Artist’s sketches from the second Arbuckle Trial

To our knowledge, the Arbuckle trials saw no courtroom artists as we have come to know their work, which often captures some compelling moment in a jury trial of public interest. During the second Arbuckle trial, however, the San Francisco Call enlisted the well-known American engraver and Western artist Fred Grayson Sayre to draw Roscoe Arbuckle and others. The Chronicle followed with several vignettes by an in-house sketch artist.

The defendant Rosce Arbuckle surrounded (clockwise) by profiles of his attorney, Gavin McNab; the prosecutor, San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady; his sister-in-law, Marie Durfee; and his wife, the motion picture actress Minta Durfee, San Francisco Call, January 12, 1922, p. 2 (Newspapers.com)

From left to right beginning with the top row: Maria Durfee and her sister, Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s wife; prospective jurors (only one woman sat on the second trial’s jury); an unidentified courtroom attaché, Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren, and Judge Harold Louderback, San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1922, p. 13 (Newspapers.com).

Minta Durfee takes the stand (or getting ahead of the court of public opinion)

We have been toying with incorporating certain contextualized documents in the book as interpolations or as parts of a conventional appendix. This piece, now in public domain, is inserted between the end of the first Arbuckle trial and the beginning of the second.


Intermezzo: The True Story About My Husband[*]

Mrs. Minta Durfee Arbuckle

In late December 1921, both Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle “penned” exculpatory pieces for Movie Weekly on December 24 and December 31, respectively. Both were couched as frank and open justifications of the Labor Day party and its aftermath for the moviegoing public—but still vetted by Arbuckle’s lawyers as well as his manager, Lou Anger, who answered to Joseph Schenck, Arbuckle’s producer and the deep pocket for his costly defense.

Arbuckle’s was a public recap of his testimony of November 28, when he took the stand at his first trial. He restated that he had been “morally acquitted” and that “organized propaganda” had made impossible for him to secure an impartial jury and a fair trial. But Movie Weekly was no less a propaganda organ to serve in Arbuckle’s defense in the weeks before the second trial began and before the jury was sequestered and their newspapers excised of any content related to the Arbuckle case. A similar propaganda campaign occurred in October, when news of Rappe’s adolescent past, promiscuity, and pregnancies appeared in the nation’s newspapers.

Minta Durfee, intriguingly, disowned any intentional defaming of Rappe’s character below in what was her confession for being Arbuckle’s estranged wife. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, she said that the humbling experience renewed her faith in God, that He works in mysterious ways and that the setback temporary. One of those mysteries was her marriage, that she had now been reunited with “Mr. Arbuckle” so as to stand by him against an unjust charge.

Durfee admitted that the couple lived separate lives for five years but in terms of something little more than a marital spat, “nerves,” rather than Arbuckle’s seeing her as sexually unfulfilling and a hindrance to the “movie star” lifestyle that his first contract with Paramount afforded.

Undoubtedly, even readers in 1921 and ’22, weren’t fooled, certainly not the jaded ones among the film colony. That Durfee implied that she saw her husband unclothed surely drew knowing smiles if not peals of laughter. She was practically saying her marriage was a sham from the beginning—or complicated or something else, something that did require her to pretend to be a saint—and a wife—to “service” her husband.

Nevertheless, to sound this naïve must have taken real nerve on her part. That Durfee was really disconcerted that some saw her presence in San Francisco as public relations, as no more than a theater engagement, an “added attraction” like her “Mrs Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle” comedies that had already come and gone before Arbuckle and Rappe films were pulled. But Durfee was self-aware enough to know how weird it looked for her to sit and practically spoon in court with a man who had kept her thousands of miles away in Manhattan, to say nothing about his five years of living an unmarried man’s life that ended with having to publicly admit that he was only in San Francisco to drive Mrs. Mae. (Notice that Durfee studiously avoids any mention of Mae Taube.)

Those who smiled and laughed, of course, also understood that Durfee was expected to do what she had to do and eat whatever peck of dirt was necessary to profess her love and faith in Arbuckle, to temporarily leave her doorman building on Riverside Drive, her chauffeur-driven motorcar, her golf clubs, and the like. She wasn’t just there for Arbuckle but for her own movies in which she was billed “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle. She was also in San Francisco and Los Angeles for powerful men already luring away Postmaster General Will Hays for a new office to oversee the motion picture industry.

The other thing she had to do for the industry rather than herself—although there is a hint of jealousy here—was the mischaracterize Virginia Rappe. Unlike the stand Durfee took in her dotage, that Rappe was a whore on the Keystone lot, she couldn’t make things up in Movie Weekly in 1921. Rappe was known in Hollywood and she had a coterie of friends who thought highly of her—even if she was the kind of woman, as opposed to the quiet, mousy, overdressed Minta Durfee, who made the party a party when things got boring.

But Durfee displays a certain magnanimity in exonerating Rappe from being part of “a conscious factor in any maneuver” against Arbuckle, suggesting that he had been entrapped in some kind of blackmail plot. But later in the piece, she only sees Rappe’s crisis as a purely accidental opportunity—a hypothesis that ended when Arbuckle’s first lead counsel, Frank Dominguez was threatened with a defamation suit and subsequently resigned from Arbuckle’s “million-dollar defense.”

Regarding the lawyer’s fees, Minta Durfee’s claim that Arbuckle would be paying them is the egregious falsehood, especially coming on the heels below of saying he was foolish with his money.

As surely as God is above me, and I believe in Him very sincerely, I know that Roscoe Arbuckle did not do the thing for which he has been made to face trial.


My reasons are as powerful as they are simple. He has told me what happened and what did not happen in that hotel room, and I believe him. And I know, after thirteen years of married life, that he is not that kind of a man. He simply could not do such a thing.

I first heard of his trouble when I walked into a hotel parlor and saw a newspaper with the name “Arbuckle” in great headlines. It was a terrible shock. My first thought was that he had been killed in some motion picture stunt. Then the fear came that perhaps there had been an automobile accident—perhaps he had killed someone with his car, but I knew that he is such a splendid driver that that could hardly have happened.

Then I learned what really was the matter, and my first thought was to get to him as quickly as I could. I knew that he could not be guilty, but I wanted to hear the from his own lips the true story of the affair, and I wanted to be with him in his trouble. It was for that reason and no other that I traveled three thousand miles to San Francisco, and it is because I believe implicitly and firmly that what he has told me is the absolute truth, confirming my own trust in him, that I have been with him ever since. The moment that I learned he was in trouble, I knew there was only one place in the world for me, and that was with my husband, for he is my husband, although differences of temperament—and nothing more, except perhaps a little stubborn pride on both sides—have kept us apart for five years. When this affair happened, the little things over which we had disagreed seemed utterly unimportant.

Perhaps I have old-fashioned beliefs about marriage, but it always seemed to me that a real wife must be as much sweetheart, friend, pal, and even mother, as wife. I’m not pretending to be a saint, and I like a good time as well as anybody, but being a wife has always appealed to me as a life’s work.

When we like anyone, we Durfees, we like them for a long long time. My faith in Roscoe Arbuckle is too great to be shaken by any attacks upon him, even if they were supported by real proof.

It hurt me when the rumor spread that I had come to him because I was looking for notoriety or because I had been paid to do it, as was intimated in some places. I am his wife, and my place was with him. I believe that even if we had been divorced I would have come, just the same. I could not have seen the man I know to be the victim of unjust accusations, face his trouble and not have me with him.

As for the party itself, knowing Roscoe Arbuckle as I do, I can very easily understand his share in it. Mr. Arbuckle is just a big, easy-going, good-natured boy. I can understand just how he found himself the host that afternoon, without ever intending to invite anybody there. As a matter of fact, he did not invite any of the guests. The party was not his suggestion. Other people got the crowd together, and simply used his rooms.

Mr. Arbuckle has told me that so far as the liquor that was there is concerned, he actually does not know where it came from or how it got there.

Perhaps the best proof of that is that with all the bills he has had to pay, he has never paid one cent for the liquor that was served—and in these days, no one gets liquor without paying for it.

I can picture him that afternoon as the involuntary host at a party not of his invitation or suggestions; perhaps enjoying it, for although he scarcely ever starts a party himself, he likes company and enjoys being with people. Certainly no one can blame him, if the party became noisy and too lively. As a matter of fact, he has told me that he did complain of the actions of certain members of the party and told them that they were going too far. Perhaps that very thing aroused a spirit of revenge that was responsible for the charges made against him.

As for Virginia Rappe, the minute I saw her name in connection with the case it made me more sure than ever that my husband was being made the victim of circumstances. I do not want to say anything against her; in fact, both Mr. Arbuckle and myself urged from the very beginning that nothing be brought into the case that would tend to besmirch her character if it could possibly be kept out. We were not responsible for published statements attacking her. That was done by other persons, evidently fearing that we would try such measures and wishing to forestall us. They were very much mistaken. Nothing has been farther from our thoughts.

I knew Virginia Rappe as long as Mr. Arbuckle did. Henry Lehrmann [sic], her manager, was also my director at one time. I knew the girl, not only from personal acquaintance but from acquaintance with many of her friends. I do not believe that Virginia Rappe was a conscious factor in any maneuver directed against Mr. Arbuckle. If there were a deliberate plot against him, I do not think that she knew anything about it. She was in Los Angeles, financially hard up, out of work and unable to get help from her friends. She came to San Francisco, I believe, merely on a pleasure trip. She went to that party, not because Mr. Arbuckle invited her, but because she was asked to meet Ira Fortlouis, a gown designer and salesman, who had seen her and thought she would make a good model. That we know from the words of Fred Fishback, who told us that Mr. Fortlouis had seen Miss Rappe, had admired her possibilities as a model, and finding that she was in San Francisco, asked to meet her.

If Miss Rappe had not died, I believe that nothing would ever have been heard of the affair, because there would have been nothing to talk about. There are hundreds and hundreds of just such impromptu parties all the time. People drink and dance and have a good time, and no one is the worse for it. I believe that the whole trouble started when someone who thought that Mr. Arbuckle would be an “easy mark” and perhaps was further moved by anger against him for some reason, seized on Miss Rappe’s death as the reason for wild statements and unfounded charges. It is difficult to discuss that point without making direct accusations, and that I prefer not to do, but it seems perfectly evident to me that this motive was back of the whole thing.

Ever since he was a boy—and he practically grew up with our family— Mr. Arbuckle has been careless with money. He never considered expense. Money simply meant the means of getting what he wanted, of enjoying himself, of helping other people. Incidentally, helping other people is the way a great deal of his money has gone. He has been most generous with me, even since our separation. He has supported relatives. He has always been ready to help anyone who needed it. He has half a dozen pensioners about whom nobody but his own people know. Even during his trial, when he knew that the tremendous expenses he was under and the loss of the salary he had always had were making him actually a poor man, I have known him to give $5 bills to beggars who stopped him on the street.

And speaking of expenses, I want to say that Mr. Arbuckle and no one else has been paying the costs of his trial and all the rest of it. It has been said that the motion picture interests were behind him. They were not. Every cent has come out of his own pocket or out of mine. As a matter of fact, so far from receiving support from the picture interests, Mr. Arbuckle has been out of a job since the day after he was arrested—out of work for the first time since he began his motion picture work. He did not know it until after I came to him. I learned it just before I left New York; learned that as soon as the news reached the East, he fter him for what they could get, to put it bluntly.

I know of many cases: men who have persuaded him to give them money, girls with whom he was friendly who have actually made him a joke because it was so easy to get money away from him. Everyone thought of him as an easy- going fellow, ready to accept people at their own valuation, and not at all difficult to manage. I can see just how a clever and unprincipled man or woman who was looking for an easy victim would select him.

Moreover, Mr. Arbuckle has been not only financially successful but prominent in his work. There is something about success and prominence, particularly in the theatrical world, that makes men and women targets for the malice of others. As soon as an actor becomes known in his profession, it seems to inspire lies and slander and scandal about him, started by those strange people who believe that the theatre and good morals cannot go together, and helped along by people who should know better, but who seem to take a delight in repeating unproved gossip, and the more scandalous gossip, the better.

I was not surprised, then, when the moment the news of his trouble became known, the newspapers were filled with the most malicious attacks on him. It hurt me terribly, of course, as it hurt him, but it is one of the penalties of being well-known; there is always someone waiting for the chance to do just that thing.

Mr. Arbuckle and I want just two things: first, of course, that he be cleared of these charges, and then that the public we love so much will take him back into favor, not because of any material interests, but because it will mean that the public recognizes that he is the innocent victim of a malicious attack rather than the terrible creature he has been painted. He wants, particularly, to have the women and children of the theatre- going public know his innocence and receive him again as they have always received him. He always has the children in mind when he makes a picture; he never does a scene that could offend or that would be harmful for a child to see. In all the many pictures he has made, he has never appeared in a scene that has been censored.

A great deal was said when the trial began about there being women on the jury. Some people expressed surprise that our attorneys did not try to get a jury entirely of men. They thought, I suppose, that women would be unwelcome because of the traditional stand of a woman in judging a case involving such charges as are brought in this case.

Absolutely the contrary was true. We did not try to keep women off the jury. We all hoped that women would be drawn, and Mr. Arbuckle and I were delighted when the final selection left five good sensible women in the jury box. Both of us have great faith in a woman’s intuition, and we were perfectly confident that the women would give us a fair deal.

And speaking of women, I do want the women of the country to know that in spite of all the insinuations and ugly stories that have been circulated since this thing began, Roscoe Arbuckle is the most modest of men. Certainly I should know. I have been his wife for thirteen years. For eight of those years we were hardly out of each other’s sight, and in all those eight years I never remember a single action or a single word that, by the farthest stretch of the imagination, could be called even immodest, to say nothing of vulgar or lewd. He is minutely careful about his dress. Even in our own home, he is as particular with the members of his own family as he is with strangers. It is an actual fact that in all the years I have been his wife, I have never seen him when he was not clothed.

A great deal has been made of the fact that on the afternoon of this party, Mr. Arbuckle was wearing pajamas and a dressing gown. On the face of it, without any explanation, it sounds odd—that a man should receive guests, including women and some women who were strangers to him, in such a costume. As a matter of fact, the explanation clears up everything. Not long before the trip to San Francisco, Mr. Arbuckle was accidentally burned with muriatic acid. It was a serious burn and very painful, and he had to wear a thick cotton dressing. He always had his clothing made rather tightly fitting in order to keep him from looking any fatter than he is, and tight clothing over the burn was anything but comfortable. Whenever he could, he wore loose clothing, and that was why he was dressed in pajamas on the day of the party. Remember, he did not suggest the party; it simply moved in on him, as they say, and the whole thing happened so unexpectedly that he let his costume go. And I wish the people who have criticised his attire could see the pajamas and the dressing gown. The pajamas were of the thickest silk he could buy, as heavy as the heaviest linen. The dressing gown was of thick brocade, lined with heavy silk, and it was long enough to reach to his ankles and double-brested. Actually, although his costume was informal, he was much more thoroughly covered than any man on the tennis court or the beach. In line with his modesty regarding dress, I want people to understand Mr. Arbuckle’s personal modesty, particularly with women. As a matter of fact, he prefers to be with men. He likes nothing better than to get a crowd of men together and sing and laugh and enjoy themselves like a crowd of college boys. All his life, Mr. Arbuckle has been embarrassed by his size. He has believed that women could not like a fat man, and for that reason he has hesitated even more than might be natural about developing friendships among women. He is not the type of man who caresses a woman. If he likes a girl, he will tease her or make her presents or generally be nice to her, but he will never think of putting his hands on her. In fact, he carries it so far that it is almost an obsession.

Knowing that trait of character, I cannot imagine him doing what it has been said he did. I have known all about his affairs, and I know that he never forced his acquaintance on a woman. If she were friendly, and he liked her, he could be good friends, but he has always been so conscious of that traditional “nobody loves a fat man” idea, that it has influenced him in his friendships.

For eight years I was constantly with Mr. Arbuckle, and in all that time I never heard him use vile language or tell disgusting stories or do anything of that sort. He likes a good time, but he likes a clean good time. He likes machinery, and loves to tinker with the cars. He is fond of dogs, and likes nothing better than to take a day off and wash our three dogs. He and the big St. Bernard have wonderful times. Mr. Arbuckle gets into his bathing suit, and puts a tub in the garage, and he and the dog are perfectly happy there for half a day.

In the eight years that followed our marriage, I came to know my husband in every particular. Few married couples are together as much as we were in those years. We met at Long Beach, where he was principal comedian in a musical comedy company and I was in the chorus. We were married in 1908, and for the next eight years we were hardly out of one another’s sight. Not very long after our marriage, we went to Los Angeles, where motion pictures were just beginning to become a great industry. We found work at the same studio, doing comedy pictures.

Every morning we rode to the studio together. All day long we worked in the same studio and the same picture. In a year and [a] half I played with Mr. Arbuckle in forty-seven pictures.[†]

If either of us went anywhere in the evening, the other always went along. I was brought up in the belief—they call it old-fashioned now—that a wife’s place was to suit herself to her husband’s wishes, and to go where he wanted to go. In fact, I so thoroughly fitted myself into Mr. Arbuckle’s life, that I almost lost my own interests. He does not care for reading, and I am very fond of it. I love books, and I love to find my own problems solved in them. However, he did not care particularly for reading, so I let my books go. It was the same with other things. His interests became mine, absolutely. Perhaps we made a mistake by being so much together. It is the safest thing for married couples to take an occasional vacation from each other.

I know that now, but you couldn’t make me believe it then. We had our careers. Roscoe was on the way to becoming a star, and I was doing well with my work. We were both busy, and busy people are often nervous and irritable. Two busy people in a family frequently clash, not because of any dislike, but simply because they get on each other’s nerves, and neither one, because of the continual strain of work, has the time to acquire sufficient calmness to meet the other’s needs.

Roscoe has no great faults; that I know. But he is human and like other men, he has his minor difficulties. He has always been inclined to be stubborn in spite of his easy-going nature. It sounds like an impossibility, but every wife will know that it can be true.

Well, if he can be stubborn, so can I. Probably our separation was as much my fault as it was his. We began to clash a little, probably over some very unimportant thing. He wouldn’t admit that he was wrong, and neither would I. He is like a boy; he wants to be coaxed; and as for myself, I cannot force myself on anyone, least of all a man, if I have the slightest feeling that I may not be welcome.

So, we simply got on one another’s nerves, and it never got properly straightened out, until this thing happened, and all our little disagreements were swept out of sight.

Even during the years that we were separated, we were friends. We corresponded frequently; Mr. Arbuckle often called me up over the long distance telephone when I was in New York and he was in Los Angeles; and whenever he was in New York, he came to see me. That doesn’t sound much like being enemies, does it?

All during the trial, I have sat in the courtroom and prayed over and over a little prayer that Mr. Arbuckle would be cleared and that the real truth would become known. I dislike to make direct charges concerning anyone, but I can simply say that the circumstantial evidence that was brought out against Mr. Arbuckle sounded to me very weak indeed, and as for direct accusations, I do not believe them. It seems perfectly clear to me that every circumstance developed in the case can be explained as effectively in Mr. Arbuckle’s favor as against him, and as for anything further, it must be remembered that Mrs. Delmont, who first made the charges and who was really the only one to accuse Mr. Arbuckle directly, was not put on the stand by the prosecution. Surely they would have insisted upon her testimony, unless they did not believe her story after all, or unless they feared that we could discredit her.

I know that Roscoe Arbuckle is innocent, and that he will be acquitted, but I hope that the case will go so that he is clearly acquitted on the facts and not simply by legal technicalities. As much as he wants his freedom from these charges, and as much as I want it, it will mean little if he is still under a cloud. He has been deeply hurt in many ways during this affair. He has seen fair-weather friends fall away from him, and he has learned the value of his true friends.

Roscoe Arbuckle looks on every man, woman and child who has ever enjoyed him in the films as his friend, and those friends he wants to keep.

Minta Durfee, Roscoe Arbuckle, and her sister Marie Durfee arriving for second trial,
San Francisco, January 1922 (Calisphere)

[*] pp. 000–000: Minta Durfee, “The True Story about My Husband,” Movie Weekly, December 24, 1921; Roscoe Arbuckle, “Roscoe Arbuckle Tells His Own Story,” 31 December 1921, https://www.silentera.com/taylorology/issues/Taylor28.txt.

[†] This number is likely honest since Durfee frequently performed in Keystone comedies as an uncredited extra.

Arbuckle’s Housekeeper, Secretary and Escort: Catherine Fitzgerald

When Roscoe Arbuckle made his ill-fated journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the first days of September 1921, he left his mansion at 649 West Adams Boulevard in the care of Catherine Fitzgerald. She had her own room in Arbuckle’s home and her job title was secretary and housekeeper. Arbuckle, however, at least according to the 1920 census, also employed two Japanese servants, “Jack” Kakuchi and a young woman, Shino Shizaishi. Housekeeping duties would have usually fallen on them given their status. Another member of the comedian’s household staff was a Word War I veteran who Arbuckle had hired as his gardener in late August 1921, just days before his departure for San Francisco. Since many former soldiers suffered during the postwar recession, providing a man who had served his country with work was considered a noble deed.

During the Arbuckle case in September, October, and November, Miss Fitzgerald’s name appeared from time to time.

In the days following the Labor Day weekend, federal prohibition officials in Los Angeles questioned her about Arbuckle’s personal liquor supply in 649’s wine cellar. She had allegedly had the key to the basement door and was asked to relinquish it. But, as it turned out, Arbuckle had stocked his cellar before passage of the Volstead Act, the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, better known as Prohibition. So the agents had to look elsewhere for the source of the liquor consumed during the Labor Day party, at which the actress Virginia Rappe was fatally injured in Arbuckle’s bedroom in the St. Francis Hotel.

One thing Rappe had in common with Catherine Fitzgerald was that they were the same age, born a month apart in 1891. Fitzgerald, too, with her dark hair light-colored eyes, would not have looked out of place with the other brunettes at Arbuckle’s Labor Day party. Like Rappe, she too had come from humble beginnings.

In Fitzgerald’s case, life began on Louisville’s West Side, a largely African American enclave then as now. Her father worked in a plow factory and, according to the 1910 census, his eldest daughter still lived at home. But she was remembered in Louisville for working the cigar stands in the better hotels before she relocated to Los Angeles after the war. By 1919–’20 she was an extra in the comedies Arbuckle made with Buster Keaton—and befriended Arbuckle’s leading in his 1921 comedies, Lila Lee.

Catherine Fitzgerald (also Katherine) interests us because she was more than housekeeper and secretary. She may have been Arbuckle’s occasional escort to Hollywood events, such as “Photoplay Magazine Night,” where she was a standout at Arbuckle’s table. She was even rumored to be engaged to him—even though he was still married to the actress Minta Durfee.

That Minta Durfee objected Fitzgerald’s presence in Arbuckle’s home surfaced after the former returned to Los Angeles following the preliminary investigation during the last two weeks of September. Fitzgerald was either dismissed or she moved out of Arbuckle’s house on her own to avoid Durfee or make for the wrong impression. She stayed with Lila Lee for a few days and then returned to Louisville only to resurface in Los Angeles in November.

Catherine Fitzgerald at the wheel

Newspaper photograph of Catherine Fitzgerald at the wheel of one of Arbuckle’s
automobiles, September 1921. Note wedding band. (Newspapers.com)

Over the weekend, just before November 28, 1921, when Arbuckle took the stand in his own defense (see Arbuckle’s Testimony), District Attorney Matthew Brady released a list of rebuttal witnesses to the press. Included among them was Catherine Fitzgerald. Rumor had it that she would testify in regard to the nature of Arbuckle’s parties—or bacchanales, debauches, orgies, and the like, to use the period expressions. Rumor also had it that she had been subpoenaed in order to intimidate Arbuckle from taking the stand. But he did anyway and she was, in the end, not called. Our research thus far reveals that she was newsworthy once more in 1922—for income tax evasion.[1]

Would she have made an effective witness against Arbuckle. Likely not given what she said before she disappeared from Los Angeles so as not to be “home” when Minta Durfee arrived to take up her role as Arbuckle’s wife—this despite the innocence of her position as purely “staff.”

Katherine Fitzgerald, long-time friend and beautiful young housekeeper for “Fatty” Arbuckle, is not engaged to marry him. She made it extremely plain today that she was an employee, “just the same as the maids or the cook.” But she does not hesitate to declare that she admires him, and will do everything she can to “help him out of this mess.” As to any deep affection between them: “Why, it’s too ridiculous for words,” said the pretty girl at the Arbuckle mansion on West Adams Street.[2]

Of Arbuckle and Durfee, Fitzgerald said they were the best of friends and that he saw her when he was in New York City last. When asked about the parties at West Adams, she said that they were, without exception, moderate and reserved. “Roscoe is just a big, good-natured boy,” she said, with a slight catch in her voice. “Really, you know, he’s never grown up and I don’t think he ever will.”

[1] Arbuckle’s Housekeeper Charged in Income Tax,” Louisville Courier-Journal, 25 November 1922, 2.

[2] “’Just a Big Boy,’ Housekeeper Says,” Oakland Tribune, 13 September 1921, 3.

Dr. Charles E. Barnes, the quack whose heroic measures saved Arbuckle?

Our unconventional narrative leads in with the life or legend of Virginia Rappe. It leads out with an epilogue that follows some of the figures from the Arbuckle trial and the so-called “Rappe curse.”


Practically all members of the jury declared that the most important piece of evidence in their minds was the testimony of Dr. Charles Barnes of Omaha, defense surprise witness, who impeached the testimony of one of the state’s principal witnesses, Mrs. Fox, and declared that he had treated Miss Rappe for the same sort of trouble which the defense claimed was the cause of her death.

Edward W. Brown, jury foreman[1]

A century ago this week, Minta Durfee made the decision to part ways with Roscoe Arbuckle. Like the vaudeville actress that she was at heart, she could see that her role in “standing by” her estranged husband for eight months was over. Despite Adolph Zukor’s promise to release two new Arbuckle films as well as Gasoline Gus (1921), he and other stakeholders in Arbuckle agreed with Will H. Hays, the Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, that the ban on Arbuckle’s films should continue for the present.

Arbuckle was also prevented from going back to work on new films. If Durfee hoped to ride on his coattails again in making her own comeback, those hopes had been dashed. She decided to return to her apartment on Riverside Drive and Arbuckle remained behind in Los Angeles to settle his debts. He put his West Adams Street mansion on the market and looked for someone to buy his beloved Pierce-Arrow “palace car” that he drove to San Francisco and his ill-fated Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel.


On her return to New York City, Durfee got off the train in Omaha to spend a couple of days with a special friend, made during the course of the third Arbuckle trial, Dr. Charles Edwin Barnes. His rebuttal testimony on April 10, challenged the assertion of Katherine Fox, Virginia Rappe’s guardian and mentor, that Rappe had been healthy and suffered from no illnesses (see also Katherine Nelson Fox . . .). Dr. Barnes took the stand and said that he had treated Rappe for cystitis in Chicago during the summer of 1909.

Barnes, too, also tested Fox on her marital status and residence in 1909, dropping her maiden name of “Dot” Nelson in such a way that made her sound more like a moll or madam than the woman who paid for Rappe’s dance lessons and clothes—and encouraged her to model and perform on stage.

There was no surrebuttal on the part of Mrs. Fox, who sat through Barnes’ testimony. The prosecution challenged Dr. Barnes’ notes and records. But the case went to the jury and they made their decision to acquit in minutes. They returned to the courtroom with a ready statement that could have been written by Adolph Zukor himself, insisting that the injustice done to Arbuckle and his career be remedied.


Newspaper reporters were quick to see that Dr. Barnes had scored a “direct hit” on the prosecution’s case. For us, however, it is another indication that the victim—the woman—was on trial no less than the famous motion picture comedian.

The defense scored in the third trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle today when it placed Dr. Charles E. Barnes of Omaha, formerly of Chicago, on the witness stand to rebut the testimony previously given by Mrs. Catherine [sic] Fox of Chicago. At the conclusion of Dr. Barnes testimony and several other witnesses from Southern California the defense announced it had completed its case. The state asked time to check up by telegraph certain portions of Dr. Barnes’ testimony, and the court [i.e., Judge Louderbeck] granted until 10 o’clock tomorrow morning for the prosecution get this information. The court announced, however, that if the state was not ready to proceed at that time he would order the case closed and arguments started.

Dr. Barnes testified that for three months—from June through August—in 1909 he had treated Miss Rappe for an abscess and a chronic ailment and that it was Mrs. Catherine Fox, whom he pointed out in the court room as Miss Dot Nelson, who had introduced him to Miss Rappe and who had brought the girl to his office for treatment.

Mrs. Fox has testified that during the year 1909 she had seen Virginia every day and that at no time was the girl under the care of a physician.

“When did you first meet Dot Nelsen [sic]?” the doctor was asked.

“The latter part of 1908, at the boarding house run by my mother,” Dr. Barnes replied. “Dot Nelson lived in a room across the hall from my room at the time and I saw her every day. The last time I saw her was in August 1909,” the witness continued.[2]

“Do you see any change in the person you recognize as Dot Nelson,” Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman asked the witness.

“None whatever, I could never mistake her. She has changed but very little,” the witness replied.

Shortly after he met Miss Rappe in a social way, at the States restaurant, said the physician, he treated her for acute gastritis. Then in June, 1909, he declared, she visited him with Miss Nelson, because of her health. An examination revealed an abscess and a condition which necessitated an operation. The operation, Dr. Barnes said, was performed by himself and a Dr. Wicks.[3] He found the organ, which was mentioned so prominently in this case [i.e., the bladder], in a diseased condition, and continued his treatments for over a period of three months.

Five prescriptions, which the physician said he had written for Miss Rappe, were introduced in the evidence. The prosecution tried in vain to confuse the doctor regarding the dates, but the witness always corrected his cross-questioner and at times caused the spectators to laugh at his answers.

The court, however, took the pleasure of the laughing away from the spectators by announcing he would clear the room if it was repeated.[4]

Although some newspapers reported the “chronic ailment” as cystitis, what little testimony that survives in reportage doesn’t have Dr. Barnes using this exact term.[5] In any case, he had exposed Mrs. Fox as an “imposter” and liar. Marjorie Driscoll of the San Francisco Chronicle, who had covered the three trials for months, wrote effusively—and, perhaps, relieved that Barnes had finally put an end to the Arbuckle case so that she and her colleagues could move on.

Dr. Charles M. [sic] Barnes was literally and figuratively the biggest gun fired by the defense. He was a double-barreled weapon, for his testimony not only tended to show that Virginia Rappe had at one time suffered precisely from the ailment claimed for her by the defense, but the load from the other barrel landed squarely on Mrs, Catherine Fox, state witness to Miss Rappe’s excellent health.

Dr. Barnes identifies Mrs. Fox in open court as the “Dot Nelson” who had visited his office in company with Virginia Rappe in the summer of 1909, when she was treating Miss Rappe for serious illness. Mrs. Fox had previously admitted having born the nickname of “Dot” in the days before her marriage, when she was Miss Nelson.

Mrs. Fox sat in the front row and radiated silent but vigorous denials as Dr. Barnes testified. If looks could slay, Dr. Barnes would have crumpled on the spot.

Dr. Barnes produced his prescription book containing duplicates of prescriptions he said he furnished Miss Rappe. The state drew some consolation from his admission that there no dates in the book, but he insisted that it covered the period in question, declaring that he remembered many cases therein referred to.

Whereas Mrs. Fox previously testified that she never knew Dr. Barnes, Dr. Barnes yesterday said that for two years between 1899 and 1900 he and Mrs. Fox, then Miss Nelson, not only lived in the same boarding house, kept by his mother, but occupied rooms across the hall from one another. He also said that he had seen her on other occasions since that time, and described a meeting in a Chicago café, denied by Mrs. Fox.

A ray of light for the state appeared during the cross-examination when Dr. Barnes said that he considered Miss Rappe cured of her illness at the time his treatments ceased. The prosecution failed, however, to shake his testimony involving Mrs. Fox.[6]


So, who is Dr. Barnes? He was an incompetent surgeon and a quack. But so were many doctors during the early twentieth century who provided what they believed to be what we now call “alternative medicine.”

According to the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, Barnes was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1881. While on the stand during the third Arbuckle trial, Barnes disclosed that he had lived in the same boarding house as Katherine Fox, but there is no census data for either of them until 1910.

A graduate of the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons (1903), Barnes was trained as an allopath. His career had few highlights until much later, but he did have a curious connection to the art model community of Chicago to which Rappe belonged.

In September 1905, the Physical Culture Society of Chicago appointed him as one of three physician judges for a beauty contest in which he decided on which woman would be “the model,” displaying the most beautiful “symmetry of form.”

In 1907, Dr. Barnes married the daughter of a physician, Laura Reese. The couple had no children and lived on West Garfield Boulevard, on Chicago’s South Side, before moving to the Saratoga Hotel in 1908.

Dr. Barnes practiced medicine in Chicago at least until the summer of 1909—when he had crossed paths again with Katherine Fox and with Virginia Rappe for the first time. But Mrs. Fox had been married to Albert Fox a wealthy window glass salesman and heir to a glass-making firm in upstate New York, for six years, and had likely long since moved from the boarding house of Dr. Barnes’ mother.[7]

That same year saw Dr. Barnes declare bankruptcy. In the autumn, he relocated to Crete, Nebraska. There he took over another physician’s practice and opened the “Barnes Hospital.” Dr. Barnes also practiced in Mountain Grove, Missouri (1909) and Rock Island, Illinois (1911).

In late 1916, Dr. Barnes opened a new practice in Omaha, Nebraska. Not only did this give him access to more patients and billings, but he could now avoid accusations of malpractice, especially when he performed surgeries. In Omaha, Dr. Barnes ran advertisments for treatments of chronic diseases that required less heroic measures, such as hay fever, asthma, constipation, lumbago, pimples, “cancer cured without a knife,” and the like. He claimed he could cure what other doctors could not and the long lists of diseases in his advertainments along with their wording would have denoted a quack to members of the American Medical Association. Ironically, none of his advertisements mentioned cystitis.

in the late 1910s, Barnes’ career suffered a few setbacks though none as severe as what some of his patients suffered while under his care. In 1919, he attacked his office girl and threatened to dissect her because she refused to comb her hair. She sued him for $15,000. He also had to deal with unsatisfied patients who also took him to court. Then, in 1921, his advertisements no longer ran in Omaha newspapers.

In early April 1922, he took the stand as a surprise witness at the third Arbuckle trial. His photograph, in which he is wearing what look like medical lamp goggles, appeared in the Omaha newspapers and he became a local celebrity.

Screen Shot 2022-04-26 at 9.53.52 PM
The doctor who saved Arbuckle’s career? Source: Newspapers.com

Unlike other witnesses who claimed to have treated Rappe during her youth, Dr. Barnes wasn’t still living in Chicago, where such witnesses came forward or were recruited by the lawyer Albert Sabath (see Inexpert witness shopping Chicago style . . .). Although Sabath likely sought such a star rebuttal witness, that Barnes didn’t appear until the third trial suggests that he had come forward himself. The late date is telling because Dr. Barnes might have neutralized Mrs. Fox during the second trial, which nearly convicted Arbuckle except for one juror voting in his favor. One could almost imagine Barnes writing Minta Durfee. It might explain why they became friends.

Dr. Barnes moved on after his brief taste of fame. In 1923, he advertised his latest offering, “Electronic Diagnosis and Treatment,” for which he trained under Dr. Albert Abrams, the inventor of such devices as the “Oscilloclast” and the “Radioclast.” That Dr. Barnes proudly mentioned this association shows his nerve or recklessness since Dr. Abrams was already known as quack and had been under investigation for years.

In 1925, Dr. Barnes and his wife separated. Then his career suffered as he turned to more desperate ways to earn income. Three years after his testimony clinched Arbuckle’s acquittal, he himself was arrested under circumstances no less bizarre than the comedian for whom he bore a resemblance.

Dr. Charles E. Barnes, wealthy Omaha physician, charged with being the head of an immense dope ring, was released under $10,000 bond, the maximum provided by law, after he waived preliminary hearing before U.S. Commissioner Mary Mullen here today.

Andrew Durant, an actor and female impersonator, and D. H. Armstrong, also arrested with Barnes, are being held for investigation.

Dr. Barnes is charged with having sold Fred Mapes, under indictment for embezzling from the Becker Asphaltum company of which he was general manager, a quantity of morphine yesterday. Mapes gave the doctor a marked $10 bill in payment for the drugs and police charged the money was found in Barnes’ possession.

Miss Josephine Nepodal, eighteen-year-old office assistant of Dr. Barnes, is held under technical arrest also. She has given the police valuable information in the case.[1]

In February 1926, Dr. Barnes was charged on 31 counts of violating the Narcotics Act, for which he could receive five years for each, or a total of 155 years in prison.

Incredibly, and while still under indictment for the narcotics violations, Barnes was arrested in January 1927, on first degree murder for the death of a Sunday school teacher and farmer’s daughter, with the unfortunate name of Wealthy Timpe Nelson, who was married on her deathbed as she bled out from a botched abortion for which her fiancé paid Dr. Barnes $125.[2]

Barnes’ lawyer tried to get the charge reduced to manslaughter—and as he awaited trial, his wife sued for divorce. Dr. Barnes served no time for his crimes. A diabetic, he died, at the age of 46, on May 20, 1927, after a short illness attributed to his own preexisting condition. Mrs. Barnes arranged for his funeral in Chicago, where he is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.


[1] “Release Barnes on Bond,” Lincoln Star-Journal, 4 August 1925, 13.

[2] “Dr. Barnes Bound Over in His Case,” Lincoln State Journal, 24 January 1927, 1.

[1] Qtd. in “Arbuckle Freed of Manslaughter,” Omaha Daily, 13 April 1922, 2.

[2] Realize that this woman was married to Albert Fox at the time. There is no mention of him here.

[3] Most likely Seth Wicks, who, like Barnes, graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1903. He could hardly vouch for Barnes’ allegations since he died in 1920.

[4] Associated Press, “Arbuckle Defense Closes Case with Doctor’s Evidence,” El Paso Times, 11 April 1922, 2.

[5] A typical example is found in “Doctor Tells of Treating Miss V. Rappe,” Oxnard [California] Daily Courier, 10 April 1922, 1.

[6] Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Defense Ends Testimony in Arbuckle Case,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 April 1922, 7.

[7] We haven’t been able to identify her as yet to corroborate his testimony.

100 Years Ago Today: The death of Virginia Rappe, September 9, 1921

An Italian journalist, who has written an article to mark the centenary of the Arbuckle case and the death of Virginia Rappe, reminded us of a Latin expression that certainly applies to both Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle. Both figures have suffered a kind of damnatio memoriae, but rather than their faces and names erased from monuments and other official records of their existences, they have been damned by misrepresentation. In Arbuckle’s case, Durfee’s honey-glazed rehabilitation of him doesn’t acknowledge that he was bridling under what had become a sham marriage—a sham that facilitated the kind of dissolute lifestyle and assignations that fell the great Silent Era comedian. There is much more to this story though for another time.

Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s first wife, was and still is behind the character assassination of Virginia Rappe. She was the source of the infamous story about Rappe being the naive promiscuous actress on the Keystone lot who spread some kind of sexually transmitted disease or Pediculosis pubis.

Supposedly, Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone, had his studios, stages, prop and dressing rooms, and so on, repainted and “fumigated.” Entire buildings were allegedly encapsulated by tarps to ensure that nothing verminous survived that had come from Rappe’s mons veneris.

An example of damnatio memoriae as it applies to Virginia Rappe in You Must Remember This (1975)

This story was spread with every interview that Durfee gave in her dotage—and in any memoir she had written for her. It was accepted in the 1960s onward because Durfee likely knew it would sell in the heyday of the Sexual Revolution. But one didn’t need the Internet then to discover that Rappe never worked for Keystone and although she eschewed marriage, she was remarkably monogamous in her relationships—perhaps to a fault.

Durfee’s story about the Keystone studio does have some basis though. It originates in the spring of 1913—three years prior to Rappe’s arrival in Los Angeles—when there was a crackdown on so-called “white slavery” rings in the city. Among those arrested was a then-fifteen-year-old Keystone actress named Evelyn Quick, better and later known as Jewel Carmen. To support her mother, and, perhaps, because Mack Sennett only paid his talent a few dollars a week, the enterprising minor earned extra income as a sex worker.

When her name began to appear in newspapers among the “ruined” girls, and since some of her clients were other Keystone employees, Sennett took most of his company to film on location in Tijuana, Mexico as the first indictments were handed down. Rappe’s future boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman, and Keystone’s star comedian “Fatty” Arbuckle were among the actors and crew members who crossed the border to wait out the fallout and bad press.

Evelyn Quick in the Los Angeles Times, 1913 (Newspapers.com)

Virginia Rappe, of course, never imagined that she would be branded as “that kind of girl.” She slipped in and out of a coma on September 9, 1921, in a private room in a private hospital. She told a nurse to “get Arbuckle” not because she wanted revenge but just to get her $65 hospital bill paid.

She had no family around her as she died. One friend, who later said she barely knew Rappe, Sidi Spreckels did come to see her but was met by that doomed, faraway stare that the dying have. Spreckels tried to find a minister in time to pray over Rappe. But he arrived too late in the afternoon.

Later that day, Arbuckle answered the doorbell at his W. Adams Street mansion. He had been getting ready for a date to the theater with a young actress whom he had met earlier in the week while aboard the SS Harvard, during the voyage back from his Labor Day holiday in San Francisco. Those plans, however, had to be changed as a reporter told Arbuckle about Rappe’s death earlier in the day and that he was being blamed for it.

Intermezzo: Enter Minta

[The following is an extract from our work-in-progress—one in a series of short features or en·tr’actes that allow the authors and readers to take pause. Almost all Arbuckle case narratives share DNA from Minta Durfee’s sometimes cynical memories, which are largely responsible for how the story has long been framed.]

Minta Durfee made a career out of being Mrs. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It was a saleable commodity for her, and if you don’t believe me check her contracts filed at the [Academy’s] Herrick Library. She was lying relentlessly and grandiosely, of course . . .

Joan Myers [1]

Minta said she was asked often about having sex with a fat man. She said “I wasn’t going to answer a question like that. Besides I knew Roscoe wasn’t capable of anything beyond simple petting.”

Timothy Dean Lefler [2]

Toward the end of her long life—long for a Silent Era actor—Minta Durfee shared a memory of her former husband Roscoe Arbuckle and his frequent costar, the comedienne Mabel Normand. “They were such water dogs,” Durfee recalled, “they loved the water, they did everything under the sun in the water.”[3]

Durfee’s memory was a happy one, of the house Arbuckle rented on Venice Beach in 1915 and ’16. The weather was often warm, even at night, so they slept on a screened in porch and woke to breakfast served by a Japanese servant, hired with the modest but adequate income each made at Keystone Studios.

On Sundays in the summer, Normand was a frequent guest. She was an excellent swimmer as was Arbuckle, whom she nicknamed “Big Otto,” after a zoo elephant in nearby Lincoln Park. While Durfee watched from shore—she didn’t like to swim—Normand and Arbuckle swam from the front of the house south toward the Venice Pier. The pair’s long swims became a routine for a time and sometimes included a third member, a dolphin, that swam alongside Normand. As much a fearless person in real life as she was on camera, Normand would put her arm around the animal’s back and let it pull her along.

Durfee wasn’t always alone on the beach waiting, the odd woman out. Sometimes a crowd formed, from anonymous onlookers to friends who came to see Normand, Arbuckle, and the tame dolphin “perform,” before they emerged from the water dripping wet, toweling themselves off. Durfee’s embroidered memory captured this innocent moment in the lives of these two actors who died young. Another who died young, Virginia Rappe, was denied such innocent anecdotes but hardly the emobroidery.

“I knew her well,” Durfee said.

Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle, Catalina I., 1914 (Private collection)

Minta Durfee may have known what Virginia Rappe faced behind the closed door of room 1219. In a series of taped interviews for Robert Young Jr.’s “bio-bibliography” of Roscoe Arbuckle, Durfee described intimate details about what it was like sleeping with her husband far removed from the screened-in porch on Venice Beach.[4] In March 1917, not long after Arbuckle had been feted in Boston after signing his contract with Paramount Pictures and Famous Players-Lasky, he and Durfee returned to New York and the Cumberland Hotel at 54th and Broadway. During the early morning after their first night there, Arbuckle tried to have intercourse with Durfee. The way it is described suggests that such intimate relations may have been performed in the bathroom, perhaps in the shower, perhaps over the bathroom sink for support. Arbuckle, however, failed to maintain an erection. Frustrated, he wrapped a towel around his waist and began to tear the room apart. “His color was almost purple,” Minta recalled in 1958, “and he went through the dresser drawers and emptied them. Threw everything in the air—drawers which didn’t come out so easily he yanked out completely and threw them around the room.” Despite her best attempts to calm him down and reassure him, Durfee watched in terror. Arbuckle had been drinking. He was addicted to his painkillers—morphine and heroin—and he had been partying for days. He had been traveling for weeks. He had also changed toward her.

“To hell with you,” Durfee remembered her husband saying as he rampaged tearfully about their hotel room. “To hell with the apartment, to hell with my clothes, to hell with everybody in the world! I’m a star! I was told I’m a star and I shouldn’t be tied down! I shouldn’t have a wife because they always do this to you!”

When Durfee attempted to call the desk for the hotel doctor, Arbuckle screamed, “Don’t you dare touch that! I’ll do all the telephoning that’s going to be done in this little place.” With that Arbuckle yanked the telephone off the wall.

“Nothing I said had any effect. Every once in a while he would stand in the middle of the room like a little child and jump up and down with rage as sweat poured off him. ‘I won’t have it! I won’t have it!’ he yelled. ‘I’m a star! I’m not supposed to be married! I can’t be hampered by a wife!’ I never heard a man cry so hard in my life. It was terrible.”

Hotel Cumberland, Broadway and 54th Street, New York City (NYPL)

After her husband left Keystone for Paramount, Durfee’s film career suffered a hiatus. Although she enjoyed financial rewards of being married to one of the most popular movie stars in the world, she had to stand by and watch as her husband was transformed into a virtual bachelor and she was forgotten. She also had to give up her role as the maternal influence that Arbuckle depended on until his vast wealth convinced him he no longer needed it. She was jealous of the power his new manager, Lou Anger, had over him. That Arbuckle had parroted Anger’s views on stardom on that fateful morning in the Cumberland Hotel may have been the most grating thing of all to Durfee along with Arbuckle’s growing coterie of male friends, many of whom she saw, rather unselfconsciously, as parasites.

Durfee accepted what was essentially a quasi-salary to be Arbuckle’s faithful wife, should he need to reference her as such. This was also hush money, since her silence and cooperation in the arrangement were necessary. With this arrangement, Arbuckle was given existential elbowroom, a freedom to roam.

The perquisites for being invisible and the silent woman included a luxurious apartment on Riverside Drive with her mother and sister. Although a native of Southern California, Durfee acclimated to her life as a Manhattan socialite and returned to making movies in 1920. She still had Mabel Normand as a nearby friend. Normand had grown up on Staten Island started her career as an artist model and actress in Manhattan, and now divided her time between the West and East coasts.

It was through Normand that Durfee learned of Arbuckle’s troubles in San Francisco when Normand tried to reach Durfee by telephone and got Durfee’s sister Marie instead. The latter promptly wired Durfee, who was vacationing with their mother on Martha’s Vineyard. Durfee was on the green of an ocean-side golf course when she received the telegram and undoubtedly understood the likely impact on her own lifestyle and tenuous career.

When reporters located her, Durfee was back in the spotlight for the first time in years and played her role as Mrs. Arbuckle in a way far different from that of being in her husband’s shadow at Keystone. She relished the attention and assumed a kind of maternal authority over her long wayward husband, making it known that she and Arbuckle’s mother-in-law would depart for San Francisco without delay.

“I have not been reading the newspapers,” Durfee told a reporter while packing a suitcase in their apartment at W. 97th Street and Riverside Drive. But she certainly knew more than she let on. Sticking to the faithful wife script, Durfee continued. “Roscoe Arbuckle is just a big, lovable pleasure loving, over grown boy, whose success and prosperity have been a little too much for him, but he is not guilty of the hideous charge made against him in San Francisco.”

Durfee had nothing to say about Rappe, at least nothing that was or could be printed. She also didn’t let on that she had been in communication—not with Arbuckle himself—but with his lawyers, Milton Cohen and Frank Dominguez, and, perhaps, with Lou Anger and others about shoring up Arbuckle’s deteriorating public image. This wouldn’t be a passive role for her. Whether at her suggestion or another’s, Durfee pledged to gather information on Rappe’s earlier life during the layover in Chicago.

“I felt intuitively that my husband was not guilty of murder—anyone who knows him will tell you that,” Durfee continued, still in her apartment living room. “Why, already I’ve received many letters and telegrams from friends in the theatrical world, each expressing that he could not be guilty of the impossible charges.”

There was only one point where Durfee didn’t censor herself, recalling the low company Arbuckle kept, which was, apparently, a sore point with her. “My husband has hundreds—thousands of friends. Some of the messages I’ve received came from gangsters and ‘roughnecks,’ who worked with him in pictures, but most of them were well-known actors and actresses.” Of these, only Mabel Normand was mentioned by name.

When asked about her living so far from Arbuckle, Durfee attributed it to their having married young. “Five years ago,” Durfee said of their estrangement, “we agreed to disagree.”

Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle tête-à-tête in September 1921 (San Francisco Library)

Before dismissing the press, Minta Durfee also commended Arbuckle for the recent gift of a new town car and the generous monthly allowance he gave her, which freed her from having to find work. That’s not to suggest she was content not working. In 1920 and ’21, she appeared in five two-reelers for Rialto Productions with their now ironic titles—Wives’ Union; He, She and It; When You Are Dry; Whose Wife?; and That Quiet Night—shot in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. Prominently billed in trade magazines as the “Minta Durfee Series,” the comedies were advertised with “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle.” Meanwhile, gossip columnists, who rarely mentioned her being Mrs. Arbuckle over the previous three years, began refreshing the public’s memory of her status in early 1921. One of the more waggish made light of their living arrangement as “fashionable.”

On Wednesday evening, September 14, Durfee and her mother boarded the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited, at Grand Central Station. Mabel Normand was there to see them off and seconded Durfee’s assertion that Arbuckle was innocent. The next morning, Durfee stepped off the train in Gary, Indiana, where she and her mother were whisked away by “detectives” and driven into Chicago. These men were likely private investigators working for Albert Sabath, a Chicago attorney who had been engaged by Milton Cohen and who was a close friend of Rappe’s former boyfriend, Harry Barker. Durfee spent the next ten hours “interviewing acquaintances” and “calling on friends of Miss Rappe.” How Durfee found these friends is a mystery. But she likely had help from Sabath, who knew a lot about Rappe through Barker.

Durfee made good use of her Chicago layover. But it has received scant attention in Arbuckle case narratives even though it suggests that she took an active role “to clear Roscoe’s name,” actively defaming Rappe rather than just passively being there for Arbuckle as his suffering wife. She had reason to topple Rappe from the pedestal of victimhood. Not only was the monthly income that supported her, her mother, and her sister threatened, so was her career. That Arbuckle’s films were being pulled from theaters all over the country had to have shaken Durfee. His fall could certainly take her down. Some theaters were showing her new comedies and still billing her as “Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle.” Durfee knew that the public’s imagination would draw a triangle between Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe, and herself.

Durfee spoke to reporters again in Chicago, just before she boarded the Union Pacific’s Overland Limited to San Francisco. “Our marriage wasn’t wrecked,” she said, using words that likely had been peppered at her by the press, “only warped. Eight years of togetherness is bound to put a blight on any union, no matter how ideal to begin with. We never really were angry with each other—we just each got on the other fellow’s nerves.”—yet another vague canned expression.

To some, Durfee’s explanation of her marriage rang hollow. “It took a booze party and a murder charge to get Mrs. Arbuckle, staged as ‘Minta Durfee,’ to realize that she ought to be near her husband,” wrote one small-town editorialist. “Mrs. Arbuckle has set an example which all boozily inclined movie people ought to follow. Let the old man drink and skylark as much as he likes till he gets in trouble, then go to his assistance when he is arrested. No press agent could possibly offer such a good chance for notoriety as this.”

Reno depot (Private collection)

Minta Durfee received a telegram when her train arrived late into Reno, a layover that had a certain poignancy given Nevada’s liberal divorce laws and the recent case of Mary Pickford. (Her botched divorce from the actor Owen Moore to marry Douglas Fairbanks almost resulted in “America’s Sweetheart” facing a charge of bigamy.) The telegram likely alerted her not to speak about the Arbuckle case and to get off the train one stop early, as she had on the Chicago leg of her journey. As the Overland crossed the state line between Nevada and California, Durfee and her mother locked themselves in their state room to avoid the reporters that boarded at Roseville, California, one stop before Sacramento.

The Durfee party was subsequently intercepted by Milton Cohen and Arbuckle’s San Francisco-based attorney, Charles Brennan, so as to prevent reporters from having any access to their client’s wife. Instead, they drove her and her mother into San Francisco in the backseat of Arbuckle’s Pierce-Arrow. This allowed Cohen and Brennan to discuss Durfee’s role in the narrative, groom her for the sake of public relations, and debrief her of what she had learned about Rappe while in Chicago.

Early Sunday morning, September 18, Durfee arrived in San Francisco. Before being reunited with her husband—whom she had not seen since the autumn of 1919, she issued a prepared statement. Once more she spoke of her husband’s innocence and asked that he get a “square deal” in court.


[1] Qtd. in Andre Soares, “Fatty Arbuckle Virginia Rappe Trial: Researcher Joan Myers Discusses Scandal,” Alt Film Guide, 2009, https://www.altfg.com/film/fatty-arbuckle-virginia-rappe/.

[2] Facebook message with author, 22 January 2021.

[3] This passage is based on Minta Durfee to Don Schneider and Stephen Normand, Excerpts of an Interview with Minta Durfee,” 21 July 1974, https://www.angelfire.com/mn/hp/minta1.html; Robert Young Jr., Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwich, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994); Betty Harper Fussell, Mabel: Hollywood’s First Don’t Care Girl (Ticknor & Fields, 1982), 135; “Mrs. Arbuckle Defends Actor,” San Francisco Chronicle, 14 September 1921, 1, 6; “Arbuckle’s Wife Gathers Evidence for Him in Chicago,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 September 1921, 1. “Good Press Agent Stunt,” Hanford (California) Sentinel, 17 September 1921, 2, and other corroborative sources.

[4] See Robert Young Jr., Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), 55.

Arbuckle Brief #1

Dorothy Wallace, the Spite Bride?

(Periodically, we will report about where we are in the manuscript or discuss research that deserves mention, especially when it forces a revision or judicious speculation in response to those made by previous writers on this subject.)

Our book is divided into four parts named for the major cities in Rappe’s life—Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—and an epilogue. Over the past week, while adding to the Los Angeles section, where the text moves from 1920 to Rappe’s final year, we briefly introduced a new name that is peripheral to her life but contributory to what lies in store or wait: Dorothy Wallace. Shortly before Arbuckle sailed for Europe in late November 1920, ostensively for a long-deserved vacation, an “eastern publication” allegedly published a rumor that Arbuckle intended to marry the young actress in New York. Supposedly, however, the marriage was called off due to a “quarrel.”

The rumor of an impending Arbuckle marriage came back to life upon his and Wallace’s return to Los Angeles just before the Christmas holiday. The woman in question was in her late twenties and her early life and career has some parallels to Virginia Rappe’s save that Wallace was from a wealthy San Francisco family. Wallace was said to be a globe trotter, having traveled with her parents all over the world. Once she met an Indian prince who fell violently in love with her. Her parents had to leave Istanbul to escape the “ardent attentions of Turkish royalty.” Like Rappe, Wallace was entrepreneurial, having owned a millinery shop in San Francisco. This she gave up to pursue a modeling career in New York City, including posing for a poster series by James Montgomery Flagg. The celebrated illustrator also picked her for a one-reel silent biopic, The Art Bug (1918), in which she played herself, a Greenwich Village art student.

In 1918, Wallace arrived in Los Angeles and began to appear in supporting roles alongside Gloria Swanson in The Secret Code (1918) and Olive Thomas in The Spite Bride (1919). Because of her performance alongside Dustin Farnum in A Man’s Fight (1919), she was publicized as the love interest in his next vehicle, The Harvest of Shame, playing a New York society girl. But the project was shelved and her debut as a leading lady went unrealized.


Dorothy Wallace as one of the “Girls You Should Know” of 1918 (Lantern)

Wallace, in 1919, allegedly owned a wardrobe variously valued at $10,000 and $500,000—which would rival that of established actresses—and was seemingly on the upswing of a promising career in motion pictures. Nevertheless, her name and the marriage rumor appear in no Arbuckle biography. The omission seems strange in that a biography is where falsehoods and factoids are dealt with along with establishing the the true person.

While there was no corresponding rumor to suggest Wallace set sail as well to Europe with Arbuckle in a shipboard reconciliation, which, like Pullman sleepers, was a common way of indulging in an assignation, the two surely met and socialized at the Sunset Inn overlooking the Santa Monica beach. Both were habitués as was Virginia Rappe, who won dance contests there.

The Sunset’s proximity to the studios on the west side of Hollywood as well as its distance made it a convenient gathering place for the film colony during the teens and twenties. Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and their entourages often came to dine, drink, dance, and flirt.

The Sunset Inn, early 1920s (Calisphere)

The Wallace–Arbuckle rumor persisted in two newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald throughout December 1920. There was news of an engagement, of a broken engagement, of a quarrel, and even a New Year’s Eve engagement party. When Arbuckle’s manager Lou Anger denied the engagement party, he didn’t deny the engagement.

Minta Durfee, a native of Long Beach, California, undoubtedly found the rumor troubling, especially since her family read those newspapers. It took another month for a minor syndicated movie column to remind the public that such a marriage between Wallace and Arbuckle was “impossible” since he was still married to Durfee. Despite such reminders, Arbuckle, for his part, behaved like a bachelor all the more, an eligible bachelor.

The marriage rumor persisted until April 1921, where it appeared again in Motion Picture Magazine. While it would be easy to pass on such biographical chaff, we see it as possible evidence, to which we can add more, that Arbuckle was casting about for a new, younger, and prettier Mrs. Arbuckle for much 1920 and into 1921. (This is true even if Arbuckle was the victim of a joke.) Until the death of Virginia Rappe in September 1921, Minta Durfee had to know that sooner rather than later her husband would want a divorce that wouldn’t be as remunerative as their separation. Instead, the advantage went to her. Rather than serve her with papers, so to speak, Arbuckle’s lawyers ensured that Minta Durfee would appear prominently at his side when his courtroom ordeal began.

The winner of what may have been a long and ongoing beauty contest wasn’t Virginia Rappe, of course, but rather a young ingenue whom Arbuckle met aboard the SS Harvard when he sailed from San Francisco the day after Labor Day, 1920.

It was another chance meeting in San Francisco, too, like that between him and Rappe the day before.


J. Barney Sherry, Lois Wilson, Dustin Farnum, and Dorothy Wallace in A Man’s Fight (1919) (IMDb.com)