100 Years Ago Today: The first full day of the preliminary investigation

The Women’s Court of Judge Sylvain Lazarus reconvened on the morning of Thursday, September 22. The first witnesses called were those who had conducted autopsies on Virginia Rappe’s body. Dr. William Ophuls conducted the first autopsy, which was unofficial and done at the request of Dr. Melville Rumwell, Rappe’s physician. He had been compelled to perform the autopsy by Maude Delmont and Rappe’s friend, Sidi Spreckels, the second wife of the late John Spreckels Jr., heir to one of California’s wealthiest and most influential families.

Dr. Shelby Strange, took the stand first, for he had conducted the second autopsy sanctioned by the San Francisco Coroner. It was his painstaking measurements of the numerous bruises on Rappe’s body that posed a challenge for the defense, for these suggested a forcible assault—or a rough handling of Rappe while being moved from bed to bathtub to toilet seat to bed and ultimately to a room of her own in the St. Francis Hotel.

In addition to the controversial bruises was Dr. Strange’s description of Rappe’s viscera. After removing all the bloodstained cotton that packed the lower half of Rappe’s abdomen, Dr. Strange found that her bladder, uterus, and rectum had been removed. This wasn’t a surprise, for Dr. Ophuls had preserved them in a specimen jar.

Assistant District Attorney Miltion U’Ren asked about the uterus first.

Q: What was its general shape and condition?
A: The shape was normal.
Q: Normal size?
A: Normal size. It had been—there had been an incision from top to bottom on the anterior surface of the uterus, and opening the cavity.
Q: And so far as you could observe from your examination, it was a perfectly normal, healthy uterus?
A: Yes sir, and likewise the tubes and the ovaries.[1]

Here Frank Dominguez, Arbuckle’s chief defense attorney, objected to U’Ren “leading” Dr. Strange on the word “healthy” in regard to Rappe’s sexual organs—for that suggested a “healthy” morality, as well, a young woman who wasn’t promiscuous. “Healthy,” too, meant there was no sign of any forced penetration as well as other anomalies, including a fetus, presumably.

Dr. Ophuls, too, had a similar opinion about Rappe’s viscera. “All that I saw and felt seemed perfectly normal,” he said. “I did not make an examination of the chest.”[2] Dr. Ophuls, however, had another opinion in regard to Rappe’s Fallopian tubes. These “were badly inflamed—that is, I mean, they were congested in blood, which I attributed to the existence of the inflammation [i.e., peritonitis] in the body cavity in which these tubes are situated. And the uterus and vagina and the vulva were apparently perfectly normal.”[3]

Dr. William Ophuls, ca. 1909 (Calisphere)

[1] People vs. Arbuckle, 26–27.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

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