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.