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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Years Ago Today: The Grand Jury meets to hear witnesses, September 12, 1921

Given that Arbuckle was the highest paid actor in 1921 and made millions more for hundreds of theater owners and others, District Attorney Matthew Brady grasped the magnitude of the case and his greatest fear was witness tampering. He knew that, as Roscoe Arbuckle waited for the Oakland Ferry for the last stretch of their trip, his lawyer Frank Dominguez had made a telephone call to the police, assuring that Arbuckle would turn himself in. But he suspected another call was made, to Arbuckle’s new lawyer in San Francisco, Charles Brennan, to learn of any developments that they would need to get ahead of.

What has gone under-appreciated in the early days of the Arbuckle case, indeed, in the hours after Rappe died on September 9, is how quickly Arbuckle responded to the possibility of his arrest and the accusation of murder against him. By midnight, a strategy meeting convened in the office of Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater, attended by two lawyers, a friendly journalist from the Los Angeles Times as well as three men who attended the ill-fated party.

In the annals of crisis communications, what was accomplished for Arbuckle could be the first modern example.

One aspect of this was to neutralize the witnesses who might inflict the most damage to the defense by making them aware of the risk–reward of doing so.

For an aspiring entertainer, Zey Prevost was just such a person. She had made a statement to police on Saturday, September 10, the day Arbuckle and his team spent driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Two days later, on the day the Grand Jury was to meet, she asked to change her story and remove any testimony that could be used to make Arbuckle responsible for the injury that led to Virginia Rappe’s death. Later, she testified in another venue that she had been approached by another of Arbuckle’s lawyers, Charles Brennan, on Market Street in San Francisco.

Q: What did Mr. Brennan say to you?

A: Just asked me if I had a lawyer—if I needed a lawyer, to tell him. I said “Sure.”

Q: Did he ask you anything further about remaining in town, or going out?

A: He asked me about staying in town. I said “I may stay in town a few days until this thing is over.”[1]

This was all she said of her conversation with Brennan. But she went away from it committed to undermining Brady’s case against Arbuckle before it even got off the ground. Only a threat of perjury and jail time convinced her to keep to her original statement. In any event, the defense, over time, was able to convince jury members to vote for acquittal in part because Brady allegedly coerced his witnesses to say what he wanted to hear.

If Prevost was somehow rewarded for her loyalty, it didn’t amount to much. She was signed as a vaudeville act a few weeks after the third trial. But that was short-lived and her career as a comedienne was soon over.

Alice Blake, a friend of Zey Prevost, was also seen as a “coerced” witness (Calisphere)

[1] See People vs. Arbuckle, 316–317.