100 Years Ago Today: The propaganda war against Rappe begins, October 16, 1921

[The following is a draft passage about the first wave of “defamation” and “propaganda”—the actual terms used by San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady—that began on the same day that his counterpart on Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense team, Gavin McNab, assumed his lead role. A series of news stories began to appear during the second half of October 1921 that made for a “recut” of Virginia Rappe’s past. Rather than being a fashion model before coming to Hollywood, she was recast as a girl of the streets who got pregnant at a very young age. Such propaganda would sway prospective jurors and further pull Rappe from the pedestal on which she had been placed as a victim. If she were depicted as “damaged goods” before Arbuckle met her, like the heroine in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and countless others in “ruined women” fiction, her fate would make for a more familiar “fallen woman” trope — one that might take the spotlight off of the comedian in the eyes of any morally righteous observers. McNab and his new client could ill afford “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”]

The first salvo in the effort to damage Rappe’s reputation had taken place three days earlier on October 16 in the Sunday editions of many U.S. newspapers. Each published the same Universal Service syndicated story, that Virginia Rappe had given up an infant daughter born in 1912 and was the long-hidden shame of her life. The source of this story was a “traveling salesman” named John Bates. He had recently sent letters to district attorneys and other officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco requesting information about Rappe’s estate with the intention of “entering claim on behalf” of a child “supported since infancy by the earnings of her mother,” the late actress. He claimed to have knowledge of the child’s existence and that he was “a close friend of Virginia Rappe and her mother Mabel Rappe.”[1] His acquaintance with both may have been the only thing true, however.

Bates, according to the reportage datelined October 15, had once been the proprietor of a South Side Chicago advertising distributing agency, which made it seem as though he would have known Rappe and her mother since the 1890s and that he might have worked with Rappe as a model. His entries in the 1910 census bear this out to some degree, in which he listed himself as a “circulator”—but this was hardly the kind of trade in which Rappe’s image might have been used. A circulator printed or distributed handbills, fliers, leaflets, and like ephemeral advertisements. The census, too, indicated that he was an older man, born in Iowa in 1856 (which made him sixty-five in 1921).[2] A newspaper item also revealed that he was who he said he was. Bates had once been the former financial secretary of the South Side Business Men’s Society, elected to the position in January 1914.[3]

One of the Society’s officers vouched for Bates’s word. “If Bates said Virginia Rappe’s daughter is in Chicago, it is true, and he knows where she can be found.”

According to Bates himself:

Most of Virginia Rappe’s friends on the South Side knew about her daughter. She would be about 8 or 9 years old now. She was born just a short time before Virginia went West to go into the movies. The last I heard of the girl she was living with her foster parents on the northwest side. I don’t know just where Virginia Rappe’s daughter is at present, but I am confident that I can locate her in a short time if necessary and prove her identify beyond all doubt. I know that Virginia paid for the child’s care up to a few years ago and I assume that she continued to pay until the time of her death. If the estate is of any value, I intend to see that her daughter receives the benefit of it.

Bates, at least in Chicago, seemed to be a moral person and, perhaps, willing to undertake such altruism given the causes he undertook in the past. In 1916, for example, while residing at 22nd Street and Wabash Avenue, he complained to the police about the houses of prostitution “where blacks and whites get hilarious with each other” and operated openly.[4] However John Bates had a colorful past of his own that, to his benefit, went unreported at the time.

He was the same John Bates, the petty thief from Iowa, who had been charged as a co-conspirator in a 1895 murder-for-hire killing of a Chicago stockbroker.[5] Although the charges were dismissed, Bates served consecutive sentences in the state penitentiaries of Illinois and Iowa due to other outstanding warrants. In 1900, he returned to Chicago and turned his life around under his older brother Miles’ supervision. Miles Bates is listed as an “Advertising Agent” in the 1900 census and John eventually followed him into the same trade.

In 1902, due to the perseverance of the victim’s widow, John Bates was rearrested in connection to the 1895 murder. But he was released once more, for much of the evidence and testimony had mysteriously been destroyed—presumably at the behest of the person or persons who had hired Bates and his fellow conspirators. Despite such an onus, Bates managed to escape his criminal past.

Though Bates claimed to personally know Rappe’s child he did little to act on her behalf other than to attempt to discover if an estate of any means existed. Before Bates was finished he introduced another wrinkle to his story. He claimed the child wasn’t illegitimate. His story features a husband “about whom even her most intimate Chicago friends know little,” a father who “disappeared before the child’s birth [. . .]

Who he was and when they were married remains a mystery. Virginia was then following in the footsteps of her beautiful mother and making her living by posing. She was unable to work and care for the baby at the same time and it was placed in the hands of friends. There was gossip, rumors, but Virginia resumed her rounds of the studios, her face still wreathed in the smile that never faded. Soon afterward she left for California.

The “author” of the story—the scare quotes meaning that this person may not have been Bates or the reporter and editor, simply one of the many hands now writing in Rappe’s life—ensured that the reader didn’t miss the irony of the “tragic culmination of the two-day ‘party’ in Arbuckle’s San Francisco apartment” and the costume in which to see her now. This

was not the first tragedy in the life of the “the girl who smiled.” For nearly ten years she hid beneath her twisted smile and beneath the cap and bells of her movie comedienne the bitter secret of the tragedy of her Chicago days, the blasted romance of her youth, that drove her from Chicago to seek fame—and to forget.

Such purple prose was intended to change the public perception of readers, many of whom had spent the morning in a church pew. The article, when it appeared in its entirety, put Virginia Rappe in a darker and less virtuous light.

As it turned out, this story had no bearing on the case and if Bates sent his letters, they were ignored as were the letters from Rappe’s adherents and defenders. Despite the attestation of Bates’s veracity, no reporters followed up on his story and his name disappeared from the case. No one else came forward to corroborate his story. No one betrayed the identity of the nine-year-old girl.

Infant Welfare, Chicago, before 1920 (Library of Congress)

[1] The following passage is based on the many different versions of the Universal News Service dispatch datelined October 15, Chicago, e.g., “Says Miss Rappe Left a Daughter,” Boston Globe, 16 October 1921, 6; “Virginia Rappe Has Child in Chicago?” Okmulgee Daily Times, 18 October 1921, 6; and “Daughter Is Left by Virginia Rappe,” Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1921, 7. A syndicated Chicago Daily News version datelined September 17 appeared subsequently but added no new information.

[2] Census data for John Bates are from 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 31, District 0969, line 58; and 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois, Cook, Chicago Ward 2, District 0183, line 3.

[3] “South Side Business Men Elect,” Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1914, 9.

[4] “Queens of Society, Gayest of Gay, In Levee Cafe,” The Day Book (Chicago), 2 December 1916, 2.

[5] “Bates Confessed to Hunter Crime,” Inter Ocean, 6 April 1902, 1, 3.

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