Kate Brennan, unsound witness for Arbuckle?

The fingerprints gathered from Room 1219 in the St. Francis Hotel by pioneering criminologist Edward O. Heinrich proved to be among the most contentious evidence presented during the three Arbuckle trials. The defense lawyers challenged this “evidence” on the contention that a hotel chambermaid had thoroughly cleaned Arbuckle’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel so any fingerprints alleged to be those of Arbuckle and Rappe belonged to someone else or were faked.

Heinrich had made his reputation as an expert in handwriting analysis. But his leap into fingerprint analysis, a more complex field, separated him from his fellow forensic “experts”—indeed, the kind that Arbuckle’s defense found to refute the claims that the fingerprints on 1219’s door indicated a struggle between Arbuckle and Rappe.

But let’s return to defense witness Kate Brennan, the 51-year-old chambermaid, whose Irish accent and courtroom demonstrations of how she wiped down the woodwork in room 1219 entertained the courtroom and the reporters during the first trial.

The prosecution dealt with her by putting Heinrich back on the stand. He described finding hairs, hairpins, dust, and, of course, fingerprints in room 1219 that indicated the room had not been cleaned before he began his work on September 16, eleven days after Arbuckle’s ill-fated party.

Brennan’s testimony was seen as theater by Helen Hubbard, the most outspoken of the two jurors who voted to convict, and one reason the first trial ended with a hung jury.

Brennan was brought back again to testify at the second trial in January 1922. This time the prosecution had done “opposition research” on her. They had found that she had been released from the female department of Stockton State Hospital, where she had been a patient since 1909. She had been released from the hospital in 1920 as much “improved” but not “cured.”

Female patients wing of Stockton State Hospital, c. 1920s

The prosecution, however, failed to convince the judge to toss out her testimony on the grounds that she was mentally incompetent. The second trial continued and ended in a hung jury as well, this time 10 to 2 to convict rather than the other way around. What convinced the predominantly male jury that Arbuckle was guilty wasn’t the fingerprint evidence. It was a reading of Arbuckle’s testimony that didn’t agree with earlier statements he made to a Los Angeles Times reporter (in which Arbuckle also made the unguarded admission that he pushed Rappe down on a bed to quiet her).

What wasn’t reported about Brennan was why she had been committed to a mental institution for over a decade. This is an important question because once more it casts light on the credibility of the witnesses the defense called to take the stand. The mental health of Irene Morgan discussed in an earlier blog entry is another case of note. When it was clear that Morgan’s poisoning turned out to be a hoax, the defense didn’t put her on the stand in the later trials. When the prosecution tried to subpoena her in January 1922 for the second trial, she had disappeared.

Kate Brennan, too, disappeared before the third Arbuckle trial and couldn’t be called by either the prosecution or defense. While there was little curiosity about these women afterward, we wanted to know more about them for our book. Brennan may remain the most curious. But there is one intriguing newspaper article from 1904 in the San Francisco Call. It reports that a woman named Kate Brennan had been caught once more desecrating a Catholic church. This Kate Brennan, a former domestic, was known to do this and the pastor refused to press charges because she suffered from “dementia.”

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