Inexpert witness shopping (Chicago style) and other random thoughts regarding the third Arbuckle trial

In the wake of the second Arbuckle trial, Chicago lawyer Albert Sabath told the Chicago Tribune that he intended to leave for San Francisco to take part in the upcoming third trial. Undoubtedly, he was waxing in his importance to Arbuckle’s defense. In October 1921, a month before the first trial began, Sabath had deposed a doctor and two nurses on behalf of the Arbuckle defense team, and allowed for highlights of their statements to reach the press. Given other stories out of Chicago at the time, Sabath, too, may have been looking for witnesses who could support the contention that Rappe had a child out of wedlock. San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady called this pre-trial reportage propaganda.

The first trial had been a hung jury: 10 to 2 for acquittal. The more that Rappe’s purported past was heard in court, the greater the doubt was among jury members that Arbuckle had committed a crime. If Rappe had cystitis and other gynecological complications caused by being sexually active since adolescence she would seem more of a victim of her own lifestyle. For any rumors or uncorroborated hearsay to have an effect they needed to be published before the jury was chosen. Once selected the jurors would be sequestered in a hotel and any mention of the Arbuckle case would be scissored from their copies of the San Francisco papers.

Sabath had been retained since September 1921, probably by Arbuckle’s personal lawyer, Milton Cohen, soon after Arbuckle’s arrest. Sabath was in a position to help Arbuckle. His law partner was his uncle, U.S. congressman Adolph Sabath, his father, Joseph Sabath, was a Chicago judge, and Albert was well connected in Chicago society and its underbelly given the people his law office represented. Albert Sabath likely also knew Rappe in life. Her one-time fiancé, Harry Barker, had been one of Sabath’s groomsmen at his January 1914 wedding.

Rappe had no living family and few willing to step forward to contradict anything Sabath’s witnesses said. As the Tribune put it, the defense could “tear to fragments the character of Virginia Rappe, who is dead and cannot speak in her own behalf.” Barker, a friend and business partner in the Sabath family’s real estate holdings in California before and during the Arbuckle case, would have known about some of the blank spots in Rappe’s history, which could then be creatively filled to raise doubts among the jury.

“The vote of 10 to 2 for conviction by the last jury,” Sabath said on February 7, “ended the defense polity of shielding the name of Virginia Rappe. It appears impossible to free Arbuckle and at the same time steer the testimony clear of the facts about Miss Rappe’s condition. We must show the kind of life she led. We must lay bare every shred of information on her past.”[1]

Arbuckle’s lead attorney Gavin McNab, concerned about keeping the defense under his control, declared “Sabath’s sole service for the defense is the gathering of depositions in Chicago. We know nothing of his intended visit to San Francisco or the witness he is supposed to have found. The defense counsel list will remain the same as in the two previous trials.”[2] But Sabath did arrive in San Francisco and brought with him Virginia Warren, one of the nurses he had deposed in October.

Warren’s story—or rather stories—were already being floated in the press during the third week of October 1922. But now, for the third trial, she would be groomed to take the stand.

We will discuss her again in a post marking the hundredth anniversary of her testimony. For the present, we want to editorialize briefly on the quality of Sabath’s witnesses and why McNab consented to having them deposed.

One reason was to replace Harry Barker, who had testified on behalf of Arbuckle at the first trial (see Bit Player #5: The Sweetheart). District Attorney Matthew Brady had already brought charges of perjury against two defense witnesses and was threatening to do the same to Barker, who had faced a withering cross-examination during the first trial which left him looking like a cad if not an outright liar.

To fill this void, Sabath located three more doctors to add to Dr. Maurice Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s deposition was allowed to be read at the first trial. He said he had treated Rappe for cystitis in 1913. One thing the prosecution skipped over during the cross-examination of Dr. Rosenberg’ was his role as a house physician for an infamous Chicago brothel.

An angle that Brady could exploit was that Chicago was known for corruption and organized crime and any defense witnesses from there would be easy to denounce. Arbuckle’s defense understood this as well so they had to be wary of the quality of witnesses Sabath deposed. One such case was John “Butch” Carroll, whose criminal background went back at least to an 1896 murder during a burglary attempt gone wrong.

“Butch” Carroll’ was best known for the saloons he operated on the “levee” of the Chicago River or “West Side.” These were known haunts of Chicago’s underworld, where one risked life and limb, as in the 1908 case of a salesman from Cincinnati who was killed by a stray bullet meant for another man’s wife in a domestic argument.

Carroll’s bars also offered entertainment, typically young, pretty singers wearing short skirts. His Palm Garden, at 948 W. Madison St., also featured a “house of ill repute” on the floors above. One Chicago police chief lost his job because of the payoffs that Carroll and other bar owners arranged so that no one shut them down. Chicago newspapers are rife with criminal cases in which Carroll’s name surfaces, sometimes as a defendant. What they don’t report is the names of their attorneys. Even so, one can assume they had the backing to afford the best lawyers, such as Albert Sabath’s firm.

When Sabath showed “Butch” Carroll photographs of Virgina Rappe, he recognized her. He said she sang in his bar in 1911—which would have been the Palm Garden. It was not the kind of establishment that Harry Barker described taking Rappe to during their courtship, but we can’t discount Carroll’s claim out of hand. Although Rappe wasn’t known for her voice, she could dance. Our research shows that she had an early theatrical career that would have required her to sing as well. Conversely it’s known that her mother, Mabel Rapp, a familiar face among Chicago’s demimonde, had steered her daughter away from this kind of life.

Although he identified Rappe in photographs, whatever else “Butch” Carroll added to Rappe’s history or legend is unknown. His deposition wasn’t used. But what he succeeded in doing for Sabath and for Arbuckle was further assert in newspapers that Rappe was an immoral young woman years before she arrived in the comedian’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel. Achieving the effect of tarnishing her reputation would require more than just one witness and one angle. It also required the temporal space in which to work. Sabath found 1914 to be particularly useful for it is the one year in which Rappe disappears from newspapers after her arrival from Europe in early January 1914. (The last reportage being about her dress, which exposed her underwear from the ankles to just above her knees as she danced the tango with her female companion in an ocean liner’s ballroom.) In that year Dr. Fred A. Van Arsdale claimed he delivered Rappe’s baby. Sabath also deposed two more doctors who claimed to have advised Rappe to stop drinking alcoholic beverages because of abdominal pain. Sabath also found two witnesses who attended a drinking party at which Rappe went into hysterics—rather than anything to do with obstetrics.

Another Sabath witness—or phantom witness—was Estelle Wyatt, described as a “negress” and the “widow of a preacher”. She was quoted, before boarding a train in Cincinnati for Chicago, as having “nursed” Rappe in a South Side Chicago hospital twelve years earlier. She said that Rappe was so grateful for her service that, “up until five years ago, she frequently sent her presents to show her appreciation.”[3]

We took interest in Wyatt since we, the authors, are both from Cincinnati and this is one of two connections that the Arbuckle case has to our hometown. (The other is the resting place of Albert Royal Delmont, Maude Delmont’s first husband.) People of color are mostly absent from the Arbuckle case., except for Wyatt and a contingent of African American clubwomen who had attended the preliminary investigation and may have attended Arbuckle’s subsequent trials. Also, as we noted in a previous blog entry, Virginia Warren was possibly an African American who passed for white given her census data.

Mrs. Wyatt, however, doesn’t have a verifiable Chicago connection and that would make “her” claim about Virginia Rappe suspect. But Wyatt’s existence isn’t. An Estelle Wyatt lived in Cincinnati in 1922 given her real estate transactions in College Hill, which is still a largely middle-class African American suburb a century later. She was a widow according to U.S. Census records from 1930 onward. Her occupations were listed as nursemaid (1930) and seamstress (1940). Her two sons were born in Ohio in 1911 and ’13, respectively and their World War II draft cards indicate Cincinnati as their birthplace.

Our reason for the “scare quotes” is the possibility that the identical stories published in hundreds of newspapers about her leaving Cincinnati to be deposed in Chicago was likely planted—perhaps without her knowledge, consent, or the payoffs that Matthew Brady believed were used to create the battery of Chicago witnesses and depositions he faced.[4]

Photomontage of Roscoe Arbuckle pouring himself (or a revenant Virginia Rappe) a glass of gin, ca. 1921 (Calisphere)

[1] The original wire story appeared variously credited to the Associated Press, Hearst International News Service and the Chicago Tribune-New York Times, idated February 7, 1922.

[2] “New Artuckle Case Witness,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 February 1922, 14.

[3] “Negro Woman Going to Testify Behalf ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle: Negress Says She Nursed Virginia Rappe and That Actress Grateful,” York Daily News-Times, 11 March 1921, 1. This is just one example of many.

[4] An Illinois state attorney and commissioner were present for Sabath’s depositions. We are currently investigating the possibility that these still exist in the state’s archives.