeles. One of the men read from an official court summons: “You are hereby summoned to return immediately to San Francisco for questioning...you are charged with murder in the first degree.” Arbuckle, thinking the men were pulling a practical joke, let out a laugh. “And who do you suppose I killed?”
Arbuckle instantly knew that this was no joke. He’d just returned from a trip to San Francisco, where he’d thrown a party over the Labor Day weekend to celebrate his new $3 million movie contract—then the largest in Hollywood history—with Paramount Pictures. A 26-year-old bit actress named Virginia Rappé had fallen ill at the party, presumably from drinking too much bootleg booze. Arbuckle had seen to it that the woman received medical attention before he returned to L.A., but now Rappé was dead—and Arbuckle had somehow been implicated in her death. Whatever doubts he may still have had about the summons vanished the following morning as he read the three-inch headlines in the Los Angeles Examiner:
ARBUCKLE HELD FOR MURDER!
The autopsy report showed that Rappé died from acute peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining brought on by a ruptured bladder. Why was Arbuckle a suspect in the death? Because Maude “Bambina” Delmont, another woman at the party, had filed a statement with San Francisco police claiming that she had seen Arbuckle drag Rappé into his bedroom against her will and assault her. As she later explained to newspaper reporters,
I could hear Virginia kicking and screaming violently and I had to kick and batter the door before Mr. Arbuckle would let me in. I looked at the bed. There was Virginia, helpless and ravaged. When Virginia kept screaming in agony at what Mr. Arbuckle had done, he turned to me and said, ‘Shut her up or I’ll throw her out a window.’ He then went back to his drunken party and danced while poor Virginia lay dying.
The 265-pound comedian had supposedly burst Rappés’ bladder with his weight during the assault. And because the injury had gone untreated, it developed into a massive abdominal infection, killing Rappé.
After Delmont’s statement was filed, San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady had ordered Arbuckle’s arrest and had issued a public statement to the press: The evidence in my possession shows conclusively that either a rape or an attempt to rape was perpetrated on Miss Rappé by Roscoe Arbuckle. The evidence discloses beyond question that her bladder was ruptured by the weight of the body of Arbuckle either in a rape assault or an attempt to commit rape.
Brady’s case was based almost entirely on Delmont’s police statement. And the case certainly appeared substantial—at least until Brady looked into Maude Delmont’s background after she gave her statement. Then he discovered a police record containing more than 50 counts of bigamy, fraud, racketeering, extortion, and other crimes (including one outstanding bigamy warrant, which Brady would later use to his advantage).
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
Brady later learned from other guests at the party that a very drunk Maude Delmont had actually been locked in a bathroom with Lowell Sherman, another party guest, during the entire time that she claimed to have witnessed Arbuckle with Rappé. She could not have seen any of the things she claimed to have seen—and if that were not bad enough, Brady later discovered that on Wednesday, September 7, Delmont had dashed off the following telegram to two different friends as Virginia Rappé lay dying at the St. Francis Hotel:
WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE MONEY OUT OF HIM
District Attorney Brady had no case—there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence to indicate that Arbuckle had committed any crime against Rappé; his only “witness” was a woman with a long criminal record; and the telegrams demonstrated clearly that Delmont’s police statement was part of an attempt to blackmail Arbuckle. Despite all this, Brady decided to bring the case to trial. Why? One theory: Brady, whom acquaintances described as a “self-serving, arrogant, ruthless man with blind ambition and a quick temper,” was gearing up to run for governor of California. He probably figured that winning a murder conviction against Hollywood’s biggest comedian would score points with the public.
Still, the case could not have gone to trial if the police judge, Sylvain Lazarus, had dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. But Judge Lazarus refused to throw it out, citing the “larger issues” surrounding the case:
I do not find any evidence that Mr. Arbuckle either committed or attempted to commit rape. The court has been presented with the merest outline....The district attorney has presented barely enough facts to justify my holding the defendant on the charge which is here filed against him.
But we are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone; we are not trying the screen celebrity who has given joy and pleasure to the entire world; we are actually, gentlemen, trying ourselves.
We are trying our present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance...
I have decided to make a holding on the ground of manslaughter.
The judge suspected Arbuckle was innocent, the district attorney knew Arbuckle was innocent, and yet the case still went to trial.
Much like the Menendez brothers trials and the O. J. Simpson trials of the 1990s, the media—which in the 1920s consisted mostly of newspapers—had a field day with the Arbuckle trial. Unlike the Simpson trial, however, the lack of evidence in the Arbuckle trial led most newspapers to conclude that Arbuckle was innocent. Most papers, that is, except for those owned by media baron William Randolph Hearst. His papers loudly attacked Arbuckle’s character, insinuated his guilt, and ran as many as six special editions per day to keep readers up to date on the latest developments in the case.
The Hearst papers published the most lurid accounts of the crime and the trial, and even stooped to publicizing totally unsubstantiated rumors about the case—the most famous of which was that Arbuckle, supposedly too impotent from booze to rape Rappé himself, had used a Coke bottle (some accounts said it was a champagne bottle) instead, causing her bladder to rupture. “Nowhere in any testimony in the court transcripts, police reports, or personal interviews did this story appear,” Andy Edmonds writes in Frame Up! The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. “Everyone connected with the case vehemently denied it, yet it is the most popular story, and one of the most ugly lies, still connected with the ordeal. The fabrication haunted Roscoe throughout the remainder of his life.”
GOING TO COURT
As Brady prepared his case, one of the first things he did was see to it that Maude Delmont would not be able to testify. He knew that the other witnesses would prove she had lied in her police statement. Furthermore, Delmont had changed her story so many times that Brady knew she would be caught in her own lies during cross-examination. Rather than let that happen, Brady had her arrested on an outstanding charge of bigamy. Delmont—the only person who claimed that Arbuckle had committed a crime—spent the next several months in jail, where Arbuckle’s attorneys could not get at her.
The People v. Arbuckle lasted from November 14 to December 4, 1921. More than 60 witnesses were called to the stand, including 18 doctors. According to Bernard Ryan in Great American Trials,
Through defense witnesses, lawyer Gavin McNab revealed Virginia Rappé’s moral as well as medical history: As a young teenager, she had had five abortions in three years, at 16, she had borne an illegitimate child; since 1907, she had had a series of bladder inflammations and chronic cystitis; she liked to strip naked when she drank; the doctor who attended her in the several days before she died concluded that she had gonorrhea; when she met Arbuckle for the first time on Monday, she was pregnant and that afternoon had asked him to pay for an abortion; on Wednesday, she had asked her nurse to find an abortionist.... Medical testimony proved that Virginia Rappé’s bladder was cystic—one of the causes of rupture of the bladder.
ARBUCKLE TAKES THE STAND
The climax of the trial came on Monday, November 28, when Arbuckle testified in his own defense. He recounted how he had found Rappé in his bathroom vomiting into the toilet, and how he had helped her into the next room when she asked to lie down. Arbuckle testified that he spent less than 10 minutes alone with Rappé before summoning Maude Delmont, who took over and asked him to leave the room. He stood up well under cross-examination; and the final testimony, in which expert witnesses testified that the rupture of Ms. Rappé’s bladder was not caused by external force, seemed to cinch the case for Arbuckle.
As the case went to the jury, both sides appeared confident of victory. But on December 4th, after 44 hours of deliberation, the jury announced that it was hopelessly deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.
One juror, a woman named Helen Hubbard—whose husband was a lawyer who did business with the D.A.’s office—held out for a conviction throughout the entire deliberations.
THE SECOND TRIAL
The case went to trial a second time, beginning on January 11 and lasting until February 3. The second trial was much like the first, only this time the defense introduced even more evidence concerning Ms. Rappé’s shady past. But Arbuckle’s lawyers, confident they would win handily, did not have Arbuckle take the stand in his defense. That was a huge mistake—this time the jury deadlocked 9–3 in favor of conviction.
THE THIRD TRIAL
The case went to trial a third time on March 13. This time, Arbuckle’s defense left nothing to chance: it provided still more evidence questioning both Rappé’s physical health and her moral character, and it brought Arbuckle back to the stand to testify on his own behalf.
The case went to the jury on April 12, 1922. They deliberated for less than 5 minutes, then returned to court and read the following statement:
We the jury find Roscoe Arbuckle not guilty of manslaughter. Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.
He was manly throughout the case, and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success....Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
Roscoe Arbuckle was a free man, but his life was in tatters. The trials had cost him more than $750,000, wiping out nearly his entire life savings (the $3 million Paramount contract had fallen through when the scandal broke). As if that wasn’t bad enough, the IRS went after him a few months later, when it seized the remainder of his estate to collect more than $100,000 in back taxes. It also obtained a court order to attach whatever wages he earned in the future until the entire tax debt was paid back.
THE HAYS OFFICE
Things got even worse for Arbuckle. Largely because of the scandal, 12 of Hollywood’s top studio moguls hired William Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former postmaster general, to become America’s “movie czar.” His job: Keep Hollywood’s image clean. His first task: Deal with Arbuckle.
Six days after Arbuckle was acquitted, the “Hays Office” (as it came to be known) banned him from the screen. The public was led to believe it was a moral issue. Actually, Hays was doing the bidding of Paramount heads Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky, who no longer wanted to work with Arbuckle, out of fear that he was box office poison. But they didn’t take any chances; rather than risk losing Arbuckle to a competing studio, they lobbied the Hays Office to ban him from the film industry entirely.
The ban was lifted eight months later, but the taint remained and Arbuckle had trouble finding work. He began work on a short subject film called Handy Andy, but was so hounded by reporters that he gave up on the project.
Over the next decade he appeared in stage shows, ran a Hollywood nightclub, and directed a number of films under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich (Will B. Good). But it wasn’t until 1932—more than 10 years after the trials—that he had a chance to return to the screen. Studio head Jack Warner hired him to act in a film called Hey, Pop! It was a box office success, and Arbuckle was signed for six more films. He only completed three—Buzzin’ Around, Tamalio, and In the Dough. The evening In the Dough finished shooting, Arbuckle celebrated at dinner with his wife and went home to bed. He died in his sleep at about 2:30 a.m., leaving an estate valued at less than $2,000.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!