Put some ice on it or how to forget about the Coke bottle myth

Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t penetrate Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The origin of what has become a fetish object is an idle speculation made by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon.

As headlines screamed, the rumors flew of a hideously unnatural rape: Arbuckle, enraged at his drunken impotence, had ravaged Virginia with a Coca-Cola bottle, or a champagne bottle, then had repeated the act with a jagged piece of ice . . . or, wasn’t it common knowledge that Arbuckle was exceptionally well-endowed? (28)

The family newspapers of the 1920s didn’t—and wouldn’t—print anything like this. Some did report the original story on which Anger embellishes and gets half wrong: the ice part is true.

On Saturday, September 24, Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, testified to an encounter with Arbuckle and his companions in room 1220 of the St. Francis Hotel on the morning after the comedian’s Labor Day 1921 party (i.e., September 6, 1921).

One of many entertaining images from Hollywood Babylon (28)

In the presence of director Fred Fishback and actor Lowell Sherman—who had shared the twelfth-floor suite—as well as Semnacher and the comedian’s chauffeur, Arbuckle shared an anecdote from the day before. After Rappe had been found on his bed in room 1219, suffering from excruciating pain in her lower abdomen and going in and out of consciousness, Arbuckle attempted to wake her up. He returned to room 1219 and pushed a piece or pieces of ice into her vagina. (A bowl of ice was on the bar-buffet table in room 1220.)

Semnacher might have been shocked by Arbuckle’s attempt to make light of what had happened and repressed the memory of it until re-experiencing it in a dream. The way this played out in his appearance at the preliminary investigation in the Women’s Court was given much fanfare. Women’s Court was a special venue of the Police Court of San Francisco that limited the number of men to ensure courtroom decorum for female plaintiffs, witnesses, and spectators. The judge, Sylvain Lazarus, was to decide whether Arbuckle be tried for manslaughter or murder in the Superior Court of San Francisco County.

The District Attorney’s office promised that Semnacher would reveal on the stand that Arbuckle himself had disclosed the manner in which he had injured Virginia Rappe. But this didn’t happen.

Semnacher, in the penultimate moment of his testimony, was pressed by Assistant District Attorney Ira Golden about what he remembered of Arbuckle’s anecdote, specifically, what word did he use in reference to Rappe’s genitalia.

Semnacher, aware of the many women around him, felt uncomfortable saying the word aloud. So, Golden gave Semnacher the option of whispering it to the court reporter.

Semnacher answered, “The word is snatch.”

Golden’s intent wasn’t to present the ice as a weapon but rather to prove that Arbuckle hadn’t been a gentleman at the party and had treated Rappe abominably. This ploy was quickly apprehended by Arbuckle’s chief counsel, Frank Dominguez. As a seasoned criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, he knew that Golden had only made Arbuckle look like a cad and with the hope that such an outrage would sway Judge Lazarus, especially if he wanted to appease the women in his courtroom.

The next day, Sunday, September 25, after a press conference for Arbuckle’s wife, Minta Durfee, Dominguez intimated to a few lucky reporters that he intended to turn the tables on Ira Golden and his boss, District Attorney Matthew Brady. One of them was Edward J. Doherty of the Chicago Tribune. With his “Foxy Grandpa” wink, Dominguez promised that when he cross-examined Semnacher, he would bring another “startling revelation.”

Dominguez promised that the ice would be seen for what it was, the right thing to do for Rappe and much to Arbuckle’s credit. Dominguez intended to present Arbuckle not as “a coarse buffoon, boasting about a horrible thing he had done to a woman, but as a gentleman remarking casually what he had done to bring this woman out of her hysteria.” Dominguez, too, based on sound medical opinion, that what Arbuckle did with the ice, slipping it inside Rappe’s vagina,

had been not only sanctioned but practiced by physicians of all times since the days of Ancient Greece. [. . .] that Arbuckle did not mean his remark to be met with laughter. It was as if he had tried an old remedy, a bit unconventional, perhaps, a bit bizarre, maybe a tad too vulgar to speak about, if you will, but a good remedy, none the less, to cure a headache, or a backache, or a pain in the ear.”[1]

In all likelihood, the wily Dominguez had made it up—but not quite off the top of his head. As ice-making became widespread in the nineteenth century, doctors used pieces of ice to staunch the bleeding and pain of uterine hemorrhages.

Semnacher, perhaps knowing that he had embarrassed Arbuckle, took back what he said about the ice. He testified that he had used the wrong word to describe what the comedian did. He had put the ice on Rappe’s vagina, not in.

Note: Semnacher was one of the few witnesses asked to describe in detail the beverages served at the Labor Day Party. Neither he nor anyone else mentioned that Coca-Cola or champagne had been served. Indeed, the only carbonated beverages he noticed were bottles of orange soda and White Rock Soda, with the topless Psyche on the label admiring her reflection in a pool, an eerie foreshadowing of how Virginia Rappe would be found after tearing off her shirtwaist.

Source: White Rock Beverages

[1] M. D. Tracy, “Arbuckle Tortured Rappe,” Buffalo Times, 25 September 1921, 21.

One thought on “Put some ice on it or how to forget about the Coke bottle myth

  1. Pingback: 100 Years Ago Today: A Prosecutor Channels Rappe as a Vamp, September 24, 1921 | Spite Work: The Trials of Virginia Rappe and Fatty Arbuckle

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