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, Roscoe Arbuckle’s defense team and strategy changed. Frank Dominguez, the comedian’s lead counsel in September, allegedly resigned to pursue the interests he had 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 could 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 or failing to report a tragic accident that might have happened in an act of consensual intercourse. Such a defense only made the problem worse for Joseph Schenk, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, and other stakeholders in Arbuckle’s career. They knew that their star comedian had to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing, “squeaky clean,” as his career and reputation were based on a wholesome (though often raffish) screen image. 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 also once been her personal attorney and knew more about her than any of his colleagues. He knew that of the many performers who remade their personas, with their different names and confected backstories, Rappe’s was a nearly blank slate. If she didn’t have any skeletons in her closet, he could put them there.

Dominguez’s successor, Gavin McNab, was 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 into the press before jury selection.

Arbuckle’s defense team spent much of October locating witnesses who could tell tales of Rappe’s private life. 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 reprinted below 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 (in contrast to the oft-mentioned animus William Randolph Hearst and his papers allegedly had toward Arbuckle and Hollywood, a meme that has been recycled in many narratives and biographies).

We devote an earlier blog entry to this topic because of the centrality of the cystitis–pregnancy strategy in finally 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 wasn’t enough to convince the public that Arbuckle was the upright person they once had imagined.

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 sometimes used as sideshow oddities in the early twentieth century. Nurse Roth, a self-proclaimed friend and confidante of Rappe, showed no hesitation in mentioning that her dear friend’s alleged child was used in such an exhibit.


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)

“I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Shut up.’”

The following passage is from 1 Judges, that part of our book dealing with the preliminary investigation of Judge Sylvain Lazarus in late September 1921. Lazarus, A police court judge, had been tasked with determining if Roscoe Arbuckle should be tried in the Superior Court of San Francisco on a charge of murder in the first degree or manslaughter.

The testimony of Josephine Keza, the last witness, convinced him to decide on the lesser charge. Otherwise, the judge could have decided against charging Arbuckle for any crime given his grim view of the other witnesses and the failure of putting Maude Delmont on the stand (see 100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle to be tried for manslaughter instead of murder, September 28, 1921).

Mrs. Keza would testify in all three Arbuckle trials.

Josephine Keza in her St. Francis Hotel maid uniform, Oct. 1921 (Newspaper Enterprise Association, private collection)

After the clinical charts pertaining to Virginia Rappe had been handed over to the defense and entered into the court record, the next witness appeared. She wasn’t Maude Delmont. Although Josephine Keza had been deposed by Milton U’Ren among other St. Francis Hotel employees ten days earlier, her appearance caught Arbuckle’s defense team off-guard.

Freda Blum, who covered the Arbuckle trials for Hearst’s San Francisco Call and International News Service, noted the contrast between the twenty-two-year-old Polish immigrant and the fashionable young women who testified before her. “Unlike the one who ‘models’ for her bread and the other whose ability to entertain earns for her a living,” Blum observed,

the third witness revealed herself in a far different status—one engaged in menial labor. Josephine Keza is a chambermaid at the St. Francis and assigned to the section of the hostelry where the party took place. She wore the unmistakable “beat silk” of the servant class, with long gloves and a last winter’s hat.

Josephine Keza is a foreigner and the English language is difficult for her. She was alternately confused and enthralled by the orations of the defense and prosecution, and when the court released her from the stand, she quietly left the room and went back to her housecleaning.

Milton U’Ren hurriedly questioned his new witness. “Do you remember that Mr. Arbuckle—Roscoe Arbuckle—the gentleman sitting here and some other gentlemen occupied some rooms is the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day?”

Keza did and U’Ren continued. She described for him that, while cleaning vacant rooms on the twelfth floor, she had heard a woman scream from the direction of Arbuckle’s party. Keza was uncertain about the time. She estimated it to be between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m., which, unlike prior testimony, provided an actual window for Rappe and Arbuckle to be inside room 1219. This pushed the time of Rappe’s injury taking place earlier than previous timeframes, which thus far could only be inferred between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.

Keza recalled that she hurried down the hall and stood outside room 1219, having heard a woman pleading, crying, “Oh, no, no! Oh, my God! Oh, no!”

“And did you hear a man’s voice in the room?” U’ren asked.

Keza responded, “I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Shut up.’”

With that U’Ren turned his witness over for cross-examination, knowing that Dominguez wasn’t prepared. Although furious and incredulous for the introduction of such a witness, he comported himself and calmly, firmly asked who had deposed her. He was, in effect, ferreting out whether she had been coached by the prosecution. “Who told you to come here and tell this outrageous story?” Dominguez asked with an incredulous tone.

The witness explained that she had given a statement more than a week before to Assistant District Attorney U’Ren.

“Are you in the habit of listening at the doors of the rooms?” asked Dominguez.

Keza understood enough English to know that the lawyer was insulting her. She denied that she eavesdropped for diversion. “When we hear shrieks like those, of course,” she said, “We run to see what is the matter.”

Given the noise, shouting, laughter, and music emanating from the Arbuckle suite on Labor Day afternoon, it was hard not to pay attention. Then, Keza, according to Oscar Fernbach of the Examiner, “positively, unswervingly, and with even added force” repeated to Dominguez what she had heard through the door of the room 1219.

Arbuckle, whose reactions to Zey Prevost and Alice Blake were more of boredom than interest, had come to life when he saw the hotel maid. According to Edward J. Doherty of the Chicago Tribune, the comedian began

rubbing his red chin. Streaks of white showed on them from the pressure of his fingers. Frank Dominguez, his chief counsel appeared utterly bewildered. The spectators were leaning forward, drinking in every word.

Miss Keza, a large woman in a blue dress splashed with white, her string of pearl beads, her gray elbow gloves, gay stockings, and sandals, and her wide black sailor hat, was a little conscious of the crowd, a bit amused and perhaps a bit delighted, at the bomb shell she had exploded.

Dominguez took the witness; he questioned her at length, but only made her testimony stand out the plainer. Every question brought more dynamite for the defense. He dropped her suddenly and finally after she had stated she did not always listen at doors and explained—

“But when there’s music and dancing and loud talking you sometimes want to listen.”

Now, leaning forward in his chair as well, Arbuckle whispered to his lawyers. He surely recognized Keza, who had been in an out of his suite throughout the day before and after Rappe’s crisis. This came up as Dominguez pressed Keza to tell him who had been the first person to hear her story, even before she shared it with the other maids.

“I don’t know who it was first—everybody,” Keza answered and then remembered an exception. “I said to a lady in the hotel by the table I heard the girl scream.”

This overlooked statement stands out. It means that Keza had been in room 1220 and after Rappe had been moved to room 1227 as the party went on without her, as the frolicking continued with the arrival of Betty Campbell and Dolly Clark.

As damning as Keza’s testimony sounded, she couldn’t see through the walls of 1219 and Dominguez knew this.

“I heard all afternoon screaming,” she answered as he continued to query her about the level and kinds of noise coming out Arbuckle’s suite—and so revealed that the “screaming” could have been just the ambience from any of the rooms or all three.

“And in 1221,” Keza continued. “And 1220 was all music and dancing and all kinds of noise—and doors slamming and everything—and by the time there was a girl[’s] scream I saw one gentleman came out and after him one lady, but I could never say which one it could be—because I didn’t see her very good, and she was undressed.”

Without being asked, Keza divulged that the hallway door to room 1220 was open. She made it plain to the court that she was alert to the sounds from Arbuckle’s suite for much of the afternoon.

Dominguez’s next line of questions addressed Keza’s opportune hovering right outside room 1220.

Q: The fact of the matter is, you never heard this language at all; isn’t that true—isn’t that the fact—you never heard this language at all, did you?”

A: What I don’t hear?

Q: I mean these voices—you didn’t hear them at all in 1219?

A: I didn’t hear them say “Oh my God?”

Q: Yes.

A: I did hear it, plain, too—and I heard a lot of slamming the doors just the same at that time.

Q: What is that?

A: I heard the door slamming at that time.

Q: Did anybody tell you to tell this story here in court?

A: When?

Q: That you heard these voices in that room—did anybody tell you to tell it here?

A: Well, I had nobody to tell me.

When Dominguez asked Keza if she had reported the “conversation,” his euphemism for the voices she heard, meaning to the hotel management, Keza said no. “You are sure it ever occurred?” he asked.

Before Keza could be browbeaten any further and give the defense an advantage, Isadore Golden objected. Dominguez had already asked that several times. Judge Lazarus agreed. Flustered, Dominguez responded that he hadn’t repeated this question and that the record would show it.

Golden: Three times.

Dominguez: I beg your pardon; not in this form. It is a peculiar witness, Mr. Golden.

Golden: There is nothing peculiar about the witness, she is a very hard-working woman.

Dominguez: That is all.

 

Two reporters testify and test-bed inferences based on scant reportage

Which faded first, public interest in the Arbuckle trials or the press coverage? Since metrics for the former didn’t exist in 1922, it would seem the latter. As the days stretched into weeks, the number of reporters in Judge Harold Louderback’s courtroom dwindled. The headlines gave way to the death of Pope Benedict XV, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Lenin’s declining health, the Arthur Burch trial in Los Angeles, and the other intractable problems of the world. By the end of the first Arbuckle trial much of the coverage had already been relegated to below the fold and inside newspapers. This became the norm for the second trial. Fewer stories were bylined. But Marjorie Driscoll for the San Francisco Chronicle and Oscar Fernbach for the Examiner soldiered on. Nevertheless, their copy read as though they were bored by the Arbuckle case or believed their readers were. There was little that was new to report. That Arbuckle wore the same blue Norfolk suit to court each day was like a mantra.

For the authors of books and articles about the Arbuckle case, however, the lack of reportage is either a boon if one wants to get in and get out so as to meet a deadline and page count. For us, however, it means inferring from newspaper sources that are, to paraphrase researcher Joan Myers, dicey. But this relative lack of competition allowed the few remaining reporters to focus on details and hope that they could hold the reader’s attention—an expectation that was also placed on three different juries with three different outcomes.

The prosecution and defense virtually repeated themselves in the second and third trials that lasted into spring 1922. Nevertheless, there were subtle changes in strategy. After the second trial ended in a hung jury—10 to 2 for conviction—the defense understood that it could no longer hold back on Rappe’s past. The newspapers reported this as if it were new, but Arbuckle’s lawyers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago had started to deconstruct Rappe’s “good girl” image before she was even buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ironically, while the press took less interest in the Arbuckle trial, San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants took more interest in the press—indeed, in the earliest pieces written about the Arbuckle case. Therein, they brought into the light the first statements that Arbuckle made to reporters about his Labor Day party and the death of Virginia Rappe.

Curiously missing was the foundation of Arbuckle’s “Good Samaritan” testimony from the first trial, that he gave aid and comfort to Virginia Rappe after finding her writhing on his bathroom floor in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel, leaving it up to the jury and public to see that he should be seen as a decent man rather than an uncaring rapist. The clipped, matter-of-fact testimony that Arbuckle gave was also intended to emphasize that he was alone with Rappe in the bedroom for just eight minutes—a claim that could be corroborated with nothing but circumstantial evidence.

But Arbuckle’s version of events wasn’t heard by anyone but his lawyers until late November, nearly two months after his arrest. Why hadn’t he mentioned his heroics in room 1219 to the two reporters who had contacted him just hours after Rappe’s death and before his arrest? He likely would have saved himself and the motion picture industry a world of grief as it might have prevented the clamor for government regulation of the motion picture industry and de facto the private lives of performers, producers, writers, etc.

Arbuckle’s fantastically opportune testimony came late. It was like the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a story that would dovetail with the established timeline as described by prosecution witnesses and account for the physical evidence that had been presented in court, notably fingerprints.. It rendered Arbuckle an innocent victim of circumstances who had, against the odds, stumbled into a medical emergency and found himself accused of rape and murder. But if this puzzle piece was contrived, carved out of new cardboard, so to speak, as Brady and his assistants believed, it was imperative to attack its cardinal weakness, its timing.

Arbuckle said that his original chief counsel, Frank Dominguez, had ordered him not to say anything in his own defense in September 1921. The public animus against was just too much to overcome in the weeks after Rappe’s death. Arbuckle claimed that he was intentionally silenced. But eventually he had been given the opportunity to speak out and took it.

While he hadn’t been particularly forthcoming when interviewed on the day of Rappe’s death, he did mention his alibi, that he was intending to get dressed in room 1219 to take a female friend out for a drive in his Pierce-Arrow during the afternoon of September 5 and by coincidence he discovered Rappe on the bathroom floor.

The prosecution believed that what Arbuckle told the two reporters on September 9 was important to have before a jury not for what was said but also for what wasn’t. A close reading, or rather a close hearing of the reporters’ testimony allowed one to infer that Arbuckle was more than a passive participant at the party and his traveling companions were solely to blame for the women, the alcohol, etc. But it was a stretch by the prosecution to believe they could convince a jury that Arbuckle’s omission of discussing his concern for Rappe’s suffering — in light of what he would describe in his sworn testimony two months later — was evidence that he was a man covering up a crime. (see “Arbuckle’s testimony of November 28, 1921).


Warden Woolard of the Los Angeles Times was one of the two who interviewed Arbuckle after the news broke about Rappe’s death and he testified at both the second and third trials. Due to the abbreviated coverage of these trials, we can only infer that he repeated his original reportage of Saturday, September 10, 1921, to one of the two assistant district attorneys who conducted the examination. To him Arbuckle seemed to be a man unconcerned about the problem that Rappe’s death presented and confident he could straighten the matter out with the chief of police in San Francisco. But the prosecution would question why many of the details Arbuckle later testified to were not mentioned on September 9. Woolard’s interview with Arbuckle happened at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater which may sound innocuous but was at the time a seat of power in Hollywood so it’s likely Arbuckle was being counseled by Frank Dominguez or Milton Cohen to arrange for it as damage control. We can infer that the prosecution framed the arrangement of this interview as an indication that Arbuckle’s comments were something less than extemporaneous.

Unfortunately, Woolard’s testimony revealed little beyond what he had originally reported. At the second trial, however, he added that although Arbuckle denied hurting Rappe, he had pushed her down on the bed to keep her quiet. Arbuckle also said that there were no locked or closed doors at the party all afternoon. In regard to Maude Delmont’s description of the party being “rough,” Arbuckle responded that the only thing rough about the party was Delmont herself.

After Woolard left the stand, the jury heard Arbuckle’s first trial testimony read into the record of the second by Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman, who was known for the insinuating tone he added to such readings.

Woolard said that he was prompted to seek out Arbuckle on September 9, 1921, hours after Rappe’s death, because he had read a San Francisco Chronicle wire that, apparently, had been written by someone who had heard Delmont’s side of the story as well as earlier comments by Arbuckle. The San Francisco reporter of these accounts was George R. Hyde. He took the stand at the third trial on March 25, 1922—just after Woolard presumably repeated much of his testimony from the second trial.

We have little to work with regarding Hyde’s testimony, only one detail emerges, that he made a long-distance telephone call to Arbuckle’s house and that someone he presumed to be Arbuckle answered his questions. Unlike Woolard, however, Hyde was asked to provide a carbon copy of his interview notes to the defense though it appears that they provided any useful revelations. That said, we must infer that either Leo Friedman or his colleague, Milton U’Ren, treated Hyde’s published interview as a de facto deposition that could be used to challenge statements Arbuckle later made under oath, such as his declaration that he was never alone with Rappe and that doors were never locked in the suite. Like so many paper cuts, the inconsistencies would not be fatal in themselves but could add up if the jury had the patience to process them.

Neither Woolard nor Hyde were cross-examined. The defense elected not to do so as not to give their stories any more time on the stand . To do otherwise risked calling attention to them, imprinting them on the jurors’ minds. Arbuckle’s lawyers did, however, argue that the two reporters’ testimony should be inadmissible. But the court allowed the testimony. It was then followed by another reading of Arbuckle’s first trial testimony on Monday, March 27 by Leo Friedman.

First Arbuckle trial: Milton U’Ren’s closing argument, December 2, 1921

Milton U’Ren grinned, his teeth crooked and sharp in the long, lean face.

—Ace Adkins, Devil’s Garden

The hiatus in our blog entries is, of course, due to the holidays. But we are drafting one of the key chapters in the book, with the working title “Spontaneous Rupture of the Bladder.” What follows is the final argument of the first trial given by one of Roscoe Arbuckle’s most dogged prosecutors, Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren. Arbuckle case narratives—with the exception of Greg Merritt’s—don’t give U’Ren his due as an important figure in the three Arbuckle trials. Typically, if there is a mention of him, he is demonized, albeit as a minor demon. While many writers attribute some personal animus for Arbuckle on the part of District Attorney Matthew Brady, it is evident in the transcripts that it was U’Ren who was most determined to see Arbuckle brought to heel.

This hostility was noted during the first week of the Arbuckle trial, when U’Ren routinely referred to Arbuckle as a has-been.

Having no real political aspirations or agenda, U’Ren likely saw Arbuckle as an avatar of the sins of the motion picture industry. U’Ren was a Progressive Republican who shared Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that an unhealthy body betrayed unhealthy behavior. (Roosevelt, as a boy, took to heart being diagnosed as “suffering from a handicap of riches.) Then there is also the possibility that U’Ren wanted to avenge Virginia Rappe—a task that could hardly be left to Maude Delmont, a woman he saw as just another debauchee. But, lastly, and more likely, U’Ren was the father of two young daughters, aged five and seven. That motivation also applied to two others who regarded Arbuckle as an uninhibited predator. Matthew Brady’s only child was a daughter and Captain of Detectives Duncan Matheson also had two daughters.

On December 1, 1921, Milton U’Ren’s fellow prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman, presented the first half of the prosecution’s closing argument. He was followed by Arbuckle’s lead defense attorney Gavin McNab, whose closing argument continued into the next day.

Otis M. Wiles of the Los Angeles Times thought “the dynamic and youthful prosecution attorney” had an effect on the jury. “For one hour and forty-six minutes,” Wiles wrote, “Friedman literally dragged Roscoe up and down before the jury of five women and seven men, nailed him to the cross of justice and pelted him with the defilements of his mental makeup.” Indeed, without using a rather new word for 1921, Friedman presented Arbuckle as a sociopath. But any “wounds” he delivered on the comedian, according to Wiles, “soon were alleviated by the healing power of McNab’s soothing syrup voice”, his “mellow Scotch accent,” and his “genial smile.”

A natural orator like fellow Democrat William Jennings Bryant, McNab could sway a jury with the force of his voice, figures of speech, and frequent allusions to American decency and the Bible. Most journalists at the trial sided with him and devoted more column space to his exposition.

Milton U’Ren’s was treated as footnote in most newspapers. We wanted to present as much of it as possible because the prosecution of Roscoe Arbuckle was very much U’Ren’s project and his contribution deserves to be restored. The following is taken from our work-in-progress. Without a transcript of the first Arbuckle trial—which exceeded 2,200 pages or 525,000 estimated words—we extracted quotations from the extant reportage, compared them, and harmonized them to render a narrative that comes close to the original language and order of each speaker’s address to the jury. This method is provisional and comes with caveats that all the quotations used are based on contemporary reporters’ notes. Their objective was to get the feel and intent of the original. So have we. But our objective is to pull as much together of the Arbuckle trial experience as possible.

From left to right, Milton T. U’Ren sitting next to Roscoe Arbuckle and his criminal defense lawyer, Frank Dominguez, September 1921 (San Francisco Public Library)

Gouverneur Morris was a regular attendee at the Arbuckle trial and published his occasional vignettes.[1] Like other journalists behind the rail of Judge Louderback’s courtroom, he had taken sides. Morris believed that Arbuckle had “spoken the truth” on the stand. Morris questioned nothing and took to task the person responsible for the comedian’s long ordeal. “[Frank] Dominguez,” he wrote, “lost his head, forgot that it was his client who was the million-dollar actor, assumed the role himself, ranted, mistook friends for enemies, antagonized everybody in sight and imposed absolute silence upon Arbuckle.”

Morris had good reason to take sides. He had just enjoyed a year of success as a scriptwriter and hoped to enjoy another, as well as the perquisites and status of the film colony in Los Angeles. No doubt, too, Morris represented the feelings of not only the press but many in the motion picture industry, that what happened to Virginia Rappe should be put behind them. Nothing would bring her back and there was barely enough of her on screen to remember, to fill a couple of matinees.

As to the closing arguments, in the last piece Morris posted from the Arbuckle trial, he hardly looked forward to them. “[W]e shall listen to Friedman and U’Ren saying absolutely nothing for four mortal hours.”

* * *

Gavin McNab would be a hard act to follow. Even fair-minded observers had to admit that Arbuckle’s lead attorney had the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well as the press, in the palm of his hand. That Matthew Brady had chosen not to speak was noticed. To his harsher critics, Brady’s not taking “the splendid opportunity to deliver an address to the jury,” wasn’t a result of exhaustion or burnout but that he was distancing himself from an impending acquittal.

All that remained was for the prosecution to go through the motions of a challenger falling behind on points and trying to avoid a knockout. Nevertheless, the “challenger” had the irrefutable fact that two people entered room 1219 and one came out. 

Around 2:15 p.m., Assistant District Attorney Milton T. U’Ren rose to speak, picking up where the defense had left off—the image of Arbuckle’s adoring young fans—and with a voice that rivaled McNab’s at least in volume. Taking umbrage at McNab’s comparing Arbuckle to Christ and praise for simply not dropping Virginia Rappe on the way to room 1227, U’Ren responded:

What would the millions of little children say if they could have seen “Fatty,” the modern Belshazzar, dressed in pajamas, surrounded by his lords and ladies, drinking, dancing, and “kidding around?” What would these children say if they could have seen him putting the ice on the nude body of Miss Rappe as she writhed in pain? And what would their mothers say? The great Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the wall and quaked as it was interpreted. “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Your kingdom shall be divided among the Medes and Persians. That night Belshazzar was killed and the city overrun with enemies.

“The modern King Belshazzar has also seen handwriting on the wall,” U’Ren continued, alluding to the fingerprints on the hotel door in the same breath as he alluded to the ill-fated King of Babylon in the Book of Daniel. “The king is dead, and his kingdom is divided. He will never make the world laugh again. The king is dead. Thank God!”

Described like a cartoon character, Edward Doherty of the Chicago Tribune simply wrote a “little man, U’Ren, red faced, spectacles, bald—but he can shout.” But those familiar with Milton U’Ren from other trials knew that he, while not the orator, could sway juries “by talking quietly and reasoning logically.” And in a calmer voice, U’Ren explained that the defense had based its case upon “perjury and hypocrisy rather than upon facts. [. . .] Arbuckle’s story cannot withstand your scrutiny,” he said, “nor can it weaken the chain of circumstances against him.”

Arbuckle’s testimony was what the prosecution had been waiting for, having been limited to nothing but circumstantial evidence. In Arbuckle they surely believed they had the ultimate perjurer—one who had foolishly testified on his own behalf when he wasn’t required to do so. McNab wanted to credit Arbuckle for that. But he knew the day before he agreed to letting Arbuckle take the stand that it could work against him. U’Ren only needed to present it as a fabrication. Then, at best, only one juror was needed to keep the case alive and so move past this jury, which U’Ren, like Brady, like his other deputies, saw as tampered, an impression reinforced by the jurors nodding, smirking, winking, and their rapt attention to McNab this morning.

U’Ren declared that the defense had been opportunists, having no basis for their case and having proposed no theory for Rappe’s death until they heard the prosecution’s evidence. Here, of course, U’Ren exaggerated, given that Frank Dominguez had already introduced the argument that Rappe had a preexisting condition that made her bladder prone to spontaneous rupture. 

“It was then” he said, “that they manufactured the story that Arbuckle told—manufactured it to meet the evidence presented by the prosecution.” McNab’s argument yesterday and today “was not a summary of the case but merely an attack upon the District Attorney.” Then U’Ren cannily reminded that Matthew Brady had been a reform candidate who had beaten Charles Fickert, a man the defense presumably would have preferred. “The present District Attorney is not Mr. McNab’s District Attorney,” U’Ren continued. “Attacking this public officer is merely throwing dust in the jury’s eyes.”

After excoriating Arbuckle for his silence and testimony, U’Ren refuted the defense’s clever dismissals of the fingerprints as the ghostly hands of “spooks” and turned the incessant ridicule of Professor Heinrich against them. U’Ren, too, should have been credited with the cleverest allusion of the day, besting his comparison of Arbuckle to Belshazzar.

Another writer fascinated by the science of criminology and fingerprinting in the late nineteenth century was Mark Twain. U’Ren returned to the prosecution table and picked up a copy of Twain’s 1894 satire of penny-dreadfuls, Puddin’head Wilson, to illustrate that such an admired American author, familiar to everyone, understood the reliability of fingerprints in criminal cases.

Sitting at the defense table, Nat Schmulowitz, a bibliophile of satirical works who prized the issues of Century Magazine in which Twain’s novel had been serialized, knew where U’Ren was headed. Twain’s hero, an eccentric small town Missouri lawyer, David Wilson, could be seen in the person of Professor Heinrich during the presentation of the fingerprints on the hotel door. Deemed soft in the head by fellow townsfolk for his then-obscure use of fingerprints in crime detection, Wilson solves a murder with by distinguishing between the fingerprints of twins. Comparing him to Heinrich, who had been made out to be an egghead, a fool, and an innocent fraud by the defense’s fingerprint experts and many in the press, was a master stroke by U’Ren and not too obscure for the jury. Twain’s novel was still popular twenty years later and had been adapted into a stage play and motion picture. The maxims of Puddin’head Wilson’s Calendar were and still are pearls of Twainian wisdom (e.g., “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.”).

Schmulowitz objected to U’Ren’s attempt to read from the book but was overruled by Judge Louderback (a personal decision, perhaps, since the novel centers around the murder of a judge). The “offending” passage is unknown, but it was likely from the penultimate Chapter XXI, Doom, in which Wilson, much like Heinrich, describes the criminal act in a courtroom with white sheets of cardboard with pantographic enlargements of “bewildering maze of whorls or curves or loops,” a person’s “natal autograph.”

Just after three o’clock, U’Ren closed in a long speech, excoriating Arbuckle before the jury much as he had in the beginning of his argument.

He sat there surrounded by his lords and his ladies, this man who Mr. McNab says has made the children of America laugh. He appeared in his pajamas before this mixed audience, this world’s comedian, this Good Samaritan who Mr. McNab says was merely helping a sick girl. A Good Samaritan! I proclaim him a moral leper!

This man who made the world laugh—my God!—who made the world laugh. I wonder what the children and their mothers would have though could they have seen him as he placed the ice on this poor girl’s body. He may have made them laugh before, but thank God! He never will make the world laugh again!

Do your duty so that when you go home and you can look your fellow citizens in the face. Do your duty so that you may take your children to your breast with the full knowledge that they will be protected from this man and others like him. Do your duty so that this man and all the other Arbuckles in the world will know that the womanhood of American is not their plaything.

U’Ren ended his argument at 3:20 in the afternoon. Not long afterward, the trial entered its third phase as Judge Louderback instructed the jury on coming to a verdict.

[1] This passage is based on Gouverneur Morris, “‘Fatty’s’ Story Late but True, Thinks Morris,” Des Moines Tribune, 29 November 1921, 3; Gouverneur Morris, “Rebuttal Adds Little to Case against Fatty,” Des Moines Tribune, 1 December 1921, 17; ; James Gordon, “Minister Tells Highlights in ‘Fatty’ Case,” Los Angeles Evening Herald, 1 December 1921, 1; Oscar H. Fernbach, “Woman Votes Actor Guilty, Says Report,” San Francisco Examiner, 3 December 1921; Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Arbuckle Jury Retires at 4:10 to Deliberate,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 December 1921, 7; ; Otis M. Wiles, “No Verdict Returned,” Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1921, I:1, I:2; and other corroborative sources.

100 Years Ago Today: Dr. Arthur Beardslee testifies, September 26, 1921

The morning session of the fourth day of the preliminary investigation in the courtroom of Judge Sylvain Lazarus was to be with Al Semnacher. But he was late and his place was taken by Dr. Arthur Beardslee, the St. Francis Hotel’s physician and the second to treat Rappe, who had yet to testify in any previous venue.[1] During his cross-examination under defense attorney Frank Dominguez, the sobriety of Maude Delmont came under question. Beardslee had been “missing” for over a week but had, in reality, been on an annual hunting trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Mono County, California.

Q: Did you notice anything about her speech that attracted your attention—Mrs. Delmont’s?

A: Not any more than she impressed me as being very positive, is all.

Q: Nothing incoherent in what she said?

A: No. In fact, much the opposite—very much to the point; and, in fact, rather arrogant.

Q: Was that arrogance due, in your opinion, to her having used any alcohol or morphine?

A: No; I thought it was her natural manner. She took charge of everything, and was the boss.

Dominguez continued. Did Beardslee see Delmont open her purse or “take a white powder”?

When this inquiry resulted in objections from the district attorneys, Milton Cohen presented the rationale: “If your Honor please, the doctor says he procured a certain history from a certain woman. If we can show that person is incompetent, or she was in such a frame of mind that the history which he prepared from the woman is unreliable, certainly it is competent testimony.”

To this, Judge Lazarus pointed out that the “lady” in question, despite being “arrogant” and “overbearing,” had never aroused Dr. Beardslee’s suspicions about her competence.

Dr. Beardslee saw no white powder. The cross-examination continued, seemingly rudderless, going back and forth between subjects already covered, such as the reason for administering an enema despite the lack of bowel gas. Then Dominguez asked if Rappe showed any signs of a “debauch” or “alcoholism.” Beardslee answered “no”.

Returning to the subject of taking Rappe to a hospital, the doctor asserted he had urged Delmont, as proxy for Arbuckle and company, to take her to the hospital. He knew, from just observing Rappe, that she had some kind of internal injury before her catheterization. That revealed the truth to him and it couldn’t have been any hypothetical kidney lesion as suggested by Dominguez.

Frank Dominguez (Calisphere)

“With the picture that I had before me,” said Dr. Beardslee, “and the urine, I had a classical ruptured bladder. There was no sign left out. Had it been a kidney complicating the condition, or had there would been kidney trouble, you would have other symptoms in other regions—you would have had other things to consider.” Beardslee then endured summary questions that he found “nonsensical”—about a hemorrhage in the bladder, his self-assurance of a bladder rupture without performing an incision, and so on.

For his part, Dominguez needed to sow as much doubt about the hotel doctor in Judge Lazarus as possible. Then, suddenly, Dominguez asked if Beardslee had been “out hunting”—to which the judge wisecracked, “He looks like it.”

Dominguez asked if Beardslee, in returning from Mono County, had been stopped by a sheriff. The judge, perhaps encouraged by some laughter at his previous remark that the court reporter left out, continued: “Traveling too fast in a machine, doctor?”

Dr. Beardslee explained that the sheriff was a friend he knew well. He admitted to a conversation in which he complained about returning to San Francisco, of having to testify. Beardslee said that he “hated to give up a good time,” to “get mixed up.” Here Dominguez cut him off to remind Beardslee of something he had allegedly said that might indicate a biased testimony.

Q: Doctor, you told him in a conversation, upon his asking you, “What is this all about?” and you said to him, “The whole trouble was with a girl that was too much high life.”

A: No, I think you are mistaken.

Q: Never mind. I think a whole lot—even with that black head of mine.

But Dominguez insisted that Beardslee had said Rappe had too much “high life.” Then Dominguez asked if Beardslee had percussed Rappe’s flanks. Since this wasn’t an anatomical term, Dominguez seemed to be having some fun at the witness’s expense after a demonstration of what he meant by flanks. “I had no reason to percuss her buttocks at all,” Beardslee answered.

Q: What do you understand by the flank of the human anatomy? Point it out to us, doctor.

A: Flank?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, it is a term which is seldom used except by a butcher or horse trader or something that way.

As the cross-examination proceeded, Dominguez made clear what his primary defense theory was — that Rappe’s injury was her own misadventure, her own fault. Her bladder was compromised by disease and it was simply a matter of time before it burst of its own accord. “Assuming,” Dominguez began, “doctor, for a long period of time, a person had been treated for bladder trouble,

and had been under the direct attention of a doctor for bladder trouble, assuming further that it was a small bladder and the walls of that bladder were abnormally thin—assuming further she had not passed water for a period of 24 hours; and assuming further, doctor, that during that time it had been dribbling over the top of the bladder; and assuming further she had made efforts, doctor, to pass water, under that condition, doctor, could there be such a thing as a spontaneous rupture?

Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren objected on grounds that Rappe’s micturitions were not in evidence and available for cross-examination. But Judge Lazarus proved to be lenient with the defense here and allowed it. He reasoned that future evidence might support such a theory. Thus, Dr. Beardslee was compelled to agree with Dominguez that a bladder “with a thin wall” and “subjected to treatment for organic disturbances” could easily rupture. With that, Dominguez ended his cross-examination.

In the minutes that followed, Judge Lazarus asked a serious question devoid of his courtroom wit. He asked if urine in the bladder, upon release into the abdominal cavity, could cause an infection—a question that hadn’t been answered as yet by Dr. Beardslee.

Perhaps relieved to answer a medical question, the house physician for the St. Francis Hotel assumed a certain authority and explained that urine itself didn’t cause peritonitis. Bacteria escaping from the bladder did. With that, court was adjourned until 2:30 p.m.


[1] The following is based on People vs. Arbuckle, 232ff.

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.