Bit Player #5: Harry Barker: The “Sweetheart”

. . . a man and a gentleman who tried to clean himself and keep all around him clean.

Gavin McNab, Chief Defense Counsel[1]

Harry Beaconsfield Barker was one of the most effective witnesses called by Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense lawyers during the first Arbuckle trial. His testimony, too, resulted in their first defeat. Two jury members, including its only woman, wouldn’t vote to acquit.

Barker knew Rappe “intimately” for almost five years, from 1910 to 1914, and had not lost touch with her, even after he had moved to San Francisco in 1918 and married in July 1920. For a time, he even lived in the St. Francis Hotel and may have seen her there, a year later, when his wife was about six or seven months pregnant—that is, about June or July 1921. In other words, they were on good terms.

Barker was considered a surprise witness. Arbuckle’s lawyers, led by California’s Democratic kingmaker, Gavin McNab, surely learned of the connection between Rappe and Barker from their colleagues in Chicago. Best of all, Barker was conveniently in San Francisco.

Barker, like Rappe, had gone West. He was called a “Stockton rancher.” Barker, however, had already made a considerable fortune in northern Indiana real estate and, together with other investors from Chicago, hoped to make more speculating on farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

Barker was no stranger to courtrooms. He was mired in another legal battle at the time he was called to the stand to describe his relationship with Virginia Rappe. He and his close friend Albert Sabath, the Chicago lawyer who worked for Arbuckle’s defense, were named in a lawsuit and accused of fraud and conspiracy by a group of Chinese American investors over a large tract of farmland on Mildred Island in the San Joaquin River delta. Their lawsuit amounted to $400,000 in damages (over $6 million adjusted for inflation). The case had progressed from the lower courts and would soon make its way to the California Supreme Court. Making this problem go away may have induced Barker to take the stand and discuss his personal life with Rappe.

Barker’s testimony substantiated the assertion that Rappe had a long history of becoming hysterically ill after only a few drinks, that she suffered excruciating abdominal pains, and, of course, tore her clothes off. He described a handful of incidents. These as well as similar episodes of Rappe’s past behavior that other defense witnesses described seemed to follow the same script, a predictable formula not unlike that of slapstick comedies, such that Rappe’s drinking and stripping and going wild uncannily foreshadowed what happened in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921.

Harry Barker dated Virginia Rappe on and off those years in Chicago. He was about twenty-six years old when he met Rappe in the spring or early summer of 1910, after her brief foray as a chorus girl and vaudeville performer. At the time, he still lived with his widowed mother Rebecca on Michigan Avenue in Groveland Park. She and Barker’s late father were both Russian Jewish emigrants who still spoke Yiddish in the home. The son, however, was born in Chicago in 1885 and had already established himself at the age of twenty-one in 1906 as a real estate broker whose business was largely based in and around the Indiana Harbor region. There he was responsible for many of the new homes “for workers,” as the newspapers described them, built for The Gary Works, the massive steel mill on Lake Michigan. His attention to detail and price almost resulted in his being lost at sea. In 1916, he had traveled into the interior of Panama to inspect the timber holdings of a Chicago syndicate. On his return, however, his motor launch sailed too far out into the Pacific Ocean, ran out of fuel, and went adrift for eighteen hours.[2]

Barker would have appealed to Rappe’s grandmother–guardian. He was the kind of prosperous, middle-class man Rappe might have been attracted to if she were to “settle down” in Chicago rather than pursue a career of her own. But Barker’s appeal to Virginia may have been that he wasn’t so settled and was willing to move to where the opportunities were including having lived out of a suitcase “for a time at the Gary Young Men’s Christian Association.”[3]

It could be said that he lived dangerously and took risks, which also appealed to Rappe. He drove fast cars. He attended the early Indianapolis 500s and drove a fast car himself, described as a “40 horsepower flyer.” In all likelihood, it was in his car that Rappe learned to drive and compete in auto races herself. He also had nothing against the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Barker’s business partner was Adolph Joachim Sabath, the powerful Chicago Democrat who represented the 5th District in Chicago and chaired the Alcoholic Liquor Traffic Committee. Legal and illegal alcohol sales were no mystery to Congressman Sabath, who, with his brother, Judge Joseph Sabath, once operated a saloon in Chicago. Adolph was, unsurprisingly, a “wet” congressman and was a leading opponent of making Chicago and the country “dry”. He rightly predicted that Prohibition would only lead to bootlegging on a national scale—and some of his knowledge came from Harry Barker who, in 1916, served as one of Sabath chief agents in monitoring illicit alcohol sales in the border region between Indiana and Illinois. Adolph’s nephew, the son of his brother, Judge Joseph Sabath, Albert, was his law partner and Arbuckle’s chief lawyer in Chicago. He had likely been retained in the last week of September 1921, if not earlier, to begin the discovery process into Virginia Rappe.

Although none of Barker’s original testimony of November 25, 1921, is preserved in any length, the content and tenor can be pieced together from the reportage.

The surprise witness of the entire case was Barker [“one-time ‘sweetheart’ of the dead girl”]. It revealed a romance of the early days of Virginia Rappe in Chicago. Barker, who now has a ranch in California, and a real estate business in Gary, Ind., was then “on the road.” He met Virginia Rappe, he said, in 1910—when the state contends she was but 13 years old—and “a warm friendship sprang up which lasted four and a half years.”

Barker “made Chicago often” and when he did he “went with Virginia.” Her grandmother usually accompanied them to dinner and the theater, he said. He described dinners ranging from an Italian restaurant where Virginia partook of too much red wine, to the LaSalle hotel, where he met her the last time he saw her in Chicago. He declared [that] he had seen her the last two months before [her] death.

At that time, he admitted on cross-examination, “she was looking her old self—always bright, high spirited and full of fun.”

Barker underwent a grilling cross-examination. The state scored when they brought out that all the times to which he testified that Virginia tore her clothes were while she lived with her grandmother, now dead, and none of them after she went to live with her “aunt,” Mrs. Hardebeck, now living. Barker will likely be questioned further today.[4]

Despite Rappe’s seeming intolerance for alcoholic beverages, despite the “high maintenance” of dating her, Barker still took her out drinking hundreds of times.” In addition to the wine incident, he also described seeing Rappe become hysterical and tear her clothing when she had partaken of liquors in small quantities.

“She had one attack after dinner at Rector’s café in Chicago,” he said.

“Virginia and I were dining together. It was about 7:30 p.m. She drank gin and orange juice.

“Another attack occurred at South Haven, Mich. Her grandmother was with us at the summer resort there. I had not seen her drink anything.

In Chicago I frequently took her to dinner. She often drank liquor at these dinners.

“I took her several times to the Bismarck gardens in Chicago.”

He was asked if he took her with a Mrs. Katherine Fox of Chicago and a “gentleman from Australia” in the Bismarck gardens in 1913.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

“I tried to keep Virginia from drinking,” he said when asked if he had refused to permit Virginia to drink at that party.

In answer to a question as to his visits to cafes with Miss Rappe[,] he declared he had taken her “hundreds of times.”

He denied he had been engaged to Miss Rappe and [that] she had terminated the engagement.

Reverting to the question of liquor[,] he said he could not remember any Chicago café refusing to serve Miss Rappe liquor.[5]

Katherine Fox, for whom Rappe served as a “protégé,” as Gavin McNab sarcastically put it, was Barker’s chief foil for the prosecution. In the following reportage, she responds to Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren here, while tracing Rappe’s life at the time of her association with Barker.

Mrs. Fox repeatedly denied she had ever seen her in pain or in the care of a physician, and had never seen her tear her clothing nor take an intoxicating drink. Mrs. Fox testified she was intimately associated with Miss Rappe during all that time.

“Do you know Harry B. Barker?” U’Ren asked her. She did.

“Was he engaged to Virginia Rappe?”

“Yes, he was.”

“Was that engagement broken?”

“Yes.”

“She broke it?”

“Miss Rappe did.”

“How do you know she broke the engagement?”

“I was present.”[6]

bismarck-gardens-postcard-frontIn addition to denying Fox’s assertion of an engagement, Barker also denied that he had said what Fox overheard in a restaurant ten years before, that “Miss Rappe has not taken a drink yet.”[7] The reportage doesn’t include the context for this remark—also via Mrs. Fox—but it implies that Rappe didn’t drink at the time and may have only started while in Barker’s company, that he introduced her to alcoholic beverages and continued to ply her despite her alleged bizarre behavior that so clearly resembled what happened to her at Arbuckle’s party.

Barker “enumerated at least six occasions where, in his presence, the dinner was disturbed by Virginia becoming hysterical, shrieking in pain and tearing her clothing.”[8] That she had even had two gin and orange juices—the same concoction, coincidentally, that she allegedly imbibed at Arbuckle’s party—surely must have seemed to the prosecution too good to be true for Arbuckle.[9] Such detail surely incited the heated “wrangle between Deputy District Attorney Milton U’Rren and Attorney Milton Cohen, whom the prosecutor charged with ‘coaching’ defense witnesses.”[10]

Coaching aside, the picture that Barker paints shows a man who had invested much time and money into enjoying Rappe’s company hundreds of times. The restaurants he did mention—Bismarck Garden at Broadway and Lake, and Rector’s, an oyster house at Clark and Monroe—were popular, fashionable, and expensive. Barker obviously “courted” the grandmother by attending Thanksgiving Day dinner at her Fullerton Avenue apartment and having her in tow for dinner “usually” means a certain commitment if not patience and suffering on the man’s part.

The South Haven incident would have been an expensive vacation, which included two long day cruises across Lake Michigan and the expense of putting Rappe and her grandmother up in a hotel as well as entertaining them at the town’s many attractions, including theaters, a casino, an opera house, and an amusement park. Even if it wasn’t an engagement ring in testimony, Barker had given Rappe a diamond ring. He did everything that a man might do if he were in love.

Barker’s testimony as to the length of their relationship suggests that it began to fade in 1913, when Rappe’s modeling career was at its height and she had sailed to Europe to attend the autumn fashion shows in Paris. When Rappe returned to Chicago in January 1914 and the LaSalle Hotel, she and Barker distanced themselves further. The Chicago Tribune reported on the marriage of Albert Sabath later that same month. Harry Barker was in the wedding party. If he attended the reception with Virginia Rappe, her name wasn’t mentioned.

Barker’s testimony had a profound effect on the only woman juror, Mrs. Helen Hubbard, who apparently took offense at what probably seemed his caddish betrayal. The resulting hung jury forced a new trial for late January 1922.

Barker was not called to testify at that trial or the third one. The defense found other witnesses who had seen Rappe’s drinking and striptease. Instead, Barker went back to running his businesses. Nevertheless, his name was often invoked during those trials and, especially, the last one, when Arbuckle was acquitted in April 1922.

What Barker had said on the stand at the first trial was not lost or forgotten by Milton U’Ren. In a fiery address to the jury, in which he blasted that they would be just as guilty as Arbuckle if they voted to acquit, he referred to Barker “as a ‘buzzard, snake, skunk and blackguard.’”[11] To this, Gavin McNab responded that Barker was

a man and a gentleman, who tried to be clean himself and keep all around him clean. This man whom the prosecution calls a blackguard was the only mourner at the funeral of Miss Rappe’s mother [sic] and he sacrificed himself financially to pay the expenses of that funeral. Where were Mrs. Fox and others who professed in this court to be such good friends of Miss Rappe? They were not there.[12]

In late December 1921, Barker and the Sabath family enjoyed a small legal victory in the California Supreme Court. But the Mildred Island case, due to the tenaciousness of the plaintiffs, dragged on in the courts until 1932.

 

[1] “Arbuckle Case Near Jury,” Sioux City Journal, 12 April 1922, 2.

[2] “Harry Barker Home from Panama,” Munster Times, 14 February 1916, 2.

[3] “Says Arbuckle Not Accused by Movie Star,” Fresno Morning Republican, 26 November 1921, 1.

[4] “Arbuckle Case Closes Monday, M’Nab Declares: Rancher and Former Friend of Miss Rappe on Stand,” Oklahoma City Times, 26 November 1921, 16.

[5] “The Past of Virginia Rappe Inquired Into,” Stockton Daily Evening Record, 26 November 1921, 1.

[6] “Impeachment of 2 Arbuckle Witnesses Looms,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 November 1921, 1.

[7] “Defense Will Close Monday for Arbuckle: Stockton Rancher Resumes Testimony,” Sacramento Bee, 26 November 1921, 1.

[8] “Booze Parties Hold Stage in Arbuckle Case: Former Sweetheart of Virginia Rappe Testifies Woman Would Tear Clothing after Drinking Liquor,” Salt Lake Telegram, 27 November 1921, 1.

[9] Some narratives use the term “orange blossom” to describe “Rappe’s drink.” She herself called it a “Bronx Cocktail,” which she preferred made with very little gin as she did not like its taste. See A.P. Night Wire, “Defense Is Contradicted,” Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1922, 1.

[10] “Miss Rappe Often Crazed with Pain, Witness Asserts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 November 1921, 1.

[11] Oscar H. Fernbach, “Arbuckle’s Fate Is with Jury Today: Closing Argument in Third Trial of Comedian Now Under Way; McNab Yet on Argument,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 April 1922, 15.

[12] “Arbuckle Lawyers Flay Alleged Bully Methods Used by Prosecution,” Billings Gazette, 12 April 1922, 8.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s