100 Years Ago Today: The bladder with a fuse on top, October 22, 1921

Before meeting with Minta Durfee as she was en route to join her husband in San Francisco, Chicago attorney Albert Sabath had been digging into Virginia Rappe’s earlier life in his city. In doing so, and without ever appearing in a San Francisco courtroom, the former amateur playwright may have done as much as Arbuckle’s lawyers in situ in crafting a counter-narrative that would take the focus off of the movie star. With such musicals as Campus Capers and Hoo-sier Girl to his credit, Sabath had a knack for telling a story and dramatizing the life of Virginia Rappe probably came easily. But the line between real life and poetic license was tailored to the needs of his client.

In effect, Sabath was tasked with reworking Rappe’s adolescence with cooperative defense witnesses who were willing to neatly frame “their” stories as predictive evidence for Rappe’s later behavior, bladder problems, and early death. Sabath merely had to ask the right questions to limit the testimonies to information that would suggest Rappe’s death had been a predestined event and Roscoe Arbuckle was nothing more than a witness with really bad timing. Sabath had the added advantage of knowing firsthand about Rappe, from the time when her Hoosier “fella” was Harry Barker, a friend of his.

Sabath’s investigations on Arbuckle’s behalf went on long enough to dig deep, to find useful and reliable people with stories to tell, elicit, and massage as necessary. Perhaps John Bates was one of Sabath’s candidates. Bates being the man who presented himself as a concerned party inquiring about Rappe’s estate on behalf of her purported orphaned “little girl”. But Bates, could have been an outlier, a freelancer.

After the rumor of the abandoned “daughter” ran its course during the second week of October, the next story that “leaked” was about chronic cystitis that Rappe allegedly suffered in girlhood. On Saturday, October 22, a syndicated article from the International News Service appeared, quoting a nurse named Virginia Warren. “Sensational information,” the piece began, “bearing on the early life of Virginia Rappe,

beautiful movie actress, who died following a party staged by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, has been made in a disposition by Miss Virginia Warren, Chicago nurse, it was revealed today. Miss Warren and Mrs. Josephine Ross [sic], both made depositions to counsel for Arbuckle which are to play an important part in his coming trial. Miss Warren declared she was a nurse in attendance upon Miss Rappe in 1908. At that time, Miss Rappe, only 14, was in a delicate condition and was in the care of Mrs. Ross, in the latter’s apartment near 24th street and Wabash avenue, Chicago, according to Miss Warren.

“I first saw Virginia Rappe in 1908,” Miss Warren said. “I was called as a private nurse to attend her. She was in the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Fogarty [sic], now Mrs. Josephine Ross.

“Miss Rappe was then only 14. She was in a delicate condition. She had been taken to Mrs. Ross’ apartment by her sweet, old grandmother.

“She was also suffering at that time from a bad attack of bladder trouble. On one occasion while she lay on her bed, she suddenly screamed., half rose and clutched at my waist. Her fingers tore into my skin and made deep scratches.

“Then Virginia suddenly grabbed her night gown at the shoulder and almost tore it off her body.

Miss Warren said Miss Rappe told her at that time that her bladder trouble made her violent at times. She said she remained in Mrs. Ross’ home for five days.

Miss Warren said she decided to help Arbuckle because, as she explained, “As a nurse, I know that a girl who has had bladder trouble at 14, and in after years drank to some extent, and possibly neglected herself at times, could easily puncture her bladder. The least strain or twist would do it.”

Mrs. Ross also made a deposition in which she corroborated that of Miss Warren.[1]

Miss Warren, the only African American to testify at one of the Arbuckle trials, covered every facet of the defense’s strategy to divert attention away from Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death.[2] However Warren was talkative and her testimony defied credulity by too closely matching the details of Rappe’s preexisting illnesses to the condition in which she was found in room 1219. It was obvious she had been coached.

Nevertheless, her testimony likely had little effect, few major market newspapers carried the story, and her account varied little from the stories that followed which all sounded suspiciously familiar.

Sheet music for the musical Campus Capers (1910) by Albert Sabath (Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries)

[1] Compiled from International Wire Service, “Say Miss Rappe Was Always Delicate,” Buffalo Enquirer, 22 October 1921, 1; “Virginia Rappe Was Mother At the Age of Fourteen Declares Chicago Nurse,” Topeka State Journal, 22 October 1921, 1; “Miss Rappe’s Early Life Is Now Revealed,” Evening News (Wilkles-Barre), 22 October 1921, 1; and “To Reveal Past of Miss Rappe, Victim of Arbuckle Party,” Coshocton Tribune, 22 October 1921, 1.

[2] Virginia Warren indicated herself as “Mu,” for mulatto on the 1910 census and, in 1920, as white while living with a boarder named “John Williams” who indicated his race as “Mexican,” which, like “Cuban,” was a way for light-skinned African Americans to pass as white.

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