“McNab, Victorian, Flounders”—Bart Haley on the first day of jury deliberations, December 2, 1921

A few weeks ago, we reprinted one of Bart Haley’s reports from the first Arbuckle trial, which originally ran a century ago in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger.

Haley’s pieces are more editorials than they are strict reportage and here he discusses the role of the woman jurors in the trial and the problem they presented for Arbuckle’s lead attorney, Gavin McNab.

Ultimately, the first Arbuckle trial ended in a hung jury when one woman, Helen Meany Hubbard, refused to cast a ballot for acquittal. Over and over again she voted to convict Arbuckle of manslaughter in deliberations that dragged over a span of three days, from December 2 to December 4, 1921. She might have been alone had now a fellow juror, Thomas Kilkenny, voted to convict as well.

Haley is prescient in regard to the kind of modern juror whom McNab faced. Mrs. Hubbard, who was the wife of a lawyer, attributed her decision to the prosecution’s logical presentation of the circumstantial evidence, especially the fingerprints that indicated a struggle between Arbuckle and Rappe. Hubbard, too, found Arbuckle’s “Good Samaritan” testimony to be false. But it was Gavin McNab’s courtroom performance that she found particularly offensive. (For more on Hubbard, we suggest reading Joan Myrer’s “Virginia Rappe & the Search for the Mising Juror.”)


Arbuckle Jury Split; Is Locked Up Over Night

Two of Women Jurors Reported Holding Out for Conviction of Comedian
Acquittal May come When Court Meets Today
Fatty and Friends Worried by Delay—Had Hoped for Speedy Liberty
His Wife Breaks Down
Prosecutor Arranges to Guard Actor from Violence in Case He Is Freed

By Bart Haley

San Francisco, Dec. 3.—The jury before which Fatty Arbuckle has been on trial for manslaughter is split and temporarily deadlocked.

Two of the five women members were reported this morning to have been holding out for the conviction. After seven hours of deliberation and seven ballots, the foreman reported at 11:10 last night that no agreement had been reached.

The court had remained in special session. The jury was locked up with orders to go to work again today. The court will reconvene at 10 o’clock. Fatty and his counsel and his friends, who had been hoping and laboring for an immediate and spontaneous acquittal, were shocked.

(It will be 1 o’clock in Philadelphia when the court meets today.)

The big comedian, whose troubles, the first real ones of his life, began with the Labor Day gin-and-orange juice party which Virginia Rappe was carried with mortal injuries, was badly shaken for the news from the jury room. For hours he had waited in an agony of anxiety which he could not quite conceal.

The building was invaded by a curious mob. Judge Louderback had informed the jury that he would wait until 11 0’clock. This decision followed the failure of the jury to reach a verdict in two hours of wrangling that preceded the dinner hour. At 11 o’clock there was no sign of life from the jury room. A deputy sheriff was sent to make inquiries. He returned with the news that a verdict had not been reached and that the jury wanted ten minutes of grace to try again. It tried again and failed.

Fatty stood up in the brilliantly lighted courtroom and reached wearily for his hat. Even the anti-Fattys felt a momemt of pity. Mrs. Arbuckle, who was sitting behind her husband, arose, sat down again, opened her handbag, got out her handkerchief and began to cry.

Only Gavin McNab, chief of Fatty’s counsel, appeared unmoved. The other lawyers looked dismal, but resigned.

“I’m not worried,” said Fatty, “it’ll be all right. But I wish they would hurry.”

There were good reasons why hurry seemed desirable. Doubts and wrangling and delays and the dim possibility of a permanent disagreement were not likely to help toward a calf-killing in the land of films or to make the way easy for the return from Elba, which, to Fatty, is almost as important as liberty itself.

A verdict of acquittal is expected today. Arbuckle, his sisters, his wife, his counsel and the friends who were with him when he went unhappily through the jammed corridors on the way to his hotel felt so sure of an acquittal on the first ballot that they were prepared to leave for Los Angeles this afternoon.

District Attorney Brady and his assistants were not in court last night. They left with the manner of men washing their hands of the whole business at the close of their final arguments and after a day of extremely bitter interchanges with the lawyers for the defense.

But Brady has provided a strong guard to protect the tragic funny man from cranks who have been sending him violent and threatening letters.

The ground over which the battle for Fatty’s liberty and rehabilitation has raged furiously and without rest since November 11 was strewn with strange wreckage last night. Mrs. B. Maud Delmont, who was the most conspicuous of the women guests at the fatal Labor Day party, was taken from her hotel last night and placed in jail under a bigamy charge registered by the authorities of Madera County. It was Mrs. Delmont who first accused Arbuckle of being the direct cause of Virginia’s injuries.

Irene Morgan, who was found poisoned in her hotel here on Thursday, returned, still very ill, to Los Angeles this morning. She had brought into court as a witness for the defense. The police and private detectives, after working for twenty-four hours without sleep in an effort to find a man who was presumed to have poisoned Irene, quit the search in disgust.

They had sought high and low for a vehicle called, in the bright idiom of the police, “the poison taxicab”—a taxicab in which Miss Morgan said she rode just before a mysterious gentleman, “appearing much like one of District Attorney Brady’s detectives,” gave her deadly orange juice and poisoned candy. Physicians who were called in frantic haste to the Clift House, where Irene was found, said last night that so far as they could determine, the young woman took a great overdose of headache powders, accidentally or otherwise.

The ante-mortem statement obtained by the physicians when they thought Irene was going to die glistens with the strange poetry of delirium. It is all about love and a noble past and proud ancestors in Sweden and a Duke from Spelice and the dead Virginia.

Mrs. Minnie Neighbours, of Los Angeles, another of the women who gave some of the most helpful evidence for the defense, is waiting here to answer formally to a perjury charge on Monday. District Attorney Brady caused Mrs. Neighbours’ arrest and said that her evidence was wholly false.

Fatty and his counsel have found time from all their other troubles to stand manfully by the refugees. Their doctors treated Miss Morgan. The lawyers will defend Mrs. Neighbours. Mrs. Delmont, who started all the trouble, will seemingly see the last of it. She will be left to shift for herself.

The mill of the trial ground on unhindered by these reports from the outside world or news of stragglers overcome by the wayside. The jury retired at 4:10 after Gavin McNab and Assistant District Attorney U’Ren finished their respective appeals. The courtroom and the corridors were packed and there was a mob in the street. McNab assailed District Attorney Brady by name and the District Attorney assailed McNab.

“No innocent man,” said Mr. U’Ren, “would have kept still as Arbuckle did, until he was driven by the collapse of his counsel’s case to stand in this court and tell a story that is obviously untrue. Through perjury and hypocrisy, he is seeking his freedom.”

McNab again bitterly charged Brady with maintaining a system of organized terrorism in his office. When he was not addressing himself particularly to the women of the jury. McNab made masterly use of the material at his disposal. When he addressed himself to the women, he made it clear, perhaps for the first time, that equal rights of citizenship have created a new dilemma for lawyers.

Should you appeal to the minds or to the emotions of women in the jury box? Mr. McNab appealed proudly to their emotions, to their emotions only, and the experiment—which may become historic—didn’t terminate auspiciously.

Judge Louderback’s charge to the jury sounded almost like a recommendation for conviction. And the first rumors from the jury room indicated that all five women members desired ardently to send Mr. Arbuckle to jail. Stephen Hopkins, a thirteenth juror, who was held as an alternate until the deliberation of the jury began and then released, reflected the other side of the jury’s mind when he said he could see no reason for a conviction.

About the state of mind of the five women of the jury there were from the first differences of opinion as wide as the seas. They were among the first women who ever sat in judgment on a case of the sort which, involving spectacular crimes or spectacular misfortunes of one of their own sex, would normally be decided by the blundering and purely masculine code known in courts as the unwritten law.

The jury had a wide, an almost limitless, latitude for the exercise of its sympathies or its prejudices. Neither the prosecution nor the defense pleaded a clear case. To an impartial eye it was plain that the State’s direct evidence was not sufficient to prove Fatty guilty, in a court or out of it. Neither did Mr. McNab and his associates demonstrate Fatty’s innocence. Only Fatty himself knows what went on in the room from which Virginia Rappe was carried to die.

When, after all the noise and clamor of the closing arguments was over, the lawyers admitted that they had felt, addressing the women of the jury, as if they were talking into a void or appealing to a granite wall. But the jury women toward the last were not merely inscrutable. They were more obviously bored and weary—weary of Fatty and the wrangling of McNab and Brady, of the doctors and the lingo of the clinics, of everybody in the courtroom, of the repeated loud references to gin and orange juice.

When at last the jury left the courtroom at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Fatty looked after them forlornly and his lawyers crowded about to make cheerful prophecies. Women, they told themselves and their client, were not fools about these things. Women could not be swayed by the befuddling sentimentalism that might cause men to do crazy things in cases like this. Women might be tender-hearted about all the rest of the world, but they were hard-boiled in relation to one another.

So the minutes passed. Fatty’s lawyers watched the clock anxiously and returned to the fear that was rending with them within. McNab, they were sure, had got to the jury. They felt that his address had been very moving. But it was not moving. Upon McNab it fell to initiate the long, long series of experiments which may have to be continued for years before lawyers of the present schools are able to talk effectually to mixed juries.

And upon the site of the Hall of Justice, lawyers of the future may yet erect in gratitude a monument in memory of Fatty’s chief of counsel and inscribe upon it: “On this spot Gavin McNab first demonstrated for posterity the manner in which a jury of the new age should not be addressed.”

McNab was Victorian. He begged the ladies of the jury to have no illusions. Yet he himself seemed full of them. McNab, the winner of a thousand great suits, the wise guide of a political party and mentor of a multitude of young lawyers, floundered when he sought to touch the consciousness of five average women and behaved like a mariner in uncharted waters at night. He began with Bethlehem and ended with “suffer the little children to come unto Me.”

He talked of the millions of children who had laughed at this most unfortunate man and dwelled long and tenderly upon the tradition of an unerring child’s instinct which he recommended as culminating proof of Fatty Arbuckle’s innocence and the cold brutality of the District Attorney’s office. McNab told of the need for a continuous reverence for all women.

At about the same moment, Irene Morgan in a mild delirium was telling them at the Clift Hotel to prepare for Duke of Spelice, who was coming to take her riding, and begging to be told where Virginia Rappe was. Mrs. Neighbours, another Arbuckle witness, was waiting to face a charge of perjury and Mrs. Maud Delmont, the third troubled woman in the case, was being taken to jail.

Fatty’s big car—someone said casually the other day it cost as much as a good-sized church—was waiting outside at the curb. It was not going to hang around the Hall of Justice a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. It was gassed and chauffeured for swift departure from this scene of trouble.

The jury had been out about twenty minutes when one of the Arbuckle counsel, who had passed a door that leads almost directly into the jury room, sat down among his associates and in almost inaudible whisper uttered one word:

“Wrangling!”

Had McNab trusted too greatly to the woman of bright legend, to the woman of books written by sentimental men who make the unwritten law and not enough to the woman who votes? The thought may have occurred to some of the watchers.

It clearly did not occur to Fatty. He was not thinking. The blood was beating in his temples and upon his face fell the look of a man falling endlessly through space. There ensued a period of harrowing suspense until the jury disappeared stolidly to its hotel for dinner.

And the big car turned and rolled slowly down the street, but only to return at 8 o’clock. One salient had been lost. The battle waged for three weeks was not only for the Arbuckle of the present but for the Arbuckle of the future as well. A quick, unhesitating acquittal by the jury had been hoped for by the defense.

After the shock of the first disappointment, Fatty recovered and seemed to feel better. He loafed for a while in the corridor, when he returned, and smoked cigarettes, leaning comfortably against the wall.

“It’ll be all right,” said he. “I’m not a bit worried now, but I wish they’d hurry.”

Roscoe Arbuckle in court, December 1921 (Calisphere)

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