Jesse Norgaard, the old soldier at Lehrman Studios

On March 18, 1922, the selection of two alternate jurors was interrupted when a member of the Women’s’ Vigilant Committee was seen whispering something to Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren while he sat at the counsel table. Defense lawyers immediately objected since they saw the Vigilant Committee as an “enemy” of their client, Roscoe Arbuckle. They began to call her a “stool pigeon” and, despite U’Ren’s protests, she was removed by the bailiff and ejected from the courtroom.

What did they mean by “stool pigeon”? It’s likely they feared that their private conversations were being listened in on, that the women milling around them on the street, in restaurants, hotel lobbies, and in the corridors of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice were, in effect, spying for the prosecution.

This sideshow and the arrest and release of an important prosecution witness, Jesse Norgaard, provided some human interest to newspaper readers before testimony began in what would be the last Arbuckle trial. The following is adapted from our notes about him.

Showgirls entertaining the residents at the Old Soldiers Home, Sawtelle, c. 1920 (Calisphere)

Jesse K. Norgaard had appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the first Arbuckle trial as it came to a close in late November. Two years before, he had worked as a watchman at the Henry Lehrman Studio in Culver City in 1919.[1] When asked to take the stand, he was a 62-year-old resident of the Old Soldiers Home at Sawtelle, California.

Norgaard testified that in 1919 Arbuckle had attempted to get from him the key to Virginia Rappe’s room “while he was working in the studios of Harry [sic] Lehrman.”[2] He said Arbuckle offered him a “roll” of money, which he believed was at least $50, to get the key. Norgaard said he refused. “The defense fought hard to keep out this testimony,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, “but after a long wrangle, Arbuckle himself whispered to his attorneys to withdraw the objection. The witness will be [recalled and] redirectly examined by U’Ren when the court convenes this morning [November 23].”

Arbuckle allegedly smiled and laughed when the elderly Norgaard made this claim in court. He had stopped taking the prosecution witnesses seriously. Zey Prevost and Alice Blake on that same day had recanted their original testimony that they heard Rappe accuse Arbuckle of having hurt her. Maude Delmont had been charged with bigamy in the meantime and would not be testifying. Arbuckle’s attorneys were taking no chances, Rappe’s victim image was to be overshadowed by their narrative about a woman with physical–mental illness triggered by small amounts of alcohol.

When Arbuckle famously—or infamously—took the stand in his own defense in the first trial on November 28, he denied that he offered Norgaard money and, for the next two months nothing more was heard of it. That said, however, District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants established that there was a personal relationship between Arbuckle, Henry Lehrman, and Virginia Rappe—that at one time they all shared the same working space. Norgaard’s version would corroborate the timeframe mentioned in Maude Delmont’s claim that Arbuckle had been fixated on Rappe since 1916. Although Brady had dropped Delmont as a witnesses, he apparently believed there was something to the claim. Thus, he continued to bring Norgaard to San Francisco to repeat his story and be subjected to both cross examination and character assassination by Arbuckle’s lawyers.

Either Norgaard believed in his own story or Brady had something on the old soldier to keep him in line.  Norgaard’s credibility seems no greater than some of the defense’s Chicago witnesses, but given how much vitriol was brought to bear on him by defense counsel Gavin McNab, the content of his testimony must have posed an existential threat as it depicted Arbuckle as someone more adult (and sexual) than the man-child with whom the public was familiar.

Who was Jesse Jenson Norgaard? The first news reports claimed he was a Civil War veteran. He wasn’t that old but he had been a career soldier since the 1880s and his early life is fairly well documented given his extant military records. According to the 1880 census, he was born in 1859 in Toftland, that part of Denmark lost to Germany during the Second Schleswig Wars. Like other young men, Norgaard likely saw emigration as better alternative to being drafted into the Prussian Army so came to the United States as a teenager in 1878. He worked as a servant on a Nebraska farm. In 1884, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Meade in the Dakota Territory toward the end of the Indian Wars. Five years later, in 1889, while working as a farmer in Montana, he became a U.S. citizen. When he was recorded by the 1900 census, he was a private stationed in Kalispell, Montana, having volunteered in the U.S. Army’s 37th Infantry [Regiment] during the Philippine-American War, the civil war that followed the Spanish-American War of 1898.

When Norgaard mustered out in 1901, he was in his early forties. For a time, he performed menial jobs while in and out of various soldiers homes as a patient, including two years, from 1906 to 1908 in Leavenworth, Kansas. He married a woman named Amelia, but there are four conflicting dates for when this marriage took place between 1905 and 1913

Norgaard primarily supported himself on his Army pension of $12 a month. This was likely due to his age and injuries. In 1914, he was admitted as a resident to the Soldiers Home in Orting, Washington, suffering from lameness in his right leg. He was discharged a year later, but, as before, he could only perform light work, such as operating an elevator.

Despite having spent much of his life in Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Washington state, he relocated to California, where he lived in San Diego during the war years. It was during this time, in 1918, that he was arrested for selling liquor to the recruits at Camp Kearney. He was sentenced to six months on a “work farm” but walked away and took a train to Los Angeles. This was the only arrest record he had and it would play a role in the third Arbuckle trial,

In Los Angeles, Norgaard found the kind of work he could handle as a watchman for the Henry Lehrman Studios. His appearance in all three of the Arbuckle trials, outside of his years as a soldier, was almost certainly the most eventful period in his life. Since the state would have only paid for his travel expenses and room and board, there was little to induce Norgaard to come forward but he did so willingly and worked with the District Attorney, Matthew Brady, to secure Arbuckle’s conviction.

Like other prosecution witnesses, Norgaard saw his reputation sullied by Arbuckle’s defense lawyers. At the second trial in January 1922, when he testified his earlier military career was foregrounded by the prosecution and he was allegedly wearing a “congressional medal of honor,” which may have been a reporter’s hyperbole. (There is no record of such a medal awarded to Norgaard and if he had “stolen valor,” Arbuckle’s defense would have likely uncovered this and destroyed his credibility.)

On January 20, the former watchman–janitor testified again that Arbuckle offered him “handful of greenbacks” for the key to Rappe’s dressing room. “I saw two $20 greenbacks and a $10,” he said. “I don’t know how much there was.”[3] The following week, on January 26, A. L. Barnes, an auditor and secretary for the former Henry Lehrman Studios, was called by the defense to refute Norgaard’s accusation. Barnes took the stand and said that he had the only duplicate key to the Yale lock to Rappe’s door and that it was always kept in his office. However, the keys were openly displayed on a rack, “accessible to anyone.”[4] This testimony allegedly refuted Norgaard’s assertion that he had the only key. But it hardly refuted his contention that he had been offered money to produce it. Nevertheless, the technicality, added to the many others, prevented the jury from unanimously declaring Arbuckle guilty or not.

Norgaard testified again at the third trial. By mid-March, the defense had more time to find ways to detract from his testimony. They succeeded this time with what some newspapers called a “mystery arrest.”

J. Norgaard, witness in the Roscoe Arbuckle case, who claims he was railroaded to jail here to prevent his testifying, was today paroled and will leave tonight for San Francisco to appear for prosecution there.

The parole board here took immediate action when they learned that District Attorney Matthew Brady of San Francisco had urged the parole of Norgaard.

Norgaard is the former janitor at the Culver City studios who testified at a former Arbuckle trial that “Fatty” tried to bribe him to give him the keys to Virginia Rappe’s dressing room.

In 1918, Norgaard was convicted here of selling liquor to solders, in violation of a city ordinance. He was sentenced to six months on the city farm, as was customary in such cases. After serving five days of that time he walked over to Linda Vista and took a train for Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago a man appeared at the local police station and asked to see the 1918 police court records, stating that he wished to look up the case of Norgaard. A few days later Norgaard was arrested at the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle. He was brought here and on Saturday re-sentenced to six months in jail.

Police Chief Patrick knew nothing of the case until he found the man in jail late Saturday, he declares. This is the first case the police say, where one of the many city farm prisoners who walked away during the war times was ever returned to serve out their “time” in jail.[5]

Norgaard testified at the third trial on March 28, 1922. He repeated his charge that Arbuckle tried to bribe him for the key and added that Arbuckle had said he intended to play a joke on Rappe if he got inside her room. As to being sentenced to jail, Norgaard claimed also that it had been Arbuckle’s attorneys who induced him to return to San Diego to serve out a sentence at the county farm that had been imposed on him in 1918 for selling liquor to the soldiers at Camp Kearney. But Arbuckle’s defense team was hardly finished with defaming Norgaard. Gavin McNab “sought further to prove that the witness [Norgaard] had been driven from Catalina Island for conduct involving an eight-year-old girl.”[6] This prompted Milton U’Ren to accuse McNab of using “shyster” tactics, which, in turn, led to a reprimand from Judge Louderbeck.

On March 30, a witness was called to speak to Norgaard’s character in an attempt to offset the charge of pederasty and to shore up his credibility. But it was inconclusive and most of the day’s session was consumed by a discussion of the meaning of the word “integrity.”

Justice of the Peace Joseph H. Stanford of Avalon, Catalina Island, was testifying when the discussion arose. He had previously testified in regard to the character of Jesse Norgaard, another witness. He was recalled and said he could testify as to Norgaard’s morals, but not as to his integrity. The defense contended morals included integrity, while the prosecution maintained they did not. A dozen legitimate authorities and a dictionary were involved in an effort to decide the point, but without success.[7]

The dissection of Norgaard’s character and challenge to his integrity had the effect of diluting the prosecution’s contention that Arbuckle had an obsession with Rappe. Once more, a key witness’s troubled past gave Arbuckle a “pass” in that the accuser appeared to be of weaker character than Arbuckle, who, at most, might have come across as a naughty practical joker, a trickster.

After the third Arbuckle trial, Norgaard moved back to Washington and resided at the soldiers homes in Kitsap and Orting, where he died in 1938.

[1] In some reports, Norgaard is referred to as a janitor and as “Oscar” Norgaard.

[2] Oscar H. Fernbach, “Zey Prevost, Alice Blake in Witness Chair,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1921, 4.

[3] “Surprise Witness Explodes Bomb in Arbuckle Defense,” New York Daily News, 21 January 1922, 3.

[4] Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Arbuckle Case Defense May Close Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 January 1922, 4.

[5] “State Finds Aarbuckle Witness Serving Unexpired Term in Jail,” Long Beach Press, 20 March 1922, 1.

[6] Oscar H. Fernbach, “U’Ren Flayed by Court for M’Nab Attack,” San Francisco Examiner, 28 March 1922, 9.

[7] A.P. Night Wire, “Fresh Problem in Fatty Case,” Los Angeles Times, 31 March 1922, 7.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s