100 Years Ago Today: Irene Morgan, one of the sketchier defense witnesses, December 2, 1921

Roscoe Arbuckle’s personal lawyer, Milton Cohen, found a number of witnesses in Los Angeles County who could testify that Virginia Rappe routinely suffered fits of female hysteria. These bore a marked resemblance to how she was found in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921. Among those witnesses was Irene Morgan. In March 1920 she had been hired by Henry Lehrman to serve as an in-home nurse, masseuse, and domestic.

Morgan was seen as a rebuttal witness to challenge Rappe’s adoptive aunt, Kate Hardebeck, who asserted that Rappe was in perfect health. The reporter Chandler Sprague billed the young woman as the star witness:

Miss Morgan has been kept “under cover” as much as possible by defense counsel, but it is understood that the district attorney’s office learned a few days ago that she would be a tremendously important cog in the defense machinery.  

She is a nurse and masseuse who lived with Virginia Rappe for seven months. She will tell the jury that the dead girl suffered with chronic bladder trouble and that she was on a diet for the ailment. Miss Morgan will say also that Miss Rappe had been warned against drinking liquor and will detail several occasions on which, having disregarded that warning she became hysterical and tore off her clothes in the same fashion as at the Labor Day party in the St. Francis. The entire statement which Miss Morgan is prepared to give is said to be extremely sensational and will include allegations that certain interests have sought to prevent her testifying in Arbuckle’s favor. She will also, it is believed, make charges of brutality against a male associate of Miss Rappe.[1]

Morgan was a former Canadian Army nurse. She spoke with a pronounced lisp. Her face bore the scars of an ambulance accident suffered during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Given her commendable service, she was seen as a reliable witness and took the stand on November 25 as the first of several witnesses who had seen Rappe drink, tear at her clothes, and suffer attacks. Morgan claimed to having seen five such attacks. During one of these, Rappe allegedly ran out of the house naked.

If Morgan played as well for jurors as she did for reporters, the prosecution’s case against Arbuckle was in trouble. The news stories tended to see the former nurse as convincing and the headlines now cast Virginia Rappe in a new and darker light. Even a newspaper sympathetic to Rappe, the Los Angeles Herald ran “BARE RAPPE GIRL’S PAST” in a typeface just a shy of the size used for a declaration of war. 

Morgan bore up well under cross-examination and remained in San Francisco should Arbuckle’s lawyers need her to take the stand again. During the last week of November 1921, she befriended another defense witness from Los Angeles, a Miss Pearl Leushay, a former “floor women” in a department store who had also seen Rappe have a fit but never took the stand. Leushay and Morgan likely hit it off because Leushay was a Frenchwoman as well as single, or, at least single in San Francisco, for she was still Mrs. Leotta Pearl Ortega, the estranged wife of an oil field worker and, before that, a young widow, going by Leotta Pearl Wright.

On November 30, Morgan and Leushay went to the Winter Garden, a dance hall and ice rink in the Tenderloin district. There Morgan, who didn’t dance, met a man who had been following the pair in a sea-green automobile.

The next day, Morgan was found by Miss Leushay laying across her bed in an adjoining hotel room. Morgan’s clothes were ripped in the “manner in which Virginia Rappe’s clothing was torn,” according to the San Francisco Examiner on December 2. A stenographer recorded Morgan’s statement (see below) and although seemingly incoherent, bits and pieces of her real backstory emerge. Like other witnesses who saw Rappe’s histrionics, they posed problems for Arbuckle’s defense—especially if the prosecution saw such witnesses as obviously coached and parroting much the same story about the victim.

What goes unreported is that Rappe’s Aunt Kate took the stand and rebutted Morgan’s testimony in kind. Morgan had stood up and blocked Aunt Kate after she left the witness stand and began to stare the other down. But Aunt Kate sidestepped her antagonist. This event may have triggered the incident Morgan was involved in, presumably drugged or poisoned, on November 30. Another trigger, perhaps the real one, was that Morgan may have learned that the District Attorney had secured a rebuttal witness for the next day, a Captain Rayward, a decorated veteran of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. Whatever he might say posed the risk of a perjury charge brought against her.

Arbuckle’s lawyers stood by their “star” witness after the event and insinuated that the prosecution was behind Morgan’s “mystery man.” A doctor however determined that she had overdosed on nine aspirins and some kind of opiate.

Morgan was expected to testify again at Arbuckle’s second trial in January 1922. However, when District Attorney Matthew Brady threatened to impeach her, Morgan disappeared, reportedly abroad, to the Netherlands.

A year later Morgan reemerged on the faculty of the College of Applied Science in Los Angeles  as a Doctor of Kinesiology. This new institution in January 1923 was founded by Edward Oliver Tilburne, a former minister, actor, lecturer, conman, and snake-oil salesman, self-proclaimed medical doctor, embezzler, and shady real estate broker known by a number of aliases, including “Nevada Ned” before he remade himself into a Christian psychologist. Tilburne was also the author of short story about the Jack-the-Ripper murders that speculated on “Jack” being under the control of a hypnotist.[2]

This is, of course, a tangent for others to follow. For our purposes, Morgan’s reinvention as a practitioner of alternative medicine likely began in part in 1920 when Rappe pursued both a wellness program as well as a diet and exercise regimen for her figure. Here Arbuckle’s lawyers and prosecutors alike saw her fitness program as evidence to support their opposing narratives, on one hand to show that Rappe was prone to spontaneous rupture of the bladder and conversely that she was robust and healthy at the time of the Labor Day party.


Here is the complete statement given to a stenographer yesterday afternoon [1 December 1921] by Miss Irene M. Morgan after she was found in her hotel room suffering from poison which she declares was administered to her in candy by a “mystery” man who had been following her for days: 

Miss Graind and I came to the United States. I didn’t want them to know I was Dutch. I am going home in four months. I don’t want anyone to know who I am in the United States. My grandfather’s name is Bornidot. My name is Irene Morgan. My ancestors go back four or five hundred years. 

Golondit Bornidot. Don’t tell the Swedish country anything about me. I worked in the United States as a servant. I love one man in the United States. I shall search from country to country, from state to state. He don’t know me, but I know him. When a lady has a title—lived with a man I love. I can’t live with a man in this country. Can I have one drink of moud? 

The United States don’t know who I am. I want to go back home and no one will ever find me. Can you speak French-Danish, Spreg Deutsche. (To Doctor [Julien L. Waller]) Talk French, why yes, German, yes. Educated in five languages. I going for a ride today with the Duke from Spelice. He is coming over. Do you know what Miss Rappe said to me? If you tell on me I am going to kill you, Irene. 

Mrs. Hardeback say I lie. Where is Mr. Lehrman now? Where is Miss Rappe? I never seen him, or never for a long time. (To doctor) Spreg Deutsche. 

You can never learn the language. Please telephone to the Senator I came in on the steamer and my grandfather was here to meet me. My heart. 

“When did you first meet this man?’ she was asked. 

I don’t know. 

Bobbie. 

Met the man at dance. I got to go home. He gave me candy. You can’t poison me. 

Mrs. Hardeback has lied and lied to me. She called the doctor and she would never let me sit in room. She shot me out and she was afraid I would tell on her. 

I was subpoenaed to come to San Francisco. But did not want anyone to know. Did not want my grandfather to know. I am going back to my grandfather. He lived five miles out of Stockholm. My mother was Swedish—my father American. My mother died when I was born. The name of the town I lived in was Guttenberg. I never have been notorious. I have always tried to keep my body and my mind clean. I never have been to a public dance hall until I was in Los Angeles. 

“Do you remember going to San Francisco in the Arbuckle case?” she was asked. 

Yes, yes, yes. I never met the man. They tried to make me tell a lie on the witness stand. I would not lie. Mrs. Hardeback came up and lied to me and she lied and lied and I got up to hit her in the face. They said, Olga Reed Morgan, sit down, sit down. They took me to San Francisco and made me go through hell and fire. 

“Who?” she was asked. 

Well, I was subpoenaed in the case and when I got there, there was a man with white hair and brown eyes and he stared at me and then he said he would put it in the paper. 

Some people took me down here and at San Francisco every one was so good to me. 

We walked and walked and walked a long time. The man did not go with me into the drug store. He said, “I’ll wait outside.” He said, “Take some orange juice and another piece of candy. It will make you feel fine.” 

I said, “Give me orange juice. Will it be good for me. I am so dizzy?” 

“Did he wait outside the drug store?” she was asked. 

Yes, he took me to the hotel, and he said, “I got you now. Go to hell.” I thought he was from the District Attorney’s office. I do not know. I presumed so. He looked like a man who had been around the Hall of Justice and talked to me day after day. I turned my back on him. He had been to my house several times in South Pasadena. The man with gray hair gave me candy. Let me sleep because I want to go home. 

Source: “Here’s Statement of Poisoned Girl in New Arbuckle Case Sensation: Talks Incoherently of Mystery Man Who Gave Her Candy, Urged to Drink Orange Juice,” San Francisco Examiner, 2 December 1921, 4. See also, “Nurse Who Aided Arbuckle Defense Near Death from Mystery Poisoning,” San Francisco Examiner, 2 December 1921, 1, 4.

The Winter Garden was the new name of the Dreamland Rink shown here. These structures later demolished for the Dreamland/Winterland auditorium. (Calisphere)

[1] Chandler Sprague (Universal Service), “Sensational Testimony from L.A. and Santa Ana Nurses Is Expected at Arbuckle Trial,” [Pomona] Bulletin, 25 November 1921, 1.

[2] See Donald Hartman, Edward Oliver Tilburn (aka N. T. Oliver, Ned Oliver, Nevada Ned, and Edward Tilburne): The Profile of a Con-Artist (N.p.: Themes & Settings in Fiction Press, 2021).

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