100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle to be tried for manslaughter instead of murder, September 28, 1921

After 350 pages of testimony, the first installment of People vs. Arbuckle ended with a single page.[1]. In two paragraphs, dated Wednesday, September 28, 1921, Judge Sylvain Lazarus informed the district attorneys and defense counsel of his decision and reasons for it. Before it was rendered, however, he spoke at length to reporters. The court, Lazarus said, was still ready to hear any of the witnesses Frank Dominguez wanted to call, such as Fred Fishback and the medical expert for whom Rappe’s hospital records had been procured. Dominguez declined.

Isadore Golden then restated the District Attorney’s position that sufficient evidence had been submitted for the murder charge. He added that if the preliminary investigation had been a jury trial, the jury would have “brought in a verdict of guilty as charged [and] that verdict would stand if taken up to the higher court.”[2]

Dominguez countered with the fact that the Coroner’s Court and Grand Jury had only recommended that Arbuckle be tried for manslaughter and, given the evidence, even that charge should be dismissed.

“Now gentleman,” Lazarus intervened, “before making a decision, the court will indulge in a little discussion.” He then gave a lecture, castigating Matthew Brady, the American people and institution, the Eighteenth Amendment, the St. Francis Hotel for not minding Arbuckle and his friends, and so on. “Sitting as I am in a privileged attitude,” he began,

without the fear of contradiction, and with the comfort that no one can stop me if I take too long, or talk aside from the case, I may have my say.
There is just enough evidence here, I may say, barely enough, to justify me in holding the defendant, without further facts and circumstances which the district attorney said would more strongly establish the fact that Roscoe Arbuckle is guilty of the crime of murder. This is an important case. We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone. We are not trying the screen celebrity who has given joy and pleasure to all the world.
Actually, in a large sense, we are trying ourselves.
We are trying or present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.
The issue here is, really and truly, larger than the guilt or innocence of this particular unfortunate man. The issue is universal and grows from condition which are matters of comment and apprehension to every true lover and protector of our American institutions.
The thing which happened on September 5, 1921, happened in the heart of San Francisco, the most beloved city in the world, in one of the largest and most pretentious hostelries of the city, in broad daylight.
The thing that happened there was the culmination of an orgy which, according to the testimony of a chambermaid in the hotel was well known to the management—no, I won’t say the management—but it was well known in and about the hotel.
We need not speak of the bacchanalianism or saturnaliaism, or sybaritism, or any of the terms of the ancient days. We are supposed to live and breathe and have our being in a better and more advanced age. Nevertheless, this thing, this orgy that continued many hours, and resulted in the death of Virginia Rappe, a moving picture actress, was not repressed by the hotel management. It is of such common occurrence that it was given no attention until something happened, until the climax made it notorious.
And the same things happen in other big cities all over the world.
I am talking almost as I would to an audience, but you will let me say this: In this thing is a public lesson larger than the district attorney would have us understand. I had really hoped and expected that all the evidence possible on both sides would be presented here, so that this humble police court would be the avenue through which a full and complete revelation would be made, so that it would become a forum in which the public would have the opportunity to determine the guilt or innocence of this man, whose celebrity, justly so, has traveled to the four corners of the globe.
Roscoe Arbuckle has brought joy and pleasure to his fellow men. He is therefore more valuable in the scheme of creation than lawyers and judges, who but add gloom to existence.
The testimony shows that during the whole afternoon in these rooms, 1219, 1220, and 1221, in the St. Francis hotel, a condition, let us charitable say a festivity, prevailed. Men and women came and went, their movements so irregular the witnesses found it difficult to say who occupied certain rooms at certain times.
Much liquor was drunk in this prominent hotel, despite the recent unpopular addition to the constitution of the United States. The complaining witness, who was not put on the stand, has been described as being in a particularly inebriated condition.

Judge Lazarus bemoaned that certain witnesses “were absolutely worthless.” He mentioned Al Semnacher by name. In regard to the ice, Lazarus said that it was regrettable but it had no connection to the charge of murder. Indeed, it was a “abhorrent thing” but, if Arbuckle had known the real extent of Rappe’s injury, he wouldn’t have done it.

Ultimately, the judge had been swayed by the last person to testify.

The only witness in the entire case who gave any direct testimony bearing on the guilt or innocence of Roscoe Arbuckle was the nervous chambermaid, Josephine Keza. Passing along the corridor she heard the sound of revelry, and then she heard a woman’s voice crying, “No! No! O my God,” and a man’s voice saying “Shut up!” This is the only testimony which any conceivable possibility shows a connection between the defendant and a crime.

The district attorneys surely, on hearing this, had to wonder what had happened to Lazarus, whose side was he on? He seemed to be almost disappointed that his “humble police court” had been cheated of making a Supreme Court decision.

Milton U’Ren interrupted the judge and asked him if he had overlooked Rappe’s own words, “I’m dying. He hurt me.”

 “No,” Lazarus snapped back, “but I am taking into consideration the fact that she was in great pain; that she said he hurt her, but not that he had attacked her. Reminds me of that line in Lord Byron’s “Don Juan”—‘And saying she would ne’er consent, consented.’” And with that retort from the bench, much of the courtroom burst out laughing.

When order was restored by the bailiff, Isadore Golden reminded the judge that a voice, likely Rappe’s had said “O my God, no! No! No! No!”

This gave the judge another opportunity to elicit laughter from his audience. “Too many no’s,” he said and got serious once more.

Now, gentlemen, murder in its category and in its punishment is the most serious crime. The question for me to decide from this merest outline of evidence, this skeletonized description of what occurred in those apartments on Labor Day, is whether I am justified in holding the defendant for murder. And I do not believe I am justified in sending him to trial on this grievous charge. Therefor I hold him for trial on the charge of manslaughter.

Arbuckle was seen smiling at this news and pressed Minta Durfee’s hand. Not unlike a pitcher’s mound consultation, District Attorney Brady removed his straw hat and spoke to Golden so that he couldn’t be heard or his lips read. But Judge Lazarus heard Golden mention “rape.” “There has been no actual rape, forcibly and without the young woman’s consent,” the judge said. “There has not even been any attempt at rape shown. It might have been other acts committed by the defendant which caused Miss Rappe’s death.”

“What acts can your honor imagine?” asked Golden.

“Perhaps a simple assault and battery,” Judge Lazarus responded. “Perhaps criminal negligence”—but in effect he had judged Virginia Rappe as having contributed to her own status as the now silent victim. She had been judged but People vs. Arbuckle only addressed the reduced charge, “that a felony, to-wit: Manslaughter, has been committed and that there is reasonable and probably cause for believing the defendant, Roscoe Arbuckle, guilty thereof.”


Judge Lazarus’s decision was still a partial victory for Matthew Brady and his assistants. At least the case was still alive. Manslaughter was obviously the most justifiable charge—but it posed no less a challenge for the state than convincing a jury of murder for the same reason: of the two people who knew what happened, one was dead and the other wasn’t talking upon the advice of his lawyers.

Frank Dominguez and Milton Cohen had come very close to a dismissal of the case. Judge Lazarus had no real harsh words for Arbuckle. Lazarus scolded him about the ice but saw it as more overreaching, more theater on the part of Brady to get the murder charge. Though the judge showed sympathy for Arbuckle, the man who made the world laugh, he was also moved the the chambermaid Josephine Keza and allowed the case to move on to the Superior Court. He also ordered that Arbuckle could post bail in the sum of $10,000 in bonds or $5,000 in cash (about $146,000 and $73,000, respectively, adjusted for inflation).

In a matter of minutes, the worst of the suspicions that had dogged Arbuckle lifted. He and Minta Durfee found himself applauded after Judge Lazarus’s decision. Instead of a gauntlet of irate and militant clubwomen, Arbuckle was mobbed by well-wishers in Judge Lazarus’s antechambers. Some women stepped forward and shook hands with Fatty and congratulated him while he, with a free hand, expertly rolled a cigarette from a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Even some members of the WVC were moved to side with Arbuckle. One of theim, Mrs. Janie K. Compton, handed Durfee a note before the court convened: “Tell Mr. Arbuckle I am praying for the complete vindication which he deserves on the testimony I have heard here.”[3]

Arbuckle returned to his cell to pack his suitcase. His lawyers posted bail, the cash amount already secured from the San Francisco branch of the Bank of Italy. Outside the Hall of Justice on Kearney Street, Arbuckle and Durfee posed for photographs—and were met by even more women who greeted him with cries of “Hurrah for Fatty!” “Good for you, Fatty!” “Hit ‘em with a pie, Fatty! Atta boy!” Then, after posing for a final photograph, Arbuckle climbed inside his brother’s automobile and drove off to an undisclosed hotel.

Roscoe Arbuckle (Calisphere)

[1] People vs. Arbuckle, 351.

[2] The following passage is based on Edward J. Doherty, “Arbuckle Freed on Bonds,” Chicago Tribune, 29 September 1921, 1–2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this reportage.

[3] “Arbuckle to Escape Trial for Murder,” Oakland Tribune, 28 September 1921, 1.

100 Years Ago Today: Maude Delmont Is marginalized, September 27, 1921

On Tuesday morning, September 27—the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Fire—the Women’s Court reconvened. The anticipation to hear Maude Delmont on the stand was palpable in Judge Lazarus’ courtroom. Bold, breathless headlines and above-the-fold stories still appeared in the dailies. But already other stories were commanding attention, bread-and-butter issues such as the railroad unions threatening a nationwide strike and a postwar economy still in a recession. The Ku Klux Klan’s growing popularity continued to divide Americans by race, nationality, and religion.

The first two witnesses that day, Zey Prevost and Alice Blake, gave testimony that Arbuckle was present when Virginia Rappe said, “He hurt me.” The third was the chambermaid, a Polish immigrant named Josephine Keza, who had been working the twelfth floor on the day of Arbuckle’s Labor Day party.

From the corridor, she claimed to have heard a woman pleading for someone stop and a man’s voice gruffly ordering her to shut up. Keza, a surprise witness, took Arbuckle’s lawyer, Frank Dominguez, by surprise. He had hoped to cross-examine Maude Delmont and use the “proof” he had, in the form of letters, that she was a blackmailer and intended to blackmail his client.

The next day, when Dominguez was offered the opportunity to call Maude Delmont as a witness. He famously declined and observers at the time believed he had squandered an opportunity to have the case dismissed. [Editor’s note: the alleged letters have never surfaced nor have any arrest records that indicate Delmont was involved in these kinds of schemes.]

It was a victory of sorts for Dominguez. Arbuckle’s murder charge was dropped in favor of duplicate manslaughter charges. But Dominguez soon resigned from the defense team.

His successor, Gavin McNab, didn’t use the extortion angle or any of the evidence Dominguez’s investigators had found on Delmont. Blackmail wasn’t even mentioned when Maude Delmont reappeared in November, subpoenaed as a witness for the first Arbuckle trial but never called.

Although marginalized, she didn’t go quietly. Delmont allegedly confronted McNab in his office in San Francisco’s Merchants Exchange Building, She also attended the first Arbuckle trial—once in the company of a reporter from the San Francisco Call—and participated on the sidelines until her arrest on a charge of bigamy in December.

The Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco, the nerve center of Arbuckle’s defense team from October 1921 until April 1922 (Private collection)

100 Years Ago Today: Dr. Arthur Beardslee testifies, September 26, 1921

The morning session of the fourth day of the preliminary investigation in the courtroom of Judge Sylvain Lazarus was to be with Al Semnacher. But he was late and his place was taken by Dr. Arthur Beardslee, the St. Francis Hotel’s physician and the second to treat Rappe, who had yet to testify in any previous venue.[1] During his cross-examination under defense attorney Frank Dominguez, the sobriety of Maude Delmont came under question. Beardslee had been “missing” for over a week but had, in reality, been on an annual hunting trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Mono County, California.

Q: Did you notice anything about her speech that attracted your attention—Mrs. Delmont’s?

A: Not any more than she impressed me as being very positive, is all.

Q: Nothing incoherent in what she said?

A: No. In fact, much the opposite—very much to the point; and, in fact, rather arrogant.

Q: Was that arrogance due, in your opinion, to her having used any alcohol or morphine?

A: No; I thought it was her natural manner. She took charge of everything, and was the boss.

Dominguez continued. Did Beardslee see Delmont open her purse or “take a white powder”?

When this inquiry resulted in objections from the district attorneys, Milton Cohen presented the rationale: “If your Honor please, the doctor says he procured a certain history from a certain woman. If we can show that person is incompetent, or she was in such a frame of mind that the history which he prepared from the woman is unreliable, certainly it is competent testimony.”

To this, Judge Lazarus pointed out that the “lady” in question, despite being “arrogant” and “overbearing,” had never aroused Dr. Beardslee’s suspicions about her competence.

Dr. Beardslee saw no white powder. The cross-examination continued, seemingly rudderless, going back and forth between subjects already covered, such as the reason for administering an enema despite the lack of bowel gas. Then Dominguez asked if Rappe showed any signs of a “debauch” or “alcoholism.” Beardslee answered “no”.

Returning to the subject of taking Rappe to a hospital, the doctor asserted he had urged Delmont, as proxy for Arbuckle and company, to take her to the hospital. He knew, from just observing Rappe, that she had some kind of internal injury before her catheterization. That revealed the truth to him and it couldn’t have been any hypothetical kidney lesion as suggested by Dominguez.

Frank Dominguez (Calisphere)

“With the picture that I had before me,” said Dr. Beardslee, “and the urine, I had a classical ruptured bladder. There was no sign left out. Had it been a kidney complicating the condition, or had there would been kidney trouble, you would have other symptoms in other regions—you would have had other things to consider.” Beardslee then endured summary questions that he found “nonsensical”—about a hemorrhage in the bladder, his self-assurance of a bladder rupture without performing an incision, and so on.

For his part, Dominguez needed to sow as much doubt about the hotel doctor in Judge Lazarus as possible. Then, suddenly, Dominguez asked if Beardslee had been “out hunting”—to which the judge wisecracked, “He looks like it.”

Dominguez asked if Beardslee, in returning from Mono County, had been stopped by a sheriff. The judge, perhaps encouraged by some laughter at his previous remark that the court reporter left out, continued: “Traveling too fast in a machine, doctor?”

Dr. Beardslee explained that the sheriff was a friend he knew well. He admitted to a conversation in which he complained about returning to San Francisco, of having to testify. Beardslee said that he “hated to give up a good time,” to “get mixed up.” Here Dominguez cut him off to remind Beardslee of something he had allegedly said that might indicate a biased testimony.

Q: Doctor, you told him in a conversation, upon his asking you, “What is this all about?” and you said to him, “The whole trouble was with a girl that was too much high life.”

A: No, I think you are mistaken.

Q: Never mind. I think a whole lot—even with that black head of mine.

But Dominguez insisted that Beardslee had said Rappe had too much “high life.” Then Dominguez asked if Beardslee had percussed Rappe’s flanks. Since this wasn’t an anatomical term, Dominguez seemed to be having some fun at the witness’s expense after a demonstration of what he meant by flanks. “I had no reason to percuss her buttocks at all,” Beardslee answered.

Q: What do you understand by the flank of the human anatomy? Point it out to us, doctor.

A: Flank?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, it is a term which is seldom used except by a butcher or horse trader or something that way.

As the cross-examination proceeded, Dominguez made clear what his primary defense theory was — that Rappe’s injury was her own misadventure, her own fault. Her bladder was compromised by disease and it was simply a matter of time before it burst of its own accord. “Assuming,” Dominguez began, “doctor, for a long period of time, a person had been treated for bladder trouble,

and had been under the direct attention of a doctor for bladder trouble, assuming further that it was a small bladder and the walls of that bladder were abnormally thin—assuming further she had not passed water for a period of 24 hours; and assuming further, doctor, that during that time it had been dribbling over the top of the bladder; and assuming further she had made efforts, doctor, to pass water, under that condition, doctor, could there be such a thing as a spontaneous rupture?

Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren objected on grounds that Rappe’s micturitions were not in evidence and available for cross-examination. But Judge Lazarus proved to be lenient with the defense here and allowed it. He reasoned that future evidence might support such a theory. Thus, Dr. Beardslee was compelled to agree with Dominguez that a bladder “with a thin wall” and “subjected to treatment for organic disturbances” could easily rupture. With that, Dominguez ended his cross-examination.

In the minutes that followed, Judge Lazarus asked a serious question devoid of his courtroom wit. He asked if urine in the bladder, upon release into the abdominal cavity, could cause an infection—a question that hadn’t been answered as yet by Dr. Beardslee.

Perhaps relieved to answer a medical question, the house physician for the St. Francis Hotel assumed a certain authority and explained that urine itself didn’t cause peritonitis. Bacteria escaping from the bladder did. With that, court was adjourned until 2:30 p.m.


[1] The following is based on People vs. Arbuckle, 232ff.

100 Years Later: Considering the missing doctor

This piece is an open editorial to ourselves. Any serious work about Virginia Rappe and the Arbuckle case must include a medical history and that medical history was on trial in 1921–’22 and still on trial today. Unfortunately, there is not enough surviving evidence or documentation about Rappe’s medical condition and history to write authoritatively and whatever sounds good, even ex cathedra, is from the armchair. Still, the well-intentioned writer can posit what is known about Rappe’s health and medical treatment and make at least one conclusion: more than one person was responsible for her death, in which she, too, may have had a hand, albeit a small hand.

If Arbuckle wasn’t culpable for the death of Virginia Rappe, he certainly would have benefited from her going away quietly. For a moment, he had his way. Rappe, though in agony, was removed to room 1227 of the St. Francis Hotel—not the St. Francis Hospital a few blocks away. This move happened not long after the event occurred and the party then continued. A certain hubris took over any thought about her, one of “out of sight, out of mind,” and it is unlikely that any attendees seriously thought her condition was as grave as it proved to be.

The doctors who saw Rappe facilitated this hubris by acquiescing to the requests of party attendees that she be treated in a hotel room rather than be taken to a hospital. Rappe was on her own with no family members or guardian angels demanding that something be done immediately. That delay exacerbated the problem.

Arbuckle was not alone in wanting Rappe’s problem to go away. Al Semnacher and Maude Delmont remained at the party in room 1220. Though Delmont, still drinking, took the time to check on Rappe in room 1227.

The one physician who suspected a bladder rupture, Dr. Arthur Beardslee, was somewhat cowed by Delmont’s take-charge attitude. His suggestions that Rappe be taken to a proper hospital were rejected. Delmont took her directions from the people in room 1220, she was the self-assigned go-between. Rappe’s stay in Room 1227 lasted beyond the time that the party had broken up and the attendees including Arbuckle had left the city. So Delmont and Rappe were left behind in a hotel room with no means to pay. That is possibly the turn of events that triggered Delmont’s willingness to sign a murder charge. But while the party was going on, Delmont was still on the team so to speak, she still saw herself as a privileged insider, someone who could call Arbuckle “Roscoe” (she claimed to have been at Keystone in the early days), and as such reached out to an old friend, Dr. Melville Erskine Rumwell, a physician she believed would determine that Rappe’s condition wasn’t so dire.

Dr. Rumwell dialed back Rappe’s condition to “alcoholism,” which, in 1921, was approximately what alcoholic poisoning means today. He wasn’t a stupid man. This apparent misdiagnosis suggests he didn’t take much time examining her and wanted as little direct involvement as possible. As a member of San Francisco society, Dr. Rumwell was conscious of his reputation. Whatever Delmont’s friendship meant to him personally was now complicated by another woman, Virginia Rappe, and all seemed intent on wishing away the potential seriousness of the situation to avoid “notoriety.”

Whether Rumwell examined Rappe in room 1227 is moot. He did arrange for nursing care to relieve the burden on Delmont. That suggests Rappe’s care was elevated to something more than alcoholism.

When Rappe was finally transported from the St. Francis to the Wakefield Sanitarium, a private hospital, she would live for less than forty-eight hours. Rappe’s nurses were probably instrumental in convincing Delmont to allow for an ambulance. Her confidence, too, in her friend Dr. Rumwell—she called him “Rummie”—might have been shaken. But only a little. When she called two of his colleagues at Stanford’s medical school, they probably told her she was in good hands. He had assisted both men in surgeries and it’s unlikely they would have said anything to disparage his skills or diagnosis.

But Rappe’s nurses didn’t trust him anymore. The night nurse, Vera Cumberland, suspected neglect on the part of Rumwell, who had taken a break to attend a party as Rappe’s condition worsened.

Had he made a proper diagnosis the night he first saw Rappe, Rumwell could have ordered emergency surgery and she might have survived. She actually had a robust constitution. But by the time Rappe got to Wakefield, Rumwell might have realized it was too late to save her. He apparently didn’t put up a good show of bedside manners and one might speculate he was distancing himself to blur his responsibility in the matter.

According to Delmont, one of the last conscious requests that Rappe made was to summon her one known friend in San Francisco, Sidi Wirt Spreckels. Visiting Ms. Spreckels may have been a reason for Rappe’s presence in San Francisco in the first place. Newspapers reported that Spreckels was just back from France. She was also recently widowed and in a legal battle over her late husband’s estate with his first wife (now “Mrs. Wakefield”). Spreckels had also suffered the indignity of a sheriff’s auction of her furs, a pending lawsuit filed by Tiffany’s over an unpaid diamond necklace, and other woes that made headlines of their own. (Eventually, the estate lawyer, James McNab, the brother of Arbuckle lawyer Gavin McNab, informed Spreckels that her late husband was bankrupt.)

Despite the risk of additional “notoriety”, Spreckels came to see Rappe on the morning of September 9, 1921. What she saw was appalling, such that she returned to her apartment at the Palace Hotel and communicated with Rappe’s former fiance Henry Lehrman about the situation. He may have suggested or seconded Spreckel’s decision to bring her own doctor back to the Wakefield.

That Spreckels reached out to Dr. H. Edward Castle, another physician high in S.F. society, for a “second opinion” indicated the doubts she had in Rumwell’s judgment.

Dr. Castle noted the bruising on Rappe’s body but could do nothing for her. She may have already died or did so in his presence (the reporting on his first Arbuckle trial testimony is scant).

The only thing that plagued Dr. Rumwell’s conscience was the matter of an autopsy. Spreckels and Delmont urged him on and he eventually relented. But until Rappe was dead, the only care she received was palliative. In effect Dr. Rumwell was a hospice physician.

His virtual hands-off treatment played well into the hands of Gavin McNab during the three Arbuckle trials.

As far as Rumwell’s own career went after the trials, his volunteer work, and his exploits on the handball court of the Athletic Club disappeared. Indeed, his career grew strangely quiet.

Sidi Wirt Spreckels and her stepson (Newspapers.com)

100 Years Ago Today: A prosecutor channels Rappe as a vamp, September 24, 1921

For several days, a single piece of ice, perhaps as small as an ice cube, rivaled the iceberg that struck the SS Titanic. The ice in question became known during the second day of Al Semnacher’s Women’s Court testimony on the Saturday morning of September 24, 1921.

It was not unexpected that Semnacher was asked to recount an anecdote told by Roscoe Arbuckle on the morning after the Labor Day party. The anecdote first came up when Semnacher included it in a statement to the District Attorney in Los Angeles. He would have told of it earlier, but claimed he had forgotten about it until it returned to him in a dream.

We have already mentioned the ice in a previous entry. What isn’t often discussed is how Assistant District Attorney Isadore Golden began the second day of Semnacher’s testimony, leading up to the revelation that Arbuckle, in Semnacher’s first telling, admitted to inserting ice in Rappe’s vagina.

Golden began by asking if Rappe appeared to be “in healthy condition” when she left Los Angeles for Selma and San Francisco. Semnacher answered yes. Then Golden continued to ask questions that had already been asked before positing a curious image of Rappe as a vamp, a siren, tempting Arbuckle at the entrance of room 1219. The question may have been asked to probe Semnacher’s veracity, not unlike a control or comparison question for a polygraph examination.

Q: And as far as you know she continued to enjoy the best of health?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Until you saw her lying on the bed in a nude condition as you stated yesterday?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: At any time that you observed Miss Rappe in Mr. Arbuckle’s apartments, did you ever see her let her hair down and shake her head, with her hair hanging down?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you ever see her in Arbuckle’s apartments standing in the doorway connecting any of the rooms, letter her hair down and calling out to Mr. Arbuckle to observe her?
A: No, sir.
Q: Or say, “Look here, Rossy,” or “Roscoe.”
A: No sir.[1]

With Semnacher’s answer, Golden changed the subject and the sudden appearance of a consensual and wanton young woman vanished as quickly as she appeared.

Theda Bara in one of her poses (Library of Congress)

[1]People vs. Arbuckle, 147–148.

Document Dump #6: Did Gouverneur Morris side with Arbuckle?

We first became aware of Gouverneur Morris’s interest in the Arbuckle case in Greg Merritt’s Room 1219 (p. 208). He refers to the following “open letter.” Our take is this: the letter was likely written before Gouverneur Morris began to turn in his editorials about the Arbuckle case and trial to the San Francisco Call (see Document Dump #5). These pieces were intended to be daily and were syndicated by the editor of Screenland, Myron Zobel.[1] He appears to be the “recipient” of this letter. For such copy to be published in time for the November 1921 issue of Screenland, where it appears on page nine next to a drawing of Mary Pickford, Morris would have been commissioned in late September or October—weeks before the actual trial, which isn’t referenced in this letter. The murder charge, which Brady sought in September 1921, is the giveaway here as to when this letter was actually composed. And one can see this as well by reviewing Morris’s copy for the Call. In the piece published on November 14, 1921, the first day of jury selection, Morris once more endorsed Matthew Brady, calling the district attorney “honest and big hearted, who has a greater faith in probation than prison.” The other pieces that Morris turned in are soberly written and don’t really take sides. Indeed, the writing for the Call differs so much from the Screenland letter that what you will read here was likely ghost-written by someone else with a different agenda.


An open letter to the Editor of Screenland

By Gouverneur Morris

In presenting Mr. Morris’ letter, the Editors of Screenland are thoroughly cognizant of the prudish caution that would argue suppression of such a daringly frank arraignment. Mr. Morris, however, is not only one of the leaders of American contemporary fiction, but he is a student of criminology, as expressed in many of his fiction works. This distinguishes Mr. Morris’ contribution from any mere morbid analysis of the Arbuckle case and removes any hesitancy Screenland might feel in presenting such a discussion before its readers.

Editor, Screenland Magazine
Hollywood, California

Dear Sir—[2]

In the Arbuckle matter Los Angeles seems to have butchered herself pretty thoroughly to make a San Francisco holiday. That the church should lead in howling down a man innocent of any crime in the eyes of the law has to have been expected, but that experienced editors and the man in the street, and the man in the studios should have so lost their heads, and their Americanism, is deplorable and a little surprising.

Los Angeles has a big chance to be big, open-minded and just. Instead, she listened to the pleading of a San Francisco district attorney and went crazy. Even a Mayor, in a frenzy of righteousness agreed that it is deplorable to raise people from the “lower orders” and make millionaires of them.[3] What does the Mayor of an American city mean by the “lower orders”? And what is American for if it is not to furnish equal opportunities to all men? And men are not raised. They raise themselves. And God knows it is finer to rise upon the love and laughter of children, as Arbuckle rose, than upon the back of any mercenary campaign—even if one rises all the way up from the “lower orders,” whatever they are.

It looks to me as if the Prosecution aspired to raise itself from whatever order is theirs, to positions of prominence in California, and believes that a hanged Arbuckle (guilty or not guilty) would be of immense political advantage to them. They will be able to “point with pride,” etc., etc.

Before jumping so hard on Arbuckle, decent-minded people not carried away by hysteria would like to know a little more about the woman who is said to be the victim of his crime, and of the drunken woman who alleges that the crime was committed.

It may be that Virginia Rappe was afflicted before she went to the famous part, and that Arbuckle is no more responsible for her death than the policeman who arrested him.

I for one would like to know more about her “sacred” love affair with this fellow whose bombastic telegrams and excruciatingly vulgar funeral arrangements have been the most sickening part of the whole business.[4]

And what sort of person is our chief witness for the prosecution? Is Delmonte her real name? If not, what is? What has been her vocation or avocation? How drunk was she? And after she has sobered up does she remember well what has happened while she was in liquor?

But it is not too late for the Los Angeles [people] to demand fair play for the victim of the San Francisco cabala and to accord it. Suppose we remember how much the kiddies love “Fatty” and give him the benefit of every doubt, and ask to have his pictures shown on Broadway, until there is no doubt of his guilt and well—and tell those in San Francisco to go to the Devil, and behave like regular men and women.

I do know Arbuckle, but, because of the laughs he has given my kiddies and me, I am his friend until there are better reasons (than now exist) for believing that no man should be his friend.[5] And surely it can’t be so bad as that.

Gouverneur Morris

We wish to thank eMoviePoster.com for providing this image for our research.

[1] Not to be confused the other Myron “Global” Zobel, the travelogue filmmaker.

[2] I.e., Myron Zobel

[3] I.e., George E. Cryer,

[4] I.e., Henry Lehrman.

[5] Morris had two teenage daughters.

On this Day 100 Years Ago: Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, takes the stand during the third session of the preliminary investigation, September 23, 1921

Isadore Golden, one of Matthew Brady’s assistant district attorneys, put it this way: “We have made out a case [. . .] through witnesses who had to have the truth dynamited out of them, witnesses who would give anything to say, ‘I was not there.’”[1] One witness he had in mind was Al Semnacher, part motion picture publicity man, part talent agent, and part talent scout, who represented at various times ZaSu Pitts, Jacqueline Logan, Kenneth Harlan, and Virginia Rappe for less than two months. If going to Arbuckle’s party had been a business venture to get her into Arbuckle’s party, either all along or an opportunity of coincidence, he failed her miserably.

Al Semnacher (San Francisco Call)

Semnacher was a kind of subaltern Hollywood functionary, even factotum. His estranged wife was the late Olive Thomas’ personal secretary. His stock-in-trade was primarily developing—or exploiting—young aspiring people, especially young women, who wanted to break into the movies and needed their face and contact information in a casting directory with a flattering portrait taken at the Hartsook Studio. Semnacher, too, served the Hollywood nobility. For example, when one of Arbuckle’s lawyers produced a purse in the courtroom, inferring that it might belong to Virginia Rappe, the accessory, as it turned out, belonged to Mildred Harris (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin). Semnacher had taken it to a jeweler for her to be fixed.

The actress Miriam Cooper expressed one school of opinion about Semnacher’s role in the Arbuckle affair. She saw Semnacher as a liar covering up what he really knew.[2] Her husband, the actor and director Raoul Walsh, believed that Henry Lehrman had arranged with Semnacher to bring Rappe to San Francisco to see Arbuckle.

When Al Semnacher took the stand during the afternoon of September 23, 1921, his testimony came so reluctantly that the defense demanded that Assistant DA Golden treat Semnacher as a hostile witness. Some newspaper accounts described his performance as unimpressive. Others took issue with the appearance of the dapper, sporting man who was photographed wearing an ankh symbol tie pin on his four-in-hand, a pince-nez, and a Gatsby cap (picture above).

Edward J. Doherty—“America’s Highest Paid Reporter”—of the Chicago Tribune’s Hollywood bureau knew Semnacher to be Arbuckle’s friend and described him as “a short, squat, middle-aged man, with iron gray hair, gray eyes, and a weary gray countenance.”[3]

Ellis H. Martin of the International News Service described Semnacher it terms as “a wiry little man whose dark, sparkling eyes peeped cautiously from behind shell-rimmed glasses.”[4]

The Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, the pastor of San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, not only appeared in the Women’s Court as a reporter, wearing a clerical collar, but also as an editorialist. He, too, had something to say about Semnacher’s untrustworthy features.[5]

What a rotten way to spend a perfectly good afternoon. Sitting in a stuffy courtroom, listening to a lot of seemingly stupid questions, that seemed to lead nowhere, and were repeated over and over again in an effort to get a witness who apparently had made up his mind not to say anything that was worth anything to anybody to say what he had already said. [. . .] And the witness, Mr. Semnacher, who, I believe, was the manager for Miss Rappe, was a very clever and interesting little person, with dark, sparkling eyes, and many of the manners and actions of a monkey. At times, he was quite cute, with a funny little twinkle behind the glasses in his black eyes—and then he knew so much, and so intimately, about some things, and was ready to run on telling it, and against he knew so little, in fact, almost nothing of what the District Attorney wanted to know.

I wonder whether it is a good thing to shout at a witness. [. . .] In talking of torn garments, I couldn’t help thinking, as I saw the detectives coming into court, with two pitiful packages in their hands, of how a short while before what they contained had clothed beautiful womanhood, and were now but a wretched exhibit in a police court. And that ultimately there is but one garment that can cover our shame and failure, and that is the robe of His righteousness.[6]

The Rev. Guthrie, like other spectators, wanted to be interested, entertained perhaps, but for many of them, this was the first time they had sat through a direct examination and cross-examination. They had no idea that this was how district attorneys laid their groundwork, especially for a reluctant witness who realized that he was being led along a precipice in which he could perjure himself, bring financial ruin, and make him an untouchable in film colony—this on top of a humiliating divorce.


[1] Qtd. in Edward J. Doherty, “State Springs Coup on Fatty; Defense Wild,” Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1921, 3.

[2] Miriam Cooper and Bonnie Herndon, Dark Lady of the Silents (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 180.

[3] Edward J. Doherty, “Fatty Pales at Moving Picture of Fatal Party,” Chicago Tribune, 24 September 1921, 1.

[4] Ellis H. Martin, “Death of Actress Laid to Injuries,” Washington Times, 24 September 1921, 1.

[5] Anti-Semitism did loom over the Arbuckle trial, perhaps more than we know. In the case of Rev. Guthrie, Semnacher may have been seen as the stereotypical “Hollywood Jew,” a label already well-established especially in the revived Ku Klux Klan and among their WASP betters who entertained the “suburban prejudice.”

[6] Rev. William Kirk Guthrie, “Judge Lazarus Untangles Knows of Legal Verbiage, Impresses Cleric,” San Francisco Examiner, 24 September 1921, 1–2.

100 Years Ago Today: The first full day of the preliminary investigation

The Women’s Court of Judge Sylvain Lazarus reconvened on the morning of Thursday, September 22. The first witnesses called were those who had conducted autopsies on Virginia Rappe’s body. Dr. William Ophuls conducted the first autopsy, which was unofficial and done at the request of Dr. Melville Rumwell, Rappe’s physician. He had been compelled to perform the autopsy by Maude Delmont and Rappe’s friend, Sidi Spreckels, the second wife of the late John Spreckels Jr., heir to one of California’s wealthiest and most influential families.

Dr. Shelby Strange, took the stand first, for he had conducted the second autopsy sanctioned by the San Francisco Coroner. It was his painstaking measurements of the numerous bruises on Rappe’s body that posed a challenge for the defense, for these suggested a forcible assault—or a rough handling of Rappe while being moved from bed to bathtub to toilet seat to bed and ultimately to a room of her own in the St. Francis Hotel.

In addition to the controversial bruises was Dr. Strange’s description of Rappe’s viscera. After removing all the bloodstained cotton that packed the lower half of Rappe’s abdomen, Dr. Strange found that her bladder, uterus, and rectum had been removed. This wasn’t a surprise, for Dr. Ophuls had preserved them in a specimen jar.

Assistant District Attorney Miltion U’Ren asked about the uterus first.

Q: What was its general shape and condition?
A: The shape was normal.
Q: Normal size?
A: Normal size. It had been—there had been an incision from top to bottom on the anterior surface of the uterus, and opening the cavity.
Q: And so far as you could observe from your examination, it was a perfectly normal, healthy uterus?
A: Yes sir, and likewise the tubes and the ovaries.[1]

Here Frank Dominguez, Arbuckle’s chief defense attorney, objected to U’Ren “leading” Dr. Strange on the word “healthy” in regard to Rappe’s sexual organs—for that suggested a “healthy” morality, as well, a young woman who wasn’t promiscuous. “Healthy,” too, meant there was no sign of any forced penetration as well as other anomalies, including a fetus, presumably.

Dr. Ophuls, too, had a similar opinion about Rappe’s viscera. “All that I saw and felt seemed perfectly normal,” he said. “I did not make an examination of the chest.”[2] Dr. Ophuls, however, had another opinion in regard to Rappe’s Fallopian tubes. These “were badly inflamed—that is, I mean, they were congested in blood, which I attributed to the existence of the inflammation [i.e., peritonitis] in the body cavity in which these tubes are situated. And the uterus and vagina and the vulva were apparently perfectly normal.”[3]

Dr. William Ophuls, ca. 1909 (Calisphere)

[1] People vs. Arbuckle, 26–27.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

Document Dump #5: Gouverneur Morris’ on S.F. District Attorney Matthew Brady

Gouverneur Morris IV (1876–1953), the author of novels, short stories, and screenplays as well as a freelance journalist. To call him a “pulp” novelist is probably an injustice, for his work hardly anticipates or resembles Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Morris, at least during the first half of his career, dealt with bad characters of another kind, like men who took advantage of women in his 1914 short story “When My Ship Comes In,” about Broadway, with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson. His screenplay for the Wallace Beery vehicle A Tale of Two Worlds (1921) follows the life of a white child raised by Chinese foster parents who is sold as a sex slave by Beery’s tong gang leader.

Morris covered the first Arbuckle trial in November–December 1921 for the San Francisco Call and his articles leading up to the trial didn’t take sides per se. Here he writes perhaps the only published profile of District Attorney Matthew Brady.

Gouverneur Morris, ca. 1920 (Library of Congress)

AUTHOR MORRIS ANALYZES ARBUCKLE PROSECUTOR
BRADY GIVES IMPRESSION OF BEING FAIR, IMPARTIAL FOR JUSTICE IN TRIAL
By GOUVERNEUR MORRIS

Gouverneur Morris, celebrated author, who will write a daily description of the Arbuckle trial exclusively for The Call, gives his impression of District Attorney Matthew Brady in the following thumb nail sketch:

The newspapers do not give me the same impression of San Francisco’s district attorney that the man himself does. That’s because one newspaper quotes him and another misquotes him and none attempts to describe him or to say what he is like, though all probably did plenty of that better than I can when he was being elected to his present high office. But that was a long time ago and readers may have forgotten.

ERRONEOUS IMPRESSION

From the quotations and misquotations I derived the erroneous impression that Brady is no longer an Irish name, and that it usually belongs to a man who is lean and savage, and, who if he is in the public service is a persecutor rather than a prosecutor. I got the idea that Mr. Brady was one of those district attorneys who believes that the end and the aim of public service is convictions. Now if Mr. Brady is that kind of a district attorney, then in the conversation which I had with him today, he deceived me grossly. For most certainly he gave me the impression in his dealings with the sins of mankind his inclination is to be tolerant and humane, to get at the truth rather than to garble it for glamour’s sake, and on the whole to be very much relieved whenever the truth warrants a jury bringing in a verdict of “not guilty.”

IDEAL DEFENDANT

He himself, for any other district attorney with humane, and tolerant impulses. would make an ideal defendant. It would be difficult to convict him, and I not a pleasure. He has the broad and strong body which so often is kept going by a kind heart; white hair, rosy checks, a voice at once manly and beguiling; large but not loud.

Upon one point his friends and his enemies are united. And I have talked with no man in San Francisco who does not say with all his heart that Mr. Brady is an honest man. And I would have taken it upon myself to say that I thought that of him, even if a lot of others had said the opposite. Certainly, he rings true and honest.

FAIRNESS IN DICTATED

Mr. Brady has no intention of letting the prosecution of Roscoe Arbuckle turn into a persecution. He believes that he has a case, or else, of course, he could not prosecute, and he believes that case is stronger than any defense that can be made. Nevertheless, if the defense has I something up its sleeve which has not been foreseen by the prosecution or known to exist, and which would cause the case of the prosecution to fall to the ground like a house of cards, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Brady would be more glad than sorry, for to him a prisoner at the bar of justice or behind the bars of a prison, whatever his alleged or proven wickedness may be, is also a human being in trouble.

But this can only be a thumbnail. Impressionistic sketch. I believe that San Francisco is going to be proud of the figure which Matthew P. Brady will cut at the Arbuckle trial.

Source: San Francisco Call, 12 November 1921, 1.

Matthew Brady (Calisphere)

Bit Player #8: Crystal P. Rivers

[This is the last entry that observes the burial of Virginia Rappe and is meant as a postscript adapted from the working manuscript. That is to say, we may find some additional details about Crystal P. Rivers (1877–1944), who lived out his final years as an artist in Santa Barbara. We use this opening to set up events leading to the first Arbuckle trial, when the defense kept leaking news stories about Rappe having a daughter in Chicago.]

In the weeks that followed Virginia Rappe’s funeral, another interment took place nearby, that of “Master Breezy Reeves Jr.” as he was billed, “the Littlest Cowboy” and the son of director B. Reeves Eason. The six-year-old had been killed by a runaway truck outside his home and, like Rappe, was among the first group of actors to be buried in what became Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Meanwhile, cemetery employees informed police that a middle-aged man had been observed visiting Rappe’s grave by the reflecting pool almost daily.[1] Typically, the visitor came to lay bunches of fresh flowers as well. On a nearby palm tree that shaded the Rappe plot, he also hung a “a framed picture of a cluster of roses,” which bore the legend and enigmatically wrong date:

This is a promise delayed, Crystal P. Rivers.
Please do not remove this from the grave of Virginia
—Semper Fidelis (always faithful) from C. P. R.
Wednesday September 6.

With Roscoe Arbuckle’s trial date of November 7 approaching, newspaper reporters decided to meet the mysterious gentleman, Crystal Rivers, and make a human-interest story of him during the lull of real news about the case.

You fought for the honor God gave you to you
A beautiful bridal flower.
And through the years your heart beat true
Till the day and the fatal hour.

When Rivers was confronted, he said he had known Rappe since 1917, when friends of hers had introduced her to the self-styled “poet, artist, and inventor.”

According to the Los Angeles Record, Rivers lived “practically in seclusion, devoting much of his time to study and writing.”

Source: Newspapers.com

“I loved Virginia Rappe,” he said to the San Francisco Examiner, “for her innocence, her beauty and her gracious charm. The memories of my meetings with her are as a father does his only daughter. She was the embodiment of all I have missed in life—a child on whom I might lavish my affections.”

The polymath Rivers may have enjoyed his “unusual platonic romance” with or without Rappe’s participation. He may have been a poet, artist, inventor when he could find the time, but when not putting fresh flowers on Rappe’s grave, he was mostly a factory worker and a widower. Eventually, the rains faded his poem and another person tended Rappe’s grave and filled its urn with sprays of black acacia and the like.


[1] The following passage is based on “Grave of Girl Daily Visited,” San Francisco Examiner, 3 November 1921, 12; “Mystery Visitor Decorates Grave of Virginia Rappe,” Los Angeles Herald, 3 November 1921, A12; “Identify Grave Visitor,” Los Angeles Herald, 5 November 1921, A3; “Solve Rappe Grave Puzzle, Los Angeles Record, 5 November 1921, 2; “Mystery Suitor of Rappe Girl Tells of Affection,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 November 1921, 9; 1920 U.S. Federal Census, California, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles Assembly District 75, Enumeration District 480, Sheet 3A, line 30; and other corroborative sources.