100 Years Ago Today: Virginia Rappe returns to L.A., September 16, 1921

Before Virginia Rappe’s coffin was sealed, Lehrman sent his final instructions. “Tell her,” he wired, “Henry said that he still loves you; she will hear.”[1] One of Halsted’s morticians took care of whispering the sentiment into the dead woman’s ear.

This privilege might have gone to Maude Delmont, but her role as Rappe’s caregiver no longer extended to Rappe’s corpse, whereas Lillian Gatlin offered to accompany Rappe’s coffin on the trip back for the honor of doing so. Nevertheless, Delmont was miffed that she had been denied the chance to chaperone Rappe’s body given the devoted attention she had provided when she was alive. She quoted a tactful telegram from Lehrman thanking her for the courageous manner in which she had “defended unfortunate Virginia” and that it was his most sincere wish that she go with Rappe’s body.[2] But, as the state’s star witness, Delmont was stuck in San Francisco and the District Attorney’s office could hardly risk her disappearing.

Outraged at Lehrman’s last minute decision to ask Lillian Gatlinto accompany the body on the trip, one made behind her back, Delmont shouted at reporters, “She shall not go”. “There will be serious trouble if she tries to. She did not know Virginia Rappe.”[3] But Delmont’s willingness to sign a murder complaint against Arbuckle now meant it was impossible for her to leave San Francisco for the immediate future. A policewoman had been assigned to watch her, not only to prevent witness tampering but to prevent the witness from disappearing.

On Friday afternoon, September 16, Rappe’s coffin was taken by hearse to the Southern Pacific’s Third and Townsend Depot.[4] There Gatlin purchased a first-class ticket for herself and one for the body to be stamped corpse. For the deceased to travel by first class was not an extravagance but rather a railroad regulation. But the corpse’s accommodations were hardly that of a Pullman car. The silver coffin was placed inside a large pinewood crate, which was nailed shut, and loaded into one of the dark green baggage cars of Owl, the Southern Pacific’s night express to Los Angeles.

For most of the journey south, the train lacked the scenery that the coastal route took and mostly traveled in darkness before it pulled into Los Angeles’ Central Station by mid-morning. The Los Angeles Examiner found a headline (“Tears, Flowers, Friends, All Are Missing”) in what little ceremony there was to sliding Rappe’s coffin, enclosed in a plywood box, from a baggage wagon into the back of a waiting white hearse. The mortuary workers did take the trouble to display Lehrman’s blanket of 1,000 tiger lilies. The choice was deliberate—for he said to the press more than once that Rappe had fought off Roscoe Arbuckle “like a tiger.”

In gold letters, a white ribbon draped across the lilies read: “To My Brave Sweetheart, From Henry.” The poignancy of Rappe’s neglect—and penury—was also taken up by a brief editorial in the Los Angeles Times, which noted that a “flood of light is shed on the lives of the pretty, highly dressed movie-picture stars by the fact that when Virginia Rappe died as the result of her injuries in San Francisco, there was not a penny in sight to prepare for her burial. She was absolutely broke.”

Thirty minutes after Rappe’s coffin arrived, Arbuckle’s manager, Lou Anger, and his lead defense lawyer, Frank Dominguez stepped off the Lark, the train that took the Southern Pacific’s coastal route. If they saw Rappe’s body being picked up at the train station, no one would know anyway, for they refused to answer any questions directed at them.

Virginia Rappe’s coffin being loaded into a hearse (Calisphere)

[1] Burton L. Smith, “Arbuckle to be Tried on Charge of Murder [. . .] Body of Virginia Rappe Is Being Brought to Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1921, 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ernest Hopkins, “Tragic Return of Body Marks End of Trip Virginia Rappe Planned for Pleasure,” Akron Beacon Journal, 16 September 1921, 25.

[4] The following is corroborated in Arthur Turney, “Unescorted Body of Virginia Rappe Is Received in L.A.,” Los Angeles Evening Express, 17 September 1921, 1; “Rappe Girl’s Body to be Shipped to Los Angeles Today: Will Be Accompanied by Lillian Gatlin, Scenario Writer and Friend,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 September 1921, 6; “Pen Points by the Staff,” Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1921, 20; “8,000 at L.A. View Body of Virginia Rappe,” San Francisco Examiner, 19 September 1921, 3; “Thousands Pass Before Bier of Virginia Rappe,” Wichita Daily Eagle, 19 September 1921, 1; “Mob Blocks Traffic at Hollywood,” Los Angeles Record, 19 September 1921, 1, 2; “Virginia Rappe in Final Rest,” Los Angeles Times, 20 September 1921, 2.

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