100 Years Ago Today: The propaganda war against Rappe begins, October 16, 1921

[The following is a draft passage about the first wave of “defamation” and “propaganda”—the actual terms used by San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady—that began on the same day that his counterpart on Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense team, Gavin McNab, assumed his lead role. A series of news stories began to appear during the second half of October 1921 that made for a “recut” of Virginia Rappe’s past. Rather than being a fashion model before coming to Hollywood, she was recast as a girl of the streets who got pregnant at a very young age. Such propaganda would sway prospective jurors and further pull Rappe from the pedestal on which she had been placed as a victim. If she were depicted as “damaged goods” before Arbuckle met her, like the heroine in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and countless others in “ruined women” fiction, her fate would make for a more familiar “fallen woman” trope — one that might take the spotlight off of the comedian in the eyes of any morally righteous observers. McNab and his new client could ill afford “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”]

The first salvo in the effort to damage Rappe’s reputation had taken place three days earlier on October 16 in the Sunday editions of many U.S. newspapers. Each published the same Universal Service syndicated story, that Virginia Rappe had given up an infant daughter born in 1912 and was the long-hidden shame of her life. The source of this story was a “traveling salesman” named John Bates. He had recently sent letters to district attorneys and other officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco requesting information about Rappe’s estate with the intention of “entering claim on behalf” of a child “supported since infancy by the earnings of her mother,” the late actress. He claimed to have knowledge of the child’s existence and that he was “a close friend of Virginia Rappe and her mother Mabel Rappe.”[1] His acquaintance with both may have been the only thing true, however.

Bates, according to the reportage datelined October 15, had once been the proprietor of a South Side Chicago advertising distributing agency, which made it seem as though he would have known Rappe and her mother since the 1890s and that he might have worked with Rappe as a model. His entries in the 1910 census bear this out to some degree, in which he listed himself as a “circulator”—but this was hardly the kind of trade in which Rappe’s image might have been used. A circulator printed or distributed handbills, fliers, leaflets, and like ephemeral advertisements. The census, too, indicated that he was an older man, born in Iowa in 1856 (which made him sixty-five in 1921).[2] A newspaper item also revealed that he was who he said he was. Bates had once been the former financial secretary of the South Side Business Men’s Society, elected to the position in January 1914.[3]

One of the Society’s officers vouched for Bates’s word. “If Bates said Virginia Rappe’s daughter is in Chicago, it is true, and he knows where she can be found.”

According to Bates himself:

Most of Virginia Rappe’s friends on the South Side knew about her daughter. She would be about 8 or 9 years old now. She was born just a short time before Virginia went West to go into the movies. The last I heard of the girl she was living with her foster parents on the northwest side. I don’t know just where Virginia Rappe’s daughter is at present, but I am confident that I can locate her in a short time if necessary and prove her identify beyond all doubt. I know that Virginia paid for the child’s care up to a few years ago and I assume that she continued to pay until the time of her death. If the estate is of any value, I intend to see that her daughter receives the benefit of it.

Bates, at least in Chicago, seemed to be a moral person and, perhaps, willing to undertake such altruism given the causes he undertook in the past. In 1916, for example, while residing at 22nd Street and Wabash Avenue, he complained to the police about the houses of prostitution “where blacks and whites get hilarious with each other” and operated openly.[4] However John Bates had a colorful past of his own that, to his benefit, went unreported at the time.

He was the same John Bates, the petty thief from Iowa, who had been charged as a co-conspirator in a 1895 murder-for-hire killing of a Chicago stockbroker.[5] Although the charges were dismissed, Bates served consecutive sentences in the state penitentiaries of Illinois and Iowa due to other outstanding warrants. In 1900, he returned to Chicago and turned his life around under his older brother Miles’ supervision. Miles Bates is listed as an “Advertising Agent” in the 1900 census and John eventually followed him into the same trade.

In 1902, due to the perseverance of the victim’s widow, John Bates was rearrested in connection to the 1895 murder. But he was released once more, for much of the evidence and testimony had mysteriously been destroyed—presumably at the behest of the person or persons who had hired Bates and his fellow conspirators. Despite such an onus, Bates managed to escape his criminal past.

Though Bates claimed to personally know Rappe’s child he did little to act on her behalf other than to attempt to discover if an estate of any means existed. Before Bates was finished he introduced another wrinkle to his story. He claimed the child wasn’t illegitimate. His story features a husband “about whom even her most intimate Chicago friends know little,” a father who “disappeared before the child’s birth [. . .]

Who he was and when they were married remains a mystery. Virginia was then following in the footsteps of her beautiful mother and making her living by posing. She was unable to work and care for the baby at the same time and it was placed in the hands of friends. There was gossip, rumors, but Virginia resumed her rounds of the studios, her face still wreathed in the smile that never faded. Soon afterward she left for California.

The “author” of the story—the scare quotes meaning that this person may not have been Bates or the reporter and editor, simply one of the many hands now writing in Rappe’s life—ensured that the reader didn’t miss the irony of the “tragic culmination of the two-day ‘party’ in Arbuckle’s San Francisco apartment” and the costume in which to see her now. This

was not the first tragedy in the life of the “the girl who smiled.” For nearly ten years she hid beneath her twisted smile and beneath the cap and bells of her movie comedienne the bitter secret of the tragedy of her Chicago days, the blasted romance of her youth, that drove her from Chicago to seek fame—and to forget.

Such purple prose was intended to change the public perception of readers, many of whom had spent the morning in a church pew. The article, when it appeared in its entirety, put Virginia Rappe in a darker and less virtuous light.

As it turned out, this story had no bearing on the case and if Bates sent his letters, they were ignored as were the letters from Rappe’s adherents and defenders. Despite the attestation of Bates’s veracity, no reporters followed up on his story and his name disappeared from the case. No one else came forward to corroborate his story. No one betrayed the identity of the nine-year-old girl.

Infant Welfare, Chicago, before 1920 (Library of Congress)

[1] The following passage is based on the many different versions of the Universal News Service dispatch datelined October 15, Chicago, e.g., “Says Miss Rappe Left a Daughter,” Boston Globe, 16 October 1921, 6; “Virginia Rappe Has Child in Chicago?” Okmulgee Daily Times, 18 October 1921, 6; and “Daughter Is Left by Virginia Rappe,” Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1921, 7. A syndicated Chicago Daily News version datelined September 17 appeared subsequently but added no new information.

[2] Census data for John Bates are from 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 31, District 0969, line 58; and 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 2, District 0183, line 3.

[3] “South Side Business Men Elect,” Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1914, 9.

[4] “Queens of Society, Gayest of Gay, In Levee Cafe,” The Day Book (Chicago), 2 December 1916, 2.

[5] “Bates Confessed to Hunter Crime,” Inter Ocean, 6 April 1902, 1, 3.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” Arbuckle Pleads Not Guilty, October 13, 1921

On the day the United States outlawed the home brewing of beer and the New York Giants won the 1921 World Series over the New York Yankees, the Arbuckle case saw another milestone.

In the company of his lawyers, Milton Cohen and Charles Brennan, Roscoe Arbuckle entered San Francisco’s Hall of Justice and appeared before Superior Court Judge Harold Louderback.[1] There he was formally arraigned for manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe. When asked how he intended to plea, Arbuckle, in a loud voice, shouted “My plea is not guilty.”

Despite insisting on a trial date of October 31, District Attorney Matthew Brady allowed the defense time to prepare for trial and a new date of November 7 was set—despite that date falling in the same week as Election Day and Armistice Day.

Still from a Keystone travelogue featuring Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand touring the Panama–Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, April 1915. A good portion of the footage is devoted to the Australian convict transport Success. This rather morbid and ironic exhibit, given what was to come, provided the couple with many opportunities for sight gags they performed with the ship’s flogging rack, shackles, irons, and the like. Here an officer introduces Arbuckle and Normand to an Iron Maiden. Arbuckle later gives the Iron Maiden a kiss. (Library of Congress)

[1] Gavin McNab had not yet been announced as Arbuckle’s new chief counsel.

Reading a Photograph of Virginia Rappe

Accurately reconstructing the facts of Virginia Rappe’s life is crucial for our book in order to show how much it stands in contrast to the life posited by Roscoe Arbuckle’s lawyers. To do this, we had to pay attention to even the tiniest piece of evidence. Here is a case in point.

We are currently writing the jury selection narrative for the first Arbuckle trial that began on November 14, 1921. Thus far, we find the daily summaries in the Los Angeles Herald accurate and detailed and even nuanced. The photographs the paper published were primarily of the individuals present at the trial, including Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, and his lawyers. But on November 15, an image of Rappe was included in the middle of a page of reportage. The caption was revealing:

Virginia Rappe as she appeared in fashion show shortly before “party” which preceded her death.

Source: Los Angeles Herald (CDNC)

The caption may be a clue. The fashion show in question could be the fall fashion show associated with the Los Angeles Trade Exhibition of August 1921. The photograph might mean that Rappe revived her modeling career in the last year of her life.

But the caption is wrong.

On closer inspection of the original photograph, one can better see the enormous radiator of an automobile behind her and the fencing of a racetrack. These features, the dated outfit and millinery, suggest an earlier date. One can also see some of the California license plate in the lower left. This plate design first appeared in 1916—the year Rappe arrived in Los Angeles and appeared in the Memorial Day fashion show and “race” at Ascot Speedway, where she drove Henry Lehrman’s FIAT. By 1921, the California plate had been redesigned.

Virginia Rappe in a proto-Janye Mansfield pose, ca. 1916 (Calisphere)

Francis X. Bushman and Virginia Rappe

[Early this morning, TCM host Jacqueline Stewart featured a documentary about the silent film actor Francis X. Bushman, narrated by one of his grandsons. The following provisional passage is from our draft and covers an episode in Bushman’s life that we didn’t expect to see covered in the documentary, that is, the interruption in Bushman’s film career following his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to Beverly Bayne. This was an era when studios treated disclosure of a divorce to be as toxic to a star’s career as drug addiction or homosexuality.

It was In the third week of September 1921, Bushman and Bayne appeared for an engagement at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater and were in the city during the first weeks of the Arbuckle case. The couple had already weighed in on their feelings about Roscoe Arbuckle in the press and Bushman shared his rather impersonal personal connection to Rappe.]

After Game Lady was completed , [Henry] Lehrman couldn’t afford to publicize it so its release was held up for months. With little to no money coming in, he ceased all production for the foreseeable future. In December, he had defaulted on a loan of $25,000 and was forced to move out of his Franklin Avenue house of five years. Although Lehrman had gambled and lost by going out on his own, he wasn’t the only one suffering financially. The ongoing postwar recession had reached Hollywood.

Matinee idol Francis X. Bushman described the situation after an airplane ride over Hollywood in which he could see fifteen studios seemingly at a standstill. He blamed “the needless extravagance” of studios and a recession, the “financial tightness [that] has hit the movie industry harder perhaps that any other, to such an extent that stars who formerly commanded $1,500 weekly now are glad of employment at $300 a week.”[1]

Bushman made these remarks while en route to New York City from Los Angeles. He had not made a film in two years due to his divorce and remarriage to the actress Beverly Bayne. The divorce was bad enough, but Bayne was pregnant at the time of her marriage and that brought their morals further into question. Studios shunned them and limited Bushman—who was once proclaimed “the king of the movies” during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915—and Bayne to performing in bedroom farces and the like on the vaudeville circuit.

In October 1920, the couple were engaged in a theatrical production in Los Angeles and hoping to resume their film careers. They rented a Mission-style bungalow at 2217 Canyon Drive from actor William Worthington—not only to accommodate themselves and their baby boy, but Bushman’s five children from his first marriage ranging in age from seventeen to nine. The living arrangements prompted a number of amusing articles about life with the Bushmans, made awkward by so many in such a small house and doubly so by the first Mrs. Bushman, who insisted on being close to her children by staying in an expensive hotel suite nearby on her former husband’s tab.

In November, Bushman’s nine-year-old son Bruce—Bushman’s namesake until his ex-wife had the boy’s name changed out of spite—suffered multiple fractures to his leg and hip. He was bedridden in Los Angeles and cared for by his new stepmother and father until a week before Christmas. His siblings had already left with the mother for their home in Baltimore.

Francis Bushman could not afford to renege on his bookings in various cities on the East Coast so he left Bruce in the care of a private nurse and he was routinely informed of his son’s progress. From the nurse, he learned that the actress Virginia Rappe was managing his bungalow and others on Canyon Drive. Apparently, Rappe interceded when a neighbor cursed Bushman for having so many children in the small bungalow and for the seeming desertion of his son, who was still in a leg cast up to his hip. Bushman never met Rappe, but recalled her kindness three days after her death while he and Bayne were performing in Portland, Oregon. He told a reporter that “Miss Rappe was in charge of the house, and I was in New York. My nurse, who was caring for young Bruce, said that Miss Rappe was a sweet, very beautiful young woman and had a big, clean heart. I am willing to believe her.”[2] Both Bushman and his wife excoriated the film colony for its “wild parties” and how real actors, like themselves, didn’t consider Arbuckle one. “He is just a fat boy,” said Bushman, and almost anything a fat boy does is funny. That is the way he is looked upon.”

Francis X. Bushman as Messala in Ben Hur (1925)

[1] “Postpone Attempt to Break into Movies, Says Bushman; Movie Idol Visits El Paso,” El Paso Herald, 20 December 1920, 1.

[2] “Los Angeles Scored by Beverly Bayne,” Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1921, I:2; and merged with “Beverly Bayne Denounces Hollywood’s Wild Orgies,” Buffalo Times, 19 September 1921, 9.

Document Dump #7: Ernestine Black on Maude Delmont

[Ernestine Wollenberg Black (1881–1970) was the daughter of the San Francisco merchant Louis Wollenberg and his wife Fanny, both German Jewish immigrants, and the widow of another San Francisco journalist, Orlow “Orin” Black.

Black was also a suffragist, feminist, and a conspicuous member of Noël Sullivan’s progressive circle in San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century. She is conspicuously absent from the Arbuckle canon. The reason, perhaps, is that she is the only journalist to sympathize with Maude Delmont and wrote one of the first profiles about her early in the Arbuckle case.

No stranger to covering unpopular people and issues, Black is most often cited today for her interview with the actress–director Lois Weber, who championed birth control in her controversial film Where Are My Children? (1916).]

MRS. DELMONT IN COURT AT TRIAL OF “FATTY”

By Ernestine Black

A tall, slender, distinguished looking woman slipped into Judge Harold Louderback’s court this morning and from an inconspicuous seat in the rear of the room listened to the case of The People vs. Roscoe Arbuckle. The woman was none other than Mrs. Bambino Maud Delmont, who signed the complaint charging Arbuckle with murdering Virginia Rappe.

Whether Mrs. Delmont would be called as a witness has been the outstanding interrogation that has punctuated every article written on the case, has harassed the district attorney’s office, and has been asked wherever people gather to discuss the fate of the one-time film comedian.

The answer to that important question lay folded in the brown hand bag of the woman, who softly glided into court room this morning and, observed by few, sat down to get her first impression of the scene in which she is cast to play the role of complaining witness against the man who was once her host at an ill-fated party.

SHE WATCHES M’NAB[1]

In that bag was folded the subpoena which the prosecution had just served upon Bambino Maud Delmont. That subpoena settles the question of her appearance in the legal drama upon which the curtain has just gone up.

Gavin McNab, chief of counsel for Arbuckle, held Mrs. Delmont’s closest attention.

His cross-examination of prospective jurors; his brilliant tactics; his clever thrusts at the opposing counsel and at the vigilant committee were not lost upon Mrs. Delmont. When she goes on the witness stand, she, too, will be the target for all the heavy guns, arrows and dum-dum bullets that Gavin McNab has in his arsenal.

Small wonder that she listened with intent and appreciative interest.

And in a lull in the proceedings she whispered, “he is a wonder—isn’t he? This is not the first time that I’ve seen him. When I read in the papers that Gavin McNab had agreed to act as counsel for Arbuckle because he believed Arbuckle was innocent, I went to his office to see Mr. McNab.[2]

“He did not know that I was coming.

TALK WITH DEFENSE

“‘Mr. McNab.’ I said, ‘If you know that Arbuckle is innocent, I would like to have you tell me on what you base such a conclusion.’

“Mr. McNab answered: ‘Mrs. Delmont you surely must appreciate the fact that you and I cannot discuss this case!’”

The prosecution continued its interrogation of the juror and there was no opportunity for further conversation with Mrs. Delmont. But there was ample opportunity for her to study the judge, the counsel on both sides and the prospective jurors. Three women sat in the jury box when Mrs. Delmont entered. Three women were there when she left, as quietly and unobserved as she came.

3 WOMEN IN BOX

But they were not the same three. One woman juror was excused during the time that Mrs. Delmont sat in the court room. In the process of eliminating that juror was revealed much of the tactics that Bambino Maud Delmont may expect from the counsel on both sides.

Imperturbable, undisturbed, her one time shattered nerves evidently under, perfect control, Mrs. Delmont glided out just as Louise E. Winterburn. the first unmarried woman called into the jury box. took her seat.

Source: San Francisco Call, 17 November 1921, 2.

Gavin McNab and future client Charlie Chaplin (Private collection)

[1] Common S.F. newspaper abbreviation for Gavin McNab.

[2] Delmont probably means during the second week of October 1921. Another journalist who saw her in the courtroom, Colin Spangler of the Los Angeles Evening Express, inferred that she meant a more recent encounter during the first week of the trial.

100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle to be tried for manslaughter instead of murder, September 28, 1921

After 350 pages of testimony, the first installment of People vs. Arbuckle ended with a single page.[1]. In two paragraphs, dated Wednesday, September 28, 1921, Judge Sylvain Lazarus informed the district attorneys and defense counsel of his decision and reasons for it. Before it was rendered, however, he spoke at length to reporters. The court, Lazarus said, was still ready to hear any of the witnesses Frank Dominguez wanted to call, such as Fred Fishback and the medical expert for whom Rappe’s hospital records had been procured. Dominguez declined.

Isadore Golden then restated the District Attorney’s position that sufficient evidence had been submitted for the murder charge. He added that if the preliminary investigation had been a jury trial, the jury would have “brought in a verdict of guilty as charged [and] that verdict would stand if taken up to the higher court.”[2]

Dominguez countered with the fact that the Coroner’s Court and Grand Jury had only recommended that Arbuckle be tried for manslaughter and, given the evidence, even that charge should be dismissed.

“Now gentleman,” Lazarus intervened, “before making a decision, the court will indulge in a little discussion.” He then gave a lecture, castigating Matthew Brady, the American people and institution, the Eighteenth Amendment, the St. Francis Hotel for not minding Arbuckle and his friends, and so on. “Sitting as I am in a privileged attitude,” he began,

without the fear of contradiction, and with the comfort that no one can stop me if I take too long, or talk aside from the case, I may have my say.
There is just enough evidence here, I may say, barely enough, to justify me in holding the defendant, without further facts and circumstances which the district attorney said would more strongly establish the fact that Roscoe Arbuckle is guilty of the crime of murder. This is an important case. We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone. We are not trying the screen celebrity who has given joy and pleasure to all the world.
Actually, in a large sense, we are trying ourselves.
We are trying or present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.
The issue here is, really and truly, larger than the guilt or innocence of this particular unfortunate man. The issue is universal and grows from condition which are matters of comment and apprehension to every true lover and protector of our American institutions.
The thing which happened on September 5, 1921, happened in the heart of San Francisco, the most beloved city in the world, in one of the largest and most pretentious hostelries of the city, in broad daylight.
The thing that happened there was the culmination of an orgy which, according to the testimony of a chambermaid in the hotel was well known to the management—no, I won’t say the management—but it was well known in and about the hotel.
We need not speak of the bacchanalianism or saturnaliaism, or sybaritism, or any of the terms of the ancient days. We are supposed to live and breathe and have our being in a better and more advanced age. Nevertheless, this thing, this orgy that continued many hours, and resulted in the death of Virginia Rappe, a moving picture actress, was not repressed by the hotel management. It is of such common occurrence that it was given no attention until something happened, until the climax made it notorious.
And the same things happen in other big cities all over the world.
I am talking almost as I would to an audience, but you will let me say this: In this thing is a public lesson larger than the district attorney would have us understand. I had really hoped and expected that all the evidence possible on both sides would be presented here, so that this humble police court would be the avenue through which a full and complete revelation would be made, so that it would become a forum in which the public would have the opportunity to determine the guilt or innocence of this man, whose celebrity, justly so, has traveled to the four corners of the globe.
Roscoe Arbuckle has brought joy and pleasure to his fellow men. He is therefore more valuable in the scheme of creation than lawyers and judges, who but add gloom to existence.
The testimony shows that during the whole afternoon in these rooms, 1219, 1220, and 1221, in the St. Francis hotel, a condition, let us charitable say a festivity, prevailed. Men and women came and went, their movements so irregular the witnesses found it difficult to say who occupied certain rooms at certain times.
Much liquor was drunk in this prominent hotel, despite the recent unpopular addition to the constitution of the United States. The complaining witness, who was not put on the stand, has been described as being in a particularly inebriated condition.

Judge Lazarus bemoaned that certain witnesses “were absolutely worthless.” He mentioned Al Semnacher by name. In regard to the ice, Lazarus said that it was regrettable but it had no connection to the charge of murder. Indeed, it was a “abhorrent thing” but, if Arbuckle had known the real extent of Rappe’s injury, he wouldn’t have done it.

Ultimately, the judge had been swayed by the last person to testify.

The only witness in the entire case who gave any direct testimony bearing on the guilt or innocence of Roscoe Arbuckle was the nervous chambermaid, Josephine Keza. Passing along the corridor she heard the sound of revelry, and then she heard a woman’s voice crying, “No! No! O my God,” and a man’s voice saying “Shut up!” This is the only testimony which any conceivable possibility shows a connection between the defendant and a crime.

The district attorneys surely, on hearing this, had to wonder what had happened to Lazarus, whose side was he on? He seemed to be almost disappointed that his “humble police court” had been cheated of making a Supreme Court decision.

Milton U’Ren interrupted the judge and asked him if he had overlooked Rappe’s own words, “I’m dying. He hurt me.”

 “No,” Lazarus snapped back, “but I am taking into consideration the fact that she was in great pain; that she said he hurt her, but not that he had attacked her. Reminds me of that line in Lord Byron’s “Don Juan”—‘And saying she would ne’er consent, consented.’” And with that retort from the bench, much of the courtroom burst out laughing.

When order was restored by the bailiff, Isadore Golden reminded the judge that a voice, likely Rappe’s had said “O my God, no! No! No! No!”

This gave the judge another opportunity to elicit laughter from his audience. “Too many no’s,” he said and got serious once more.

Now, gentlemen, murder in its category and in its punishment is the most serious crime. The question for me to decide from this merest outline of evidence, this skeletonized description of what occurred in those apartments on Labor Day, is whether I am justified in holding the defendant for murder. And I do not believe I am justified in sending him to trial on this grievous charge. Therefor I hold him for trial on the charge of manslaughter.

Arbuckle was seen smiling at this news and pressed Minta Durfee’s hand. Not unlike a pitcher’s mound consultation, District Attorney Brady removed his straw hat and spoke to Golden so that he couldn’t be heard or his lips read. But Judge Lazarus heard Golden mention “rape.” “There has been no actual rape, forcibly and without the young woman’s consent,” the judge said. “There has not even been any attempt at rape shown. It might have been other acts committed by the defendant which caused Miss Rappe’s death.”

“What acts can your honor imagine?” asked Golden.

“Perhaps a simple assault and battery,” Judge Lazarus responded. “Perhaps criminal negligence”—but in effect he had judged Virginia Rappe as having contributed to her own status as the now silent victim. She had been judged but People vs. Arbuckle only addressed the reduced charge, “that a felony, to-wit: Manslaughter, has been committed and that there is reasonable and probably cause for believing the defendant, Roscoe Arbuckle, guilty thereof.”


Judge Lazarus’s decision was still a partial victory for Matthew Brady and his assistants. At least the case was still alive. Manslaughter was obviously the most justifiable charge—but it posed no less a challenge for the state than convincing a jury of murder for the same reason: of the two people who knew what happened, one was dead and the other wasn’t talking upon the advice of his lawyers.

Frank Dominguez and Milton Cohen had come very close to a dismissal of the case. Judge Lazarus had no real harsh words for Arbuckle. Lazarus scolded him about the ice but saw it as more overreaching, more theater on the part of Brady to get the murder charge. Though the judge showed sympathy for Arbuckle, the man who made the world laugh, he was also moved the the chambermaid Josephine Keza and allowed the case to move on to the Superior Court. He also ordered that Arbuckle could post bail in the sum of $10,000 in bonds or $5,000 in cash (about $146,000 and $73,000, respectively, adjusted for inflation).

In a matter of minutes, the worst of the suspicions that had dogged Arbuckle lifted. He and Minta Durfee found himself applauded after Judge Lazarus’s decision. Instead of a gauntlet of irate and militant clubwomen, Arbuckle was mobbed by well-wishers in Judge Lazarus’s antechambers. Some women stepped forward and shook hands with Fatty and congratulated him while he, with a free hand, expertly rolled a cigarette from a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Even some members of the WVC were moved to side with Arbuckle. One of theim, Mrs. Janie K. Compton, handed Durfee a note before the court convened: “Tell Mr. Arbuckle I am praying for the complete vindication which he deserves on the testimony I have heard here.”[3]

Arbuckle returned to his cell to pack his suitcase. His lawyers posted bail, the cash amount already secured from the San Francisco branch of the Bank of Italy. Outside the Hall of Justice on Kearney Street, Arbuckle and Durfee posed for photographs—and were met by even more women who greeted him with cries of “Hurrah for Fatty!” “Good for you, Fatty!” “Hit ‘em with a pie, Fatty! Atta boy!” Then, after posing for a final photograph, Arbuckle climbed inside his brother’s automobile and drove off to an undisclosed hotel.

Roscoe Arbuckle (Calisphere)

[1] People vs. Arbuckle, 351.

[2] The following passage is based on Edward J. Doherty, “Arbuckle Freed on Bonds,” Chicago Tribune, 29 September 1921, 1–2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this reportage.

[3] “Arbuckle to Escape Trial for Murder,” Oakland Tribune, 28 September 1921, 1.

100 Years Ago Today: Maude Delmont Is marginalized, September 27, 1921

On Tuesday morning, September 27—the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Fire—the Women’s Court reconvened. The anticipation to hear Maude Delmont on the stand was palpable in Judge Lazarus’ courtroom. Bold, breathless headlines and above-the-fold stories still appeared in the dailies. But already other stories were commanding attention, bread-and-butter issues such as the railroad unions threatening a nationwide strike and a postwar economy still in a recession. The Ku Klux Klan’s growing popularity continued to divide Americans by race, nationality, and religion.

The first two witnesses that day, Zey Prevost and Alice Blake, gave testimony that Arbuckle was present when Virginia Rappe said, “He hurt me.” The third was the chambermaid, a Polish immigrant named Josephine Keza, who had been working the twelfth floor on the day of Arbuckle’s Labor Day party.

From the corridor, she claimed to have heard a woman pleading for someone stop and a man’s voice gruffly ordering her to shut up. Keza, a surprise witness, took Arbuckle’s lawyer, Frank Dominguez, by surprise. He had hoped to cross-examine Maude Delmont and use the “proof” he had, in the form of letters, that she was a blackmailer and intended to blackmail his client.

The next day, when Dominguez was offered the opportunity to call Maude Delmont as a witness. He famously declined and observers at the time believed he had squandered an opportunity to have the case dismissed. [Editor’s note: the alleged letters have never surfaced nor have any arrest records that indicate Delmont was involved in these kinds of schemes.]

It was a victory of sorts for Dominguez. Arbuckle’s murder charge was dropped in favor of duplicate manslaughter charges. But Dominguez soon resigned from the defense team.

His successor, Gavin McNab, didn’t use the extortion angle or any of the evidence Dominguez’s investigators had found on Delmont. Blackmail wasn’t even mentioned when Maude Delmont reappeared in November, subpoenaed as a witness for the first Arbuckle trial but never called.

Although marginalized, she didn’t go quietly. Delmont allegedly confronted McNab in his office in San Francisco’s Merchants Exchange Building, She also attended the first Arbuckle trial—once in the company of a reporter from the San Francisco Call—and participated on the sidelines until her arrest on a charge of bigamy in December.

The Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco, the nerve center of Arbuckle’s defense team from October 1921 until April 1922 (Private collection)

100 Years Ago Today: Dr. Arthur Beardslee testifies, September 26, 1921

The morning session of the fourth day of the preliminary investigation in the courtroom of Judge Sylvain Lazarus was to be with Al Semnacher. But he was late and his place was taken by Dr. Arthur Beardslee, the St. Francis Hotel’s physician and the second to treat Rappe, who had yet to testify in any previous venue.[1] During his cross-examination under defense attorney Frank Dominguez, the sobriety of Maude Delmont came under question. Beardslee had been “missing” for over a week but had, in reality, been on an annual hunting trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Mono County, California.

Q: Did you notice anything about her speech that attracted your attention—Mrs. Delmont’s?

A: Not any more than she impressed me as being very positive, is all.

Q: Nothing incoherent in what she said?

A: No. In fact, much the opposite—very much to the point; and, in fact, rather arrogant.

Q: Was that arrogance due, in your opinion, to her having used any alcohol or morphine?

A: No; I thought it was her natural manner. She took charge of everything, and was the boss.

Dominguez continued. Did Beardslee see Delmont open her purse or “take a white powder”?

When this inquiry resulted in objections from the district attorneys, Milton Cohen presented the rationale: “If your Honor please, the doctor says he procured a certain history from a certain woman. If we can show that person is incompetent, or she was in such a frame of mind that the history which he prepared from the woman is unreliable, certainly it is competent testimony.”

To this, Judge Lazarus pointed out that the “lady” in question, despite being “arrogant” and “overbearing,” had never aroused Dr. Beardslee’s suspicions about her competence.

Dr. Beardslee saw no white powder. The cross-examination continued, seemingly rudderless, going back and forth between subjects already covered, such as the reason for administering an enema despite the lack of bowel gas. Then Dominguez asked if Rappe showed any signs of a “debauch” or “alcoholism.” Beardslee answered “no”.

Returning to the subject of taking Rappe to a hospital, the doctor asserted he had urged Delmont, as proxy for Arbuckle and company, to take her to the hospital. He knew, from just observing Rappe, that she had some kind of internal injury before her catheterization. That revealed the truth to him and it couldn’t have been any hypothetical kidney lesion as suggested by Dominguez.

Frank Dominguez (Calisphere)

“With the picture that I had before me,” said Dr. Beardslee, “and the urine, I had a classical ruptured bladder. There was no sign left out. Had it been a kidney complicating the condition, or had there would been kidney trouble, you would have other symptoms in other regions—you would have had other things to consider.” Beardslee then endured summary questions that he found “nonsensical”—about a hemorrhage in the bladder, his self-assurance of a bladder rupture without performing an incision, and so on.

For his part, Dominguez needed to sow as much doubt about the hotel doctor in Judge Lazarus as possible. Then, suddenly, Dominguez asked if Beardslee had been “out hunting”—to which the judge wisecracked, “He looks like it.”

Dominguez asked if Beardslee, in returning from Mono County, had been stopped by a sheriff. The judge, perhaps encouraged by some laughter at his previous remark that the court reporter left out, continued: “Traveling too fast in a machine, doctor?”

Dr. Beardslee explained that the sheriff was a friend he knew well. He admitted to a conversation in which he complained about returning to San Francisco, of having to testify. Beardslee said that he “hated to give up a good time,” to “get mixed up.” Here Dominguez cut him off to remind Beardslee of something he had allegedly said that might indicate a biased testimony.

Q: Doctor, you told him in a conversation, upon his asking you, “What is this all about?” and you said to him, “The whole trouble was with a girl that was too much high life.”

A: No, I think you are mistaken.

Q: Never mind. I think a whole lot—even with that black head of mine.

But Dominguez insisted that Beardslee had said Rappe had too much “high life.” Then Dominguez asked if Beardslee had percussed Rappe’s flanks. Since this wasn’t an anatomical term, Dominguez seemed to be having some fun at the witness’s expense after a demonstration of what he meant by flanks. “I had no reason to percuss her buttocks at all,” Beardslee answered.

Q: What do you understand by the flank of the human anatomy? Point it out to us, doctor.

A: Flank?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, it is a term which is seldom used except by a butcher or horse trader or something that way.

As the cross-examination proceeded, Dominguez made clear what his primary defense theory was — that Rappe’s injury was her own misadventure, her own fault. Her bladder was compromised by disease and it was simply a matter of time before it burst of its own accord. “Assuming,” Dominguez began, “doctor, for a long period of time, a person had been treated for bladder trouble,

and had been under the direct attention of a doctor for bladder trouble, assuming further that it was a small bladder and the walls of that bladder were abnormally thin—assuming further she had not passed water for a period of 24 hours; and assuming further, doctor, that during that time it had been dribbling over the top of the bladder; and assuming further she had made efforts, doctor, to pass water, under that condition, doctor, could there be such a thing as a spontaneous rupture?

Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren objected on grounds that Rappe’s micturitions were not in evidence and available for cross-examination. But Judge Lazarus proved to be lenient with the defense here and allowed it. He reasoned that future evidence might support such a theory. Thus, Dr. Beardslee was compelled to agree with Dominguez that a bladder “with a thin wall” and “subjected to treatment for organic disturbances” could easily rupture. With that, Dominguez ended his cross-examination.

In the minutes that followed, Judge Lazarus asked a serious question devoid of his courtroom wit. He asked if urine in the bladder, upon release into the abdominal cavity, could cause an infection—a question that hadn’t been answered as yet by Dr. Beardslee.

Perhaps relieved to answer a medical question, the house physician for the St. Francis Hotel assumed a certain authority and explained that urine itself didn’t cause peritonitis. Bacteria escaping from the bladder did. With that, court was adjourned until 2:30 p.m.


[1] The following is based on People vs. Arbuckle, 232ff.

100 Years Later: Considering the missing doctor

This piece is an open editorial to ourselves. Any serious work about Virginia Rappe and the Arbuckle case must include a medical history and that medical history was on trial in 1921–’22 and still on trial today. Unfortunately, there is not enough surviving evidence or documentation about Rappe’s medical condition and history to write authoritatively and whatever sounds good, even ex cathedra, is from the armchair. Still, the well-intentioned writer can posit what is known about Rappe’s health and medical treatment and make at least one conclusion: more than one person was responsible for her death, in which she, too, may have had a hand, albeit a small hand.

If Arbuckle wasn’t culpable for the death of Virginia Rappe, he certainly would have benefited from her going away quietly. For a moment, he had his way. Rappe, though in agony, was removed to room 1227 of the St. Francis Hotel—not the St. Francis Hospital a few blocks away. This move happened not long after the event occurred and the party then continued. A certain hubris took over any thought about her, one of “out of sight, out of mind,” and it is unlikely that any attendees seriously thought her condition was as grave as it proved to be.

The doctors who saw Rappe facilitated this hubris by acquiescing to the requests of party attendees that she be treated in a hotel room rather than be taken to a hospital. Rappe was on her own with no family members or guardian angels demanding that something be done immediately. That delay exacerbated the problem.

Arbuckle was not alone in wanting Rappe’s problem to go away. Al Semnacher and Maude Delmont remained at the party in room 1220. Though Delmont, still drinking, took the time to check on Rappe in room 1227.

The one physician who suspected a bladder rupture, Dr. Arthur Beardslee, was somewhat cowed by Delmont’s take-charge attitude. His suggestions that Rappe be taken to a proper hospital were rejected. Delmont took her directions from the people in room 1220, she was the self-assigned go-between. Rappe’s stay in Room 1227 lasted beyond the time that the party had broken up and the attendees including Arbuckle had left the city. So Delmont and Rappe were left behind in a hotel room with no means to pay. That is possibly the turn of events that triggered Delmont’s willingness to sign a murder charge. But while the party was going on, Delmont was still on the team so to speak, she still saw herself as a privileged insider, someone who could call Arbuckle “Roscoe” (she claimed to have been at Keystone in the early days), and as such reached out to an old friend, Dr. Melville Erskine Rumwell, a physician she believed would determine that Rappe’s condition wasn’t so dire.

Dr. Rumwell dialed back Rappe’s condition to “alcoholism,” which, in 1921, was approximately what alcoholic poisoning means today. He wasn’t a stupid man. This apparent misdiagnosis suggests he didn’t take much time examining her and wanted as little direct involvement as possible. As a member of San Francisco society, Dr. Rumwell was conscious of his reputation. Whatever Delmont’s friendship meant to him personally was now complicated by another woman, Virginia Rappe, and all seemed intent on wishing away the potential seriousness of the situation to avoid “notoriety.”

Whether Rumwell examined Rappe in room 1227 is moot. He did arrange for nursing care to relieve the burden on Delmont. That suggests Rappe’s care was elevated to something more than alcoholism.

When Rappe was finally transported from the St. Francis to the Wakefield Sanitarium, a private hospital, she would live for less than forty-eight hours. Rappe’s nurses were probably instrumental in convincing Delmont to allow for an ambulance. Her confidence, too, in her friend Dr. Rumwell—she called him “Rummie”—might have been shaken. But only a little. When she called two of his colleagues at Stanford’s medical school, they probably told her she was in good hands. He had assisted both men in surgeries and it’s unlikely they would have said anything to disparage his skills or diagnosis.

But Rappe’s nurses didn’t trust him anymore. The night nurse, Vera Cumberland, suspected neglect on the part of Rumwell, who had taken a break to attend a party as Rappe’s condition worsened.

Had he made a proper diagnosis the night he first saw Rappe, Rumwell could have ordered emergency surgery and she might have survived. She actually had a robust constitution. But by the time Rappe got to Wakefield, Rumwell might have realized it was too late to save her. He apparently didn’t put up a good show of bedside manners and one might speculate he was distancing himself to blur his responsibility in the matter.

According to Delmont, one of the last conscious requests that Rappe made was to summon her one known friend in San Francisco, Sidi Wirt Spreckels. Visiting Ms. Spreckels may have been a reason for Rappe’s presence in San Francisco in the first place. Newspapers reported that Spreckels was just back from France. She was also recently widowed and in a legal battle over her late husband’s estate with his first wife (now “Mrs. Wakefield”). Spreckels had also suffered the indignity of a sheriff’s auction of her furs, a pending lawsuit filed by Tiffany’s over an unpaid diamond necklace, and other woes that made headlines of their own. (Eventually, the estate lawyer, James McNab, the brother of Arbuckle lawyer Gavin McNab, informed Spreckels that her late husband was bankrupt.)

Despite the risk of additional “notoriety”, Spreckels came to see Rappe on the morning of September 9, 1921. What she saw was appalling, such that she returned to her apartment at the Palace Hotel and communicated with Rappe’s former fiance Henry Lehrman about the situation. He may have suggested or seconded Spreckel’s decision to bring her own doctor back to the Wakefield.

That Spreckels reached out to Dr. H. Edward Castle, another physician high in S.F. society, for a “second opinion” indicated the doubts she had in Rumwell’s judgment.

Dr. Castle noted the bruising on Rappe’s body but could do nothing for her. She may have already died or did so in his presence (the reporting on his first Arbuckle trial testimony is scant).

The only thing that plagued Dr. Rumwell’s conscience was the matter of an autopsy. Spreckels and Delmont urged him on and he eventually relented. But until Rappe was dead, the only care she received was palliative. In effect Dr. Rumwell was a hospice physician.

His virtual hands-off treatment played well into the hands of Gavin McNab during the three Arbuckle trials.

As far as Rumwell’s own career went after the trials, his volunteer work, and his exploits on the handball court of the Athletic Club disappeared. Indeed, his career grew strangely quiet.

Sidi Wirt Spreckels and her stepson (Newspapers.com)