Alice Blake breaks down on the stand, March 23, 1922

The reportage for the third trial was not as detailed as the first trial. The legion of reporters had been cut back as public interest in the Arbuckle case waned. Oscar Fernbach of the San Francisco Examiner soldiered on though and noted some important turning points as the trial unfolded—mostly lost opportunities for the prosecution.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s blog post, District Attorney Matthew Brady’s star witness, Zey Prevost, had fled to New Orleans beyond the reach of his subpoena power. She and showgirl Alice Blake were in roughly the same place at the same time while at the Labor Day Party. Both women had entered room 1219 after Roscoe Arbuckle had exited while Virginia Rappe was lying semiconscious in one of the room’s beds. Blake had heard Rappe “accuse” a male of hurting her and that she felt like she was dying. Her earliest statements are hardly ambiguous. But whether her statements had been fine-tuned by her interrogators has to be scrutinized. Nevertheless, like her friend Zey Prevost, Blake was less than enthusiastic about testifying against the comedian and was almost declared a hostile witness during the second trial. Like others who attended the party, Blake was in the “in crowd” and probably felt some kindred loyalty to the group. As an entertainer she would have also been aware of the possible impact her cooperation with the prosecution could have on her career.

Until March 23, 1922, Alice Blake had maintained her composure but her reluctance to testify was often apparent in the way she spoke almost in a whisper and, by degrees, ceased remembering details of what happened on Labor Day 1921—with the exception of being one of Rappe’s first responders.


Girl Checks State Attack upon “Fatty”
Alice Blake Denies She Heard Virginia Rappe Say “He Killed Me”; Breaks Under Fire

Oscar H. Fernbach, San Francisco Examiner, 24 March 1922

With every inch of the battle ground hotly contested, the fight being waged in Judge Louderback’s court to establish Roscoe Arbuckle’s guilt or innocence of the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe proceeded yesterday.

Tears and temper, accusations and recriminations, insults and apologies all contributed to the sensational features of the trial.

Alice Blake, star witness for the prosecution, broke down under the grilling cross-examination of Gavin McNab, became hysterical, and was led weeping from the witness stand, while an enforced recess was taken to give her time to compose herself. She could not stand the strain of McNab’s attempt to expose what he termed “fabricated testimony, produced under duress,” his accusations being directed more against the district attorney’s office than against the girl on the stand.

It was all about Alice Blake’s direct testimony to the effect that she had heard Virginia Rappe exclaim as she lay in agony upon the bed in Arbuckle’s room: “I am dying; he hurt me.” By producing the original statement, which the witness had given to the police on the day following the death of Virginia Rappe [September 10, 1921], McNab established the fact that Alice Blake at the time had not included the words, “He hurt me,” and the attorney proceeded to insinuate that District Attorney Brady and his assistants had subsequently tried to compel the witness to testify as she did. The girl explained yesterday [March 22, 1922] that when she was questioned in Brady’s office she was told that Zey Prevost had declared that Virginia Rappe had used the words, “He killed me,” and had informed Brady and [Assistant District Attorney] U’Ren that Alice Blake had heard her so exclaim.

“I told them I did not hear her say so,” was the emphatic testimony of the witness yesterday. And she went on to say that at the time she had expressed the belief that Virginia Rappe, if anything, might have said, “He hurt me.”

[Assistant District Attorney] Leo Friedman, who conducted the direct examination, had a hard time with his witness. The value of her statements to the prosecution seemed to have become inversely proportional to the number of trials to which Arbuckle is being subjected. She reached a strage yesterday where she “could not remember.” In vain did Friedman show her the record of her testimony in the police court and at two preceding trials. It merely refreshed her memory to the extent that she could recollect nothing.

On cross-examination, however, Alice Blake made a startling announcement. She confessed that she had left the sitting room of Arbuckle’s suite before either Virginia Rappe or Arbuckle had gone into the bedroom, and did not actually see either of them enter that apartment. This was news—and McNab made the most of it.[1]

True, the witness admitted that before she left to enter the third room [1221] of the suite, she had seen both the comedian and the actress walking toward the door of the bedroom [1219]. But she [Blake] further declared that she had been absent less than fifteen minutes when, upon her return to the sitting room [1220], she found Mrs. Delmont knocking on the bedroom door and calling to Arbuckle to open it. This testimony placed the comedian and Virginia Rappe alone in the bedroom for fall less period of time than hitherto had been inferred from all the testimony.

The story of how Virginia Rappe was found in agony in Arbuckle’s rooms, and the ministrations that were given her, was repeated in detail by Alice Blake. McNab, in turn, sought to convince the jury that the actress had been injured while being given a cold bath, or while being held upside down by Fred Fishback and that her cry, “He hurt me,” referred to the latter and not to Arbuckle. [. . .]

Alice Blake, September 19, 1921 (Underwood & Underwood)

[1] In reality, her initial statement indicates that she left room 1220 for room 1221—Lowell Sherman’s bedroom—as Rappe and Arbuckle entered room 1219. Blake didn’t disclose whether Sherman accompanied her. But this can be inferred from Prevost’s early statements and testimony, where she, Prevost, is alone in room 1220 with Maude Delmont. Here Blake mentions that fifteen minutes passed before she saw and heard Delmont kicking the door and demanding that she be allowed to speak to Rappe. While this seems to fit the defense’s assertion that Arbuckle and Rappe were alone for less than ten minutes, as Fernbach suggests here, it doesn’t. Blake omits here that she returned to room 1221. She was there when Arbuckle finally opened the door of room 1219 and didn’t see him exit. Keeping up with these details and nuances is not only difficult for authors and readers. Imagine what it was like for the prosecutors in 1921 and ’22!

Zey’s great escape; or the fall of a star witness

Zey Prevost—born Sadie Reiss—and known by various permutations of her professional name, gave statements as well as testified at one preliminary investigation as well as the first two Roscoe Arbuckle trials. During the second trial, her testimony had changed enough to help Arbuckle, so much so that the prosecution wanted her declared a hostile witness. But she had always been hostile save for her earliest statement, which she later claimed was coerced.

We use that statement in our narrative primarily to reconstruct the “life” of Arbuckle’s Labor Day party as well as the condition in which she found Virginia Rappe in room 1219, with important details that hardly seem coerced, just matter of fact (e.g., Rappe’s eyes rolling upward, the wet bed on which she lay, and so on).

During the first days of the Arbuckle case in mid-September 1921, Prevost denied that she had tried to leave for San Francisco for New Orleans. But detectives had heard her say that she had been told to “keep her mouth shut.” And she did admit to meeting one of Arbuckle’s lawyers on the street before her Grand Jury testimony.

From the beginning the San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady regarded Prevost as potential hostile witness and successfully detained her for several weeks—a precaution that Arbuckle’s chief lawyer, Gavin McNab, used to assert that anything Prevost said to aid the prosecution’s case was coerced.

Prevost was called an actress and a model. She was undoubtedly a former Mack Sennett bathing beauty who boldly appropriated the name of another and more famous one, Marie Prevost. While her trip to New Orleans may have been arranged by Arbuckle’s lawyers—given her loyalty to the comedian. She may have made the move on her own. In any event, she had undone much of the damage she had done to him by her initial statements and testimony—and she also genuinely pitied him.

The following article comes in the wake of nationwide search for Prevost after she bought that train ticket to New Orleans on February 6, 1922, after the second Arbuckle trial had ended in a hung jury, this time the vote was 10 to 2 for conviction. Several jurors attributed their vote to Prevost’s reluctance to testify on the stand. This didn’t go unnoticed by Arbuckle’s lawyers.

Brady responded late on February 11, issuing a “foreign subpoena” for good reason. According to “Miss Tease Dowling,” a burlesque performer and one of Prevost’s girlfriends in New Orleans, said that “if Zey ever got to New Orleans, she’d hike right out to Cuba [. . .] she’s in Cuba by now. Sure ‘nuff.”[1]

Two San Francisco detectives was sent to New Orleans to locate Prevost and bring her back to California. Although they found her living at the Chalmette Hotel registered under the name Zaybelle Elruy, Prevost managed to escape. While two local toughs prevented the detectives from getting inside her room, she lowered herself and her suitcase on a rope into a courtyard and fled.

Eventually Brady received a telegram informing him that Prevost frequented the race track—meaning the Fairgrounds—in New Orleans and that she had no intention of returning to San Francisco for the foreseeable future. And he could do nothing.

He could only complain impotently to the press what he believed or what was true, that Prevost “was living in luxury” in New Orleans, subsidized by Arbuckle’s lawyers, and devoting much time to playing the races. “When the state had her in charge,” he said, “she was begging us for money to buy silk stockings.”[2]

Despite his “foreign subpoena,” California law was clear. Prevost couldn’t be compelled to return to California unless she were facing a criminal charge. With Mardi Gras only days away and the race track still open, Prevost remained ensconced in New Orleans for the duration of the third trial.

Race Track at Fairgrounds, New Orleans (private collection)

P.S. “Lawyers connected with the defense learned this week learned this week that Miss Prevost had made application through the office of Harry Weber, variety booking agent in New York, for a tour in vaudeville. She proposes, it is understood here, to appear in a sketch, together with Mrs. Wally Schang, wife of the catcher for the New York Yankees. Presumably Miss Prevost will trade upon the notoriety given her through the Arbuckle case, and that Mrs. Schang will try to ‘get over’ partly through the prominence of her husband in baseball.” The Knave, “Miss Prevost Heard from,” Oakland Tribune, 28 May 1922, S-8.


Arbuckle to Be Pitied, Says Zey Prevost
Missing Witness in New Orleans Gives Chronicle Views on Case
Not to Return Here
Actress Kept in Southern Metropolis by Lure of Racing Ponies

Special Dispatch to The Chronicle

New Orleans, Feb. 24. – Zey Prevost, missing witness for the state of California in the prosecution of Roscoe Arbuckle on a charge of manslaughter in connection with the death of Virginia Rappe, motion picture artist, is still in New Orleans. Lure of the ponies is the only reason for her continued sojourn in the Crescent city, frankly admits the young woman, who District Attorney Brady of San Francisco would like to see back on the coast.

But for all Zey cares, Brady and the other prosecutors can paddle their own canoes in trying to convict the comedian. Although her testimony at former trials of Arbuckle as to certain details of the party was considered one of the main points on which the state based its hope for conviction, Zey now sings a different tune.

Friday, when greeted on Canal Street by a Chronicle representative, Miss Prevost talked freely of the Arbuckle case.

“If you followed the trial closely, big boy,” she said in a bantering tone, “you know they ain’t no case. The would-be reformers just want to ‘pop it’ to Roscoe, and so they painted him as black as they could.

“The truth about the whole thing is that ‘Fatty’ was just giving a little party like many other persons in the moving picture and theatrical world have been accustomed to give. Fact that Miss Rappe was taken seriously ill at this party and died shortly after naturally was considered to be a result of the party.

“Personally, I think Arbuckle was absolutely innocent of any direct causes of her death. It is true a gay time was had by all, but I do not think the fun-making should have been construed as a wild orgy, for this certainly was not the case.

“Roscoe is more to be pitied than condemned. He was really a victim of circumstances. The fact that he was one of the most famous and most widely known comedians in the world naturally resulted in his being the center of publicity. Had the party been given by some lesser light in all probability little would have been said or written about it.”


[1] “New Orleans Search Proves Fruitless,” Minneapolis Tribune, 12 February 1922, 11.

[2] United Press, “Arbuckle Will Face Third Trial Monday [. . .] Witness Doing Well,” Ft. Wayne Sentinel, 12 March 1922, 1.

“Fighting” Bob Shuler and the marketability of Virginia Rappe

During the 1920s and ‘30s, the radio evangelist Robert P. Shuler was known for his controversial broadcasts from his Southern Methodist church in Los Angeles, California. Known as “Fighting Bob,” Shuler attracted a large following for his vitriolic attacks on corrupt politicians during the Prohibition Era. Before the advent of radio, however, Shuler’s medium was the pulpit and pamphlets like the one that follows.

Shuler was one of the clergymen who exerted a major influence on the motion picture industry given his proximity to Hollywood. The appointment of Will H. Hays as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in January 1922, just days before the second Arbuckle trial, was intended to placate those who, like Shuler, demanded that the movie industry be subjected to regulation and censorship.

Shuler took a special interest in the Arbuckle case. Most of his fellow clerics had moved on from the case even before the first trial began in mid-November 1921. Some, such as Billy Sunday, had virtually exonerated Arbuckle. Others distanced themselves from Virginia Rappe, after Arbuckle’s lawyers began to leak information revealing her “past” in October. For Shuler, however, Rappe’s past wasn’t the point. To him it didn’t matter if she was a “fallen woman” or that she consented to enter room 1219. Rappe was, ironically, still a featured actress in one of Shuler’s pamphlet, one that was rushed out in the wake of the Arbuckle party.

Following the hung jury of the first trial in December 1921, Shuler wrote A Deadly Comparison, which is one of the longest and most eloquent tracts that specifically targets Arbuckle and the motion picture executives who funded his defense. Shuler wasn’t known to be anti-Semitic nor did he decry the “Jewish business interests” that largely ran the movie-making industry, which was common in the propaganda of the revived Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. But one will give pause though when reading his repeated rhetorical references to “shekels”.


Roscoe Arbuckle

From A Deadly Comparison (1922)

Rev. Robert Shuler, Trinity Methodist Church, Los Angeles[1]

I do not believe Roscoe Arbuckle deliberately murdered Virginia Rappe. That he was directly and absolutely responsible for her death, I am certain, and I think there are very few, indeed, who doubt that fact for a moment. I think Arbuckle was half drunk when the pitiful tragedy was enacted. I am sure Miss Rappe was also intoxicated. Thanks to our frank newspapers, everybody knows why Roscoe Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe were in a room together for almost an hour. Whether by force or by her consent, the world may never know, but we all know what crime against virtue and morality was therein enacted. Then came the end—the death of Virginia Rappe.

I confess that I myself have been as innocent as a new born babe in the face of conditions that ought to shock the very world and stir humanity to revolt. I have been a preacher and have not ferreted into the situation that has of late months forced itself upon the public. The facts have dawned upon me as a horrible revelation.

We now come face to face with the information that such parties as Fatty Arbuckle had in San Francisco have been the common and ordinary affairs of every day social life among the movie people. The movie folk have been so bold and brazen as to defend themselves on the ground that they are not ordinary mortals and should not be restricted by the usages and customs of ordinary life. We hear of the “eccentricities of genius.” We are told that the movie people are “temperamental,” and must have their wine and cigarettes, their pajama parties and loose relations because of their distinctive artistic peculiarities. One defender goes so far as to declare that the law should not require marriage among the movie folk and that the Bohemian community is their ideal abode. Daily we note divorce scandals that would seem to support his contention.

On top of this revelation, we find Arbuckle’s drunken carousal his crime against decency and morality, whether over the protest of by the consent of his victim, and the part he took in the death of the girl in question defended almost universally by the movie people, while not as prominent star or producer had come out, that we have noticed, to brand his acts as infamous. A large fund has been raised among the movie profession for his defense and one of the most successful criminal lawyers in California, when it comes to freeing murderers and rapists, has been retained by the movie people for the purpose of “white-washing” Fatty Arbuckle.

The attitude of the movie luminaries toward the marriage relation; their continuous “souse” divorce and scandal; their quarter of a century of screened sex appeal, itself a diagnosis of the condition back of the film; their attitude toward those of their number who, like Fatty Arbuckle, have insulted and outraged every decent sentiment of virtuous idealism; their insistent demand that they be left unrestricted by the American public to practice their “personal liberty” doctrine in deportment as well as in the products of their art, the evident looseness that has sprung up among them; their booze parties; their cigarette smoking beauties; their behavior as reported by scores who live neighbor to their studios; their refusal to brand such men as Arbuckle and kick them out; their disposition to pass over without criticism such a crime as the San Francisco crime; especially their willingness to defend the criminal with their money; all has forced me against my will and over my protest to believe that a majority of the movie crowd are of the same stripe as this comedian and that they see the necessity of saving his hide in order to save their own.

Not for a moment would I accuse all movie people of being immoral. I have until recently stubbornly declared that I believed the immoral element, although entirely too large, to be far in the minority. But I have been forced to revise my opinion and I have come to the deliberate conclusion that the extraordinary movie actor and actress, whose life is chaste and clean, whose deportment socially and otherwise is a blessing and help to American standards of life, whose moral standards are such as that they give support to chastity ad purity in the relations of men and women are not in the majority. That there are scores and hundreds of movie actors and actresses who are clean I am absolutely confident, but that they are today in the minority in their profession I have been forced to concede much as I hate to make such a concession.

Perhaps there is no single proof of this fact more pronounced than that they persist in the battle, against the Christian forces of America, to maintain their industry outside the pale of sane and safe regulation for the protection of public morals. There can be but one reason why they make such a fight: certainly, if they did not desire to produce that which would tarnish and stain the morals of the young, they would have no cause to make a concerted attack upon the efforts sponsored by Christian citizens to protect the child life of the land from the immoral in their films. If they did not desire to sell the salacious and suggestive, they could not for a moment object to a sane effort on the part of Christian men and women to rid the film of the salacious and suggestive. They have put their “personal liberty” over against public safety, much as the old saloon man and brewer did. And in doing so, they have not only committed themselves, but they convicted themselves as well. If you will seek for the fountain of this public attitude, you will find it in the private life of those assuming it. Certainly, Fatty Arbuckle does not believe in commissions for censorship, in regulation, in laws for the protection of the public. We know the reason why, for his story is in the newspapers. I think you will have no trouble in recognizing that he is a most splendid example of a type, a most certain sample of a variety of folk who have decided to be the independent authors of their own standards of morality or immorality, without regard to or respect for the public.

The manner of fostering upon the public the menacing doctrine of “personal liberty” is also a grave commentary upon the people who have adopted it. Just as slavery sought to maintain itself by bribes, in that the annihilation of the industry would bankrupt the nation; just as the brewers and distillers flung their threat of withdrawing their money bags; just as white slavery screwed its vice of money pressure when the houses of justice were after it; so the movies have threatened Los Angeles, in a recent censorship fight, with financial ruin if they are not permitted to have their own way. Great and startling headlines announced that they would move away and carry their millions with them if the public were given protection from the vicious in their wares. They approached businessmen with their money cudgel and cowed them into submission. They brought their gold to bear upon business and social organizations and whipped them into line. They used their abnormal advertising budgets to line the newspapers of this city solidly for their private interests and against the public welfare. In this policy, they followed with precision the well-defined paths over which every menacing agency has pushed its wa in an effort to profit personally from the wounding of idealism and the lowering of moral standards. Unfortunately, we have not had enough backbone in manhood and fearlessness in womanhood in this city to mee their attack and defend our sons and daughters against their greed. Their shekels sounded so loudly as that they drowned our love for little children and our interest in their purity in thought and life. And matching this attitude of the movie people in Los Angeles in the censorship fight comes a like stand with their dollars in their efforts to free Fatty Arbuckle and turn him loose upon the public an acceptable star, though the criminal that the whole world knows him to be. Again they type true. Again they measure up to their sample.

If a man should sin against industry in California as Fatty Arbuckle has sinned against society, no man would dare lift his voice in his defense. Fortunately for Fatty, he has only killed a woman, after defiling her body and spitting in the face of all decency. With the movies’ money to the rescue, he is virtually assured of his liberty and he will again come into Los Angeles to be kissed b his kind, a conqueror, a star. But had his crime been against a factory, had he blowed[2] up a ten-story building, had he interfered with business, his would have been a far different story. And again Fatty becomes a sample; for should the movie industry threaten the hogs or cattle or even chickens of California as they threaten the moral character of our sons and daughters, they would find the chamber of commerce, the business and industrial organizations after their scalp in true earnests. But Fatty and his movie cohorts have a great secret. Virginia Rappe dead and defenseless has no money value. Even her character may be torn to shreds, and allis well for she is dead. Just so the moral character of the young of Los Angeles is not worth $10.79 per school girl. It has no cash value. Factories and skyscrapers are valuable and Fatty dare not attack them. Hogs, cattle, and chickens are valuable and the movie people must not interfere with them. Herein is the sickening secret known to the movie world and practiced most perfectly.

Again I have drawn a deadly parallel, but who dares deny it. The loaf of bread is censored. The bottle of milk is censored. The factory must face a commission for the protection of life and limb. The railroad must deal with a commission for the protection of public interests. The bank must account to a like commission. We elect a board of education, a commission on our schools. The movie business stands alone today with the unbridled privilege of exploiting for grate receipts. The reason is that all they threaten is character, idealism, manhood, womanhood, and here there is no cash value. Money has talked in the censorship fight. Money is talking in the Arbuckle trial. Ah, gold is eloquent, indeed!

They have taken Fatty off the screen, you say. Yes, but not because of any antagonism to Fatty’s crime, as their attitude clearly denotes, but for the protection of their gate receipts which were suddenly imperiled by the indignation that swept the nation following the San Francisco tragedy. And now the newspapers have announced (their newspapers, you understand) that their money is flowing into an immense fund to clear the comedian, and whether or not his pictures will go back upon the screen depends upon the verdict of the jury. That jury will only pass upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant, charged with manslaughter, and the public must never forget that, unfortunately, the history of such cases in America, where unlimited money is set in motion, is not very hopeful for justice. That jury will have nothing to say as to that drunken party, as to the crime against womanhood, against virtue, against decency, committed in that room, either by the consent or over the protest of the victim. The pictures of Fatty Arbuckle will go back and become the sensation of the movie world for the next twelve, if that jury says “not guilty,” despite the fact that all men know the filth and viciousness of the circumstances attending that party.

It is the common understanding that the ordinary movie man or woman considers Fatty as unfortunate. The newspapers controlled by their abnormal advertisers, are so picturing him. He is likened to a “big, naughty boy,”[3] who, unfortunately, got caught. There is no blame attached to the party by his fellow movie stars. There is no condemnation for what happened in that room is unspeakable. We are told that he played in “hard luck.” Such an attitude can be a commentary on but one thing: An all but total loss of ideals; an all but absolute annihilation of moral standards.

In conclusion, I desire to reiterate what I have so often said: The movie is here to stay. We need it, if it can be controlled for decency and morality, for right and humanity’s welfare. It is a great educational agency. It has to do with the very motives or fountains of life and thereby becomes extremely beneficial or of limitless danger. Guarded and guided, controlled and directed, the movie has no confines to its appeal for the better things. Left to the doctrine of license, its menacing power will overwhelm American idealism within another decade. It is best understood by a study of the people who are behind and in it and for this reason I have drawn the deadly parallel and stated the frank, blunt, cold conclusions which you have heard. It is up to the people. Unfortunately, the movie industry is run a strictly commercial basis. It has no character. It has only a purse. In the censorship fight its leaders had the nerve to ask the Los Angeles chamber of commerce to make the box office receipts the bill of health for the industry. Such a pernicious doctrine will do nothing less than wreck, unless the people act.

Here are the ridiculous high places in Fatty’s trial: “Fatty” finds Virginia Rappe on the floor in mortal agony. He tenderly places her on his bed and locks the bedroom door. He ministers to her in gallant fashion during almost an hour of excruciating agony without calling for help from the adjoining room where her friends and his are gathered, phoning for a doctor or asking for other assistance. At last her friends begin to knock on the door and he lets them in, announces that Virginia is sick and proceeds to place chunks of ice on her nude body. And when he is accused of an awful crime, he locks the story of his good Samaritan activities in his own heart and, though charged with the act of a fiend, does not so much as tell his closest friend until the trial comes on. His lawyer declares that he kept this secret of his chivalry lest the public mob him. The fabrication is not even artistic. It is too crude for an amateur. It is as full of holes as a sieve.

Beautiful story! And the movie people are back of it with their cash. No wonder the prosecuting attorney remarked before the trial concluded that a failure to convict would prove that “jails were builded [sic] for the poor.”[4] He further went on record as declaring that his efforts to secure evidence were blocked at every turn by this financially builded [sic] machine of moviedom, set in motion for the purification of the reputation of one of its most brilliant stars. Thus movie gold in California had defied justice; mocked womanhood, standing the presence of her defiled and dead sister; sneered its contempt in the face of decent social demands; laughed to scorn idealism and morality and battered down the very citadels of childhood’s worshipful faith. The brutal force of clinking shekels has been felt in California, until our social order has trembled to its foundations.

But the mockery of justice that has attended this carnival of shame has not wiped out the record. What a tutor in idealism and morality is “Fatty” Arbuckle, clothed in his pajamas, reigning king in the Belshazzar feast of a San Francisco hotel, where looseness, debauch, drunkenness and filth run riot!

The newspapers have hinted at the “dog parties” of filmdom.[5] No, I can’t tell you about them. There is no language that I could use, howeverncarefully selected the wording, that would fitly describe those parties and this pamphlet go through the United States mails. Picture the most degrading and nauseating scene that could possible by enacted before a mixed audience, and you have not outdone the facts. These are the people who are playing upon the emotional fountains and motives of growing boys and girls in this Christian nation. God forgive us when we train our children for life under the tutorage of those who go the way of the Arbuckle “dog party.”

They all but washed “Fatty” and in the second trial will no doubt complete the renovation, but American fathers and mothers stand horrified before the evidence of that trial. The guests are pictured chasing each other through hallways and bedrooms, through bathrooms and parlors, clad in sleeping attire and undergarments, dancing with each other in such garbs, drinking, smoking, swearing, telling vile stories, without regard to sex or convention, or morality, or decency. Yes, it is all in the wide open now, this disgusting, putrid, filthy mess, amazing in its slime, even though “Fatty” has virtually secured his gold-bought liberty.

And no one denies that such filth, that such disgusting behavior, that such defiance of morality and chastity constitute the “thrills” and “high touches” of the ordinary booze party of filmdom. “Fatty’s” San Francisco party was one of the many, a splendid sample, a glorious success, had not an “accident occurred” in which we are given to understand “Fatty” played in “hard luck.: In other such parties leading luminaries have been more fortunate and the “accidents” that occurred were not so disastrous. There are on the record an instance or two where the ambulance was needed and the hospital called into play, but this seems to haven the first straight killing accomplished.

The battle is just a step away if not already upon us. It is Idealism vs. Pelf.[6] It is the same fight that stained America red with blood back in the sixties. It is the same fight waged by womanhood and real men against the booze industry. It is the same fight that the sons and daughters of Christianity put up against white slavery. It is the fight for the preservation of society, the maintenance of right and justice, the saving of American ideals from the ravenous lust for revenues. The gate receipts have decreed that purity, that virtue, that cleanliness must give way before the clink of coin, and when the society resents this brutal rape of idealism, the yellow monarch marches forth to bribe, to buy, to intimidate; to win with the rattle of shekels, whether it be in a court, or a city council, an effort to bring a star to justice or an attempt to sucre freedom from filth for the eyes of little children, by appointment of a commission of censors.

In this battle that must be joined if civilization is to survive, the film folk have not only resurrected the sword of gold, so tremendously used by the liquor forces in their last stand, but the bozze-wet arguments of that battlefield have found for themselves a new champion. The doctrine of license; the “personal liberty” plea of those whose stomachs in the old liquor days were far more important than society’s welfare; the battle against restriction, against regulation, against interference for public good. This is the new battle cry of filmdom, revamped and revarnished. Again the ghost of that old man straw in the wet days of yore spoke eloquently of blue laws championed by long-haired fanatics who would deprive mankind of all liberty. There is nothing new in this fight. It is as old as slavery, as old as booze, as old as license, as old as lust, as old as greed, as old as the seeds of hell.

Robert Shuler in the witness chair during a 1929 libel suit (Calisphere)

[1] Adapted from a reprint in the Enid [OK] Daily Eagle, March 5, 1922, the day before Will Hays assumed his new job as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

[2] Shuler’s spellings, which are consistent with Southern idioms, have been retained.

[3] An allusion to the pronouncements of Mabel Normand, Alice Lake, and others who had worked with Arbuckle.

[4] Shuler is quoting San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady.

[5] dog party, i.e., film colony slang for booze party; also called a “monkey dinner.”

[6] pelf, money earned in a disreputable or dishonest way.

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.

100 years ago today: The third Arbuckle trial jury sworn in

On St. Patrick’s Day 1922, eight men and four women—plus two alternates—were sworn in to judge whether Roscoe Arbuckle was guilty or innocent of the manslaughter death of Virginia Rappe. Fifty-one prospective jurors had been interrogated by prosecutors and defense lawyers for biases, either pro or con, as well as evidence of the kind of celebrity fanaticism that neither side would have wanted. It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the Bay area to have been unaware of the previous two trials though many would protest that they had not been influenced by news coverage.

Rumors of witnesses being paid by the defense circulated in San Francisco and Los Angeles—and Chicago, where Arbuckle’s lawyer, Albert Sabath, located new witnesses who would allege that Rappe had previously suffered from abdominal pains, hysteria, and the birth of an illegitimate child.

As the jury was being chosen, San Francisco’s newspapers reported on witness depositions by individuals such as “Butch” Carroll, the owner of a saloon in Chicago where Rappe had once been a chanteuse. Many of these witnesses weren’t called in court but the depositions made news and were to Arbuckle’s benefit before the jury was sequestered in the Hotel Washington and subjected to censorship of anything related to the case.

On March 16, the last of the witnesses was deposed, Edward J. Byrne, a carpenter. He claimed to have once lived in the same house as Rappe and her grandmother—meaning he was a tenant in the same building. He claimed that in 1907 he witnessed Rappe suffering from abdominal pains while her grandmother attempted to quiet her. He said that Rappe had torn most of her clothes off and screamed at her grandmother to stop when the latter tried to prevent her from doing so.

“Miss Rappe,” he said, “was afraid of surgery and no doctor was summoned.”

Like prospective jurors, defense attorneys needed their witnesses to meet certain criteria, a kind of punch list of talking points that would correlate with what Rappe did in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921.

Despite the sometimes numbing nature of these depositions and testimony, which previously the prosecutors had complained were excessive and absurd, the defense trusted that their witnesses would outnumber and drown out the “character” witnesses whom the prosecution had deposed.

Rappe, whether Arbuckle’s victim or not, was on trial now for the third time as much as he was.

Source: Newspapers.com.

Was Virginia Rappe in therapy?

Dr. Victor La Tour, the “metaphysician” and psychologist—in the nascent field of applied psychology—is rarely mentioned or discussed in previous Arbuckle case narratives though he testified for the prosecution at the first Arbuckle trial as did his wife Blanche La Tour. In 1920, La Tour had treated Virginia Rappe for a nervous condition. His wife claimed that Rappe had been to his office on ten occasions. His treatment likely coincided with Rappe’s exercise and weight-loss program that occupied her throughout the summer and fall of that year.

Under cross-examination, Arbuckle’s lawyers tried to pin down Dr. La Tour on Rappe’s physical condition in order to support their assertion that Rappe suffered from a bladder disease.

Undoubtedly coached by two assistant district attorneys, La Tour and his wife managed to avoid falling into any traps that would have Rappe being treated for an organic condition. The kind of medicine that a metaphysician practiced promised to cure what conventional doctors could not in the early twentieth century—that included a host of chronic conditions, including cystitis and pelvic pain.

A man in his early fifties, Dr. La Tour’s advertisements in Holly Leaves and the Hollywood Citizen described him as a Ph.D., psychic advisor, healer, teacher, and author of books that “HELP and Heal,” including his latest title, The New Life Science, “a rational treatise on practical metaphysics.” His office on Hollywood Boulevard was called the “Home of Truth” that promised “a home of the Universal, a place of rest, prayer and meditation,” where everyone “regardless of creed, cult or nationality is invited to take advantage of the benevolent influence of this institution.”

A 1917 testimonial in the Santa Barbara Morning Press (CDNC)

The Metaphysical Magazine of the 1890s published many essays about the core philosophy of the metaphysician, which asserted that human beings suffered a range of mental and psychosomatic disorders that were self-inflicted delusions—the “psychic factor of the organism.” The metaphysician’s purpose was to impress upon the sufferer that it was not the physical condition that regulated mental state, but the other way around.

“The human mind is so constructed that it cannot be entirely and permanently deceived,” it was stated in the magazine’s Healing Philosophy. “In the midst of the deepest delusion there is an internal “something” that speaks of hope and forces conviction that impels thought in the direction of salvation from the impending disasters.” One saw a metaphysician when “drug doctors”—that is, conventional “licentiate” physicians—had no drugs that could treat the illness. Metaphysicians, however, offered alternative treatments, chief among them hypnosis, seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a panacea.

Dr. La Tour was undoubtedly in the tradition—if not a student—of the flamboyant occultist Alexander J. McIvor-Tyndall, who flourished in Chicago during the World’s Fair and afterward in Los Angeles from 1895 to 1905. As “Professor Tyndall”, he gave séances, read palms, and performed such feats as driving a horse and carriage blindfolded at breakneck speed through the crowded city streets. Later, as “Dr. McIvor-Tyndall”, he styled himself as a psychologist and metaphysician. He opened an institute for teaching on “Self-Culture” and lectured on such subjects as “The Psychic Wave” of mental unrest and “The Psychology of Women’s Rights”—often accompanied by a violinist.

Dr. La Tour surely filled the void Dr. McIvor-Tyndall left in Los Angeles. La Tour gave lectures himself and even appropriated much of the other’s mantle including his book Cosmic Consciousness: The Man-God whom We Await and his pen name “Ali Nomad”. La Tour was also entrepreneurial. He attempted to establish a health colony in Arizona which led to his 1918 arrest for the petty embezzlement of $50 paid by a female student, patient, or both who “did not derive the benefit from the lessons that she was promised.”

Despite practicing “pseudoscience” and even “quackery,” on a practical level Dr. La Tour served his patients much like a modern psychiatrist or life coach and Hollywood in the silent era provided plenty of patients. In Rappe’s case, La Tour’s testimony suggests he saw her for a short time. But his memories of her—without the prosecution’s guardrails—suggest he knew his patient better and longer—or he exaggerated them.

Source: Hollywood Citizen, 1918 (Newspapers.com)

The following piece from the Tacoma Sunday Ledger quotes Dr. La Tour at length during a lecture series that covered such topics as “how to be a millionaire” and “how to live to be 100 years old.” He obviously inserts himself. It is hard to imagine him waving back at Rappe as she is chauffeured away to San Francisco. It made for a better story. Nevertheless, his personal opinion of Rappe might have some basis in fact from having talked to her during his sessions.

His describing her as Jewish, for example, may have started with something she mentioned about her origins. Or it could simply be something he assumed, based on the racialist stereotyping common then (Irish ancestry explained an alcoholic; an assimilated Jewish woman would be prone to neuroses, and so on.) given her invented name, which he heard as Rappé.

The article also raises a few other questions: Was Rappe in an abusive relationship with Henry Lehrman? Was it Lehrman’s suggestion that she go to San Francisco to see Arbuckle? Was there the hope of a contract? Was there any quid pro quo?


Film City Scored by Psychologist: Dr. LaTour Warns Tacoma Girls against Hollywood; Tells of Experiences

Dr. Victor LaTour who, with Helen St. Albans, is giving a series of lectures at the Masonic Temple on Psychology, ending Tuesday, July 8. was a psycho-analyst in Hollywood for many years. Dr. LaTour declares he sounded warning to three movie stars who met unnatural deaths. He says he warned Virginia Rappe, beautiful film star, whose death followed a “gay party” given by Roscoe Arbuckle, of her untimely death. He was called as a witness in the Arbuckle case in defense of Miss Rappe.

“Even though you have youth, beauty, brains, histrionic ability and money, do not dissipate these attributes by endeavoring to get in the movies,” counsels the psycho-analyst. “Beautiful young women by the hundreds have lost everything and have ruined their lives, scores of them meeting untimely deaths, because of their mad search after fame in Hollywood. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce issued warning to be published all over the country that over 400 persons a day were arriving in the film colony hoping to get on. Old, young, fat, thin, blonde, brunette, men and women of all kinds, with their meager savings of years of toil after tireless effort, to go back to their home town ‘broke,’ disheartened and disillusioned,” stated the psychologists.

Warns Virginia Rappe

“Virginia Rappe, a beautiful young girl, who was then a star in Henry Lehrman productions and who was endeavoring to keep her hard-won laurels, came to me distraught, with nerves snapping, for she was naturally high strung and temperamental, a French Jewess. She needed my help and sought it, but was then leaving on the fatal trip to San Francisco where she met her death. The last I saw of her she was waving a goodbye as the party drove off in the expensive car. Some uncanny facts in the case are that all the men in the Arbuckle part have since met violent deaths except Arbuckle. Miss Rappe went to San Francisco with the idea of getting a contract from Arbuckle and she was hoping that during the evening of conviviality she would succeed. I warned her not to go and also to pull away from Henry Lehrman, who was on a trip to New York at the time and was keeping the wires hot, back and forth, in regard to this contract. The beautiful star was brought back to Hollywood in that tragic way, her life snapped out at its very beginning.

“Miss Nixon from Loreta, Tex., who I warned, was a beautiful young girl of Spanish type, a school teacher, with all of the fire and romance of her Spanish ancestors. I was called to see her late one night by the clerk of the Clark Hotel. She ws in a fit of hysteria over a love affair with a well-known producer and director of the film colony. After quieting her, which took a little time, I heard her story of her love affair and as we talked, I drew from her a tale the fact that she had a pistol, some poison and a wonderful jeweled dagger which was a family heirloom. She had decided to commit suicide with one of these three possessions.

Gets Pistol from Her

“I managed to get away from her the pistol and the poison, but she would not part with the jeweled dagger as there was sentiment connected with it. She told me in the course of the discussion that one of her forebears, who had a disappointment in a love affair, had stabbed her lover with this same dagger.  I told her to go back to her little home town in Texas, but she would not give up her sweetheart, although I counselled her to stop all correspondence with the man. One day she ran away to Chicago, met him there in the Morrison Hotel, and stabbed herself with the jeweled dagger in the crowded lobby, in the presence of her sweetheart. I had warned her that if she did not leave him she would not live one year.

“The third girl whom I warned, who met a tragic end, was from Louisville, KY.—a beautiful Southern girl, who moved in the best society of that city. She was talented, an actress with a wonderful personality, and she wanted to be good. The latter wish thoroughly dominated her consciousness. Because of the difficulties and the barriers of her success, which confronted her in every direction, she began to drink alcohol very heavily. She had boasted to her friends that she would ‘get in’ and had taken that vow upon herself. After tireless effort and searching, when she finally realized her ideals would have to be given up in order to ‘get in,’ she committed suicide and was found dead in an apartment in the center of Hollywood.

“These are not the only cases in which I know the intimate details the trials and struggles of the girls who come to Hollywood to ‘get in’ as I warn all movie-struck girls of Tacoma to remain in their home city and live useful lives with their friends and families.”

Source: Tacoma Daily Ledger, 6 July 1924, 6-A.


Rappe and friends in The Picture Show, 1919

To theorists Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, photos of individuals have a spectral quality where it’s the photograph that is looking at us from a fixed moment in the past. A photo of Virginia Rappe with two of her friends provides a good example of that quality.

Source: Lantern (https://lantern.mediahist.org/)

The more prominent of the two is the actress Louise Glaum, who, when The Picture Show published the photo in November 1919, had just made or was making such motion pictures as The Lone Wolf’s Daughter (1919), Sex (1919) and Love (1920). These and other films made Glaum Theda Bara’s rival for the title of Hollywood’s leading vamp.

During this time, too, Glaum, was also seen around Los Angeles in Rappe’s company. That they were friends is known from the reporting of the first Arbuckle trial, when prosecutors tried to get “Miss Glaum“ to testify to Rappe’s health and wellbeing. This required Glaum that come from New York, where she had retired to enjoy her private life and file lawsuits against her former studio.

What she might have said as a rebuttal witness will never be known. But it is not hard to guess. She likely would have told the jury that in all the time she spent with Rappe, she hadn’t seen her drink alcoholic beverages, fall into hysterical fits, tear her clothes off, and the like. Glaum, too, who enjoyed hiking in the Hollywood Hills like Rappe, would have said that Rappe’s physical health was robust.

Being a rebuttal witness, however, would have required subjecting Glaum to cross examination by Gavin McNab or, more likely, Milton Cohen among Arbuckle’s battery of lawyers. This would have exposed her personal life to some degree. Glaum was single, having divorced at an early age. Her nickname was “Weirdy” among the other women in the studio. The lawyers would also probe the depth of her friendship with Rappe. It may have been so casual as to make Glaum out to be a weak witness who really wouldn’t know about Rappe’s wellbeing. Or Rappe may have been closer, like a “lady-in-waiting” in Glaum’s entourage. (Glaum could have known her in Chicago, where Glaum was a stage actress around 1909–11 and Rappe was both a model and aspiring actress herself.) Or Glaum and Rappe may have been—and this is more likely—equal partners in whatever acquaintance they had.

One thing they did have in common were dogs. Glaum had rescued a Boston terrier that she named “Runtie” and Rappe had “Jeff,” her brindle Staffordshire, rescued from director Henry Lehrman’s studio menagerie. In the photo, Rappe’s dog is the center of attention with Rappe flanked by Glaum and the former actress Jean Darnell.

Darnell, too, could have made a good rebuttal witness. She was an actor-turned-gossip-columnist and privy to many Hollywood lives and secrets. Unfortunately for the work of biographers and historians, her own life was kept private. At the time of Rappe’s death, she had already returned to her native Texas as an “exploitation” agent for Goldwyn.

Source: Lantern (https://lantern.mediahist.org/)

Kate Brennan, unsound witness for Arbuckle?

The fingerprints gathered from Room 1219 in the St. Francis Hotel by pioneering criminologist Edward O. Heinrich proved to be among the most contentious evidence presented during the three Arbuckle trials. The defense lawyers challenged this “evidence” on the contention that a hotel chambermaid had thoroughly cleaned Arbuckle’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel so any fingerprints alleged to be those of Arbuckle and Rappe belonged to someone else or were faked.

Heinrich had made his reputation as an expert in handwriting analysis. But his leap into fingerprint analysis, a more complex field, separated him from his fellow forensic “experts”—indeed, the kind that Arbuckle’s defense found to refute the claims that the fingerprints on 1219’s door indicated a struggle between Arbuckle and Rappe.

But let’s return to defense witness Kate Brennan, the 51-year-old chambermaid, whose Irish accent and courtroom demonstrations of how she wiped down the woodwork in room 1219 entertained the courtroom and the reporters during the first trial.

The prosecution dealt with her by putting Heinrich back on the stand. He described finding hairs, hairpins, dust, and, of course, fingerprints in room 1219 that indicated the room had not been cleaned before he began his work on September 16, eleven days after Arbuckle’s ill-fated party.

Brennan’s testimony was seen as theater by Helen Hubbard, the most outspoken of the two jurors who voted to convict, and one reason the first trial ended with a hung jury.

Brennan was brought back again to testify at the second trial in January 1922. This time the prosecution had done “opposition research” on her. They had found that she had been released from the female department of Stockton State Hospital, where she had been a patient since 1909. She had been released from the hospital in 1920 as much “improved” but not “cured.”

Female patients wing of Stockton State Hospital, c. 1920s

The prosecution, however, failed to convince the judge to toss out her testimony on the grounds that she was mentally incompetent. The second trial continued and ended in a hung jury as well, this time 10 to 2 to convict rather than the other way around. What convinced the predominantly male jury that Arbuckle was guilty wasn’t the fingerprint evidence. It was a reading of Arbuckle’s testimony that didn’t agree with earlier statements he made to a Los Angeles Times reporter (in which Arbuckle also made the unguarded admission that he pushed Rappe down on a bed to quiet her).

What wasn’t reported about Brennan was why she had been committed to a mental institution for over a decade. This is an important question because once more it casts light on the credibility of the witnesses the defense called to take the stand. The mental health of Irene Morgan discussed in an earlier blog entry is another case of note. When it was clear that Morgan’s poisoning turned out to be a hoax, the defense didn’t put her on the stand in the later trials. When the prosecution tried to subpoena her in January 1922 for the second trial, she had disappeared.

Kate Brennan, too, disappeared before the third Arbuckle trial and couldn’t be called by either the prosecution or defense. While there was little curiosity about these women afterward, we wanted to know more about them for our book. Brennan may remain the most curious. But there is one intriguing newspaper article from 1904 in the San Francisco Call. It reports that a woman named Kate Brennan had been caught once more desecrating a Catholic church. This Kate Brennan, a former domestic, was known to do this and the pastor refused to press charges because she suffered from “dementia.”

A night at the opera with William Desmond Taylor and Virginia Rappe

Tomorrow, February 1, marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of the actor-director William Desmond Taylor. His unsolved murder, which happened at the time the second Arbuckle trial was concluding, is seen by film historians as the other major scandal that threatened the motion picture industry and required redemption via the creation of the Hays Office—this time drawing in Mabel Normand’s drug addiction and revelations of Taylor’s secret life that were publicly exposed during the subsequent investigation.

The Arbuckle case and Taylor’s murder were discrete events and shared no major or minor players. Though the proximity in time probably led the public to imagine they were related. During the afternoon of February 1, in San Francisco, another jury began deliberations over whether Roscoe Arbuckle had caused the death of Virginia Rappe, and several hours later, in Los Angeles, Taylor was shot in the stomach by a small caliber weapon.

Both the events of Arbuckle’s infamous Labor Day party of September 5, 1921, and the subsequent cold case of Taylor’s murder have inspired numerous books—and those about Taylor are much better. The first, A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of William Desmond Taylor (1990), is by Robert Giroux, a writer better known as the personal friend and publisher of such American poets as John  Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and novelists such as Donald Barthelme and William Golding.

Another serious book on the Taylor shelf is Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery (2004) by the biographer Charles Higham, which uses much new information, including revelations from the Taylorology.com site and, most importantly, the unpublished autobiography of set designer George Hopkins. We took a special interest in his text for an incident he reports from April 4, 1921. On that day, the Chicago Grand Opera Company opened the opera season at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium with a command performance of Verdi’s Otello. The opening, too, was also the social event of the spring, with South Olive Street lined with limousines and the cream of Los Angeles—and Hollywood—society out in force dressed top hats and tails, furs and glittering jewels entering the concert hall.

According to one of Higham’s primary sources, Hopkins’s unpublished autobiography titled “Caught in the Act,” Virginia Rappe was one of the guests in the private loge of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille (p. 80). The others are no less intriguing, among them Paramount Pictures (nee Famous Players-Lasky) producer Jesse Lasky and screenwriter Rupert Hughes. Each paired with their wives though Rappe, apparently, was accompanied by an actor named William Desmond—NOT to be confused with the director William Desmond Taylor, who would have been sitting just a few feet away. (WDT had shown up with his friend and professional associate Hopkins, who was a gay man.)

That Rappe would have been present in such company seems rather bizarre in light of the insulting stories about her character that welled-up following her death. But the evidence suggests that the “best dressed girl in Hollywood” was less an actress and more a young socialite.  Realize, too, that she was a “Chicago girl,” which may have counted for something among people we take as motion picture illuminati. Indeed Rappe’s association with this group suggests a much less rigid social order existed among the film colonists than one would find in east coast society.

Rappe was known to have been a good bridge player. So, it is also possible that she was a simply a guest of Mrs. DeMille. Nevertheless, if Rappe’s presence wasn’t a case of mistaken identity on Hopkin’s part, she may have wanted to get back into the movies with something better than the comedy shorts she had done sporadically for her former boyfriend, Henry Lehrman.

A few weeks later, Rappe was allegedly present at a “Blood Moon” party given by another director who might have helped her, Alan Dwan. In May, William Desmond, the actor and presumed opera companion of Rappe, formed his own production company. As for Rappe, she found a new manager in one Al Semnacher, the man who drove her to San Francisco and on to the St. Francis Hotel.

At this writing, we hope to confirm Hopkin’s mention of Rappe attending Otello with newspaper reporting of the celebrities present that evening, particularly the Los Angeles Examiner, a not so easy newspaper to research since extant copies have been cut up into clippings. What limits us, given what newspapers we can search, is that members of the film colony weren’t considered members of polite society. Motion picture executives, directors, actors, and actresses were still parvenu “extras“ in the Philharmonic Auditorium, which might explain, too, Rappe’s access.

100 Years Ago Today: The second Arbuckle trial jury

The second trial jury was finalized on January 16, 1922 and their names published in the newspapers on the following day. Unlike the first trial’s jury, the new jury was composed of more men, eleven altogether, and one woman. Instead of a thirteenth juror, there were two alternates, one man and one woman.

Gavin McNab, the lead defense attorney, rejected several women on the basis of their eagerness to serve on the Arbuckle jury. Although four women on the first trial voted to acquit Arbuckle of the charge of manslaughter for the death of Virginia Rappe, his thinking had likely changed. After all, the men on the first jury voted to acquit, even the lone male juror who didn’t, Thomas Kilkenny, had for the most part sided with the majority.

We think Kilkenny changed his vote not so much because he believed in Arbuckle’s guilt. When it was clear that his vote didn’t matter, for a hung jury was inevitable, Kilkenny sided with the one woman who consistently cast ballots to convict out of—we think—Irish solidarity and, perhaps, chivalry. After all, the woman who voted to convict, Helen Meany Hubbard, was the daughter of Irish immigrants.

Women serving on juries in California was neither new nor could it be attributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. California already had suffrage since 1911 and women frequently served on juries. The exceptions, however, were the more “indelicate” cases involving murder and sex. But that exception was also falling by the wayside. Indeed, nine women served on a high-profile murder case in Los Angeles—that of Arthur Burch for the love-triangle murder of J. Belton Kennedy, a wealthy insurance broker—which overlapped the first Arbuckle trial and competed for headlines.

The Burch jury also couldn’t come to a consensus and proved, if anything, that women jurors hardly voted as a bloc. They didn’t for the first Arbuckle trial. Four women voted to acquit, three of whom consistently voted Arbuckle as not guilty. In contrast, the men nearly voted in lockstep save for one and only in the end.

As it turned out, the men on the second trial’s jury, although more “traditional” in makeup, would have its own surprises rather than the expected outcome.

The jury for the second Arbuckle trial, 17 January 1922 (Calisphere)