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)