On this Day 100 Years Ago: Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, takes the stand during the third session of the preliminary investigation, September 23, 1921

Isadore Golden, one of Matthew Brady’s assistant district attorneys, put it this way: “We have made out a case [. . .] through witnesses who had to have the truth dynamited out of them, witnesses who would give anything to say, ‘I was not there.’”[1] One witness he had in mind was Al Semnacher, part motion picture publicity man, part talent agent, and part talent scout, who represented at various times ZaSu Pitts, Jacqueline Logan, Kenneth Harlan, and Virginia Rappe for less than two months. If going to Arbuckle’s party had been a business venture to get her into Arbuckle’s party, either all along or an opportunity of coincidence, he failed her miserably.

Al Semnacher (San Francisco Call)

Semnacher was a kind of subaltern Hollywood functionary, even factotum. His estranged wife was the late Olive Thomas’ personal secretary. His stock-in-trade was primarily developing—or exploiting—young aspiring people, especially young women, who wanted to break into the movies and needed their face and contact information in a casting directory with a flattering portrait taken at the Hartsook Studio. Semnacher, too, served the Hollywood nobility. For example, when one of Arbuckle’s lawyers produced a purse in the courtroom, inferring that it might belong to Virginia Rappe, the accessory, as it turned out, belonged to Mildred Harris (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin). Semnacher had taken it to a jeweler for her to be fixed.

The actress Miriam Cooper expressed one school of opinion about Semnacher’s role in the Arbuckle affair. She saw Semnacher as a liar covering up what he really knew.[2] Her husband, the actor and director Raoul Walsh, believed that Henry Lehrman had arranged with Semnacher to bring Rappe to San Francisco to see Arbuckle.

When Al Semnacher took the stand during the afternoon of September 23, 1921, his testimony came so reluctantly that the defense demanded that Assistant DA Golden treat Semnacher as a hostile witness. Some newspaper accounts described his performance as unimpressive. Others took issue with the appearance of the dapper, sporting man who was photographed wearing an ankh symbol tie pin on his four-in-hand, a pince-nez, and a Gatsby cap (picture above).

Edward J. Doherty—“America’s Highest Paid Reporter”—of the Chicago Tribune’s Hollywood bureau knew Semnacher to be Arbuckle’s friend and described him as “a short, squat, middle-aged man, with iron gray hair, gray eyes, and a weary gray countenance.”[3]

Ellis H. Martin of the International News Service described Semnacher it terms as “a wiry little man whose dark, sparkling eyes peeped cautiously from behind shell-rimmed glasses.”[4]

The Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, the pastor of San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, not only appeared in the Women’s Court as a reporter, wearing a clerical collar, but also as an editorialist. He, too, had something to say about Semnacher’s untrustworthy features.[5]

What a rotten way to spend a perfectly good afternoon. Sitting in a stuffy courtroom, listening to a lot of seemingly stupid questions, that seemed to lead nowhere, and were repeated over and over again in an effort to get a witness who apparently had made up his mind not to say anything that was worth anything to anybody to say what he had already said. [. . .] And the witness, Mr. Semnacher, who, I believe, was the manager for Miss Rappe, was a very clever and interesting little person, with dark, sparkling eyes, and many of the manners and actions of a monkey. At times, he was quite cute, with a funny little twinkle behind the glasses in his black eyes—and then he knew so much, and so intimately, about some things, and was ready to run on telling it, and against he knew so little, in fact, almost nothing of what the District Attorney wanted to know.

I wonder whether it is a good thing to shout at a witness. [. . .] In talking of torn garments, I couldn’t help thinking, as I saw the detectives coming into court, with two pitiful packages in their hands, of how a short while before what they contained had clothed beautiful womanhood, and were now but a wretched exhibit in a police court. And that ultimately there is but one garment that can cover our shame and failure, and that is the robe of His righteousness.[6]

The Rev. Guthrie, like other spectators, wanted to be interested, entertained perhaps, but for many of them, this was the first time they had sat through a direct examination and cross-examination. They had no idea that this was how district attorneys laid their groundwork, especially for a reluctant witness who realized that he was being led along a precipice in which he could perjure himself, bring financial ruin, and make him an untouchable in film colony—this on top of a humiliating divorce.


[1] Qtd. in Edward J. Doherty, “State Springs Coup on Fatty; Defense Wild,” Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1921, 3.

[2] Miriam Cooper and Bonnie Herndon, Dark Lady of the Silents (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 180.

[3] Edward J. Doherty, “Fatty Pales at Moving Picture of Fatal Party,” Chicago Tribune, 24 September 1921, 1.

[4] Ellis H. Martin, “Death of Actress Laid to Injuries,” Washington Times, 24 September 1921, 1.

[5] Anti-Semitism did loom over the Arbuckle trial, perhaps more than we know. In the case of Rev. Guthrie, Semnacher may have been seen as the stereotypical “Hollywood Jew,” a label already well-established especially in the revived Ku Klux Klan and among their WASP betters who entertained the “suburban prejudice.”

[6] Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, “Judge Lazarus Untangles Knows of Legal Verbiage, Impresses Cleric,” San Francisco Examiner, 24 September 1921, 1–2.

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