April Fool’s Day 1922: Fred Fishback testifies for the defense

The comedy director Fred Fishback[1] was one of Roscoe Arbuckle’s two traveling companions who arrived at the St. Francis Hotel on the evening of September 3, 1921. The other was one of the first Hollywood actors who specialized in “heavy” male roles, Lowell Sherman. But unlike Sherman, Fishback had testified at the previous two trials and had made himself available for Arbuckle’s defense. The resulting notoriety temporarily interrupted his work as a director and forced him to work under the name of Fred Hibbard.

A tall and athletic man—Fishback was a swimmer—who neither smoked nor drank made an unusual participant in Arbuckle’s revels as well as Arbuckle’s roommate in room 1219. He made for an even stranger roommate for Virginia Rappe’s manager, Al Semnacher, when he moved from the Palace Hotel to the St. Francis during the late afternoon–evening of September 5. Fishback and Semnacher slept on another floor.

Fishback, naturally, didn’t want to return to 1219 given what had happened there in the mid-afternoon, when Rappe was found going in and out of shock given the true nature of her injury. He was, like the women at the party, a first responder. He had handled Rappe’s body twice. The first time was corroborated by prosecution witnesses: Fishback had lifted Rappe up on one side, while Maude Delmont and Zey Prevost had taken the other arm and leg, and carried Rappe into the bathroom and placed her in a bathtub filled with cold water. The object of this treatment was to bring Rappe back to her senses so that she could explain what was wrong with her.

The second time as Fishback testified was when he took Rappe by the ankles and held her upside down vertically. To do this, he claimed to have stood on the bed so as to allow blood to flow back into her brain and thus bring her back to consciousness.

That he could hold a woman up like this wasn’t questioned. Fishback appeared to be physically capable of doing so. The more curious feat was the act of standing and balancing on a mattress that was supported only by bedsprings rather than a modern box spring mattress. Thus, we can imagine Fishback’s act of first aid akin to a trampoline gag worthy of a comedy director. Fishback, too, stated that his big hands had likely caused the bruises on Rappe’s arms, which the prosecution had to Arbuckle.

What seemed like an act of mercy, however, worked well for the defense. The jury would have to consider that Fishback might have accidentally caused her ultimately fatal bladder rupture. That and Fishback’s dogged loyalty to his friend, Arbuckle, made him an effective prosecution witness. He was unshakable on the stand. His loyalty to Arbuckle began early, when he refused to sign a statement that, ironically, quoted him accusing Lowell Sherman of trying to “upstage” when Sherman and Arbuckle conspired to to rid themselves of his company after Rappe’s crisis.

Still, the whole exercise with Rappe’s limp body seemed too opportune. And no one else witnessed such a robust display despite the other accounts of what was done to help Rappe.

Fishback also served to deflect the direction of the accusations that Rappe was said to have uttered—“I am dying” and “He hurt me”—which the prosecution contended were aimed at Arbuckle. Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s chief counsel, said if Rappe had said anything like this, it was directed at Fishback.

Fishback previously stated and restated that he never heard Rappe say anything. But on April 1, 1922, he recalled that he only heard her say one word, “Don’t”—but who was the recipient of this simple, human request goes unmentioned in the reportage.[2]

There was also a light moment as the Saturday session came to an end, which suggests that the two prosecutors didn’t believe that Fishback had stood on the bed and held Rappe up. McNab, undoubtedly reflecting the upbeat mood at the defense table, asked Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren if he would like to subject himself to a demonstration. But U’Ren declined being held upside down by his ankles, saying that he did not care to be “manhandled.“

A rare photograph of the man behind the camera: Fred Fishback (l) serving Edith Roberts (c) sparkling grape juice on the set of A Baby Doll Bandit (Exhibitor’s Herald, August 2, 1919)

[1] Fishback is the conventional Americanized spelling but newspapers in 1921 and ’22 also spelled his name in keeping with his Romanian Jewish ethnicity (e.g., Fischbach or Fischback).

[2] Associated Press, “Fischbach on Stand in Arbuckle Trial,” Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1922, I:4.

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