Document dump #8: The first comprehensive report, published twenty-four hours after Virginia Rappe’s death

[This early report, in the early afternoon of September 10, 1921, raised our eyebrows more than once. You will read here, just as the San Francisco Call readers did a century ago, how many of the essential details of what became the Arbuckle case were known. There is much here about the illegal autopsy performed on Rappe’s body, which suggests that had someone—a whistleblower—not called the S.F. Coroner’s office, Arbuckle’s downfall might never have happened. Other revelations here, of course, include the term “spontaneous” to describe Rappe’s bladder rupture. The source, Dr. Ophuls, the professor of pathology at Stanford’s medical school, didn’t use that term again. He also described the walls of Rappe’s bladder as thin. Later he used the term “small for a woman her size.” Notice too, that all those foxtrots and like dances imagined at the Labor Day party in various Arbuckle narratives are certainly moot.]


FRESNO, Sept 10. —Roscoe Arbuckle, film star, tore through Fresno today in a high-powered car, on his way to San Francisco for the inquiry into the death of Virginia Rappe, movie actress. He would not pause to give new details of his answer to charges involving him, but said he would reach San Francisco at 3 p. m.

A manifold official investigation was begun today into the death of Virginia Rappe, film beauty, following a drinking party in the suite of Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, film star, at the Hotel St. Francis.

The police, while spreading a watch for Arbuckle as he sped north from Los Angeles, detailed a squad of veteran detectives to the case, and the coroner’s office and District Attorney Matthew Brady both took steps for a complete investigation, while members of the grand jury also went into the case with a view to action by that body.

Clubwomen also entered the situation, many of them telephoning officials of the grand jury demanding an inquiry. The jury may take up the case at its regular meeting Monday night.

The investigation included not only the circumstances of the actress’ injury, illness and death, but those of an autopsy performed at the request of the physician in charge of her case, Dr. M. E. Rumwell.

Dr. Rumwell, instructed to appear at the coroner’s office to explain, telephoned that he would come this afternoon and said the autopsy was regular, the case having been one of natural causes.

Dr. William Ophuls went to the morgue and declared that the autopsy was regular, and he had taken it for granted the legal requirements had been met by his confrere.

A coroner’s jury met this afternoon to view the body, which was photographed.

These developments today came on the heels of the breaking of a dam which had held up all word of the scandal for several days. Acting Captain of Detectives Michael Griffin detailed Detectives Henry McGrath, Griffith Kennedy ard Thomas Regan to the case with orders to look into the autopsy matter as well as all other features.

District Attorney Matthew Brady said this afternoon: “It is reported death occurred under mysterious circumstances. If necessary my entire force will be detailed to aid the police in a full investigation and if it is found death was due to an attack or abuse by any person, we will prosecute. We will go after anyone who seems guilty just as strongly as we went after the Howard street gangsters.”

When he spoke, Brady had not been officially advised of the case.

Curtis Clifford, foreman of the grand jury, said today that the case had not been called to his notice, officially, but that he would investigate with a view to bringing the matter before the grand jury if the circumstances warrant it.


The grand jury is due back tomorrow from a trip to Hetch Hetchy.

Harry Kelly, secretary of the grand jury, also declared the grand jury was ready to hear all pertinent evidence in .the case. He said he himself had received telephone messages from many clubwomen demanding grand jury inquiry.

Arbuckle left Los Angeles at 1 a.m. today by auto, accompanied by Frank Dominguez, Los Angeles attorney. He said he was coming to help in the inquiry.

The police established a watch for his machine, with orders to take him to the detective bureau immediately on his arrival.

Arbuckie came north issuing denials of responsibility for the girl’s death. The stomach of the actress was sent to Dr. Frank T. Green, city chemist, for analysis, following the report of the physicians who attended her that death was caused by peritonitis, due to a rupture of the bladder, which might have been caused by a fall or by a blow.

This action was taken by the coroner’s office after the autopsy had been performed by a private physician, Dr. Ophuls, called in especially for that purpose by the doctors who had been attending the woman.

The body was taken from the hospital to the undertaking: establishment of Halstead & Co., 1122 Sutter street, and later removed to the morgue. Dr. Ophuls and Dr. M. E. Rumwell, whose patient the woman had been and therefore in charge of the case, were directed to go to the morgue to give their explanation.

It was declared that Dr. Ophuls assumed the other doctors had fulfilled the legal requirements for an autopsy and that he considered his action a part of routine in a surgical case.

The death of the woman was learned by accident by the coroner’s office.


Yesterday afternoon a woman phoned, saying she was speaking from the Wakefield Sanitarium, 1065 Sutter street, where the actress had died. She asked when the autopsy was to be performed.

Coroner T. B. W. Deland was at Santa Crux with the naval reserve, but Deputy Michael Brown, who had answered the phone, went to the hospital immediately after the woman, presumably an employee, had hung up without giving further details.

At the hospital Brown was refused the name of the dead woman and told to see Dr. Rumwell, whose patient the woman had been. He waited.

Presently Dr. Rumwell and Dr. Ophuls came down stairs. They had portions of the body—specimens.

Brown told them they had exceeded the law and had them telephone to the chief deputy coroner, Mrs. Jane C. Walsh. Dr. Rumwell said he had beep trying to get Dr. Leland by telephone.

Dr. Shelby Strange, acting autopsy surgeon, was sent to make a post mortem examination, and today the body was ordered taken from the undertaker’s, Halsted & Co., where it was removed from the hospital, and subjected to a new examination at the morgue.

Dr. Strange found bruises on the right and left legs of the body, one apparently from a pinch on the arm. and dark spots on the abdomen.

Dr. Ophuls said today, death was caused by peritonitis, due to a rupture of an abnormally thin bladder.

Dr. Rumwell was called to the St. Francis Tuesday. The actress remained at the hotel till Thursday, when she was taken to the hospital.

Dr. Rumwell was the physician in charge of the case and called in others in consultation—Doctors W. P. Read and Emmet Rixford.

His contention was, when asked for an explanation by the coroner’s office, that the case was one of natural causes and therefore his conduct was within the law’s requirement.

When the deputy coroner went to the hospital and met Dr. Rumwell immediately after the autopsy performed by Dr. Ophuls, Dr. Rumwell was told that he should have got in touch with the coroner’s representatives and that the law demanded that relatives or the coroner’s office issue a permit for an autopsy.

He said: “I did not attend the woman but was called in only for the autopsy. I found a spontaneous’ rupture of the urinary bladder. It was abnormally thin and may have been too full. There were no signs of violence. The case was simply a surgical one in which the diagnosis was doubtful.”

He denied a report that one of the woman’s ribs was broken.

Dr. Beardslee was the St. Francis house surgeon. He attended the woman while she was there before Dr. Rumwell was called in.


According to members of the party of nine that participated in the party at the hotel, which took place Monday, there was plenty of liquor in Arbuckle’s room. Virginia Rappe’s case was at first believed by her companions to be one of hysterics. She had taken two drinks, they said. The physicians who treated her found her suffering apparently from alcoholism.

As pieced together by the police, the story of the events leading up to the fatal illness is this:

Miss Rappe, Mrs. Maude Del Mont and Al Semnacher, manager for Miss Rappe, met at a Los Angeles candy shop and motored to San Francisco, going to the Palace Hotel. They spent Sunday night at the hotel.

Arbuckle telephoned the Palace and invited them to his rooms at the St. Francis on Monday. There was general drinking. Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe went into a room of his suite adjoining that in which the party was being held. The door was locked. According to one report, eventually there were sounds of a scuffle and an outcry.


Pounding on the door eventually brought out Arbuckle. He was clad then, as before, in pajamas and bathrobe. The girl lay on the bed in the room where she had gone with him. She was naked. According to women members of the party her clothing, even her stockings, was torn to shreds so that she could not be clothed at once. The girl was put to bed in another room. She was unconscious. A cold bath did not revive her. The hotel management was notified.

Arbuckle had come to San Francisco with Frederick Fishback and Lowell Sherman.

The management of the hotel knew nothing of the party in the actor’s suite except that he asked that a phonograph be sent up and this was complied with when it was determined the machine was not wanted for dancing.


Here is the story as told today by Arbuckle, with the corroboration of Fishback and Sherman:

“We arrived In San Francisco. Fishback, Sherman and I, last Saturday afternoon and went to the St. Francis Hotel, where we engaged an apartment. Tired from the long trip, we went to sleep immediately. Shortly before noon Monday a friend of Mr. Fishback. with us in the apartment, remarked that he had seen Miss Rappe at the Palace, and desired to meet her, as he wished her to model some gowns for him.”


“I told him that I knew her and would make the introduction. She readily consented to come to the St. Francis. After meeting the man, we had a few drinks. Miss Rappe had one or two drinks. She went into the other room of the apartment and began tearing her clothes from her body and screaming.

“The other woman, Maude Del Mont, and a companion, rushed into the room. They put Miss Rappe into a tub of cold water. She cried out that gas had formed around her heart—that she couldn’t breathe.

“We engaged another room in the hotel for her and moved her there. Then a physician was called and, after he reported that she had quieted down, Mr. Sherman and I went down into the dining room and danced the rest of the evening.

“We already had engaged passage on the Harvard to return to Los Angeles Tuesday, and did so.

“We had not received any intimation that Miss Rappe’s illness was as serious as it turned out to be and were very much surprised to learn of her death.”


One of the women guests at the party gave new details today, saying:

In all there were eight or ten people there. Some came in and went out after a little while.

Virginia Rappe went to the bath room, which connected the room where all were with another.

Arbuckle followed and took her to the other room. He said something about having waited five years for her.

Then there were screams.

She said, “He’s killing me.” Someone kicked on the door and told him to let her out. He said “no.”

When the door was finally opened, she was hysterical and he was swearing at her.

Among those who were In Arbuckle’s suite during the party, according to other guests, were Lowell Sherman, an actor; Dollie Clark and a man named Glass. Arbuckle was ordered from the hotel, according to Assistant Manager H. J. Boyle. This the actor denies.


Boyle said:

“Mr. Arbuckle came to the hotel Monday and took a suite of two rooms. Monday afternoon he sent word that he wanted a phonograph, and after Assistant Manager Thomas Keating had learned that no dance records were desired—only popular songs—he sent the machine and some records.

“There was nothing to cause comment until late in the afternoon, when a woman’s voice from the room occupied by Mrs. Del Mont asked for assistance, saying:

“A woman is hysterical tip here and is tearing her clothes off. You had better do something about it.”

“I went to the room, but before I entered the room another door opened, and Arbuckle, clad in a bath robe, pajamas and bath slippers, came to the door of the adjoining room and said: “She is in here; come in.”


“I entered and lying on the bed was Miss Rappe, nearly nude and unconscious. Mrs. Del Mont, three or four women whose names I did not learn, a man who gave his name as L. Sherman and another who gave his name as Fred Fishback. both of Los Angeles, were in the room.

“Their story was that the young woman had had three drinks and had become hysterical. There were several bottles in evidence, and I took it for granted that there was nothing more serious than a drinking party. Mrs. Del Mont wanted another room for Miss Rappe and she was placed in bed.


Later her condition became so serious that a physician was asked for and one of the hotel’s assistant physicians was sent in the absence of Dr. Arthur Beardslee, the house physician. Later he arrived and took charge of the case, which was deemed sufficiently serious to make it advisable to send the young woman to the hospital.


A detailed version of the event was given to the police In the form of a sworn statement by Alice Blake, art actress, living at the Woodrow Hotel, 364 O’Farrell street.

She has been appearing in a revue at Tait’s.

Her statement, given to Detective Griffith Kennedy, says:

“On Monday, about 2 o’clock, Lowell Sherman, an actor friend, called me and invited me to a party in Roscoe Arbuckle’s apartments, rooms 1219, 1220 and 1221. at the Hotel St Francis. There were several people in the room when I entered. There were Sherman, a short, stout Jewish gentleman whose name I do not know; Mrs. Maude Del Mont Miss Zey Prevon. Miss Virginia Rappe and Arbuckle.

“When I entered Arbuckle and Miss Rappe were occupying a settee together. All were laughing and talking. All had been drinking. Miss Rappe was drinking gin and orange Juice. We all ordered something to eat and afterward just sat around and talked.”

Alice Blake, September 1921 (Associated Press)


“Various people whom I did not know, men and women, came in from time to time. One of them was Al Semtoacher, who, I was told, was Miss Rappe’s manager. At this time we were in room 1220, which was used as a reception room. After we had finished eating. Miss Rappe got up and went into the bath room, which was connected with Arbuckle’s room, No. 1219.”


“About the same time I went into room 1221 with Miss Prevon. When I returned a few moments later neither Arbuckle nor Miss Rappe was present. I asked Sherman where Arbuckle and Miss Rappe were. He replied; “In there.” pointing to the door of room 1219. About a half hour later Mrs. Del Mont tried to get into the room, but the door was locked. She banged and banged on the door and Arbuckle came out. As he opened the door we heard Miss Rappe moaning and crying. ‘I am dying! I am dying!’ Arbuckle came out and sat down with us and said. ‘Go in and. get her dressed and take her back to the Palace. She makes too much noise.’

“In the meantime Mrs. Del Mont had entered the room where Miss Rappe was. Miss Prevon and I entered and found Miss Rappe lying on the bed. She was entirely unclothed. She was moaning and crying. She seemed to be in great pain and I tried at once to help her. I first thought she was suffering from gas pains so I gave her a cup of hot water with bicarbonate of soda, but she vomited at once.

“Someone suggested a cold bath, so we filled the tub, and one of the men and I carried her and put her into it for a moment. It had no effect so We took her out.”


“We tried to dress her but found her clothes torn to shreds. Her shirtwaist, underclothes and even her stockings were ripped and torn so that one could hardly recognize what garments they were. We could not dress her because her clothes were torn so.

“After that a clerk was summoned. Then we carried her to room 1227, which we had engaged, and the house physician, I believe, was called. There was plenty of liquor there, but I was told that Miss Rappe had only had two drinks. I had only one drink myself. “From the time I entered the suite arid all during the party Arbuckle was clothed in pajamas, a bathrobe and bedroom slippers.”

Virginia Rappe had been in the movies for several years, was well known in film circles and had played important parts in some productions, but is said not to have been working lately.

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