What motivated DA Matthew Brady?

If one reads superannuated texts about the Arbuckle case, such as David Yallop’s The Day the Laughter Stopped (1976), Andy Edmonds’ Frame Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1991), or Wolves at the Door: The Trials of Fatty Arbuckle (2010) by David Allen Kizer, and the like, the prosecutor Matthew Brady emerges as a vindictive man trying to “get” Arbuckle.

According to the jacket blurb for the Kizer book, “Roscoe was a gentle soul caught in the middle of a political and media hurricane led by Matthew Brady, the district attorney who would stop at nothing to convict him with or without real evidence.”

Some authors imagine Brady to have been motivated by political ambitions, such as becoming the next Democratic governor of California. But he never ran for an office beyond district attorney, the position to which he had been elected in 1919. The ambition for which Brady probably became best known speaks more about his zeal for fairness than an interest in a political career. Thomas Mooney, a labor leader and socialist, had been convicted in a show trial, prosecuted by the district attorney who proceeded Brady, Charles Fickert, for the bombing of a parade in San Francisco that resulted in ten deaths. Mooney was serving a life sentence in San Quentin and Brady was among those who publicly (and unsuccessfully) lobbied for a new trial for him for nearly a decade. Mooney was eventually pardoned in 1937.

Dorothea Lange photo for Tom Mooney Defense Fund, 1934.

What is underappreciated is that Brady rarely examined or cross-examined witnesses. One could probably count as many times on one hand. He didn’t step into the spotlight the way his adversary, Arbuckle’s lawyer Gavin McNab, did. McNab had a dominant personality in the courtroom and in California politics, sometimes called the “dictator” of Democratic party politics. Brady, in contrast, seemed disassociated from the trial and to most observers his case seemed lost by the middle of the second week. However, as in The Art of War, Brady’s relative quiet now seems to have been calculated to allow the defense to destroy itself.

Matthew Brady (Calisphere)

The following letter was published on the editorial page of the Fort Wayne Sentinel on November 26, 1921. It sheds light on Brady’s motivations. We see a number of possibilities here, from good (a “slave revolt,” an “I am Spartacus” moment before Hollywood got there) to bad (a veiled anti-Semitism that would appeal to Indiana readers in one of the hotspots of Ku Klux Klan membership).


Unbought and Unbribed

E. V. Emrick, of this city, is a long-time friend of Matthew Brady, district attorney of San Francisco, and recently wrote him endorsing his stand in the Arbuckle case and making inquiry as to certain matters in connection therewith. The following answer has been received:

Mr. Brady is a public officer and naturally speaks with the utmost conservatism concerning a case about which public interest centers so particularly. It means much, therefore, when he alludes to the powerful influences that have been brought to bear to swerve him from his duty, and reading between the lines one can imagine just what influences there were and picture the golden lure they held out. The conscienceless and rapacious producers of California have millions of dollars wrapped up in the Arbuckle films and if it were possible for them not only to clear Arbuckle but to whitewash him at the same time, it would be to their immense financial advantage to do so.

City and County of San Francisco
District Attorney, Hall of Justice
San Francisco, Oct. 21, 1921

E. V. Emrick, Citizens Trust Bldg.
Fort Wayne, Ind.

Dear Mr. Emrick:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your courteous communication of recent date respecting the Arbuckle case.
It is most gratifying to me to receive expressions of this kind form individuals of your standing in the community; a public official in the honest discharge of his duty needs moral support of this kind and I am extremely gratified at the sentiments expressed.
Under the California law, if a death results from the commission of a felony the charge is murder. In the Arbuckle case it is alleged that either an attempt was made to commit rape or a rape was committed upon Virginia Rappe, as a result she died. Therefore, under the law, it is our contention that the crime committed was murder and not manslaughter.
The duty of a police magistrate is to inquire into the facts of the case. If reasonable and probable cause appear, it is the duty of the police magistrate to hold the defendant to answer. It has been held that even where there exists the remotest possibility of a crime having been committed, it is the duty of the magistrate to hold.
Evidence was introduced at the preliminary hearing of Roscoe Arbuckle showing reasonable and probable cause to believe him guilty of the crime of murder, as charged. At the conclusion of the hearing, the police magistrate[1] reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter, upon which charge Arbuckle was held to answer to await trial before a jury in the superior court. As district attorney, I am convinced that more than ample evidence was introduced to warrant a holding upon the murder charge. I regret deeply that the police magistrate in his judgement reduced the charge to manslaughter. Has Arbuckle been held upon the murder charge, it would then have been within the province of the jury to have rendered a verdict of manslaughter, if in their judgement mitigating circumstances were present.
Powerful influences have been brought to bear upon this office with the hope that I might be swayed from doing my full duty as district attorney, but you may rest assured that such efforts have proved of no avail, and every facility of my office will be employed in a most vigorous and earnest prosecution of this case.
Again assuring you of my sincere appreciation of the moral support you have given me through the sentiments expressed in your letter, I am

Very truly yours,
Matthew Brady
District Attorney

It is hardly to be doubted but that Mr. Brady could have gathered in at least half a million dollars had he been willing to prostitute his high office and see to it that the evidence went as these sinister and malign corrupters of the public morals desired. It is fortunate, indeed, when the people have as firm and honest a champion in public office as Matthew Brady.


Note: We’re rather disappointed to see that the New Yorker published a piece observing the centenary of the Arbuckle case and the death of Virginia Rappe and only rehashed what the author could lift from the Greg Merritt book, Room 1219, which is also superannuated.

This blog was published in time for journalists to see what is new and what other possibilities there are for revision and doing justice—especially in regard to Virginia Rappe.

This isn’t new for the magazine, since one of us (James Reidel) assisted in the writing of a similar anniversary piece observing the 1955 disappearance of Weldon Kees. It is entirely lifted from his book Vanished Act (2003), a biography of the poet and artist who disappeared from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955.

Reidel did enjoy seeing himself called “the assiduous biographer” by Tony Lane.


[1] Brady refers to Police Judge Sylvain Lazarus, who presided over the preliminary hearing referred to here as well in late September 1921.

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