Katherine Nelson Fox, Virginia Rappe’s guardian

The following is a passage from our work-in-progress taken from the testimony of the first Arbuckle trial on Tuesday, November 29, 1921. This was a day of rebuttal witnesses following the dramatic testimony of the previous day, in which Roscoe Arbuckle told his version of what happened at his Labor Day party (discussed in a recent entry).

The last rebuttal witness to appear was Katherine Nelson Fox, who was Virginia Rappe’s friend and mentor from about the age of eight until Rappe left Chicago for “movieland” as some reporters put it. Her testimony was needed to refute hysterical episodes from Rappe’s past to which Harry Barker, Rappe’s Chicagoland boyfriend, testified on November 25 (covered here).

Born Antoinette Catherine Nelson in 1877 to a Swedish farm family in Kinbrae, Minnesota, Fox moved from her rural hamlet to Minneapolis and then Chicago. In 1899, while living in the same boarding house, Fox befriended Virginia Rappe and her family, which then consisted of her mother, Mabel Rapp, and her putative grandmother, Virginia Rapp.

Catherine (later changed to Katherine) Fox, early 1900s (Private collection)

In 1900, the Rapp family moved to New York City and Fox didn’t see Virginia again until five years later, when she and her grandmother returned to Chicago’s South Side following the death of Virginia’s mother, Mabel, from tuberculosis in January 1905. By then, the family was in financial need and Fox interceded as a kind of guardian and governess for Rappe. Although it was Mabel, rather than Virginia, who first added the “e” to the family surname, it may have been used infrequently until Fox revived its use for her young protégé.

In 1908, after Fox married Albert M. Fox, a wealthy salesman for the American Window Glass Co, she had the means to do more for Rappe and likely paid for her dance lessons and pushed her into modeling and the theater—indeed, to follow her mother Mabel’s career but without the promiscuity, drug addiction, and disease that led to her short life.

Katherine Fox testified at all three Arbuckle trials and, like Rappe, faced people from her past who she asserted had fabricated stories about her. For example, at the third trial, a Chicago doctor, who claimed to have lived in the same boarding house of 1899, said that Katherine Fox went by “Dot” Nelson and had him treat a teenage Rappe for a bladder disorder in the early 1900s. (Following Arbuckle’s acquittal, the same doctor was later arrested for selling morphine prescriptions in Omaha, Nebraska—more about him later in another entry.)

As with many sections in our book, it is based on an aggregation of many newspaper accounts that we have “curated” into a detailed narrative. This is especially true of the Arbuckle trials, for which there are no extant transcripts known to exist.

N.b. We are preparing a glossary of names for referencing the many names one must bear in mind in such a complicated legal case.

Gavin McNab was surely pleased to hear that his co-counsel Charles Brennan had been successful in preventing one of the Superior Court judges from issuing a warrant for the arrest of defense witness Minnie Neighbors. All Brennan had to do was show Judges Griffin and Shorttail a note McNab had jotted down saying that the District Attorney wasn’t acting in good faith and that the defense should be heard before any warrants were issued. Since these judgeships were elected positions, McNab’s political clout probably carried some weight—as did Brennan’s height and persuasiveness.

Brady, of course, wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Perjury was a felony, and he could issue his own warrant. But now he was denied the imprimatur of the Superior Court and any arrests of a defense witness would be seen as an act of desperation as were Brady’s frequent claims of “bought” and “coached” witnesses.

Still, McNab knew the strengths and weaknesses of his witnesses. Though Arbuckle’s attorney, Milton Cohen, had vetted them, they weren’t angels and McNab knew Brady would be relentless in discrediting them. Brennan had gotten into a shouting match with Brady and now communication between the two sides was no longer collegial.

The witnesses who most concerned McNab were Virginia Rappe’s foster mothers. Her last, “Aunt Kate” Hardebeck, had proved her mettle on the stand again that morning. Her willingness to go from one judge to another to sign a complaint against Mrs. Neighbors revealed her determination to protect Rappe’s reputation. There was little doubt that Hardebeck knew Rappe as well as anybody, having retained a vestige of her role as chaperone to Rappe, even in Henry Lehrman’s house and around Hollywood, where “Aunt Kate” was often in tow.

That afternoon McNab had to contend with another foster mother, one possibly more compelling for swaying a jury than “Aunt Kate”. Mrs. Katherine Fox had come from Chicago and that alone meant she was in court to put up a fight for “her child.” Brady had been clever not to show this card until the second week of the trial—before it was known that Mrs. Fox would be Harry Barker’s rebuttal witness.

Much had changed in Katherine Fox’s life since Virginia Rappe grew up and made her own way in the world. In 1908, while still known as Catherine Nelson, she married Albert Mortimer Fox, a salesman for the American Window Glass Company. Albert Fox was nearly twenty years older than his bride and a man well established in his line of work. He had grown up in the profitable plate glass business where demand from builders was high and growing steadily as taller office buildings were being built. His family owned a glass-rolling mill in Oneida County, New York, as well as other factories, and, after his widowed mother, Kate, was widowed a second time, Albert stood to eventually inherit a considerable fortune.

As the new Mrs. Fox, Catherine began to spell her first name with a “k” like her husband’s mother. She enjoyed an upper middle-class life in Chicago as is evident in a photograph taken shortly after her marriage where she is seen in stylish clothes, furs, and a Pekingese in her arms, perhaps in lieu of children for she and her husband had none save for Virginia Rappe, who still figured in their lives until she moved to Los Angeles.

When Mrs. Fox took the stand at the first Arbuckle trial, she was a widow living in Chicago’s fashionable Hyde Park neighborhood on East 51st Boulevard, across from the arboretum at Washington Park. Her husband Albert had died intestate in November 1917 and she inherited not only his property but a good portion of his mother’s estate in stocks, bonds, and real estate, including five islands in the St. Lawrence River.

Among the real estate holdings, apparently some of the most valuable parcels were burial plots in Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, which her husband believed had been gifted to him. While Mrs. Fox was on a cruise of the Far East and Australia in 1918, her husband’s brother Frank disputed her claim. He died in 1919 and the last surviving brother, Floyd, took his place and the case was appealed all the way to the New York State Supreme Court.

Still in her early forties with auburn hair and a Roman nose, Mrs. Fox was a trim, handsome woman. M. D. Tracy described her as a “pleasing picture in luxurious black furs enhanced by contrast, with an ivory white throat.” Examined by Milton U’Ren, Fox spoke slowly and carefully, describing her first encounter with Virginia Rappe and her perspective on the young woman’s health in childhood and after.

“I had known Miss Rappe since she was six years old,” she began, having met the girl in 1899, when she was actually seven or eight years old. “She was living with her mother and grandmother at an exclusive boarding house.”

Fox continued, describing how the young Rappe was a normal and healthy child in every way who liked to play outside in the neighborhood, play games with her friends, skate, ride her bicycle, and the like. From 1900 to 1905, the Rapp family left Chicago for New York. When they returned, it was just Virginia and her grandmother and, for a time in 1905, Rappe came to live with Fox when she was still single and going by her maiden name of Nelson—although this last detail wasn’t given or reported.

“As a child,” Fox recalled, “Virginia was very active. She was an outdoor girl and fond of all sports.”

“Virginia studied toe-dancing and high-kicking,” she continued. “She took many dancing lessons—a great deal of exercise. She also was a roller-skater.”

From 1908 to 1911, Fox saw Rappe frequently. When her grandmother died in 1911, Rappe went to live with Mrs. Hardebeck. From 1912 to 1913, Fox recalled that Rappe was employed as a model for a woman displaying gowns” through the “Great Lakes states.” Fox knew that Rappe had been a fashion model in New York as well as Chicago—and that she had traveled to London and the Pacific Coast.

“The girl,” said Fox, “was always in perfect health and she drank very little. I have seen her at my own house refuse cocktails that were served at dinner.”

“Did you ever see her in paroxysms of pain?” U’Ren asked. “Did you ever see her tear off her clothing or her garters or stockings?”

Fox answered “no” to these questions, eliciting an image of Virginia Rappe’s early life that hardly resembled the fallen young girl that McNab’s Chicago witnesses described.

“I never saw her take a drink of intoxicants,” Fox added.

“Did you ever dine with her where intoxicants were served?”

“Yes, in my own home. But she never partook of them.”

“Did you ever see her sick or in bed?” U’Ren asked, in reference to a time in 1913 when Rappe lived in Fox’s apartment.

“No, except when she was in bed asleep.” Fox also said that she never saw Miss Rappe hysterical with pain or tearing her clothes.

Rappe had been a “daring motorist since the age of fourteen” and enjoyed “a bit of romance—but it was cut short.”

U’Ren had been slowly, painstakingly building toward this, so much so that Oscar Fernbach quipped that the prosecutor “would need eighteen years,” and the spectators could look forward to “a long and hard winter in court.”

“Do you know Harry B. Barker of Gary, Indiana?

Fox answered “yes.”

“Was he engaged to Virginia Rappe?”

“Yes, he was.”

Fox added, “I knew it because he and Virginia told me so.”

“Was the engagement broken?”


“She broke it?”

“Miss Rappe did.”

“How do you know she broke the engagement?”

“I was present,” Fox replied. She heard Rappe break off the engagement one evening. “It was at the Bismarck Gardens in Chicago,” Fox recalled, “She said—” but what Rappe said “the world will never know,” observed M. D. Tracy. In his telling, it was “because a hardened district attorney unromantically flung a vigorous fist into the air and announced that such things had nothing to do with the case.” The opposite was true, however. The defense actually made the objection, calling U’Ren’s new line of questions and Mrs. Fox’s answers “collateral testimony” upon which their witness, Barker, couldn’t be impeached.

In response, U’Ren said that such testimony would establish a motive for Barker—that it was spite. Judge Louderback sustained the objection but, as Oscar Fernbach put it, what Fox did say made it look “mighty bad for Barker’s testimony.”

When Katherine Fox was turned over for cross-examination, McNab had only one question for the elegant widow who had made herself out to be Rappe’s guardian angel. He knew almost nothing about her and was waiting for Albert Sabath to find someone in Chicago with more information and that required time. So, in the interim, McNab made a move that he thought would counter Brady’s strategy of tainting the defense witnesses. McNab linked Mrs. Fox to a witness whose bias against Arbuckle was by now well established. “Were you with Maude Bambina Delmont yesterday?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mrs. Fox answered, “I was with her all afternoon.”

“That’s all,” McNab concluded.

Wire service image of Katherine Fox, November 1921 (Newspapers.com)

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