100 Years Ago Today: Virginia Rappe’s last bad day, September 8, 1921

Virginia Rappe was finally taken by ambulance to the Wakefield Sanitarium at 1065 Sutter Street in San Francisco on Wednesday, September 7, 1921. Her presence in the small private hospital was quickly noticed by the nursing staff.

The Wakefield Sanitarium, also known as the Wakefield Hospital, wasn’t an institution that specialized in high-risk pregnancies—and abortions for its wealthy clientele, as it has been described by others looking to dish some dirt. It admitted men, women, and children, especially accident victims who required surgery. The hospital was private though and intended for patients who wanted to avoid the populations—and diseases—of general and charity hospitals. It was staffed by top-tier doctors, and patients were often referred there by doctors who taught at Stanford University’s medical school, including Virginia Rappe’s doctor, Melville Rumwell.

Rumwell specialized in taking female surgical patients. Early in his career, he made a real name for himself in saving the life of a mother and child in a difficult birth. The mother honored him by naming her newborn son “Melville.” But Dr. Rumwell had also earned the opprobrium of tent-city dwellers in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, especially that of the women, when he served as a city medical officer in charge of homeless people. He was seen as uncaring and unmindful of their plight. In Rappe’s case, he dialed back the nature of her illness to alcoholism, at the time the term would have been closer to a diagnosis of alcohol abuse disorder today. That is, Rappe was still being seen as suffering from having had too much to drink—even two days later!

Rumwell had taken Rappe’s case as a favor to Maude Delmont, a former patient and Rappe’s voluntary guardian for the past three days. Apparently, when it came to his fee—as well as the cost of two private nurses and a private room at Wakefield—he had been told that someone else would cover the cost, that someone being Roscoe Arbuckle. Delmont probably didn’t reach out to the comedian about Rappe’s medical costs. She was also expecting Al Semnacher to return to San Francisco to drive her and Rappe back home and deal with the medical costs later.

Even though the St. Francis Hotel’s doctor, Arthur Beardslee, suspected a grave internal injury, indeed, a ruptured bladder, he testified that he didn’t share his suspicions or the results of his catheterization, which revealed bleeding, with Dr. Rumwell. If he had, Rumwell would have done two things in 1921: he would have attempted “heroic measures,” that is, a high-risk surgery to clean out the massive infection and close the tear in Rappe’s bladder; or palliative care since a bladder rupture, if not operated on immediately, meant certain death from peritonitis and septic shock.

The second option turned out to be deliberate or a fait accompli if Dr. Rumwell took a passive course and simply neglected his patient, knowing she was going to die anyway. In that case, any optimism he expressed was pro-forma for the sake of Delmont and Rappe’s nurses, especially the two who had grown close to her over the past two days.

Delmont may have come around to the idea that surgery was needed since Rappe’s condition only deteriorated. She called one of Rumwell’s colleagues at Stanford to get a second opinion. But she never lost faith in the doctor whom she referred to affectionately as “Rummie.” As Rappe slipped into a coma, Delmont likely interpreted this as a relief since she was no longer in distress.

Meanwhile, on the evening of September 8, Rappe’s night nurse, Vera Victoria Cumberland, had gone back on duty. Before doing so, however, Cumberland learned from Rappe’s day nurse, Jean Jameson, that the latter believed Rappe was suffering from an infection and that “microscopic tests” were in order.”[1]

But “Dr. Rumwell failed to do this,” Cumberland said during a coroner’s inquest, “and I thought his attitude of enough importance that I left the case. I told Mrs. Delmont I thought this ought to be done and she said, ‘Oh, Rummy can’t be bothered, he had a party on tonight.’”

That Rappe’s case had “been handled negligently” wasn’t the only reason that Cumberland resigned.[2] Her other rationale was more personal and might explain why she stood up to the physician. She believed herself to be a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, her namesake, and a countess, and, if true, had a reputation at stake.

“When I realized the circumstances of the case,” she said to the press after Rappe’s death, “I had visions of juries, judges, investigators, and policemen. It was disgusting. Finally, I determined that the fair name of Cumberland should not be dragged into the filth of actors’ misdoings, so I requested my release.”[3]

Naturally incredulous, a reporter consulted Debrett’s Peerage and discovered that Vera Cumberland wasn’t among the issue of either Queen Victoria or her German cousin, the Duke of Brunswick, who currently held title of Duke of Cumberland.

Vera Cumberland (Calisphere)

[1] Associated Press, “Arbuckle Indicted: Manslaughter Grand Jury Says,” Des Moines Register, 14 September 1921, 1, 2; and “The Grand Jury: Evidence Submitted by Witnesses to Arbuckle’s Wild Party and Those Who Attended Stricken Girl,” Des Moines Tribune, 14 September 1921, 1.

[2] “Words of Girl on Death Bed Stir Audience . . .,” San Francisco Chronicle, 14 September 1921, 7.

[3] Nurse Reveals Dying Confidences,” Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, 12 September 1921, 6.

Bit Player #4: Nurse Jean Jameson

Nurses are a factor throughout the case of People vs. Arbuckle.  Some testify for the prosecution, some for the defense.  All claimed to have known Virginia Rappe at different times in her life. But only two definitely spoke to her and they only testified before a grand jury and a coroner’s inquest. They also spoke to the press within 72 hours of Rappe’s death. Jean Jameson, the day nurse at the Wakefield Hospital, spent the most time with Rappe and had the most credibility. The night nurse, Vera Cumberland, who also claimed to be a granddaughter of the late Queen Victoria, had less. However neither took the stand at Roscoe Arbuckle’s three trials. Both nurses knew each other and cooperated in caring for Rappe, though Cumberland asked to be relieved from her shift on what turned out to be Rappe’s final night. She likely feared that the doctor’s decision to leave the hospital to attend a party was negligent and blame might fall on her should Rappe take a turn for the worse. .

Source: Los Angeles Record, 14 September 1921 (Newspapers.com)

Jean Jameson, in her pince-nez, with her flinty, no-nonsense expression, made several poignant statements during the first week following Rappe’s death on September 9, 1921. “I am used to seeing people die,” she said. “That is my business. I see them die all the time.” Jameson was present when Rappe accused Arbuckle of causing her injury and insisting he should pay for her hospital stay. Jameson, too, had been one of Rappe’s duty nurses when she died.

She didn’t want me out of her sight for a moment. From the time I took the case to the instant of her death she was continually calling me to listen to what she had to say. And all her talk was about “Roscoe,” as she

called him, and the injury he had done to her. The things I have told the police in my statement were said by the girl at the times when she was apparently in full control of her mind. At other times she rambled. She was in great pain throughout. When her condition was at its worst, she made statements more extreme than the things she said when she was quieter. I shall tell those latter statements only at the trial, if there is one, and under the qualification that they were made in delirium. But the things I have told so far were said when her mind, as far as I could judge, was clear. She wanted to get in touch with Arbuckle so that he would pay the expenses of her illness The girl was far more worried over the money side of her plight than over other aspects. She said:

“It wouldn’t be right for me to have to pay for all this, when it’s Roscoe’s fault.”

When she said, “Get Roscoe,” I understood her to mean: “Get him and make him pay the bills.” The thing that worried her most, apart from the money, was the wrong done to her fiancé, Henry Lehrman, Los Angeles motion picture director.

“I don’t want publicity about this, because I don’t want Henry to know of it,” she said repeatedly. “If he knows of it, he will throw me down.”

The thought that hurt her most of all, perhaps, was that Lehrman and Arbuckle had been fast friends for years, but that Arbuckle had treated her wrongly despite his friendship for her fiancé.

“It wasn’t right for him to act this way toward me, when Henry was so fond of him and trusted him so,” the girl said.

She repeated this in various ways. “What kind of way was that for him to treat a girl that was engaged to his best friend?” she said.

As to the exact way in which she got her fatal injury, the girl’s mind was a blank. I think she had been too intoxicated to remember it. At any rate she never described clearly what happened in her room. But she did say:

“He crushed me and broke something inside me.”[1]

A few days after Jameson repeated what she had told the authorities, she testified at a juried coroner’s inquest intended to ascertain whether Rappe’s death, from a medical standpoint, was a criminal matter.  “She never thought she was going to die,” Jameson said as she repeated, expanded, and clarified much of what she had already stated. “She had been on a party with Fatty Arbuckle and the others that she named,” the nurse recalled. “She said they were all drunk.”

Jameson, too, gave her professional opinion of her patient after her initial conversations. “Miss Rappe was still somewhat hysterical and my diagnosis was that she was hysterical after a drunken party.” Rappe, the nurse observed, was “in a good deal of pain, particularly in the region of her abdomen.” Speaking freely and answering questions, Rappe told Jameson

that she had had three drinks and the three drinks made her helpless. At one time she would say she could not remember whether Arbuckle had dragged her or pulled her into the bedroom, and at other times, she said definitely that he had done so. She frequently asked me, “What could be broken inside of me?” She asked me several times whether I would examine her to see whether Arbuckle had assaulted her. She made many statements about “getting Arbuckle.” So far as I could learn she had money in New York City, which she said Henry Lehrman gave to her. She said, however, that if it were to be a long case [hospital stay], she must get the money from Arbuckle or Lehrman would turn her down. She had very little money with her at the St. Francis. I asked her for some money to buy her a night gown as she did not have a stitch of clothing after I got her in bed. She did not seem much concerned and told me that lots of times she did not sleep in a night gown.

Though Rappe appeared to speak candidly with Jameson, the nurse said Rappe had been reluctant to talk “about a certain phase of her condition.” We can suppose this meant she didn’t want to be on record for accusing Arbuckle of anything specific. “Miss Rappe,” Jameson continued,

was very anxious that the party and what took place there be kept from Lehrman for fear, as she expressed it, that he would throw her down. “Will you be my witness if I sue Arbuckle for the money it is going to take?” she said to me at one time. “I am going to make Arbuckle pay for this as it is all his fault.”[2]

Ironically, following Jameson’s testimony, one of Arbuckle’s lawyers was heard to say “Our case is won.” Despite how damning the nurse made it sound for Arbuckle, Jameson had let on that Rappe had a preexisting condition for six weeks, an illness that could be attributed to the comedy director Henry Lehrman, Rappe’s mostly-vacant boyfriend, who made a show of savaging and threatening Arbuckle in the press for having killed his beloved “Virginia.” Incidentally Lehrman, living across the country in New York, had already moved on to a new girlfriend, a Ziegfeld Follies dancer.

An even greater and sadder irony to consider is that Rappe feared Lehrman learning about her and Arbuckle together, consensual or otherwise—possibly more than death itself.

[1] “Girl Rational When She Named Actor, Says Nurse,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 September 1921, 1, 3.

[2] Associated Press, “Arbuckle Indicted: Manslaughter Grand Jury Says,” Des Moines Register, 14 September 1921, 1, 2.