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

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


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

Edward W. Brown, jury foreman[1]

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inexpert witness shopping (Chicago style) and other random thoughts regarding the third Arbuckle trial

In the wake of the second Arbuckle trial, Chicago lawyer Albert Sabath told the Chicago Tribune that he intended to leave for San Francisco to take part in the upcoming third trial. Undoubtedly, he was waxing in his importance to Arbuckle’s defense. In October 1921, a month before the first trial began, Sabath had deposed a doctor and two nurses on behalf of the Arbuckle defense team, and allowed for highlights of their statements to reach the press. Given other stories out of Chicago at the time, Sabath, too, may have been looking for witnesses who could support the contention that Rappe had a child out of wedlock. San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady called this pre-trial reportage propaganda.

The first trial had been a hung jury: 10 to 2 for acquittal. The more that Rappe’s purported past was heard in court, the greater the doubt was among jury members that Arbuckle had committed a crime. If Rappe had cystitis and other gynecological complications caused by being sexually active since adolescence she would seem more of a victim of her own lifestyle. For any rumors or uncorroborated hearsay to have an effect they needed to be published before the jury was chosen. Once selected the jurors would be sequestered in a hotel and any mention of the Arbuckle case would be scissored from their copies of the San Francisco papers.

Sabath had been retained since September 1921, probably by Arbuckle’s personal lawyer, Milton Cohen, soon after Arbuckle’s arrest. Sabath was in a position to help Arbuckle. His law partner was his uncle, U.S. congressman Adolph Sabath, his father, Joseph Sabath, was a Chicago judge, and Albert was well connected in Chicago society and its underbelly given the people his law office represented. Albert Sabath likely also knew Rappe in life. Her one-time fiancé, Harry Barker, had been one of Sabath’s groomsmen at his January 1914 wedding.

Rappe had no living family and few willing to step forward to contradict anything Sabath’s witnesses said. As the Tribune put it, the defense could “tear to fragments the character of Virginia Rappe, who is dead and cannot speak in her own behalf.” Barker, a friend and business partner in the Sabath family’s real estate holdings in California before and during the Arbuckle case, would have known about some of the blank spots in Rappe’s history, which could then be creatively filled to raise doubts among the jury.

“The vote of 10 to 2 for conviction by the last jury,” Sabath said on February 7, “ended the defense polity of shielding the name of Virginia Rappe. It appears impossible to free Arbuckle and at the same time steer the testimony clear of the facts about Miss Rappe’s condition. We must show the kind of life she led. We must lay bare every shred of information on her past.”[1]

Arbuckle’s lead attorney Gavin McNab, concerned about keeping the defense under his control, declared “Sabath’s sole service for the defense is the gathering of depositions in Chicago. We know nothing of his intended visit to San Francisco or the witness he is supposed to have found. The defense counsel list will remain the same as in the two previous trials.”[2] But Sabath did arrive in San Francisco and brought with him Virginia Warren, one of the nurses he had deposed in October.

Warren’s story—or rather stories—were already being floated in the press during the third week of October 1922. But now, for the third trial, she would be groomed to take the stand.

We will discuss her again in a post marking the hundredth anniversary of her testimony. For the present, we want to editorialize briefly on the quality of Sabath’s witnesses and why McNab consented to having them deposed.

One reason was to replace Harry Barker, who had testified on behalf of Arbuckle at the first trial (see Bit Player #5: The Sweetheart). District Attorney Matthew Brady had already brought charges of perjury against two defense witnesses and was threatening to do the same to Barker, who had faced a withering cross-examination during the first trial which left him looking like a cad if not an outright liar.

To fill this void, Sabath located three more doctors to add to Dr. Maurice Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s deposition was allowed to be read at the first trial. He said he had treated Rappe for cystitis in 1913. One thing the prosecution skipped over during the cross-examination of Dr. Rosenberg’ was his role as a house physician for an infamous Chicago brothel.

An angle that Brady could exploit was that Chicago was known for corruption and organized crime and any defense witnesses from there would be easy to denounce. Arbuckle’s defense understood this as well so they had to be wary of the quality of witnesses Sabath deposed. One such case was John “Butch” Carroll, whose criminal background went back at least to an 1896 murder during a burglary attempt gone wrong.

“Butch” Carroll’ was best known for the saloons he operated on the “levee” of the Chicago River or “West Side.” These were known haunts of Chicago’s underworld, where one risked life and limb, as in the 1908 case of a salesman from Cincinnati who was killed by a stray bullet meant for another man’s wife in a domestic argument.

Carroll’s bars also offered entertainment, typically young, pretty singers wearing short skirts. His Palm Garden, at 948 W. Madison St., also featured a “house of ill repute” on the floors above. One Chicago police chief lost his job because of the payoffs that Carroll and other bar owners arranged so that no one shut them down. Chicago newspapers are rife with criminal cases in which Carroll’s name surfaces, sometimes as a defendant. What they don’t report is the names of their attorneys. Even so, one can assume they had the backing to afford the best lawyers, such as Albert Sabath’s firm.

When Sabath showed “Butch” Carroll photographs of Virgina Rappe, he recognized her. He said she sang in his bar in 1911—which would have been the Palm Garden. It was not the kind of establishment that Harry Barker described taking Rappe to during their courtship, but we can’t discount Carroll’s claim out of hand. Although Rappe wasn’t known for her voice, she could dance. Our research shows that she had an early theatrical career that would have required her to sing as well. Conversely it’s known that her mother, Mabel Rapp, a familiar face among Chicago’s demimonde, had steered her daughter away from this kind of life.

Although he identified Rappe in photographs, whatever else “Butch” Carroll added to Rappe’s history or legend is unknown. His deposition wasn’t used. But what he succeeded in doing for Sabath and for Arbuckle was further assert in newspapers that Rappe was an immoral young woman years before she arrived in the comedian’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel. Achieving the effect of tarnishing her reputation would require more than just one witness and one angle. It also required the temporal space in which to work. Sabath found 1914 to be particularly useful for it is the one year in which Rappe disappears from newspapers after her arrival from Europe in early January 1914. (The last reportage being about her dress, which exposed her underwear from the ankles to just above her knees as she danced the tango with her female companion in an ocean liner’s ballroom.) In that year Dr. Fred A. Van Arsdale claimed he delivered Rappe’s baby. Sabath also deposed two more doctors who claimed to have advised Rappe to stop drinking alcoholic beverages because of abdominal pain. Sabath also found two witnesses who attended a drinking party at which Rappe went into hysterics—rather than anything to do with obstetrics.

Another Sabath witness—or phantom witness—was Estelle Wyatt, described as a “negress” and the “widow of a preacher”. She was quoted, before boarding a train in Cincinnati for Chicago, as having “nursed” Rappe in a South Side Chicago hospital twelve years earlier. She said that Rappe was so grateful for her service that, “up until five years ago, she frequently sent her presents to show her appreciation.”[3]

We took interest in Wyatt since we, the authors, are both from Cincinnati and this is one of two connections that the Arbuckle case has to our hometown. (The other is the resting place of Albert Royal Delmont, Maude Delmont’s first husband.) People of color are mostly absent from the Arbuckle case., except for Wyatt and a contingent of African American clubwomen who had attended the preliminary investigation and may have attended Arbuckle’s subsequent trials. Also, as we noted in a previous blog entry, Virginia Warren was possibly an African American who passed for white given her census data.

Mrs. Wyatt, however, doesn’t have a verifiable Chicago connection and that would make “her” claim about Virginia Rappe suspect. But Wyatt’s existence isn’t. An Estelle Wyatt lived in Cincinnati in 1922 given her real estate transactions in College Hill, which is still a largely middle-class African American suburb a century later. She was a widow according to U.S. Census records from 1930 onward. Her occupations were listed as nursemaid (1930) and seamstress (1940). Her two sons were born in Ohio in 1911 and ’13, respectively and their World War II draft cards indicate Cincinnati as their birthplace.

Our reason for the “scare quotes” is the possibility that the identical stories published in hundreds of newspapers about her leaving Cincinnati to be deposed in Chicago was likely planted—perhaps without her knowledge, consent, or the payoffs that Matthew Brady believed were used to create the battery of Chicago witnesses and depositions he faced.[4]

Photomontage of Roscoe Arbuckle pouring himself (or a revenant Virginia Rappe) a glass of gin, ca. 1921 (Calisphere)

[1] The original wire story appeared variously credited to the Associated Press, Hearst International News Service and the Chicago Tribune-New York Times, idated February 7, 1922.

[2] “New Artuckle Case Witness,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 February 1922, 14.

[3] “Negro Woman Going to Testify Behalf ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle: Negress Says She Nursed Virginia Rappe and That Actress Grateful,” York Daily News-Times, 11 March 1921, 1. This is just one example of many.

[4] An Illinois state attorney and commissioner were present for Sabath’s depositions. We are currently investigating the possibility that these still exist in the state’s archives.

100 Years Ago Today: The bladder with a fuse on top, October 22, 1921

Before meeting with Minta Durfee as she was en route to join her husband in San Francisco, Chicago attorney Albert Sabath had been digging into Virginia Rappe’s earlier life in his city. In doing so, and without ever appearing in a San Francisco courtroom, the former amateur playwright may have done as much as Arbuckle’s lawyers in situ in crafting a counter-narrative that would take the focus off of the movie star. With such musicals as Campus Capers and Hoo-sier Girl to his credit, Sabath had a knack for telling a story and dramatizing the life of Virginia Rappe probably came easily. But the line between real life and poetic license was tailored to the needs of his client.

In effect, Sabath was tasked with reworking Rappe’s adolescence with cooperative defense witnesses who were willing to neatly frame “their” stories as predictive evidence for Rappe’s later behavior, bladder problems, and early death. Sabath merely had to ask the right questions to limit the testimonies to information that would suggest Rappe’s death had been a predestined event and Roscoe Arbuckle was nothing more than a witness with really bad timing. Sabath had the added advantage of knowing firsthand about Rappe, from the time when her Hoosier “fella” was Harry Barker, a friend of his.

Sabath’s investigations on Arbuckle’s behalf went on long enough to dig deep, to find useful and reliable people with stories to tell, elicit, and massage as necessary. Perhaps John Bates was one of Sabath’s candidates. Bates being the man who presented himself as a concerned party inquiring about Rappe’s estate on behalf of her purported orphaned “little girl”. But Bates, could have been an outlier, a freelancer.

After the rumor of the abandoned “daughter” ran its course during the second week of October, the next story that “leaked” was about chronic cystitis that Rappe allegedly suffered in girlhood. On Saturday, October 22, a syndicated article from the International News Service appeared, quoting a nurse named Virginia Warren. “Sensational information,” the piece began, “bearing on the early life of Virginia Rappe,

beautiful movie actress, who died following a party staged by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, has been made in a disposition by Miss Virginia Warren, Chicago nurse, it was revealed today. Miss Warren and Mrs. Josephine Ross [sic], both made depositions to counsel for Arbuckle which are to play an important part in his coming trial. Miss Warren declared she was a nurse in attendance upon Miss Rappe in 1908. At that time, Miss Rappe, only 14, was in a delicate condition and was in the care of Mrs. Ross, in the latter’s apartment near 24th street and Wabash avenue, Chicago, according to Miss Warren.

“I first saw Virginia Rappe in 1908,” Miss Warren said. “I was called as a private nurse to attend her. She was in the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Fogarty [sic], now Mrs. Josephine Ross.

“Miss Rappe was then only 14. She was in a delicate condition. She had been taken to Mrs. Ross’ apartment by her sweet, old grandmother.

“She was also suffering at that time from a bad attack of bladder trouble. On one occasion while she lay on her bed, she suddenly screamed., half rose and clutched at my waist. Her fingers tore into my skin and made deep scratches.

“Then Virginia suddenly grabbed her night gown at the shoulder and almost tore it off her body.

Miss Warren said Miss Rappe told her at that time that her bladder trouble made her violent at times. She said she remained in Mrs. Ross’ home for five days.

Miss Warren said she decided to help Arbuckle because, as she explained, “As a nurse, I know that a girl who has had bladder trouble at 14, and in after years drank to some extent, and possibly neglected herself at times, could easily puncture her bladder. The least strain or twist would do it.”

Mrs. Ross also made a deposition in which she corroborated that of Miss Warren.[1]

Miss Warren, the only African American to testify at one of the Arbuckle trials, covered every facet of the defense’s strategy to divert attention away from Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death.[2] However Warren was talkative and her testimony defied credulity by too closely matching the details of Rappe’s preexisting illnesses to the condition in which she was found in room 1219. It was obvious she had been coached.

Nevertheless, her testimony likely had little effect, few major market newspapers carried the story, and her account varied little from the stories that followed which all sounded suspiciously familiar.

Sheet music for the musical Campus Capers (1910) by Albert Sabath (Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries)

[1] Compiled from International Wire Service, “Say Miss Rappe Was Always Delicate,” Buffalo Enquirer, 22 October 1921, 1; “Virginia Rappe Was Mother At the Age of Fourteen Declares Chicago Nurse,” Topeka State Journal, 22 October 1921, 1; “Miss Rappe’s Early Life Is Now Revealed,” Evening News (Wilkles-Barre), 22 October 1921, 1; and “To Reveal Past of Miss Rappe, Victim of Arbuckle Party,” Coshocton Tribune, 22 October 1921, 1.

[2] Virginia Warren indicated herself as “Mu,” for mulatto on the 1910 census and, in 1920, as white while living with a boarder named “John Williams” who indicated his race as “Mexican,” which, like “Cuban,” was a way for light-skinned African Americans to pass as white.

Bit Player #5: Harry Barker: The “Sweetheart”

. . . a man and a gentleman who tried to clean himself and keep all around him clean.

Gavin McNab, Chief Defense Counsel[1]

Harry Beaconsfield Barker was one of the most effective witnesses called by Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense lawyers during the first Arbuckle trial. His testimony, too, resulted in their first defeat. Two jury members, including its only woman, wouldn’t vote to acquit.

Barker knew Rappe “intimately” for almost five years, from 1910 to 1914, and had not lost touch with her, even after he had moved to San Francisco in 1918 and married in July 1920. For a time, he even lived in the St. Francis Hotel and may have seen her there, a year later, when his wife was about six or seven months pregnant—that is, about June or July 1921. In other words, they were on good terms.

Barker was considered a surprise witness. Arbuckle’s lawyers, led by California’s Democratic kingmaker, Gavin McNab, surely learned of the connection between Rappe and Barker from their colleagues in Chicago. Best of all, Barker was conveniently in San Francisco.

Barker, like Rappe, had gone West. He was called a “Stockton rancher.” Barker, however, had already made a considerable fortune in northern Indiana real estate and, together with other investors from Chicago, hoped to make more speculating on farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

Barker was no stranger to courtrooms. He was mired in another legal battle at the time he was called to the stand to describe his relationship with Virginia Rappe. He and his close friend Albert Sabath, the Chicago lawyer who worked for Arbuckle’s defense, were named in a lawsuit and accused of fraud and conspiracy by a group of Chinese American investors over a large tract of farmland on Mildred Island in the San Joaquin River delta. Their lawsuit amounted to $400,000 in damages (over $6 million adjusted for inflation). The case had progressed from the lower courts and would soon make its way to the California Supreme Court. Making this problem go away may have induced Barker to take the stand and discuss his personal life with Rappe.

Barker’s testimony substantiated the assertion that Rappe had a long history of becoming hysterically ill after only a few drinks, that she suffered excruciating abdominal pains, and, of course, tore her clothes off. He described a handful of incidents. These as well as similar episodes of Rappe’s past behavior that other defense witnesses described seemed to follow the same script, a predictable formula not unlike that of slapstick comedies, such that Rappe’s drinking and stripping and going wild uncannily foreshadowed what happened in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921.

Harry Barker dated Virginia Rappe on and off those years in Chicago. He was about twenty-six years old when he met Rappe in the spring or early summer of 1910, after her brief foray as a chorus girl and vaudeville performer. At the time, he still lived with his widowed mother Rebecca on Michigan Avenue in Groveland Park. She and Barker’s late father were both Russian Jewish emigrants who still spoke Yiddish in the home. The son, however, was born in Chicago in 1885 and had already established himself at the age of twenty-one in 1906 as a real estate broker whose business was largely based in and around the Indiana Harbor region. There he was responsible for many of the new homes “for workers,” as the newspapers described them, built for The Gary Works, the massive steel mill on Lake Michigan. His attention to detail and price almost resulted in his being lost at sea. In 1916, he had traveled into the interior of Panama to inspect the timber holdings of a Chicago syndicate. On his return, however, his motor launch sailed too far out into the Pacific Ocean, ran out of fuel, and went adrift for eighteen hours.[2]

Barker would have appealed to Rappe’s grandmother–guardian. He was the kind of prosperous, middle-class man Rappe might have been attracted to if she were to “settle down” in Chicago rather than pursue a career of her own. But Barker’s appeal to Virginia may have been that he wasn’t so settled and was willing to move to where the opportunities were including having lived out of a suitcase “for a time at the Gary Young Men’s Christian Association.”[3]

It could be said that he lived dangerously and took risks, which also appealed to Rappe. He drove fast cars. He attended the early Indianapolis 500s and drove a fast car himself, described as a “40 horsepower flyer.” In all likelihood, it was in his car that Rappe learned to drive and compete in auto races herself. He also had nothing against the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Barker’s business partner was Adolph Joachim Sabath, the powerful Chicago Democrat who represented the 5th District in Chicago and chaired the Alcoholic Liquor Traffic Committee. Legal and illegal alcohol sales were no mystery to Congressman Sabath, who, with his brother, Judge Joseph Sabath, once operated a saloon in Chicago. Adolph was, unsurprisingly, a “wet” congressman and was a leading opponent of making Chicago and the country “dry”. He rightly predicted that Prohibition would only lead to bootlegging on a national scale—and some of his knowledge came from Harry Barker who, in 1916, served as one of Sabath chief agents in monitoring illicit alcohol sales in the border region between Indiana and Illinois. Adolph’s nephew, the son of his brother, Judge Joseph Sabath, Albert, was his law partner and Arbuckle’s chief lawyer in Chicago. He had likely been retained in the last week of September 1921, if not earlier, to begin the discovery process into Virginia Rappe.

Although none of Barker’s original testimony of November 25, 1921, is preserved in any length, the content and tenor can be pieced together from the reportage.

The surprise witness of the entire case was Barker [“one-time ‘sweetheart’ of the dead girl”]. It revealed a romance of the early days of Virginia Rappe in Chicago. Barker, who now has a ranch in California, and a real estate business in Gary, Ind., was then “on the road.” He met Virginia Rappe, he said, in 1910—when the state contends she was but 13 years old—and “a warm friendship sprang up which lasted four and a half years.”

Barker “made Chicago often” and when he did he “went with Virginia.” Her grandmother usually accompanied them to dinner and the theater, he said. He described dinners ranging from an Italian restaurant where Virginia partook of too much red wine, to the LaSalle hotel, where he met her the last time he saw her in Chicago. He declared [that] he had seen her the last two months before [her] death.

At that time, he admitted on cross-examination, “she was looking her old self—always bright, high spirited and full of fun.”

Barker underwent a grilling cross-examination. The state scored when they brought out that all the times to which he testified that Virginia tore her clothes were while she lived with her grandmother, now dead, and none of them after she went to live with her “aunt,” Mrs. Hardebeck, now living. Barker will likely be questioned further today.[4]

Despite Rappe’s seeming intolerance for alcoholic beverages, despite the “high maintenance” of dating her, Barker still took her out drinking hundreds of times.” In addition to the wine incident, he also described seeing Rappe become hysterical and tear her clothing when she had partaken of liquors in small quantities.

“She had one attack after dinner at Rector’s café in Chicago,” he said.

“Virginia and I were dining together. It was about 7:30 p.m. She drank gin and orange juice.

“Another attack occurred at South Haven, Mich. Her grandmother was with us at the summer resort there. I had not seen her drink anything.

In Chicago I frequently took her to dinner. She often drank liquor at these dinners.

“I took her several times to the Bismarck gardens in Chicago.”

He was asked if he took her with a Mrs. Katherine Fox of Chicago and a “gentleman from Australia” in the Bismarck gardens in 1913.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

“I tried to keep Virginia from drinking,” he said when asked if he had refused to permit Virginia to drink at that party.

In answer to a question as to his visits to cafes with Miss Rappe[,] he declared he had taken her “hundreds of times.”

He denied he had been engaged to Miss Rappe and [that] she had terminated the engagement.

Reverting to the question of liquor[,] he said he could not remember any Chicago café refusing to serve Miss Rappe liquor.[5]

Katherine Fox, for whom Rappe served as a “protégé,” as Gavin McNab sarcastically put it, was Barker’s chief foil for the prosecution. In the following reportage, she responds to Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren here, while tracing Rappe’s life at the time of her association with Barker.

Mrs. Fox repeatedly denied she had ever seen her in pain or in the care of a physician, and had never seen her tear her clothing nor take an intoxicating drink. Mrs. Fox testified she was intimately associated with Miss Rappe during all that time.

“Do you know Harry B. Barker?” U’Ren asked her. She did.

“Was he engaged to Virginia Rappe?”

“Yes, he was.”

“Was that engagement broken?”

“Yes.”

“She broke it?”

“Miss Rappe did.”

“How do you know she broke the engagement?”

“I was present.”[6]

bismarck-gardens-postcard-frontIn addition to denying Fox’s assertion of an engagement, Barker also denied that he had said what Fox overheard in a restaurant ten years before, that “Miss Rappe has not taken a drink yet.”[7] The reportage doesn’t include the context for this remark—also via Mrs. Fox—but it implies that Rappe didn’t drink at the time and may have only started while in Barker’s company, that he introduced her to alcoholic beverages and continued to ply her despite her alleged bizarre behavior that so clearly resembled what happened to her at Arbuckle’s party.

Barker “enumerated at least six occasions where, in his presence, the dinner was disturbed by Virginia becoming hysterical, shrieking in pain and tearing her clothing.”[8] That she had even had two gin and orange juices—the same concoction, coincidentally, that she allegedly imbibed at Arbuckle’s party—surely must have seemed to the prosecution too good to be true for Arbuckle.[9] Such detail surely incited the heated “wrangle between Deputy District Attorney Milton U’Rren and Attorney Milton Cohen, whom the prosecutor charged with ‘coaching’ defense witnesses.”[10]

Coaching aside, the picture that Barker paints shows a man who had invested much time and money into enjoying Rappe’s company hundreds of times. The restaurants he did mention—Bismarck Garden at Broadway and Lake, and Rector’s, an oyster house at Clark and Monroe—were popular, fashionable, and expensive. Barker obviously “courted” the grandmother by attending Thanksgiving Day dinner at her Fullerton Avenue apartment and having her in tow for dinner “usually” means a certain commitment if not patience and suffering on the man’s part.

The South Haven incident would have been an expensive vacation, which included two long day cruises across Lake Michigan and the expense of putting Rappe and her grandmother up in a hotel as well as entertaining them at the town’s many attractions, including theaters, a casino, an opera house, and an amusement park. Even if it wasn’t an engagement ring in testimony, Barker had given Rappe a diamond ring. He did everything that a man might do if he were in love.

Barker’s testimony as to the length of their relationship suggests that it began to fade in 1913, when Rappe’s modeling career was at its height and she had sailed to Europe to attend the autumn fashion shows in Paris. When Rappe returned to Chicago in January 1914 and the LaSalle Hotel, she and Barker distanced themselves further. The Chicago Tribune reported on the marriage of Albert Sabath later that same month. Harry Barker was in the wedding party. If he attended the reception with Virginia Rappe, her name wasn’t mentioned.

Barker’s testimony had a profound effect on the only woman juror, Mrs. Helen Hubbard, who apparently took offense at what probably seemed his caddish betrayal. The resulting hung jury forced a new trial for late January 1922.

Barker was not called to testify at that trial or the third one. The defense found other witnesses who had seen Rappe’s drinking and striptease. Instead, Barker went back to running his businesses. Nevertheless, his name was often invoked during those trials and, especially, the last one, when Arbuckle was acquitted in April 1922.

What Barker had said on the stand at the first trial was not lost or forgotten by Milton U’Ren. In a fiery address to the jury, in which he blasted that they would be just as guilty as Arbuckle if they voted to acquit, he referred to Barker “as a ‘buzzard, snake, skunk and blackguard.’”[11] To this, Gavin McNab responded that Barker was

a man and a gentleman, who tried to be clean himself and keep all around him clean. This man whom the prosecution calls a blackguard was the only mourner at the funeral of Miss Rappe’s mother [sic] and he sacrificed himself financially to pay the expenses of that funeral. Where were Mrs. Fox and others who professed in this court to be such good friends of Miss Rappe? They were not there.[12]

In late December 1921, Barker and the Sabath family enjoyed a small legal victory in the California Supreme Court. But the Mildred Island case, due to the tenaciousness of the plaintiffs, dragged on in the courts until 1932.

[1] “Arbuckle Case Near Jury,” Sioux City Journal, 12 April 1922, 2.

[2] “Harry Barker Home from Panama,” Munster Times, 14 February 1916, 2.

[3] “Says Arbuckle Not Accused by Movie Star,” Fresno Morning Republican, 26 November 1921, 1.

[4] “Arbuckle Case Closes Monday, M’Nab Declares: Rancher and Former Friend of Miss Rappe on Stand,” Oklahoma City Times, 26 November 1921, 16.

[5] “The Past of Virginia Rappe Inquired Into,” Stockton Daily Evening Record, 26 November 1921, 1.

[6] “Impeachment of 2 Arbuckle Witnesses Looms,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 November 1921, 1.

[7] “Defense Will Close Monday for Arbuckle: Stockton Rancher Resumes Testimony,” Sacramento Bee, 26 November 1921, 1.

[8] “Booze Parties Hold Stage in Arbuckle Case: Former Sweetheart of Virginia Rappe Testifies Woman Would Tear Clothing after Drinking Liquor,” Salt Lake Telegram, 27 November 1921, 1.

[9] Some narratives use the term “orange blossom” to describe “Rappe’s drink.” She herself called it a “Bronx Cocktail,” which she preferred made with very little gin as she did not like its taste. See A.P. Night Wire, “Defense Is Contradicted,” Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1922, 1.

[10] “Miss Rappe Often Crazed with Pain, Witness Asserts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 November 1921, 1.

[11] Oscar H. Fernbach, “Arbuckle’s Fate Is with Jury Today: Closing Argument in Third Trial of Comedian Now Under Way; McNab Yet on Argument,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 April 1922, 15.

[12] “Arbuckle Lawyers Flay Alleged Bully Methods Used by Prosecution,” Billings Gazette, 12 April 1922, 8.