Dr. Charles E. Barnes, the quack whose heroic measures saved Arbuckle?

Our unconventional narrative leads in with the life or legend of Virginia Rappe. It leads out with an epilogue that follows some of the figures from the Arbuckle trial and the so-called “Rappe curse.”


Practically all members of the jury declared that the most important piece of evidence in their minds was the testimony of Dr. Charles Barnes of Omaha, defense surprise witness, who impeached the testimony of one of the state’s principal witnesses, Mrs. Fox, and declared that he had treated Miss Rappe for the same sort of trouble which the defense claimed was the cause of her death.

Edward W. Brown, jury foreman[1]

A century ago this week, Minta Durfee made the decision to part ways with Roscoe Arbuckle. Like the vaudeville actress that she was at heart, she could see that her role in “standing by” her estranged husband for eight months was over. Despite Adolph Zukor’s promise to release two new Arbuckle films as well as Gasoline Gus (1921), he and other stakeholders in Arbuckle agreed with Will H. Hays, the Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, that the ban on Arbuckle’s films should continue for the present.

Arbuckle was also prevented from going back to work on new films. If Durfee hoped to ride on his coattails again in making her own comeback, those hopes had been dashed. She decided to return to her apartment on Riverside Drive and Arbuckle remained behind in Los Angeles to settle his debts. He put his West Adams Street mansion on the market and looked for someone to buy his beloved Pierce-Arrow “palace car” that he drove to San Francisco and his ill-fated Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel.


On her return to New York City, Durfee got off the train in Omaha to spend a couple of days with a special friend, made during the course of the third Arbuckle trial, Dr. Charles Edwin Barnes. His rebuttal testimony on April 10, challenged the assertion of Katherine Fox, Virginia Rappe’s guardian and mentor, that Rappe had been healthy and suffered from no illnesses (see also Katherine Nelson Fox . . .). Dr. Barnes took the stand and said that he had treated Rappe for cystitis in Chicago during the summer of 1909.

Barnes, too, also tested Fox on her marital status and residence in 1909, dropping her maiden name of “Dot” Nelson in such a way that made her sound more like a moll or madam than the woman who paid for Rappe’s dance lessons and clothes—and encouraged her to model and perform on stage.

There was no surrebuttal on the part of Mrs. Fox, who sat through Barnes’ testimony. The prosecution challenged Dr. Barnes’ notes and records. But the case went to the jury and they made their decision to acquit in minutes. They returned to the courtroom with a ready statement that could have been written by Adolph Zukor himself, insisting that the injustice done to Arbuckle and his career be remedied.


Newspaper reporters were quick to see that Dr. Barnes had scored a “direct hit” on the prosecution’s case. For us, however, it is another indication that the victim—the woman—was on trial no less than the famous motion picture comedian.

The defense scored in the third trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle today when it placed Dr. Charles E. Barnes of Omaha, formerly of Chicago, on the witness stand to rebut the testimony previously given by Mrs. Catherine [sic] Fox of Chicago. At the conclusion of Dr. Barnes testimony and several other witnesses from Southern California the defense announced it had completed its case. The state asked time to check up by telegraph certain portions of Dr. Barnes’ testimony, and the court [i.e., Judge Louderbeck] granted until 10 o’clock tomorrow morning for the prosecution get this information. The court announced, however, that if the state was not ready to proceed at that time he would order the case closed and arguments started.

Dr. Barnes testified that for three months—from June through August—in 1909 he had treated Miss Rappe for an abscess and a chronic ailment and that it was Mrs. Catherine Fox, whom he pointed out in the court room as Miss Dot Nelson, who had introduced him to Miss Rappe and who had brought the girl to his office for treatment.

Mrs. Fox has testified that during the year 1909 she had seen Virginia every day and that at no time was the girl under the care of a physician.

“When did you first meet Dot Nelsen [sic]?” the doctor was asked.

“The latter part of 1908, at the boarding house run by my mother,” Dr. Barnes replied. “Dot Nelson lived in a room across the hall from my room at the time and I saw her every day. The last time I saw her was in August 1909,” the witness continued.[2]

“Do you see any change in the person you recognize as Dot Nelson,” Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman asked the witness.

“None whatever, I could never mistake her. She has changed but very little,” the witness replied.

Shortly after he met Miss Rappe in a social way, at the States restaurant, said the physician, he treated her for acute gastritis. Then in June, 1909, he declared, she visited him with Miss Nelson, because of her health. An examination revealed an abscess and a condition which necessitated an operation. The operation, Dr. Barnes said, was performed by himself and a Dr. Wicks.[3] He found the organ, which was mentioned so prominently in this case [i.e., the bladder], in a diseased condition, and continued his treatments for over a period of three months.

Five prescriptions, which the physician said he had written for Miss Rappe, were introduced in the evidence. The prosecution tried in vain to confuse the doctor regarding the dates, but the witness always corrected his cross-questioner and at times caused the spectators to laugh at his answers.

The court, however, took the pleasure of the laughing away from the spectators by announcing he would clear the room if it was repeated.[4]

Although some newspapers reported the “chronic ailment” as cystitis, what little testimony that survives in reportage doesn’t have Dr. Barnes using this exact term.[5] In any case, he had exposed Mrs. Fox as an “imposter” and liar. Marjorie Driscoll of the San Francisco Chronicle, who had covered the three trials for months, wrote effusively—and, perhaps, relieved that Barnes had finally put an end to the Arbuckle case so that she and her colleagues could move on.

Dr. Charles M. [sic] Barnes was literally and figuratively the biggest gun fired by the defense. He was a double-barreled weapon, for his testimony not only tended to show that Virginia Rappe had at one time suffered precisely from the ailment claimed for her by the defense, but the load from the other barrel landed squarely on Mrs, Catherine Fox, state witness to Miss Rappe’s excellent health.

Dr. Barnes identifies Mrs. Fox in open court as the “Dot Nelson” who had visited his office in company with Virginia Rappe in the summer of 1909, when she was treating Miss Rappe for serious illness. Mrs. Fox had previously admitted having born the nickname of “Dot” in the days before her marriage, when she was Miss Nelson.

Mrs. Fox sat in the front row and radiated silent but vigorous denials as Dr. Barnes testified. If looks could slay, Dr. Barnes would have crumpled on the spot.

Dr. Barnes produced his prescription book containing duplicates of prescriptions he said he furnished Miss Rappe. The state drew some consolation from his admission that there no dates in the book, but he insisted that it covered the period in question, declaring that he remembered many cases therein referred to.

Whereas Mrs. Fox previously testified that she never knew Dr. Barnes, Dr. Barnes yesterday said that for two years between 1899 and 1900 he and Mrs. Fox, then Miss Nelson, not only lived in the same boarding house, kept by his mother, but occupied rooms across the hall from one another. He also said that he had seen her on other occasions since that time, and described a meeting in a Chicago café, denied by Mrs. Fox.

A ray of light for the state appeared during the cross-examination when Dr. Barnes said that he considered Miss Rappe cured of her illness at the time his treatments ceased. The prosecution failed, however, to shake his testimony involving Mrs. Fox.[6]


So, who is Dr. Barnes? He was an incompetent surgeon and a quack. But so were many doctors during the early twentieth century who provided what they believed to be what we now call “alternative medicine.”

According to the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, Barnes was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1881. While on the stand during the third Arbuckle trial, Barnes disclosed that he had lived in the same boarding house as Katherine Fox, but there is no census data for either of them until 1910.

A graduate of the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons (1903), Barnes was trained as an allopath. His career had few highlights until much later, but he did have a curious connection to the art model community of Chicago to which Rappe belonged.

In September 1905, the Physical Culture Society of Chicago appointed him as one of three physician judges for a beauty contest in which he decided on which woman would be “the model,” displaying the most beautiful “symmetry of form.”

In 1907, Dr. Barnes married the daughter of a physician, Laura Reese. The couple had no children and lived on West Garfield Boulevard, on Chicago’s South Side, before moving to the Saratoga Hotel in 1908.

Dr. Barnes practiced medicine in Chicago at least until the summer of 1909—when he had crossed paths again with Katherine Fox and with Virginia Rappe for the first time. But Mrs. Fox had been married to Albert Fox a wealthy window glass salesman and heir to a glass-making firm in upstate New York, for six years, and had likely long since moved from the boarding house of Dr. Barnes’ mother.[7]

That same year saw Dr. Barnes declare bankruptcy. In the autumn, he relocated to Crete, Nebraska. There he took over another physician’s practice and opened the “Barnes Hospital.” Dr. Barnes also practiced in Mountain Grove, Missouri (1909) and Rock Island, Illinois (1911).

In late 1916, Dr. Barnes opened a new practice in Omaha, Nebraska. Not only did this give him access to more patients and billings, but he could now avoid accusations of malpractice, especially when he performed surgeries. In Omaha, Dr. Barnes ran advertisments for treatments of chronic diseases that required less heroic measures, such as hay fever, asthma, constipation, lumbago, pimples, “cancer cured without a knife,” and the like. He claimed he could cure what other doctors could not and the long lists of diseases in his advertainments along with their wording would have denoted a quack to members of the American Medical Association. Ironically, none of his advertisements mentioned cystitis.

in the late 1910s, Barnes’ career suffered a few setbacks though none as severe as what some of his patients suffered while under his care. In 1919, he attacked his office girl and threatened to dissect her because she refused to comb her hair. She sued him for $15,000. He also had to deal with unsatisfied patients who also took him to court. Then, in 1921, his advertisements no longer ran in Omaha newspapers.

In early April 1922, he took the stand as a surprise witness at the third Arbuckle trial. His photograph, in which he is wearing what look like medical lamp goggles, appeared in the Omaha newspapers and he became a local celebrity.

Screen Shot 2022-04-26 at 9.53.52 PM
The doctor who saved Arbuckle’s career? Source: Newspapers.com

Unlike other witnesses who claimed to have treated Rappe during her youth, Dr. Barnes wasn’t still living in Chicago, where such witnesses came forward or were recruited by the lawyer Albert Sabath (see Inexpert witness shopping Chicago style . . .). Although Sabath likely sought such a star rebuttal witness, that Barnes didn’t appear until the third trial suggests that he had come forward himself. The late date is telling because Dr. Barnes might have neutralized Mrs. Fox during the second trial, which nearly convicted Arbuckle except for one juror voting in his favor. One could almost imagine Barnes writing Minta Durfee. It might explain why they became friends.

Dr. Barnes moved on after his brief taste of fame. In 1923, he advertised his latest offering, “Electronic Diagnosis and Treatment,” for which he trained under Dr. Albert Abrams, the inventor of such devices as the “Oscilloclast” and the “Radioclast.” That Dr. Barnes proudly mentioned this association shows his nerve or recklessness since Dr. Abrams was already known as quack and had been under investigation for years.

In 1925, Dr. Barnes and his wife separated. Then his career suffered as he turned to more desperate ways to earn income. Three years after his testimony clinched Arbuckle’s acquittal, he himself was arrested under circumstances no less bizarre than the comedian for whom he bore a resemblance.

Dr. Charles E. Barnes, wealthy Omaha physician, charged with being the head of an immense dope ring, was released under $10,000 bond, the maximum provided by law, after he waived preliminary hearing before U.S. Commissioner Mary Mullen here today.

Andrew Durant, an actor and female impersonator, and D. H. Armstrong, also arrested with Barnes, are being held for investigation.

Dr. Barnes is charged with having sold Fred Mapes, under indictment for embezzling from the Becker Asphaltum company of which he was general manager, a quantity of morphine yesterday. Mapes gave the doctor a marked $10 bill in payment for the drugs and police charged the money was found in Barnes’ possession.

Miss Josephine Nepodal, eighteen-year-old office assistant of Dr. Barnes, is held under technical arrest also. She has given the police valuable information in the case.[1]

In February 1926, Dr. Barnes was charged on 31 counts of violating the Narcotics Act, for which he could receive five years for each, or a total of 155 years in prison.

Incredibly, and while still under indictment for the narcotics violations, Barnes was arrested in January 1927, on first degree murder for the death of a Sunday school teacher and farmer’s daughter, with the unfortunate name of Wealthy Timpe Nelson, who was married on her deathbed as she bled out from a botched abortion for which her fiancé paid Dr. Barnes $125.[2]

Barnes’ lawyer tried to get the charge reduced to manslaughter—and as he awaited trial, his wife sued for divorce. Dr. Barnes served no time for his crimes. A diabetic, he died, at the age of 46, on May 20, 1927, after a short illness attributed to his own preexisting condition. Mrs. Barnes arranged for his funeral in Chicago, where he is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.


[1] “Release Barnes on Bond,” Lincoln Star-Journal, 4 August 1925, 13.

[2] “Dr. Barnes Bound Over in His Case,” Lincoln State Journal, 24 January 1927, 1.

[1] Qtd. in “Arbuckle Freed of Manslaughter,” Omaha Daily, 13 April 1922, 2.

[2] Realize that this woman was married to Albert Fox at the time. There is no mention of him here.

[3] Most likely Seth Wicks, who, like Barnes, graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1903. He could hardly vouch for Barnes’ allegations since he died in 1920.

[4] Associated Press, “Arbuckle Defense Closes Case with Doctor’s Evidence,” El Paso Times, 11 April 1922, 2.

[5] A typical example is found in “Doctor Tells of Treating Miss V. Rappe,” Oxnard [California] Daily Courier, 10 April 1922, 1.

[6] Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Defense Ends Testimony in Arbuckle Case,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 April 1922, 7.

[7] We haven’t been able to identify her as yet to corroborate his testimony.

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