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)

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.

100 Years Ago Today: Dismissing Dr. Beardslee, September 6, 1921

Perhaps the worst decision made by Roscoe Arbuckle and whoever had his ear was to let Maude Delmont stay with Virginia Rappe in room 1227 of the St. Francis Hotel.

Although she didn’t pretend to be a real nurse, she assumed the authority of one. (Delmont’s  younger sister, with whom she lived from time to time, was indeed a registered nurse.)

When the second hotel physician, Dr. Arthur Beardslee, came to see Rappe, he realized that this wasn’t the usual patient with a stomach ache from overindulging on rich food from the hotel kitchen or alcoholic beverages—as Delmont said. What he saw was a young woman he believed needed to be taken to a hospital for immediate surgery. But Dr. Beardslee erred on the side of hospitality, being a hotel doctor, and gave Rappe morphine injections to keep her quiet.

Meanwhile, Delmont had been going back and forth between room 1227 and the reception room of Arbuckle’s suite, room 1220.

The people in that room decided against sending Rappe to the nearby St. Francis Hospital, where Dr. Beardslee was a resident. That risked “notoriety.”

Dr. Arthur Beardslee (FamilySearch.com)

Delmont never disputed this decision. She returned to room 1227 and was satisfied with the effects of the morphine. She also convinced Dr. Beardslee that the only thing wrong with Rappe was gas. She suggested having an enema bag and Dr. Beardslee ordered one.

When he was gone, Delmont gave Rappe the enema, apparently with expertise and little mess. But undoubtedly the experience for Rappe was no less excruciating than her ruptured bladder.

Only Dr. Beardslee suspected the true nature of the injury. On his last visit, in the wee hours of Tuesday, September 6, he catheterized Rappe and extracted a little urine and clotted blood. The results alarmed him but he suppressed any expression of urgency given, perhaps, the inconvenient hour.

Still deferential to Delmont, Dr. Beardslee could only advise that his patient—whose name he incredibly failed to learn—be taken by ambulance to the hospital. Delmont, exercising a kind of medical power-of-attorney before there was ever such a thing, elected not to do so. Rappe would be treated in her hotel room.

Later that Tuesday morning, Dr. Beardslee was informed by Maude Delmont that her personal friend, a famous San Francisco surgeon who had performed an operation on her in the past, Dr. Melville Rumwell, would take over the case.