100 Years Ago This Week: November 14–18, 1921

One hundred years ago Roscoe Arbuckle’s trial for manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe began. Most of that first week was taken up by jury selection. Although Arbuckle’s chief defense lawyer, Gavin McNab was reportedly against including women on the jury, he and prosecutor Matthew Brady settled on five women and eight men, including one alternate.

Although the procedure of accepting and rejecting jurors is tedious, we devote some attention to this deliberate process because it reveals much of the trial strategies of both the prosecution and defense.

For those of you who have followed this blog, we discussed the possible testimony of George Glennon, the St. Francis Hotel detective (see George Glennon, the muted witness). His midnight interview with Virginia Rappe on September 5, 1921—conducted hours after she had been found in Arbuckle’s bedroom variously in a state of shock and hysteria, tearing at her clothes—was intended to be used by the defense to quickly end the trial in an acquittal. If a jury had heard that Rappe had absolved Arbuckle of injuring her, the case in all likelihood would be over. No matter how much circumstantial evidence there was in room 1219, her words would underscore Arbuckle’s professions of innocence. He only need take the stand and provide an anodyne account that that would make him out to be nothing less than a decent, caring gentleman.

However District Attorney Matthew Brady and his deputies challenged Glennon’s simple question-and-answer statement as hearsay and managed to keep it out of the record. Accusations of witness tampering were being made against both sides so the objection may have been borne of that suspicion.

Similarly, McNab and his colleagues intended to get the doctors who attended Rappe to “speak” for Arbuckle. Here Maude Delmont factored. She had, as Rappe’s companion at the Labor Day party, looked after Rappe and taken charge as her ersatz medical power-of-attorney. She spoke with some authority, despite being inebriated, and was the person the attending physicians consulted about what was wrong with Ms. Rappe. But the Prosecution saw to it that Delmont’s comments to the physicians were also barred from the record.

At the end of the second week of the trial, one of these doctors, Melville Rumwell, was called to the stand as a defense witness. He, too, like Glennon, had spoken with Rappe in the hotel about her condition. Again, the answers Rappe gave Rumwell were believed to have exonerated Arbuckle. These too were stricken as hearsay.

This defense strategy is intriguing on several levels, given the prosecution’s determined effort to prevent a jury from hearing a narrative that included the words of Rappe and Delmont. While it seems counterintuitive to silence the victim and the accuser, we think we understand Prosecutor Brady’s motivation. At the time Rappe’s injury occurred, Delmont’s initial statements might have intentionally downplayed Arbuckle’s involvement without really knowing what the truth was. She didn’t want to be at the center of a sex scandal. Rappe, too, may have been likeminded. They didn’t, like other guests, see any gain in getting Arbuckle in trouble, whether he did something injurious behind the door of room 1219, something desperate to save his reputation, or something that, as he made it out to be, the Good Samaritan redux.

In other words, Brady and his deputies were building their case on the belief that Arbuckle had injured Rappe in a clumsy attempt at rape or possibly rough consensual sex and they couldn’t afford to let anything Rappe or Delmont had said that evening stop them.

Roscoe Arbuckle and costar Alice Lake in The Rough House (1919) (Private collection)