100 years ago today: Virginia Breig collects the bill, March 28, 1922

In the wake of the third trial and despite his acquittal, lawyers for Roscoe Arbuckle had their say about the female prosecution witnesses. “In looking upon some of the women in this case,” said Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s chief counsel, “I have been reminded of the beautiful line of Ruskin’s: ‘Wherever a true woman is, home is always around her.’ What a contrast to some of the women we have seen here.”[1] Unable to contain himself, his assistant, Nat Schmulowitz, made light of the victim, “Miss Rappe was the personification of the pitcher who went to the well once too often.”[2]

One of these witnesses took the stand on March 28, 1922, during the third trial. Reporters took notice of her and were more fulsome in their coverage unlike previous witnesses (see our blog entry for yesterday). Virginia Breig was the secretary for the Wakefield Sanitarium. Her job title included what we now refer to as a business office manager. She handled the hospital’s accounts, which included collecting bills for services rendered—and the bill for Virginia Rappe’s three days at Wakefield between September 7 and 9, 1921, was apparently still due months later. The responsible party was presumed to be Roscoe Arbuckle. He allegedly informed the management of the St. Francis Hotel that he would pay for Rappe’s room and the hotel physician’s visits. But he had already settled with the hotel on the day after his Labor Day party on September 5 and returned to Los Angeles aboard the SS Harvard. So who would pay for Rappe’s hospital care fell through the cracks. That it shouldn’t be her was one of her chief worries in her finals days, for when she was conscious, she was made it known how little money she had and who should pay.

Maude Delmont and Rappe’s nurses testified that Rappe wanted Arbuckle to do the right thing and settle her hospital bill. This didn’t happen and as the Arbuckle case began to consume the nation’s interest, the matter of Rappe’s bill was left on the desk of Virginia Breig.

Virginia Breig née Martin was born in Arkansas and was twenty-seven years old when she testified. In the 1920 census she lived at 380 Geary Street, just behind the St. Francis Hotel. Her husband, William Breig, was an optometrist and optician for Kahn’s Department Store in Oakland. Her profession is listed as “None.” But prior to 1920, as Miss Virginia Martin, she had worked as a bookkeeper in Sacramento, having relocated there from Windsor, Colorado, in 1912. There her name appeared in the society pages of the Bee from time to time—including an announcement of her wedding in San Francisco in July 1915, near the headquarters of her husband’s employer, the Chinn-Beretta Optical Company, makers of fine gold wire-rim frames and lenses.

Virginia Breig probably didn’t need to work. She and her husband had no children. Voter registration records list her variously as a housewife or secretary. But at some point in the first years after the couple moved to the Bay Area, she took a job as bookkeeper for the Wakefield Sanitarium. This was probably after 1918, when she was an overseas canteen worker for the YMCA, serving coffee to doughboys, perhaps as far away as the battlefields of France.

As an employee at Wakefield, Breig was in a position to mix with the nursing staff and knew about individual doctors and patients. She often saw the latter before they were discharged. One of her duties was to deliver the hospital bill to the patient’s room. This came out during when she took the stand.

It was Mrs. Breig’s testimony that Virginia Rappe had accused Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle of being responsible for her injury so should be accountable for her medical costs.

The word in the courtroom was that Mrs. Breig had attempted to compel the defense to pay the unpaid hospital bill of Virginia Rappe, and had threatened to furnish the District Attorney with evidence which she said “would not sound good.” Gavin McNab and his associates characterized her story as a “frame up,” and sought to shatter it while the jurors and the spectators listened in amazement.[3]

Bill collectors, as we know, often intimidate and strongarm over the phone—but this moment, in the midst of a manslaughter case watched by the nation, reads as patently bizarre. So, why would Mrs. Breig do this? Why would her employer? Over a bill that amounted to less than $1,100 adjusted for inflation—a steal by modern standards — for a three-day stay terminal stay including an autopsy at no extra charge!  Why would a private secretary be so tactless, even heartless as to visit a dying woman to deliver the bill?

Breig was hardly so cold-blooded but more likely was following a process that was part of her job. Dr. Wakefield’s institution wasn’t a charity hospital and the bill presumably would have been charged to the estate of Ms. Rappe had she not survived to pay it herself.  Dr. Wakefield probably reminded Breig of the outstanding bill as the Arbuckle case wound its way through the courts and eventually she found an opportunity to discuss payment.

Mrs. Breig took the stand as the afternoon session was drawing to a close. She declared that she had entered Virginia Rappe’s room at the sanatorium on the morning of the day she died, for the purpose of presenting a bill of $64 which was payable in advance.

Breig reassured Rappe that if Arbuckle or anyone else paid, she would be reimbursed. But Rappe said that she wasn’t going to leave Wakefield alive. She would never get the money back.

“Miss Rappe told me,” said the witness, “that although she had a little money she saw no reason why she should pay the bill, as Arbuckle had been the cause of her being there and should settle it. I asked her what Arbuckle had done to her, and her reply was:

“‘Well, I don’t know, but he took me by both arms and forced me back on the bed.’”

And Mrs. Breig declared that the actress had said she knew she was not going to live.

“When did you first tell the District Attorney about this?” thundered Gavin McNab as he took the witness in hand.

The reply was “Last Saturday.”

“And was it not after I had informed you that you must tell the District Attorney what you claimed to know?” demanded Arbuckle’s chief counsel.

The jurors sat up straight in their chairs. The spectators leaned forward in amazement. Here, indeed, was a sensation.

And from the questioning it transpired that Mrs. Breig last Saturday had called up Gavin McNab and demanded that he pay that bill or make Arbuckle pay it; that she had declared that, were it not settled, a way would be found to produce testimony highly detrimental to the defendant; that McNab had refused to be responsible for the bill, and that he had told Mrs. Breig plainly that it was her duty to go to the district attorney if she knew anything about the case.

All of this the witnesses [sic] admitted but she denied that in conversation with McNab over the telephone she had said anything about “testimony.”

“I had a witness present while I was talking,” she snapped.

“And believe me, I had a witness listening on the wire while you were talking,” was McNab’s rejoinder.

McNab meant that he had his secretary, Miss Lillian Dunne, pick up an extension. McNab had had much experience dealing with surprise witnesses and other people who wanted to be paid to talk or keep their silence. This woman seemingly just wanted her books balanced out of the largesse being paid for Arbuckle’s defense.

Given the scenario, Mrs. Breig was either naïve or mad. But she didn’t act on her own per se. Rappe’s nurses and the nurses who talked among themselves about this case had decided that this unpaid bill might be the leverage necessary to prevent an acquittal and achieve a guilty verdict. That is, the nurses wanted justice. The state, obviously running out of options, took a gamble on Breig.

The chief counsel for the defense made it plain that he likewise had informed the district attorney’s office of the conversation. It was admitted by Assistant District Attorney U’Ren that McNab had told Leo Friedman of the circumstances.

“But I received my information independent of this,” U’Ren explained, “Mrs. Breig got one of the hospital nurses to call me up and then I subpoenaed her.”

Under McNab’s cross-examination Mrs. Breig declared that no one was present when Virginia Rappe made her alleged accusation, and at the same time she admitted that a nurse employed by Dr. M. E. Rumwell was in almost constant attendance upon the patient [my italics].

When asked why it was that she never had spoken of this circumstance before or never had offered her testimony at the previous trials, the witness parried by declaring that the alleged facts she had just presented had been a matter of discussion among the hospital nurses for months.

This is to say that Rappe’s story was common knowledge at Wakefield. But it still doesn’t answer the question unless she means that no one wanted to be the first to break it or suffer the consequences of being in the newspaper. Surely, Mrs. Breig had to think of her husband’s reputation, whose name regularly appeared in Kahn’s advertisements touting its optometry department and eyewear. But why did she call McNab just to settle the bill? Why do so, going around the district attorneys? I have to think that the inefficacy of the prosecution witnesses made it pointless. They had all been cross-examined and humiliated in court by McNab and the other defense counsels. Maybe Mrs. Breig saw it as a moral victory if she got Arbuckle’s lawyers to pay.

Perhaps, too, the state had a hand in putting Mrs. Breig up to this Hail Mary not unlike some of the defense’s surprise and opportune witnesses who testified to Rappe drinking, going into hysterics, or tearing off her clothes, mimicking all the behaviors of Labor Day 1921. District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants could have exploited the Breig testimony had McNab been foolish enough to pay Rappe’s bill as victory loomed. But he was too canny to fall for it and managed to use it to his advantage.

Other bits and pieces of Mrs. Breig’s testimony appeared in other newspapers as she took the stand again on April 5.

Mrs. Breig testified that she went to Miss Rappe’s room at the sanitarium the morning of the day she died, to present the patient with a bill. She said that Miss Rappe looked at the bill and said that she really should not pay for it, as “he was responsible for my being here.”

“You can pay the bill after you leave the hospital. You won’t leave for a week or so,” she [Mrs. Breig] said she told Miss Rappe.

“I wish I knew I was going to live that long,” was Miss Rappe’s reply, according to Mrs. Breig, “but I’m going to die.” Then, Mrs. Breig testified, Miss Rappe accused Arbuckle of attacking her. She said that the girl told her: “He grasped me by the arms and threw me on the bed and threw his weight on me After that I knew nothing.”

Her testimony was the first which told of a direct attack on Miss Rappe.

Defense counsel, following Mrs. Breig’s appearance on the stand, moved that her evidence be stricken from the record on the grounds that no proper foundation had been laid for its introduction.[4]

While it seems rather early to present a bill when the patient hasn’t been officially discharged, this is because hospitals at the time still charged a weekly rate that was billed accordingly. But how much the dying Rappe said was used by McNab in his closing arguments to show that Breig’s story was to him an obvious fabrication.

“Miss Rappe could not tell Dr. Rumwell, her physician, what the matter was, as she told him she was intoxicated and did not remember,” McNab said. “Therefore how could she tell Mrs. Breig, this bill collector of the hospital, what had happened?

“Mrs. Breig was willing to sell her testimony to me for the price of Miss Rappe’s bill and I told her that the best market for such testimony is the district attorney’s office.”[5]

But McNab had not asked the court to have Mrs. Breig’s testimony tossed out. “The prosecution questions us as to why we did not attempt to rule out the testimony of Mrs. Breig,” he said, “The impeaching testimony offered by my secretary, Miss Dunne, was ruled out on motion of the prosecution.”[6]

Although Mrs. Breig kept her husband’s name out of the newspapers, their marriage, if not already, was troubled following her two days on the stand.  In 1924, the Oakland Tribune published a story that referenced events that occurred three months after she took the stand at the third trial, under the headline “Wife Sued on Drinking Accusation”:

Extravagance in the matter of clothes and other indulgence in liquor are charged against Mrs. Virginia Breig in a divorce complaint filed by William Breig, 1024 Grand avenue, an optometrist with offices in a local department store. Breig asks for a decree and to be awarded all the community property, which includes the business, an automobile and household furniture.

Breig recites that on their wedding anniversary in 1922 they had invited friends to their home for 6 o’clock dinner but that his wife did not return home until 8 o’clock and then in a semi-intoxicated condition. On other occasions wife became sick and bedridden from over indulgence in liquor, he says.

The husband further complains that his wife has engaged in such extravagances as a fur coat, nagged him for more money and was discontented, although he turned over practically all of his earnings. On many occasions she has failed to return home in time to cook the evening meal, he says, and once she expressed a wish that he was dead. They were married in 1915 and separated March 15.[7]

Processed By eBay with ImageMagick, z1.1.0. ||B2

A man with deep pockets? (private collection)

[1] “M’Nab Attacks State Attorney, Also Assails Testimony of Mrs. Virginia Breig,” Charlotte Observer, 12 April 1922, 4.

[2] “State’s Star Witness Flayed by Arbuckle Defense: Characters of Women in Case Also Attacked,” San Bernardino County Sun, 12 April 1922, 2.

[3] Oscar H. Fernbach, “It Was Fatty,” Says New Witness: Hospital Secretary Declares Miss Rappe Told Her Arbuckle Caused Her Last Illness,” San Francisco Examiner, 29 March, 1922, 3. All subsequent extracts are from this reportage unless noted otherwise.

[4] “Fatty Arbuckle in Self Defense,” Butte Miner, 6 April 1922, 3.

[5] M’Nab Attacks State Attorney, Also Assails Testimony of Mrs. Virginia Breig,” Charlotte Observer, 12 April 1922, 4.

[6] “Arbuckle Case Will Be Given to Jury Today,” Albuquerque Journal, 12 April 1922, 1.

[7] “Wife Sued on Drinking Accusation”: Oakland Optometrist Charges Extravagance, Intoxication in Divorce Action Plea; His Patience Vain, He Says,” Oakland Tribune, 25 March 1924, 20.

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