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)

George Glennon, the muted witness

Roscoe Arbuckle’s first trial for manslaughter was to begin on Monday, November 7, 1921. But the following day was Election Day and Armistice Day would be celebrated later in the week. So, Judge Harold Louderback of the Superior Court of San Francisco County announced that he would delay the opening of the trial one week.

This gave the prosecution and defense breathing space to consolidate their strategies. Assistant District Attorney Isadore Golden had been dispatched to Chicago to get the testimony of Mrs. Katherine Fox. She had been Rappe’s mentor and virtual foster mother since 1905. Mrs. Fox had been responsible for coaxing Rappe to become a teenage art model, dancer, and stage performer. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Fox also directed Golden to other associates who might contradict the testimony of the three Chicago witnesses deposed by Arbuckle’s lawyers, Alfred Sabath and Charles Brennan.

The Chicago witnesses for the defense, especially the nurse/midwife/provider of adoption services, Josephine Rafferty Roth, would help convince a jury that Rappe’s bladder and sex organs had been ravaged by unwanted pregnancies, bouts of cystitis, and the invasive procedures the treatment of those conditions involved in the early twentieth century.

Arbuckle’s lead attorney Gavin McNab, however, had an even stronger card to play in house detective George Glennon. Glennon had initially been interviewed and dismissed by the District Attorney’s office only to be later chosen as a witness for the defense.

His testimony might have been enough to sway a jury to acquit Arbuckle of the manslaughter charge. But what he had to say was largely squelched by prosecution objections on the basis of hearsay.

Despite not being able to deliver on Arbuckle’s behalf, Glennon may have been rewarded for his willingness, having made the curious career move from hotel dick to movie theater manager, a job he held until Prohibition ended and he went back to his preferred profession of bartending.

The following draft passage is where we introduce him into our account of Labor Day, September 5, with the working title of “The Life of the Party.”


Around midnight, Virginia Rappe received a visit from George Francis Glennon, the stout, middle-aged house detective at the, St. Francis Hotel. As a defense witness during the first Arbuckle trial, Glennon said that Maude Delmont and Dr. Beardslee were in room 1227 when he arrived. Despite the late hour, he wanted to speak to Rappe.

Glennon held various jobs over the years. As a boy, he operated a freight elevator and, in later years, worked as clerk, a chauffeur, and as a bartender, a job at which he excelled. Prior to Prohibition, Glennon was described as “the best mixologist in the business” while employed at the Hotel Terminal’s bar on Market Street. We can assume he had a brutish attitude, having made the news for striking an effeminate young man who had “lisped” a request for a “beauty special,” a lavender-colored cocktail with a dash of ice cream.[1] The blow cost him a ten-dollar fine. The coming of Prohibition however forced him out of bartending altogether. – at which point he found work as a special policeman.

The special police were essentially security guards and privately paid by the businesses that hired them. Special police were employed by banks, penny arcades, movie theaters, skating rinks, and the like. They worked as night watchmen in warehouses, factories, and on San Francisco waterfront. They also worked as hotel detectives. Since they carried firearms and could arrest people, they were licensed by the San Francisco Police and were considered peace officers as well. Thus, Glennon possessed a modicum of authority if there should be trouble in the hotel in the form of an unruly guest, room thief, call girl, and any other criminal acts on the hotel’s premises.

So the Arbuckle party, despite being hosted by a frequent and famous guest, couldn’t be ignored. There was liquor in plain view in Room 1220, seen by maids, bellboys, waiters, and now an assistant manager, Harry Boyle. It had also become known that an unclothed woman at the party had been found in severe distress and had to be carried to an empty room. By the time Glennon arrived late in the evening, she had already been seen four times by the two hotel doctors.

However when Glennon was a defense witness at the first Arbuckle trial, he was prevented from discussing his brief conversation with Rappe, as the prosecution objected on the basis it was hearsay.

Glennon’s account was reported in the newspapers though and, unlike the accounts provided by Drs. Kaarboe and Beardslee who said she barely spoke, he said he found Rappe to be alert and responsive to his questions. She was no longer agitated. If Glennon indulged in any small talk with her, it went unreported. Instead, Glennon got to the point, asking a battery of questions that had nothing to do with her welfare but rather serendipitously worded as though by a lawyer to exonerate Arbuckle when the time came.

Glennon said he asked Rappe if Arbuckle had hurt her and she answered “no”. Then Glennon asked if anyone had hurt her. “I do not know,” Rappe allegedly said. “I may have been hurt by falling off the bed.”[2]


[1] Universal News Service, “Beauty Special Was Too Much for This Bartender,” The [Pomona]Bulletin, 10 September 1919, 6.

[2] “Girl Said to Have Cleared Arbuckle: Clown’s Lawyer Has Statement from the Hotel Sleuth,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 11 November 1921, 1.