Gestational cystitis and Rappe’s Baby Girl: Nurse Roth speaks out, October 28, 1921

The work-in-progress features a chapter on October 1921. During this time, Arbuckle’s defense team and strategy changed. Frank Dominguez, the comedian’s lead counsel in September, allegedly resigned to pursue his own interests in Los Angeles. But his departure had more to do with his strategy of insinuating that Maude Delmont and Al Semnacher had tried to blackmail Arbuckle with Rappe’s torn undergarments, which they had secreted away to Los Angeles.

Dominguez probably didn’t believe in such a scheme. It only served to further undermine the credibility of Maude Delmont. Once she testified at the preliminary hearing or trial, a masterful cross-examination would destroy the prosecution’s case. No jury would convict Arbuckle after this alleged extortionist, alcoholic, and drug addict was deconstructed in the witness chair.

But this strategy presupposed a crime, that Arbuckle had done something wrong, like raping Virginia Rappe, failing to report a slapstick-worthy accident in the act of consensual intercourse—a horrific embarrassment!—and the like. Such a defense only made the problem worse for Joseph Schenk, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, and others were stakeholders in Arbuckle’s career. They knew that their star comedian had to be completely innocent of any wrong doing, “squeaky clean,” as it were. Thus, there had to be a kind of legal, ethical, and situational “estrangement” from the parttime actress and society girl who, until she suffered her fatal injury, was Arbuckle’s friend, “one of the gang.”

Dominguez’s partner and Arbuckle’s personal lawyer, Milton Cohen, was also part of the comedian’s defense team. Cohen authored the strategy of “deconstructing” Virginia Rappe. He had been her personal attorney and knew more about her than any of his colleagues. That is, he knew that of the many reinvented people in Hollywood, with their different names and confected backstories, Rappe’s was a blank slate. If she didn’t have any skeletons in her closet, he could put them in there.

Dominguez’s successor, Gavin McNab, was readily on board to develop this strategy with Cohen’s counterpart in Chicago, the lawyer Albert Sabath, a close friend of Rappe’s first boyfriend, Harry Barker. The strategy was simple enough: to blame the victim before Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial in November and get it out into the press before jury selection.

Arbuckle’s defense team spent much of October to find witnesses who could turn Rappe’s uterus inside out as it were. They had an immense war chest and weren’t shy about intimidating the District Attorney of San Francisco with how much money they had as the postscript below the following news item makes clear.

The news item in question is the capstone to a wave of such articles that DA Matthew Brady dismissed as “propaganda.” These appeared in various forms published by the Hearst syndicate’s International News Service (so much for the evil William Randolph Hearst meme of so many previous Arbuckle case narratives and biographies).

We devote an earlier blog entry to this topic because of the centrality of the cystitis–pregnancy strategy in getting Arbuckle acquitted in April 1922. Although we can’t fault the law of diminishing returns after three trials, the money spent on his defense didn’t convince enough of the public that Arbuckle was moral, upright, and untainted by his so-called Labor Day “orgy.”

Here, we return to the “propaganda” campaign because of the unusual features of this version from the Los Angeles Evening Herald of October 28, 1921. It gives a description of Rappe’s “daughter,” as though she were a tiny clone of the mother. This article, too, was the first to give a name to Rappe’s bladder disease.

Readers should note that premature infants were considered sideshow oddities in the early twentieth century. Nurse Roth, without any pang of conscience, knows that she would suffer no censure for mentioning that such homunculi were put on display like circus freaks—this along with being such a good friend and confidante to Virginia Rappe.


NURSE REVEALS RAPPE GIRL”S PAST
TELLS LIFE OF WOMAN IN ARBUCKLE TRAGEDY
Attorneys in Chicago Hear Story of Acquaintance of Actress

By International News Service

CHICAGO, Oct. 28.—Shadowed secrets from the hidden past of Virginia Rappe, dead movie actress, were drawn to light today in an effort to clear Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle from responsibility for her death. The dead actress’ early life was revealed with many sordid details by Mrs. Josephine Roth, her lifelong friend.

The revelations included the fact that Virginia had been a mother, her child dying when 5 years old. The most startling statement made by Mrs. Roth was that the actress was in constant danger of a sudden shock.

DRAMATIC STATEMENT

“If I could tell my story to a jury of physicians, ‘Fatty’’ Arbuckle would be freed in 10 minutes,” was her dramatic statement. “Virginia could have died at any time from a sharp fall or even a sudden misstep.”

Her story was told to Assistant State’s Attorney Frank Peska, who represented District Attorney Brady of San Francisco. It was to be repeated later to Attorney Brennan of Arbuckle’s defense counsel, who arrived this afternoon.

Mrs. Roth told her story with tears, in her eyes.

“Virginia’s memory is still so tender,” she said.

CHRONIC AILMENT

She declared that Miss Rappe was a constant sufferer from systitus [sic], a chronic disease of a vital organ. Mrs. Roth, who had acted frequently as nurse to the former model, then described in detail the medical attention given the ailing woman. This treatment had been continued until 1913, when Virginia left Chicago, said Mrs. Roth.

“A baby was born here to Virginia. It was so small and frail, it was placed in an incubator and exhibited at a local amusement place,” said the former nurse.

BEAUTIFUL CHILD

“The child was very beautiful. She had Virginia’s black hair and big black eyes. She died when 5 years of age.”

Other depositions were taken during the day from Miss Virginia Warren, also a nurse; Jay Abrams and a prominent theatrical producer, whose name was withheld.

REPORT UNLMITED FUND AT DISPOSAL OF FATTY ARBUCKLE

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 28—The fight to save Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle from prison today assumed a wider scope with the circulation of the rumor that unlimited money for defense purposes has been placed at the comedian’s command. Lawyers, picked not for price but for the success they have achieved in San Francisco courts, have been engaged to conduct the defense. A nation-wide search for evidence, admittedly costing heavily, was underway today.

Gavin McNab, recently named chief counsel for Arbuckle, has frankly stated a group o{ men with investments in motion pictures have employed him. It was generally believed here that McNab’s fee went high into five figures and perhaps six.

Charles Brennan, another of Arbuckle’s lawyers, expected to reach Chicago tomorrow, in his search for evidence. Later, Brennan is expected to go to New York and Washington, where other witnesses are believed located.

Among those he will see in the east will be Lowell Sherman, Broadway favorite and picture star, who was a guest at Arbuckle’s party preceding Virginia Rappe’s death. The entire story of Virginia Rappe’s life Is being pieced together by the defense as a foundation for a theory that she died from unavoidable causes for which Arbuckle had no responsibility.

Source: Los Angeles Evening Herald, 28 October 1921, A3.

Nurse Josephine Rafferty Roth, infant, and onlooker, ca. 1910s (Private collection)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

100 Years Ago Today: 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: Arbuckle calls Rappe a bum

For most of Saturday, September 10, Roscoe Arbuckle and his pals Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman once again drove north on Highway 4, which is now California 99 and Interstate 5, to San Francisco. Only this time in a much less joyful mood and with company. Arbuckle rode in his Pierce-Arrow which was driven by his chauffeur, and also carried his manager Lou Anger, and Frank Dominguez, his newly appointed attorney. Fishback followed in his car, accompanied by Sherman and Al Semnacher, the late Virginia Rappe’s manager/booking agent.

They had left Los Angeles at 3: 00 a.m., stopped for breakfast in Bakersfield, and reached Fresno at about 11:00 a.m., making good time.

As the two cars were being serviced and refueled at the A.B.C. Garage, an employee heard one of Arbuckle’s companions speaking to Arbuckle. “Say, a motor cop had been following you for a long while.”[1]

“Well,” the comedian retorted, “he’s been following you too.” Then he strolled over to the Hotel Fresno to purchase cigars and the latest papers to see what was being reported about him and Rappe, who was very much on his mind now if she hadn’t been over the past five days.

A desk clerk, Joe Davis, recognized Arbuckle standing by the cigar stand in the hotel lobby. Davis approached the film star and asked, “Well, who was the girl?”

Although outwardly jolly and carefree—like “Fatty” in the movies—Arbuckle took the opportunity to vent about his troubles, as one does with a stranger who one imagines is offering a sympathetic ear. He revealed a little of the man behind the celebrity who, on screen, seemed no more than a fat but lovable simpleton.

After giving the question some thought, Arbuckle lied about Rappe and disparaged her in the same breath. “I don’t know who she was,” he said, “some bum, I guess. They brought her in and we ‘bought a drink,’ and the first thing I knew she was drunk, and we got a room for her and called the manager in order to get a doctor.”

 “We’re going up to find out about this now,” Arbuckle continued, adding that he and his party were due at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But they wouldn’t arrive at the Oakland Ferry for another five hours.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921 (Newspapers.com)

[1] The following is adapted and quoted from “I Don’t Know Who She Was—Some Bum, I Guess,” Arbuckle Says; Sacramento Bee, 10 September 1921, 1; and “Arbuckle to Be Held Pending Probe of Death,” Fresno Morning Republican, 11 September 1921, 1, 6.

Put some ice on it or how to forget about the Coke bottle myth

Roscoe Arbuckle didn’t penetrate Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The origin of what has become a fetish object is an idle speculation made by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon.

As headlines screamed, the rumors flew of a hideously unnatural rape: Arbuckle, enraged at his drunken impotence, had ravaged Virginia with a Coca-Cola bottle, or a champagne bottle, then had repeated the act with a jagged piece of ice . . . or, wasn’t it common knowledge that Arbuckle was exceptionally well-endowed? (28)

The family newspapers of the 1920s didn’t—and wouldn’t—print anything like this. Some did report the original story on which Anger embellishes and gets half wrong: the ice part is true.

On Saturday, September 24, Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe’s manager, testified to an encounter with Arbuckle and his companions in room 1220 of the St. Francis Hotel on the morning after the comedian’s Labor Day 1921 party (i.e., September 6, 1921).

One of many entertaining images from Hollywood Babylon (28)

In the presence of director Fred Fishback and actor Lowell Sherman—who had shared the twelfth-floor suite—as well as Semnacher and the comedian’s chauffeur, Arbuckle shared an anecdote from the day before. After Rappe had been found on his bed in room 1219, suffering from excruciating pain in her lower abdomen and going in and out of consciousness, Arbuckle attempted to wake her up. He returned to room 1219 and pushed a piece or pieces of ice into her vagina. (A bowl of ice was on the bar-buffet table in room 1220.)

Semnacher might have been shocked by Arbuckle’s attempt to make light of what had happened and repressed the memory of it until re-experiencing it in a dream. The way this played out in his appearance at the preliminary investigation in the Women’s Court was given much fanfare. Women’s Court was a special venue of the Police Court of San Francisco that limited the number of men to ensure courtroom decorum for female plaintiffs, witnesses, and spectators. The judge, Sylvain Lazarus, was to decide whether Arbuckle be tried for manslaughter or murder in the Superior Court of San Francisco County.

The District Attorney’s office promised that Semnacher would reveal on the stand that Arbuckle himself had disclosed the manner in which he had injured Virginia Rappe. But this didn’t happen.

Semnacher, in the penultimate moment of his testimony, was pressed by Assistant District Attorney Ira Golden about what he remembered of Arbuckle’s anecdote, specifically, what word did he use in reference to Rappe’s genitalia.

Semnacher, aware of the many women around him, felt uncomfortable saying the word aloud. So, Golden gave Semnacher the option of whispering it to the court reporter.

Semnacher answered, “The word is snatch.”

Golden’s intent wasn’t to present the ice as a weapon but rather to prove that Arbuckle hadn’t been a gentleman at the party and had treated Rappe abominably. This ploy was quickly apprehended by Arbuckle’s chief counsel, Frank Dominguez. As a seasoned criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, he knew that Golden had only made Arbuckle look like a cad and with the hope that such an outrage would sway Judge Lazarus, especially if he wanted to appease the women in his courtroom.

The next day, Sunday, September 25, after a press conference for Arbuckle’s wife, Minta Durfee, Dominguez intimated to a few lucky reporters that he intended to turn the tables on Ira Golden and his boss, District Attorney Matthew Brady. One of them was Edward J. Doherty of the Chicago Tribune. With his “Foxy Grandpa” wink, Dominguez promised that when he cross-examined Semnacher, he would bring another “startling revelation.”

Dominguez promised that the ice would be seen for what it was, the right thing to do for Rappe and much to Arbuckle’s credit. Dominguez intended to present Arbuckle not as “a coarse buffoon, boasting about a horrible thing he had done to a woman, but as a gentleman remarking casually what he had done to bring this woman out of her hysteria.” Dominguez, too, based on sound medical opinion, that what Arbuckle did with the ice, slipping it inside Rappe’s vagina,

had been not only sanctioned but practiced by physicians of all times since the days of Ancient Greece. [. . .] that Arbuckle did not mean his remark to be met with laughter. It was as if he had tried an old remedy, a bit unconventional, perhaps, a bit bizarre, maybe a tad too vulgar to speak about, if you will, but a good remedy, none the less, to cure a headache, or a backache, or a pain in the ear.”[1]

In all likelihood, the wily Dominguez had made it up—but not quite off the top of his head. As ice-making became widespread in the nineteenth century, doctors used pieces of ice to staunch the bleeding and pain of uterine hemorrhages.

Semnacher, perhaps knowing that he had embarrassed Arbuckle, took back what he said about the ice. He testified that he had used the wrong word to describe what the comedian did. He had put the ice on Rappe’s vagina, not in.

Note: Semnacher was one of the few witnesses asked to describe in detail the beverages served at the Labor Day Party. Neither he nor anyone else mentioned that Coca-Cola or champagne had been served. Indeed, the only carbonated beverages he noticed were bottles of orange soda and White Rock Soda, with the topless Psyche on the label admiring her reflection in a pool, an eerie foreshadowing of how Virginia Rappe would be found after tearing off her shirtwaist.

Source: White Rock Beverages

[1] M. D. Tracy, “Arbuckle Tortured Rappe,” Buffalo Times, 25 September 1921, 21.

100 Years Ago Today: The Garden Room, September 5, 1921

The one time that Al Semnacher admitted to entering the bedroom shared by his charges, Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont, was on Labor Day morning. He asked the two women if they wanted breakfast.

Between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m., the party of three took the elevator down to the lobby. If they looked in on the bar, they may have noticed Maxfield Parrish’s painting The Pied Piper over the bar, in which the piper is depicted leading Hamelin’s children to “the place of no return.”

On their way, Semnacher might have stopped at the desk to check for mail and messages. As it became clear later, he had business contacts in town and he may have notified them of his arrival. Then he, Rappe, and Delmont stepped inside the Garden Court.

The Palace’s elegant lounge and dining room on the first floor is much the same as it was a century ago. Breakfast and lunch were served daily under a vast, gilded skylight of opaque glass, which added to the soft but generous light provided by enormous crystal chandeliers. Potted palms and flowering plants were tastefully placed to give the illusion that one dined outdoors.

Amid the sound of muted conversations, the deferential voices of the waiters, the delicate chimes of plates and flatware—these met and maybe some ceased as Semnacher and his companions followed a waiter to a table set for four.Palace Hotel Palm Court 1920_auto_x2_colored_toned

The Garden Room of the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, ca. 1920 (Library of Congress)

Rappe’s presence in the great hotel was hard to miss amid a sea of white tablecloths. She stood out in a light green ensemble in contrast to Maude Delmont’s nondescript black broadcloth dress. Numerous accounts of what Rappe wore on September 5 exist in reportage and court testimony. One of the earliest described each piece as it lay in tatters before a coroner’s jury. Nevertheless, the reporter’s description of both garments reimagines the woman who wore them in life.

Just three yards of heavy crepe of the brilliant but cool green that the Chinese call jade. A two-piece skirt gathered on a belt. A little sleeveless blouse that hung in straight lines over the skirt. The wide armholes corded and a soft collar finishing the modest cut neck. For sleeves the long white ones of an ordinary white silk shirt waist that could be bought in any shop for $5.

What a contrast to the jetted and braided and embroidered and fringed atrocities of the most expensive modiste!

The sort of frock that any girl could have—if she were as clever as Virginia Rappe.

That girl knew what was becoming to her—had a fine color sense—knew the value of accessories. Her plain white Panama hat—the hat that Mrs. Delmont says Arbuckle was “clowning” in when they broke into the room, has a narrow band of jade green ribbon around the crown.

Ivory and jade—that was the color motif—as the designers would say. Just one touch of the show girl—and that hidden away under the ivory and jade. Garters of three-inch black lace, ruffled on silk elastic with a tiny green ribbon flower at the fastening.[1]

The outfit included a cape as well.

No previous narrative written about Virginia Rappe’s breakfast in the Garden Room pauses over this question: What did she and her companions have planned for the few hours that remained of their time in San Francisco? The drive from Selma to the Palace Hotel would have taken no less than four hours and for what? A night in an expensive hotel and breakfast?

According to Al Semnacher, he intended to drive back to Los Angeles in the late afternoon. Since the drive couldn’t be done comfortably in one day, he, Rappe, and Delmont would spend the night in Del Monte, California on the south end of Monterey Bay.

So, back to the question: What did they plan to do with their afternoon, a few hours really given the late breakfast? If Virginia Rappe hadn’t received a note inviting her to Arbuckle’s suite at the St. Francis Hotel, was there an alternate plan? For one to drive hundreds of miles, eight hours in each direction, without an itinerary or intention strains credulity. Without one, San Francisco was nothing more than an expensive, glorified layover, like Selma, in a long drive through the middle of California and then down the coastline. Rappe had seen San Francisco before. She had spent several days there in July 1920, during the same week as the Democratic National Convention. Even Maude Delmont had been to San Francisco. Al Semnacher often had business there.

Lastly, what did Al Semnacher, Virginia Rappe, and Maude Delmont discuss at their table in the Garden Room? That would have been the time to plan their day, the afternoon before them? If Semnacher picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and read from the front page, he could have amused the ladies with a story reporting that a “metaphysical astronomer,” with a certificate from the “Temple of Hashish,” told a Sunday crowd at Coney Island of a celestial event that would occur on Labor Day. Saturn would cross the paths of Jupiter and Mars and have such a deleterious effect on the moon’s tides that the East Coast would be submerged. Times Square could be covered by a foot of water.[2]

Fortunately, the West Coast was on the high ground and the top floor of the St. Francis Hotel a safe space.

[1] “Fate Sealed by the Dress She Made,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1921, 6.

[2] “New York to Be Submerged Today, Avers ‘Professor.’” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 September 1921. 1.

100 Years Ago Today: “A Lovely Time,” September 4, 1921

Al Semnacher’s inland route north took the recently completed California Highway 4, the precursor of U.S. Route 99 and present-day Interstate 5. By the late summer of 1921, the road was concrete-paved and designed for the top speeds of trucks and automobiles.

Highway 4 burrowed through the Newhall Tunnel and then up into the mountains past old Fort Tejon and then on to the oil fields and farmland of Kern County before riding along the majestic Castaic-Tejon Ridge and then twisting down to the first major town, Bakersfield. The rest of the way to Fresno traversed the so-called “Garden of the Sun” of California’s prime, irrigated farmland, the San Joaquin Valley, where, to either side of the road, were miles and miles of croplands, producing raisins, grapes, peaches, figs, nuts, olives, oranges, and other crops. The distance between Selma and Los Angeles is a little over 200 miles or almost halfway to San Francisco via Route 5 out of Stockton. The traffic would have been light in the morning, with occasional trucks and horse-drawn wagons, which Semnacher could easily pass in his Stutz motorcar, which shared the same engine with the two-seater Bearcat. Even though the first rains of the dry California summer had recently fallen, the weekend weather was expected to be fair with temperatures in the upper 70s.

Maude Delmont had a friend in Selma, Mrs. Anna L. Portnell, a divorcée, who was well-known in Fresno County society as a prominent member of the Woman’s Relief Corps and a celebrated bridge player. She later testified at the second Arbuckle trial in January 1922 under the name “Annie Portwell.” As a witness for the defense, she acknowledged that Delmont, Rappe, and Semnacher visited her ranch outside of town and that she took them sight-seeing in her car. During the excursion, Rappe allegedly begged, “Please stop the car if you do not want me to die.” Then Rappe left the car doubled up and drank “a quantity of dark colored liquid from a gin bottle. She said it was an herb tea.”[1]

Mrs. Portnell kept the bottle and produced it for the court. That she had kept such a souvenir of Rappe’s visit for nearly five months aroused no incredulity, at least none that was reported in the press. The purpose of having Mrs. Portnell testify was to further pile on that Rappe, despite being made sick by alcohol, drank it nevertheless. For that reason, as Arbuckle’s lawyers insisted, her getting sick at his Labor Day party was nothing unusual for this woman. Gavin McNab and his colleagues, however, must have had to choose between Rappe’s alcoholism or another of their theories, that she suffered from cystitis. Herbal teas were often prescribed to treat the disease before antibiotics. Alcoholism, of course, was more compelling. (Maude Delmont admitted to bringing a bottle of whiskey with her. She also testified that Rappe and Semnacher didn’t partake.)

Semnacher and Delmont never described what they and Rappe did in Selma, even though it was their only destination and the original plan was to return to Los Angeles. Perhaps they played bridge, since Mrs. Portnell made four and Rappe was herself a skilled player. That changed on Sunday morning, September 4, when Semnacher and his two passengers departed Selma for the long drive to San Francisco. He testified that the new itinerary was Rappe’s idea.

Before leaving Selma, Rappe dropped a postcard in a mailbox informing her “Aunt” Kate Hardebeck that she was having a “lovely time” and that she wasn’t coming home yet.

On Sunday evening, Semnacher and his party checked into the Palace Hotel. He took two adjacent rooms with a connecting door. Rappe and Delmont were to sleep in one room and Semnacher in the other. In the morning they would dress and have breakfast.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle and his party were already ensconced in a corner suite of the St. Francis, rooms 1219–1221, the same suite he occupied in June, with a view of the city that gave him pause. “I’d like to spend the rest of my life just looking out at Geary and Powell streets,” he said then to a reporter. “I’d have to give up a lot of palm trees and flower gardens to do it—but it would be well worth while.”[2]

Neither Roscoe Arbuckle, an inveterate violator of speed limits, nor Al Semnacher got ticketed on their way to San Francisco (Private Collection)

[1] “Selma Woman Testifies at Actor’s Trial: Mrs. Anne Portwell Tells of a Visit of Party During Trip,” Fresno Morning Republican, 26 January 1922, 1.

[2] “Parade Honors Fete Beauties Today,” San Francisco Examiner, 18 June 1921, 13.

100 Years Ago Today: Rappe leaves for Selma, September 3, 1921

On a Saturday morning in September, Virginia Rappe’s new manager—indeed, her first despite being in motion pictures since 1916—arrived in his late model Stutz Model H touring car to pick her up for a weekend trip. She likely placed great hope in him—and in the journey on which they would embark, for Semnacher was one of those people in Hollywood known as an “operator,” who could make small things happen that led to bigger things. He knew a lot of people. He knew Fred Fishback and Roscoe Arbuckle. Whether he knew they too were traveling north to San Francisco, a day ahead of him, will never be known. But it was certainly his business to know as he was always hustling work for his clients and Arbuckle and his entourage were in a position to help.

Al Semnacher was hardly a novice at his work. He had helped aspiring actors and actresses get their starts, first arranging for photography shoots for casting directories, a kind of Sears & Roebuck catalog of talent and faced, with such Hollywood photographers as Fred Hartsook, and then finding work for them as extras or in minor roles.

In 1919, Semnacher opened his first agency with Harry Lichtig as “personal representatives of players and other” in “a general casting business.”[1] The pair represented Lillian Walker, Kenneth Harlan, Pat O’Malley, and Zazu Pitts. Wid’s Daily, the daily newssheet for the motion picture industry,called Semnacher a “hustler Harry” and warned other booking agents to keep an eye on him if they wanted “their laurels.”[2]

Semnacher worked for a time at the John Lancaster booking agency and, in the spring of 1921, went out on his own. Despite his marital problems over the past months—his wife, Lucille, the former personal secretary of the actress Olive Thomas, had left him in a troubled marriage that saw three separations—Semnacher represented a small stable of actors such as the British comedian Fred Goodwins, to which he added Virginia Rappe and her friend Helen Hansen.

A few days earlier, on August 31, Semnacher had encountered Bambina Maude Delmont in front of the Pig ‘n Whistle in downtown Los Angeles.[3] He greeted her with familiarity, as a friend or professional colleague.

“What are you doing?” he asked, according to Delmont.

In the course of telling him, she mentioned that she wanted to go to Fresno, actually, a ranch in the nearby town of Selma, for the weekend. She needed to hitch a ride with someone going north, friendly people who might make for a “pleasure trip.” Semnacher offered his time and car—just like that. “Why, I think I can drive you Saturday,” he said, meaning September 3.

It’s unlikely that Semnacher, a busy man with young actresses in need of work, intended to spend his weekend in Selma or Fresno. This enigma confronts anyone attempting to write about the Arbuckle case because it’s the story that both Semnacher and Delmont recounted later as their original intention. The only really good book thus far, Room 1219, presents Semnacher’s journey as a pleasure trip for himself and his passengers. But this speculation seems almost too careful. Then there is Semnacher’s past relationship with Delmont. She spoke familiarly of Semnacher’s young son, Gordon, suggesting or kidding that the boy come along. How far back did she and Semnacher go?

The “pleasure trip” theory doesn’t take into account that Virginia Rappe was eager to find work and didn’t really have the time to relax in a small town—the “boondocks” to film colony people. She needed to replace the income she had lost as the former live-in mistress and occasional actress for the director Henry Lehrman.

When Semnacher arrived to pick her up, Rappe had packed a suitcase with much more than would be needed for a daytrip to Selma. Rappe’s adoptive “aunt” Kate Hardebeck saw the stuffed suitcase but accepted that “Tootie”—Rappe’s pet name—would be back in a day or two. A lunch basket was also packed for the drive, a little over 200 miles, which could be done in five hours or less.

The only thing left to do was pick up Maude Delmont, at her aunt’s apartment building on Orange Street. Though the two women hadn’t yet met, Delmont’s joining them surely came as a relief to Rappe. It solved the awkward problem of a married man traveling alone with an unmarried woman—for Helen Hansen had, at the last minute, bailed on Semnacher. Delmont as a traveling companion also made Rappe feel more comfortable in a personal way. Since childhood, older, knowing women like Delmont had served as her guardians, chaperones, and mentors in lieu of a mother.

A 1920 Stutz touring car similar to the one that Al Semnacher drove (Library of Congress)

[1] “New Coast Agency,” Wid’s Daily, 9 July 1919, [3].

[2] Harry Burns, “Chit, Chat, and Chatter,” Camera!, 29 June 1919, 7.

[3] The following account is largely based on B. M. Delmont, “Mrs. Delmont Gives Detailed Account of Rappe Tragedy,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1921, 4; Semnacher’s testimony in the transcript of People vs. Arbuckle; and other corroborative sources.

100 Years Ago Today: “Fatty” leaves L.A. for S.F., September 2, 1921

Roscoe Arbuckle and his companions set out from Los Angeles on Friday, September 2, the day before Al Semnacher left with his party of Virginia Rappe and Maude Delmont. Arbuckle, his chauffeur, and, perhaps, the director Fred Fishback took turns driving. The actor Lowell Sherman enjoyed the view from the backseat.

Greg Merritt, in Room 1219, was the first to posit this route, which began on Highway 2 North, the future U.S. Route 101, built atop the old Spanish royal road known as the Camino Real. But this route is conjectural. Arbuckle could have taken the more picturesque coastal route or the quicker inland route to the east that Semnacher took (present-day I-5). The Camino Real, however, would have allowed him to spend the night in Paso Robles, the approximate halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as he had done in June when he drove his custom purple Pierce-Arrow for display in the new San Francisco showroom of its builder, Don Lee.

Such a layover was quite different from the humble Selma ranch where Semnacher’s entourage stayed. Paso Robles boasted a beautiful hotel and curative hot springs. Arbuckle and Sherman could also sample some of the booze they’d packed for the trip. (Fred Fishback didn’t drink. He was, however, a kind of “cheerleader” to paraphrase Malcolm Lowry’s Consul in Under the Volcano.)

Roscoe Arbuckle using a grease gun on his Pierce-Arrow, ca. late 1920 (Newspapers.com)