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 Virginia 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.

Alice Blake breaks down on the stand, March 23, 1922

The reportage for the third trial was not as detailed as the first trial. The legion of reporters had been cut back as public interest in the Arbuckle case waned. Oscar Fernbach of the San Francisco Examiner soldiered on though and noted some important turning points as the trial unfolded—mostly lost opportunities for the prosecution.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s blog post, District Attorney Matthew Brady’s star witness, Zey Prevost, had fled to New Orleans beyond the reach of his subpoena power. She and showgirl Alice Blake were in roughly the same place at the same time while at the Labor Day Party. Both women had entered room 1219 after Roscoe Arbuckle had exited while Virginia Rappe was lying semiconscious in one of the room’s beds. Blake had heard Rappe “accuse” a male of hurting her and that she felt like she was dying. Her earliest statements are hardly ambiguous. But whether her statements had been fine-tuned by her interrogators has to be scrutinized. Nevertheless, like her friend Zey Prevost, Blake was less than enthusiastic about testifying against the comedian and was almost declared a hostile witness during the second trial. Like others who attended the party, Blake was in the “in crowd” and probably felt some kindred loyalty to the group. As an entertainer she would have also been aware of the possible impact her cooperation with the prosecution could have on her career.

Until March 23, 1922, Alice Blake had maintained her composure but her reluctance to testify was often apparent in the way she spoke almost in a whisper and, by degrees, ceased remembering details of what happened on Labor Day 1921—with the exception of being one of Rappe’s first responders.

Girl Checks State Attack upon “Fatty”
Alice Blake Denies She Heard Virginia Rappe Say “He Killed Me”; Breaks Under Fire

Oscar H. Fernbach, San Francisco Examiner, 24 March 1922

With every inch of the battle ground hotly contested, the fight being waged in Judge Louderback’s court to establish Roscoe Arbuckle’s guilt or innocence of the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe proceeded yesterday.

Tears and temper, accusations and recriminations, insults and apologies all contributed to the sensational features of the trial.

Alice Blake, star witness for the prosecution, broke down under the grilling cross-examination of Gavin McNab, became hysterical, and was led weeping from the witness stand, while an enforced recess was taken to give her time to compose herself. She could not stand the strain of McNab’s attempt to expose what he termed “fabricated testimony, produced under duress,” his accusations being directed more against the district attorney’s office than against the girl on the stand.

It was all about Alice Blake’s direct testimony to the effect that she had heard Virginia Rappe exclaim as she lay in agony upon the bed in Arbuckle’s room: “I am dying; he hurt me.” By producing the original statement, which the witness had given to the police on the day following the death of Virginia Rappe [September 10, 1921], McNab established the fact that Alice Blake at the time had not included the words, “He hurt me,” and the attorney proceeded to insinuate that District Attorney Brady and his assistants had subsequently tried to compel the witness to testify as she did. The girl explained yesterday [March 22, 1922] that when she was questioned in Brady’s office she was told that Zey Prevost had declared that Virginia Rappe had used the words, “He killed me,” and had informed Brady and [Assistant District Attorney] U’Ren that Alice Blake had heard her so exclaim.

“I told them I did not hear her say so,” was the emphatic testimony of the witness yesterday. And she went on to say that at the time she had expressed the belief that Virginia Rappe, if anything, might have said, “He hurt me.”

[Assistant District Attorney] Leo Friedman, who conducted the direct examination, had a hard time with his witness. The value of her statements to the prosecution seemed to have become inversely proportional to the number of trials to which Arbuckle is being subjected. She reached a strage yesterday where she “could not remember.” In vain did Friedman show her the record of her testimony in the police court and at two preceding trials. It merely refreshed her memory to the extent that she could recollect nothing.

On cross-examination, however, Alice Blake made a startling announcement. She confessed that she had left the sitting room of Arbuckle’s suite before either Virginia Rappe or Arbuckle had gone into the bedroom, and did not actually see either of them enter that apartment. This was news—and McNab made the most of it.[1]

True, the witness admitted that before she left to enter the third room [1221] of the suite, she had seen both the comedian and the actress walking toward the door of the bedroom [1219]. But she [Blake] further declared that she had been absent less than fifteen minutes when, upon her return to the sitting room [1220], she found Mrs. Delmont knocking on the bedroom door and calling to Arbuckle to open it. This testimony placed the comedian and Virginia Rappe alone in the bedroom for fall less period of time than hitherto had been inferred from all the testimony.

The story of how Virginia Rappe was found in agony in Arbuckle’s rooms, and the ministrations that were given her, was repeated in detail by Alice Blake. McNab, in turn, sought to convince the jury that the actress had been injured while being given a cold bath, or while being held upside down by Fred Fishback and that her cry, “He hurt me,” referred to the latter and not to Arbuckle. [. . .]

Alice Blake, September 19, 1921 (Underwood & Underwood)

[1] In reality, her initial statement indicates that she left room 1220 for room 1221—Lowell Sherman’s bedroom—as Rappe and Arbuckle entered room 1219. Blake didn’t disclose whether Sherman accompanied her. But this can be inferred from Prevost’s early statements and testimony, where she, Prevost, is alone in room 1220 with Maude Delmont. Here Blake mentions that fifteen minutes passed before she saw and heard Delmont kicking the door and demanding that she be allowed to speak to Rappe. While this seems to fit the defense’s assertion that Arbuckle and Rappe were alone for less than ten minutes, as Fernbach suggests here, it doesn’t. Blake omits here that she returned to room 1221. She was there when Arbuckle finally opened the door of room 1219 and didn’t see him exit. Keeping up with these details and nuances is not only difficult for authors and readers. Imagine what it was like for the prosecutors in 1921 and ’22!

“Fighting” Bob Shuler and the marketability of Virginia Rappe

During the 1920s and ‘30s, the radio evangelist Robert P. Shuler was known for his controversial broadcasts from his Southern Methodist church in Los Angeles, California. Known as “Fighting Bob,” Shuler attracted a large following for his vitriolic attacks on corrupt politicians during the Prohibition Era. Before the advent of radio, however, Shuler’s medium was the pulpit and pamphlets like the one that follows.

Shuler was one of the clergymen who exerted a major influence on the motion picture industry given his proximity to Hollywood. The appointment of Will H. Hays as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in January 1922, just days before the second Arbuckle trial, was intended to placate those who, like Shuler, demanded that the movie industry be subjected to regulation and censorship.

Shuler took a special interest in the Arbuckle case. Most of his fellow clerics had moved on from the case even before the first trial began in mid-November 1921. Some, such as Billy Sunday, had virtually exonerated Arbuckle. Others distanced themselves from Virginia Rappe, after Arbuckle’s lawyers began to leak information revealing her “past” in October. For Shuler, however, Rappe’s past wasn’t the point. To him it didn’t matter if she was a “fallen woman” or that she consented to enter room 1219. Rappe was, ironically, still a featured actress in one of Shuler’s pamphlet, one that was rushed out in the wake of the Arbuckle party.

Following the hung jury of the first trial in December 1921, Shuler wrote A Deadly Comparison, which is one of the longest and most eloquent tracts that specifically targets Arbuckle and the motion picture executives who funded his defense. Shuler wasn’t known to be anti-Semitic nor did he decry the “Jewish business interests” that largely ran the movie-making industry, which was common in the propaganda of the revived Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. But one will give pause though when reading his repeated rhetorical references to “shekels”.

Roscoe Arbuckle

From A Deadly Comparison (1922)

Rev. Robert Shuler, Trinity Methodist Church, Los Angeles[1]

I do not believe Roscoe Arbuckle deliberately murdered Virginia Rappe. That he was directly and absolutely responsible for her death, I am certain, and I think there are very few, indeed, who doubt that fact for a moment. I think Arbuckle was half drunk when the pitiful tragedy was enacted. I am sure Miss Rappe was also intoxicated. Thanks to our frank newspapers, everybody knows why Roscoe Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe were in a room together for almost an hour. Whether by force or by her consent, the world may never know, but we all know what crime against virtue and morality was therein enacted. Then came the end—the death of Virginia Rappe.

I confess that I myself have been as innocent as a new born babe in the face of conditions that ought to shock the very world and stir humanity to revolt. I have been a preacher and have not ferreted into the situation that has of late months forced itself upon the public. The facts have dawned upon me as a horrible revelation.

We now come face to face with the information that such parties as Fatty Arbuckle had in San Francisco have been the common and ordinary affairs of every day social life among the movie people. The movie folk have been so bold and brazen as to defend themselves on the ground that they are not ordinary mortals and should not be restricted by the usages and customs of ordinary life. We hear of the “eccentricities of genius.” We are told that the movie people are “temperamental,” and must have their wine and cigarettes, their pajama parties and loose relations because of their distinctive artistic peculiarities. One defender goes so far as to declare that the law should not require marriage among the movie folk and that the Bohemian community is their ideal abode. Daily we note divorce scandals that would seem to support his contention.

On top of this revelation, we find Arbuckle’s drunken carousal his crime against decency and morality, whether over the protest of by the consent of his victim, and the part he took in the death of the girl in question defended almost universally by the movie people, while not as prominent star or producer had come out, that we have noticed, to brand his acts as infamous. A large fund has been raised among the movie profession for his defense and one of the most successful criminal lawyers in California, when it comes to freeing murderers and rapists, has been retained by the movie people for the purpose of “white-washing” Fatty Arbuckle.

The attitude of the movie luminaries toward the marriage relation; their continuous “souse” divorce and scandal; their quarter of a century of screened sex appeal, itself a diagnosis of the condition back of the film; their attitude toward those of their number who, like Fatty Arbuckle, have insulted and outraged every decent sentiment of virtuous idealism; their insistent demand that they be left unrestricted by the American public to practice their “personal liberty” doctrine in deportment as well as in the products of their art, the evident looseness that has sprung up among them; their booze parties; their cigarette smoking beauties; their behavior as reported by scores who live neighbor to their studios; their refusal to brand such men as Arbuckle and kick them out; their disposition to pass over without criticism such a crime as the San Francisco crime; especially their willingness to defend the criminal with their money; all has forced me against my will and over my protest to believe that a majority of the movie crowd are of the same stripe as this comedian and that they see the necessity of saving his hide in order to save their own.

Not for a moment would I accuse all movie people of being immoral. I have until recently stubbornly declared that I believed the immoral element, although entirely too large, to be far in the minority. But I have been forced to revise my opinion and I have come to the deliberate conclusion that the extraordinary movie actor and actress, whose life is chaste and clean, whose deportment socially and otherwise is a blessing and help to American standards of life, whose moral standards are such as that they give support to chastity ad purity in the relations of men and women are not in the majority. That there are scores and hundreds of movie actors and actresses who are clean I am absolutely confident, but that they are today in the minority in their profession I have been forced to concede much as I hate to make such a concession.

Perhaps there is no single proof of this fact more pronounced than that they persist in the battle, against the Christian forces of America, to maintain their industry outside the pale of sane and safe regulation for the protection of public morals. There can be but one reason why they make such a fight: certainly, if they did not desire to produce that which would tarnish and stain the morals of the young, they would have no cause to make a concerted attack upon the efforts sponsored by Christian citizens to protect the child life of the land from the immoral in their films. If they did not desire to sell the salacious and suggestive, they could not for a moment object to a sane effort on the part of Christian men and women to rid the film of the salacious and suggestive. They have put their “personal liberty” over against public safety, much as the old saloon man and brewer did. And in doing so, they have not only committed themselves, but they convicted themselves as well. If you will seek for the fountain of this public attitude, you will find it in the private life of those assuming it. Certainly, Fatty Arbuckle does not believe in commissions for censorship, in regulation, in laws for the protection of the public. We know the reason why, for his story is in the newspapers. I think you will have no trouble in recognizing that he is a most splendid example of a type, a most certain sample of a variety of folk who have decided to be the independent authors of their own standards of morality or immorality, without regard to or respect for the public.

The manner of fostering upon the public the menacing doctrine of “personal liberty” is also a grave commentary upon the people who have adopted it. Just as slavery sought to maintain itself by bribes, in that the annihilation of the industry would bankrupt the nation; just as the brewers and distillers flung their threat of withdrawing their money bags; just as white slavery screwed its vice of money pressure when the houses of justice were after it; so the movies have threatened Los Angeles, in a recent censorship fight, with financial ruin if they are not permitted to have their own way. Great and startling headlines announced that they would move away and carry their millions with them if the public were given protection from the vicious in their wares. They approached businessmen with their money cudgel and cowed them into submission. They brought their gold to bear upon business and social organizations and whipped them into line. They used their abnormal advertising budgets to line the newspapers of this city solidly for their private interests and against the public welfare. In this policy, they followed with precision the well-defined paths over which every menacing agency has pushed its wa in an effort to profit personally from the wounding of idealism and the lowering of moral standards. Unfortunately, we have not had enough backbone in manhood and fearlessness in womanhood in this city to mee their attack and defend our sons and daughters against their greed. Their shekels sounded so loudly as that they drowned our love for little children and our interest in their purity in thought and life. And matching this attitude of the movie people in Los Angeles in the censorship fight comes a like stand with their dollars in their efforts to free Fatty Arbuckle and turn him loose upon the public an acceptable star, though the criminal that the whole world knows him to be. Again they type true. Again they measure up to their sample.

If a man should sin against industry in California as Fatty Arbuckle has sinned against society, no man would dare lift his voice in his defense. Fortunately for Fatty, he has only killed a woman, after defiling her body and spitting in the face of all decency. With the movies’ money to the rescue, he is virtually assured of his liberty and he will again come into Los Angeles to be kissed b his kind, a conqueror, a star. But had his crime been against a factory, had he blowed[2] up a ten-story building, had he interfered with business, his would have been a far different story. And again Fatty becomes a sample; for should the movie industry threaten the hogs or cattle or even chickens of California as they threaten the moral character of our sons and daughters, they would find the chamber of commerce, the business and industrial organizations after their scalp in true earnests. But Fatty and his movie cohorts have a great secret. Virginia Rappe dead and defenseless has no money value. Even her character may be torn to shreds, and allis well for she is dead. Just so the moral character of the young of Los Angeles is not worth $10.79 per school girl. It has no cash value. Factories and skyscrapers are valuable and Fatty dare not attack them. Hogs, cattle, and chickens are valuable and the movie people must not interfere with them. Herein is the sickening secret known to the movie world and practiced most perfectly.

Again I have drawn a deadly parallel, but who dares deny it. The loaf of bread is censored. The bottle of milk is censored. The factory must face a commission for the protection of life and limb. The railroad must deal with a commission for the protection of public interests. The bank must account to a like commission. We elect a board of education, a commission on our schools. The movie business stands alone today with the unbridled privilege of exploiting for grate receipts. The reason is that all they threaten is character, idealism, manhood, womanhood, and here there is no cash value. Money has talked in the censorship fight. Money is talking in the Arbuckle trial. Ah, gold is eloquent, indeed!

They have taken Fatty off the screen, you say. Yes, but not because of any antagonism to Fatty’s crime, as their attitude clearly denotes, but for the protection of their gate receipts which were suddenly imperiled by the indignation that swept the nation following the San Francisco tragedy. And now the newspapers have announced (their newspapers, you understand) that their money is flowing into an immense fund to clear the comedian, and whether or not his pictures will go back upon the screen depends upon the verdict of the jury. That jury will only pass upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant, charged with manslaughter, and the public must never forget that, unfortunately, the history of such cases in America, where unlimited money is set in motion, is not very hopeful for justice. That jury will have nothing to say as to that drunken party, as to the crime against womanhood, against virtue, against decency, committed in that room, either by the consent or over the protest of the victim. The pictures of Fatty Arbuckle will go back and become the sensation of the movie world for the next twelve, if that jury says “not guilty,” despite the fact that all men know the filth and viciousness of the circumstances attending that party.

It is the common understanding that the ordinary movie man or woman considers Fatty as unfortunate. The newspapers controlled by their abnormal advertisers, are so picturing him. He is likened to a “big, naughty boy,”[3] who, unfortunately, got caught. There is no blame attached to the party by his fellow movie stars. There is no condemnation for what happened in that room is unspeakable. We are told that he played in “hard luck.” Such an attitude can be a commentary on but one thing: An all but total loss of ideals; an all but absolute annihilation of moral standards.

In conclusion, I desire to reiterate what I have so often said: The movie is here to stay. We need it, if it can be controlled for decency and morality, for right and humanity’s welfare. It is a great educational agency. It has to do with the very motives or fountains of life and thereby becomes extremely beneficial or of limitless danger. Guarded and guided, controlled and directed, the movie has no confines to its appeal for the better things. Left to the doctrine of license, its menacing power will overwhelm American idealism within another decade. It is best understood by a study of the people who are behind and in it and for this reason I have drawn the deadly parallel and stated the frank, blunt, cold conclusions which you have heard. It is up to the people. Unfortunately, the movie industry is run a strictly commercial basis. It has no character. It has only a purse. In the censorship fight its leaders had the nerve to ask the Los Angeles chamber of commerce to make the box office receipts the bill of health for the industry. Such a pernicious doctrine will do nothing less than wreck, unless the people act.

Here are the ridiculous high places in Fatty’s trial: “Fatty” finds Virginia Rappe on the floor in mortal agony. He tenderly places her on his bed and locks the bedroom door. He ministers to her in gallant fashion during almost an hour of excruciating agony without calling for help from the adjoining room where her friends and his are gathered, phoning for a doctor or asking for other assistance. At last her friends begin to knock on the door and he lets them in, announces that Virginia is sick and proceeds to place chunks of ice on her nude body. And when he is accused of an awful crime, he locks the story of his good Samaritan activities in his own heart and, though charged with the act of a fiend, does not so much as tell his closest friend until the trial comes on. His lawyer declares that he kept this secret of his chivalry lest the public mob him. The fabrication is not even artistic. It is too crude for an amateur. It is as full of holes as a sieve.

Beautiful story! And the movie people are back of it with their cash. No wonder the prosecuting attorney remarked before the trial concluded that a failure to convict would prove that “jails were builded [sic] for the poor.”[4] He further went on record as declaring that his efforts to secure evidence were blocked at every turn by this financially builded [sic] machine of moviedom, set in motion for the purification of the reputation of one of its most brilliant stars. Thus movie gold in California had defied justice; mocked womanhood, standing the presence of her defiled and dead sister; sneered its contempt in the face of decent social demands; laughed to scorn idealism and morality and battered down the very citadels of childhood’s worshipful faith. The brutal force of clinking shekels has been felt in California, until our social order has trembled to its foundations.

But the mockery of justice that has attended this carnival of shame has not wiped out the record. What a tutor in idealism and morality is “Fatty” Arbuckle, clothed in his pajamas, reigning king in the Belshazzar feast of a San Francisco hotel, where looseness, debauch, drunkenness and filth run riot!

The newspapers have hinted at the “dog parties” of filmdom.[5] No, I can’t tell you about them. There is no language that I could use, howeverncarefully selected the wording, that would fitly describe those parties and this pamphlet go through the United States mails. Picture the most degrading and nauseating scene that could possible by enacted before a mixed audience, and you have not outdone the facts. These are the people who are playing upon the emotional fountains and motives of growing boys and girls in this Christian nation. God forgive us when we train our children for life under the tutorage of those who go the way of the Arbuckle “dog party.”

They all but washed “Fatty” and in the second trial will no doubt complete the renovation, but American fathers and mothers stand horrified before the evidence of that trial. The guests are pictured chasing each other through hallways and bedrooms, through bathrooms and parlors, clad in sleeping attire and undergarments, dancing with each other in such garbs, drinking, smoking, swearing, telling vile stories, without regard to sex or convention, or morality, or decency. Yes, it is all in the wide open now, this disgusting, putrid, filthy mess, amazing in its slime, even though “Fatty” has virtually secured his gold-bought liberty.

And no one denies that such filth, that such disgusting behavior, that such defiance of morality and chastity constitute the “thrills” and “high touches” of the ordinary booze party of filmdom. “Fatty’s” San Francisco party was one of the many, a splendid sample, a glorious success, had not an “accident occurred” in which we are given to understand “Fatty” played in “hard luck.: In other such parties leading luminaries have been more fortunate and the “accidents” that occurred were not so disastrous. There are on the record an instance or two where the ambulance was needed and the hospital called into play, but this seems to haven the first straight killing accomplished.

The battle is just a step away if not already upon us. It is Idealism vs. Pelf.[6] It is the same fight that stained America red with blood back in the sixties. It is the same fight waged by womanhood and real men against the booze industry. It is the same fight that the sons and daughters of Christianity put up against white slavery. It is the fight for the preservation of society, the maintenance of right and justice, the saving of American ideals from the ravenous lust for revenues. The gate receipts have decreed that purity, that virtue, that cleanliness must give way before the clink of coin, and when the society resents this brutal rape of idealism, the yellow monarch marches forth to bribe, to buy, to intimidate; to win with the rattle of shekels, whether it be in a court, or a city council, an effort to bring a star to justice or an attempt to sucre freedom from filth for the eyes of little children, by appointment of a commission of censors.

In this battle that must be joined if civilization is to survive, the film folk have not only resurrected the sword of gold, so tremendously used by the liquor forces in their last stand, but the bozze-wet arguments of that battlefield have found for themselves a new champion. The doctrine of license; the “personal liberty” plea of those whose stomachs in the old liquor days were far more important than society’s welfare; the battle against restriction, against regulation, against interference for public good. This is the new battle cry of filmdom, revamped and revarnished. Again the ghost of that old man straw in the wet days of yore spoke eloquently of blue laws championed by long-haired fanatics who would deprive mankind of all liberty. There is nothing new in this fight. It is as old as slavery, as old as booze, as old as license, as old as lust, as old as greed, as old as the seeds of hell.

Robert Shuler in the witness chair during a 1929 libel suit (Calisphere)

[1] Adapted from a reprint in the Enid [OK] Daily Eagle, March 5, 1922, the day before Will Hays assumed his new job as Chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

[2] Shuler’s spellings, which are consistent with Southern idioms, have been retained.

[3] An allusion to the pronouncements of Mabel Normand, Alice Lake, and others who had worked with Arbuckle.

[4] Shuler is quoting San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady.

[5] dog party, i.e., film colony slang for booze party; also called a “monkey dinner.”

[6] pelf, money earned in a disreputable or dishonest way.

Jesse Norgaard, the old soldier at Lehrman Studios

On March 18, 1922, the selection of two alternate jurors was interrupted when a member of the Women’s’ Vigilant Committee was seen whispering something to Assistant District Attorney Milton U’Ren while he sat at the counsel table. Defense lawyers immediately objected since they saw the Vigilant Committee as an “enemy” of their client, Roscoe Arbuckle. They began to call her a “stool pigeon” and, despite U’Ren’s protests, she was removed by the bailiff and ejected from the courtroom.

What did they mean by “stool pigeon”? It’s likely they feared that their private conversations were being listened in on, that the women milling around them on the street, in restaurants, hotel lobbies, and in the corridors of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice were, in effect, spying for the prosecution.

This sideshow and the arrest and release of an important prosecution witness, Jesse Norgaard, provided some human interest to newspaper readers before testimony began in what would be the last Arbuckle trial. The following is adapted from our notes about him.

Showgirls entertaining the residents at the Old Soldiers Home, Sawtelle, c. 1920 (Calisphere)

Jesse K. Norgaard had appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the first Arbuckle trial as it came to a close in late November. Two years before, he had worked as a watchman at the Henry Lehrman Studio in Culver City in 1919.[1] When asked to take the stand, he was a 62-year-old resident of the Old Soldiers Home at Sawtelle, California.

Norgaard testified that in 1919 Arbuckle had attempted to get from him the key to Virginia Rappe’s room “while he was working in the studios of Harry [sic] Lehrman.”[2] He said Arbuckle offered him a “roll” of money, which he believed was at least $50, to get the key. Norgaard said he refused. “The defense fought hard to keep out this testimony,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, “but after a long wrangle, Arbuckle himself whispered to his attorneys to withdraw the objection. The witness will be [recalled and] redirectly examined by U’Ren when the court convenes this morning [November 23].”

Arbuckle allegedly smiled and laughed when the elderly Norgaard made this claim in court. He had stopped taking the prosecution witnesses seriously. Zey Prevost and Alice Blake on that same day had recanted their original testimony that they heard Rappe accuse Arbuckle of having hurt her. Maude Delmont had been charged with bigamy in the meantime and would not be testifying. Arbuckle’s attorneys were taking no chances, Rappe’s victim image was to be overshadowed by their narrative about a woman with physical–mental illness triggered by small amounts of alcohol.

When Arbuckle famously—or infamously—took the stand in his own defense in the first trial on November 28, he denied that he offered Norgaard money and, for the next two months nothing more was heard of it. That said, however, District Attorney Matthew Brady and his assistants established that there was a personal relationship between Arbuckle, Henry Lehrman, and Virginia Rappe—that at one time they all shared the same working space. Norgaard’s version would corroborate the timeframe mentioned in Maude Delmont’s claim that Arbuckle had been fixated on Rappe since 1916. Although Brady had dropped Delmont as a witnesses, he apparently believed there was something to the claim. Thus, he continued to bring Norgaard to San Francisco to repeat his story and be subjected to both cross examination and character assassination by Arbuckle’s lawyers.

Either Norgaard believed in his own story or Brady had something on the old soldier to keep him in line.  Norgaard’s credibility seems no greater than some of the defense’s Chicago witnesses, but given how much vitriol was brought to bear on him by defense counsel Gavin McNab, the content of his testimony must have posed an existential threat as it depicted Arbuckle as someone more adult (and sexual) than the man-child with whom the public was familiar.

Who was Jesse Jenson Norgaard? The first news reports claimed he was a Civil War veteran. He wasn’t that old but he had been a career soldier since the 1880s and his early life is fairly well documented given his extant military records. According to the 1880 census, he was born in 1859 in Toftland, that part of Denmark lost to Germany during the Second Schleswig Wars. Like other young men, Norgaard likely saw emigration as better alternative to being drafted into the Prussian Army so came to the United States as a teenager in 1878. He worked as a servant on a Nebraska farm. In 1884, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Meade in the Dakota Territory toward the end of the Indian Wars. Five years later, in 1889, while working as a farmer in Montana, he became a U.S. citizen. When he was recorded by the 1900 census, he was a private stationed in Kalispell, Montana, having volunteered in the U.S. Army’s 37th Infantry [Regiment] during the Philippine-American War, the civil war that followed the Spanish-American War of 1898.

When Norgaard mustered out in 1901, he was in his early forties. For a time, he performed menial jobs while in and out of various soldiers homes as a patient, including two years, from 1906 to 1908 in Leavenworth, Kansas. He married a woman named Amelia, but there are four conflicting dates for when this marriage took place between 1905 and 1913

Norgaard primarily supported himself on his Army pension of $12 a month. This was likely due to his age and injuries. In 1914, he was admitted as a resident to the Soldiers Home in Orting, Washington, suffering from lameness in his right leg. He was discharged a year later, but, as before, he could only perform light work, such as operating an elevator.

Despite having spent much of his life in Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Washington state, he relocated to California, where he lived in San Diego during the war years. It was during this time, in 1918, that he was arrested for selling liquor to the recruits at Camp Kearney. He was sentenced to six months on a “work farm” but walked away and took a train to Los Angeles. This was the only arrest record he had and it would play a role in the third Arbuckle trial,

In Los Angeles, Norgaard found the kind of work he could handle as a watchman for the Henry Lehrman Studios. His appearance in all three of the Arbuckle trials, outside of his years as a soldier, was almost certainly the most eventful period in his life. Since the state would have only paid for his travel expenses and room and board, there was little to induce Norgaard to come forward but he did so willingly and worked with the District Attorney, Matthew Brady, to secure Arbuckle’s conviction.

Like other prosecution witnesses, Norgaard saw his reputation sullied by Arbuckle’s defense lawyers. At the second trial in January 1922, when he testified his earlier military career was foregrounded by the prosecution and he was allegedly wearing a “congressional medal of honor,” which may have been a reporter’s hyperbole. (There is no record of such a medal awarded to Norgaard and if he had “stolen valor,” Arbuckle’s defense would have likely uncovered this and destroyed his credibility.)

On January 20, the former watchman–janitor testified again that Arbuckle offered him “handful of greenbacks” for the key to Rappe’s dressing room. “I saw two $20 greenbacks and a $10,” he said. “I don’t know how much there was.”[3] The following week, on January 26, A. L. Barnes, an auditor and secretary for the former Henry Lehrman Studios, was called by the defense to refute Norgaard’s accusation. Barnes took the stand and said that he had the only duplicate key to the Yale lock to Rappe’s door and that it was always kept in his office. However, the keys were openly displayed on a rack, “accessible to anyone.”[4] This testimony allegedly refuted Norgaard’s assertion that he had the only key. But it hardly refuted his contention that he had been offered money to produce it. Nevertheless, the technicality, added to the many others, prevented the jury from unanimously declaring Arbuckle guilty or not.

Norgaard testified again at the third trial. By mid-March, the defense had more time to find ways to detract from his testimony. They succeeded this time with what some newspapers called a “mystery arrest.”

J. Norgaard, witness in the Roscoe Arbuckle case, who claims he was railroaded to jail here to prevent his testifying, was today paroled and will leave tonight for San Francisco to appear for prosecution there.

The parole board here took immediate action when they learned that District Attorney Matthew Brady of San Francisco had urged the parole of Norgaard.

Norgaard is the former janitor at the Culver City studios who testified at a former Arbuckle trial that “Fatty” tried to bribe him to give him the keys to Virginia Rappe’s dressing room.

In 1918, Norgaard was convicted here of selling liquor to solders, in violation of a city ordinance. He was sentenced to six months on the city farm, as was customary in such cases. After serving five days of that time he walked over to Linda Vista and took a train for Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago a man appeared at the local police station and asked to see the 1918 police court records, stating that he wished to look up the case of Norgaard. A few days later Norgaard was arrested at the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle. He was brought here and on Saturday re-sentenced to six months in jail.

Police Chief Patrick knew nothing of the case until he found the man in jail late Saturday, he declares. This is the first case the police say, where one of the many city farm prisoners who walked away during the war times was ever returned to serve out their “time” in jail.[5]

Norgaard testified at the third trial on March 28, 1922. He repeated his charge that Arbuckle tried to bribe him for the key and added that Arbuckle had said he intended to play a joke on Rappe if he got inside her room. As to being sentenced to jail, Norgaard claimed also that it had been Arbuckle’s attorneys who induced him to return to San Diego to serve out a sentence at the county farm that had been imposed on him in 1918 for selling liquor to the soldiers at Camp Kearney. But Arbuckle’s defense team was hardly finished with defaming Norgaard. Gavin McNab “sought further to prove that the witness [Norgaard] had been driven from Catalina Island for conduct involving an eight-year-old girl.”[6] This prompted Milton U’Ren to accuse McNab of using “shyster” tactics, which, in turn, led to a reprimand from Judge Louderbeck.

On March 30, a witness was called to speak to Norgaard’s character in an attempt to offset the charge of pederasty and to shore up his credibility. But it was inconclusive and most of the day’s session was consumed by a discussion of the meaning of the word “integrity.”

Justice of the Peace Joseph H. Stanford of Avalon, Catalina Island, was testifying when the discussion arose. He had previously testified in regard to the character of Jesse Norgaard, another witness. He was recalled and said he could testify as to Norgaard’s morals, but not as to his integrity. The defense contended morals included integrity, while the prosecution maintained they did not. A dozen legitimate authorities and a dictionary were involved in an effort to decide the point, but without success.[7]

The dissection of Norgaard’s character and challenge to his integrity had the effect of diluting the prosecution’s contention that Arbuckle had an obsession with Rappe. Once more, a key witness’s troubled past gave Arbuckle a “pass” in that the accuser appeared to be of weaker character than Arbuckle, who, at most, might have come across as a naughty practical joker, a trickster.

After the third Arbuckle trial, Norgaard moved back to Washington and resided at the soldiers homes in Kitsap and Orting, where he died in 1938.

[1] In some reports, Norgaard is referred to as a janitor and as “Oscar” Norgaard.

[2] Oscar H. Fernbach, “Zey Prevost, Alice Blake in Witness Chair,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1921, 4.

[3] “Surprise Witness Explodes Bomb in Arbuckle Defense,” New York Daily News, 21 January 1922, 3.

[4] Marjorie C. Driscoll, “Arbuckle Case Defense May Close Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 January 1922, 4.

[5] “State Finds Aarbuckle Witness Serving Unexpired Term in Jail,” Long Beach Press, 20 March 1922, 1.

[6] Oscar H. Fernbach, “U’Ren Flayed by Court for M’Nab Attack,” San Francisco Examiner, 28 March 1922, 9.

[7] A.P. Night Wire, “Fresh Problem in Fatty Case,” Los Angeles Times, 31 March 1922, 7.

100 years ago today: The third Arbuckle trial jury sworn in

On St. Patrick’s Day 1922, eight men and four women—plus two alternates—were sworn in to judge whether Roscoe Arbuckle was guilty or innocent of the manslaughter death of Virginia Rappe. Fifty-one prospective jurors had been interrogated by prosecutors and defense lawyers for biases, either pro or con, as well as evidence of the kind of celebrity fanaticism that neither side would have wanted. It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the Bay area to have been unaware of the previous two trials though many would protest that they had not been influenced by news coverage.

Rumors of witnesses being paid by the defense circulated in San Francisco and Los Angeles—and Chicago, where Arbuckle’s lawyer, Albert Sabath, located new witnesses who would allege that Rappe had previously suffered from abdominal pains, hysteria, and the birth of an illegitimate child.

As the jury was being chosen, San Francisco’s newspapers reported on witness depositions by individuals such as “Butch” Carroll, the owner of a saloon in Chicago where Rappe had once been a chanteuse. Many of these witnesses weren’t called in court but the depositions made news and were to Arbuckle’s benefit before the jury was sequestered in the Hotel Washington and subjected to censorship of anything related to the case.

On March 16, the last of the witnesses was deposed, Edward J. Byrne, a carpenter. He claimed to have once lived in the same house as Rappe and her grandmother—meaning he was a tenant in the same building. He claimed that in 1907 he witnessed Rappe suffering from abdominal pains while her grandmother attempted to quiet her. He said that Rappe had torn most of her clothes off and screamed at her grandmother to stop when the latter tried to prevent her from doing so.

“Miss Rappe,” he said, “was afraid of surgery and no doctor was summoned.”

Like prospective jurors, defense attorneys needed their witnesses to meet certain criteria, a kind of punch list of talking points that would correlate with what Rappe did in room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921.

Despite the sometimes numbing nature of these depositions and testimony, which previously the prosecutors had complained were excessive and absurd, the defense trusted that their witnesses would outnumber and drown out the “character” witnesses whom the prosecution had deposed.

Rappe, whether Arbuckle’s victim or not, was on trial now for the third time as much as he was.


Rappe and friends in The Picture Show, 1919

To theorists Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, photos of individuals have a spectral quality where it’s the photograph that is looking at us from a fixed moment in the past. A photo of Virginia Rappe with two of her friends provides a good example of that quality.

Source: Lantern (

The more prominent of the two is the actress Louise Glaum, who, when The Picture Show published the photo in November 1919, had just made or was making such motion pictures as The Lone Wolf’s Daughter (1919), Sex (1919) and Love (1920). These and other films made Glaum Theda Bara’s rival for the title of Hollywood’s leading vamp.

During this time, too, Glaum, was also seen around Los Angeles in Rappe’s company. That they were friends is known from the reporting of the first Arbuckle trial, when prosecutors tried to get “Miss Glaum“ to testify to Rappe’s health and wellbeing. This required Glaum that come from New York, where she had retired to enjoy her private life and file lawsuits against her former studio.

What she might have said as a rebuttal witness will never be known. But it is not hard to guess. She likely would have told the jury that in all the time she spent with Rappe, she hadn’t seen her drink alcoholic beverages, fall into hysterical fits, tear her clothes off, and the like. Glaum, too, who enjoyed hiking in the Hollywood Hills like Rappe, would have said that Rappe’s physical health was robust.

Being a rebuttal witness, however, would have required subjecting Glaum to cross examination by Gavin McNab or, more likely, Milton Cohen among Arbuckle’s battery of lawyers. This would have exposed her personal life to some degree. Glaum was single, having divorced at an early age. Her nickname was “Weirdy” among the other women in the studio. The lawyers would also probe the depth of her friendship with Rappe. It may have been so casual as to make Glaum out to be a weak witness who really wouldn’t know about Rappe’s wellbeing. Or Rappe may have been closer, like a “lady-in-waiting” in Glaum’s entourage. (Glaum could have known her in Chicago, where Glaum was a stage actress around 1909–11 and Rappe was both a model and aspiring actress herself.) Or Glaum and Rappe may have been—and this is more likely—equal partners in whatever acquaintance they had.

One thing they did have in common were dogs. Glaum had rescued a Boston terrier that she named “Runtie” and Rappe had “Jeff,” her brindle Staffordshire, rescued from director Henry Lehrman’s studio menagerie. In the photo, Rappe’s dog is the center of attention with Rappe flanked by Glaum and the former actress Jean Darnell.

Darnell, too, could have made a good rebuttal witness. She was an actor-turned-gossip-columnist and privy to many Hollywood lives and secrets. Unfortunately for the work of biographers and historians, her own life was kept private. At the time of Rappe’s death, she had already returned to her native Texas as an “exploitation” agent for Goldwyn.

Source: Lantern (

Kate Brennan, unsound witness for Arbuckle?

The fingerprints gathered from Room 1219 in the St. Francis Hotel by pioneering criminologist Edward O. Heinrich proved to be among the most contentious evidence presented during the three Arbuckle trials. The defense lawyers challenged this “evidence” on the contention that a hotel chambermaid had thoroughly cleaned Arbuckle’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel so any fingerprints alleged to be those of Arbuckle and Rappe belonged to someone else or were faked.

Heinrich had made his reputation as an expert in handwriting analysis. But his leap into fingerprint analysis, a more complex field, separated him from his fellow forensic “experts”—indeed, the kind that Arbuckle’s defense found to refute the claims that the fingerprints on 1219’s door indicated a struggle between Arbuckle and Rappe.

But let’s return to defense witness Kate Brennan, the 51-year-old chambermaid, whose Irish accent and courtroom demonstrations of how she wiped down the woodwork in room 1219 entertained the courtroom and the reporters during the first trial.

The prosecution dealt with her by putting Heinrich back on the stand. He described finding hairs, hairpins, dust, and, of course, fingerprints in room 1219 that indicated the room had not been cleaned before he began his work on September 16, eleven days after Arbuckle’s ill-fated party.

Brennan’s testimony was seen as theater by Helen Hubbard, the most outspoken of the two jurors who voted to convict, and one reason the first trial ended with a hung jury.

Brennan was brought back again to testify at the second trial in January 1922. This time the prosecution had done “opposition research” on her. They had found that she had been released from the female department of Stockton State Hospital, where she had been a patient since 1909. She had been released from the hospital in 1920 as much “improved” but not “cured.”

Female patients wing of Stockton State Hospital, c. 1920s

The prosecution, however, failed to convince the judge to toss out her testimony on the grounds that she was mentally incompetent. The second trial continued and ended in a hung jury as well, this time 10 to 2 to convict rather than the other way around. What convinced the predominantly male jury that Arbuckle was guilty wasn’t the fingerprint evidence. It was a reading of Arbuckle’s testimony that didn’t agree with earlier statements he made to a Los Angeles Times reporter (in which Arbuckle also made the unguarded admission that he pushed Rappe down on a bed to quiet her).

What wasn’t reported about Brennan was why she had been committed to a mental institution for over a decade. This is an important question because once more it casts light on the credibility of the witnesses the defense called to take the stand. The mental health of Irene Morgan discussed in an earlier blog entry is another case of note. When it was clear that Morgan’s poisoning turned out to be a hoax, the defense didn’t put her on the stand in the later trials. When the prosecution tried to subpoena her in January 1922 for the second trial, she had disappeared.

Kate Brennan, too, disappeared before the third Arbuckle trial and couldn’t be called by either the prosecution or defense. While there was little curiosity about these women afterward, we wanted to know more about them for our book. Brennan may remain the most curious. But there is one intriguing newspaper article from 1904 in the San Francisco Call. It reports that a woman named Kate Brennan had been caught once more desecrating a Catholic church. This Kate Brennan, a former domestic, was known to do this and the pastor refused to press charges because she suffered from “dementia.”

A night at the opera with William Desmond Taylor and Virginia Rappe

Tomorrow, February 1, marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of the actor-director William Desmond Taylor. His unsolved murder, which happened at the time the second Arbuckle trial was concluding, is seen by film historians as the other major scandal that threatened the motion picture industry and required redemption via the creation of the Hays Office—this time drawing in Mabel Normand’s drug addiction and revelations of Taylor’s secret life that were publicly exposed during the subsequent investigation.

The Arbuckle case and Taylor’s murder were discrete events and shared no major or minor players. Though the proximity in time probably led the public to imagine they were related. During the afternoon of February 1, in San Francisco, another jury began deliberations over whether Roscoe Arbuckle had caused the death of Virginia Rappe, and several hours later, in Los Angeles, Taylor was shot in the stomach by a small caliber weapon.

Both the events of Arbuckle’s infamous Labor Day party of September 5, 1921, and the subsequent cold case of Taylor’s murder have inspired numerous books—and those about Taylor are much better. The first, A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of William Desmond Taylor (1990), is by Robert Giroux, a writer better known as the personal friend and publisher of such American poets as John  Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and novelists such as Donald Barthelme and William Golding.

Another serious book on the Taylor shelf is Murder in Hollywood: Solving a Silent Screen Mystery (2004) by the biographer Charles Higham, which uses much new information, including revelations from the site and, most importantly, the unpublished autobiography of set designer George Hopkins. We took a special interest in his text for an incident he reports from April 4, 1921. On that day, the Chicago Grand Opera Company opened the opera season at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium with a command performance of Verdi’s Otello. The opening, too, was also the social event of the spring, with South Olive Street lined with limousines and the cream of Los Angeles—and Hollywood—society out in force dressed top hats and tails, furs and glittering jewels entering the concert hall.

According to one of Higham’s primary sources, Hopkins’s unpublished autobiography titled “Caught in the Act,” Virginia Rappe was one of the guests in the private loge of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille (p. 80). The others are no less intriguing, among them Paramount Pictures (nee Famous Players-Lasky) producer Jesse Lasky and screenwriter Rupert Hughes. Each paired with their wives though Rappe, apparently, was accompanied by an actor named William Desmond—NOT to be confused with the director William Desmond Taylor, who would have been sitting just a few feet away. (WDT had shown up with his friend and professional associate Hopkins, who was a gay man.)

That Rappe would have been present in such company seems rather bizarre in light of the insulting stories about her character that welled-up following her death. But the evidence suggests that the “best dressed girl in Hollywood” was less an actress and more a young socialite.  Realize, too, that she was a “Chicago girl,” which may have counted for something among people we take as motion picture illuminati. Indeed Rappe’s association with this group suggests a much less rigid social order existed among the film colonists than one would find in east coast society.

Rappe was known to have been a good bridge player. So, it is also possible that she was a simply a guest of Mrs. DeMille. Nevertheless, if Rappe’s presence wasn’t a case of mistaken identity on Hopkin’s part, she may have wanted to get back into the movies with something better than the comedy shorts she had done sporadically for her former boyfriend, Henry Lehrman.

A few weeks later, Rappe was allegedly present at a “Blood Moon” party given by another director who might have helped her, Alan Dwan. In May, William Desmond, the actor and presumed opera companion of Rappe, formed his own production company. As for Rappe, she found a new manager in one Al Semnacher, the man who drove her to San Francisco and on to the St. Francis Hotel.

At this writing, we hope to confirm Hopkin’s mention of Rappe attending Otello with newspaper reporting of the celebrities present that evening, particularly the Los Angeles Examiner, a not so easy newspaper to research since extant copies have been cut up into clippings. What limits us, given what newspapers we can search, is that members of the film colony weren’t considered members of polite society. Motion picture executives, directors, actors, and actresses were still parvenu “extras“ in the Philharmonic Auditorium, which might explain, too, Rappe’s access.

100 Years Ago Today: The second Arbuckle trial jury

The second trial jury was finalized on January 16, 1922 and their names published in the newspapers on the following day. Unlike the first trial’s jury, the new jury was composed of more men, eleven altogether, and one woman. Instead of a thirteenth juror, there were two alternates, one man and one woman.

Gavin McNab, the lead defense attorney, rejected several women on the basis of their eagerness to serve on the Arbuckle jury. Although four women on the first trial voted to acquit Arbuckle of the charge of manslaughter for the death of Virginia Rappe, his thinking had likely changed. After all, the men on the first jury voted to acquit, even the lone male juror who didn’t, Thomas Kilkenny, had for the most part sided with the majority.

We think Kilkenny changed his vote not so much because he believed in Arbuckle’s guilt. When it was clear that his vote didn’t matter, for a hung jury was inevitable, Kilkenny sided with the one woman who consistently cast ballots to convict out of—we think—Irish solidarity and, perhaps, chivalry. After all, the woman who voted to convict, Helen Meany Hubbard, was the daughter of Irish immigrants.

Women serving on juries in California was neither new nor could it be attributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. California already had suffrage since 1911 and women frequently served on juries. The exceptions, however, were the more “indelicate” cases involving murder and sex. But that exception was also falling by the wayside. Indeed, nine women served on a high-profile murder case in Los Angeles—that of Arthur Burch for the love-triangle murder of J. Belton Kennedy, a wealthy insurance broker—which overlapped the first Arbuckle trial and competed for headlines.

The Burch jury also couldn’t come to a consensus and proved, if anything, that women jurors hardly voted as a bloc. They didn’t for the first Arbuckle trial. Four women voted to acquit, three of whom consistently voted Arbuckle as not guilty. In contrast, the men nearly voted in lockstep save for one and only in the end.

As it turned out, the men on the second trial’s jury, although more “traditional” in makeup, would have its own surprises rather than the expected outcome.

Second trial jury, January 1922 (Underwood & Underwood)

“McNab, Victorian, Flounders”—Bart Haley on the first day of jury deliberations, December 2, 1921

A few weeks ago, we reprinted one of Bart Haley’s reports from the first Arbuckle trial, which originally ran a century ago in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger.

Haley’s pieces are more editorial than strict reportage and here he discusses the role of the woman jurors in the trial and the problem they presented for Arbuckle’s lead attorney, Gavin McNab.

Ultimately, the first Arbuckle trial ended in a hung jury when one woman, Helen Meany Hubbard, refusing to cast a ballot for acquittal. Over and over again she voted to convict Arbuckle of manslaughter in deliberations that dragged from December 2 to December 4, 1921. She might have been alone had not a fellow juror, Thomas Kilkenny, eventually joined her in the vote to convict.

Haley is prescient in regard to the kind of modern juror McNab faced. Mrs. Hubbard, the wife of a lawyer, attributed her decision to the prosecution’s logical presentation of the circumstantial evidence, especially the fingerprints that indicated a struggle between Arbuckle and Rappe. Hubbard, too, found Arbuckle’s “Good Samaritan” testimony to be false. But it was Gavin McNab’s courtroom performance that she found particularly offensive. (For more on Hubbard, we suggest reading Joan Myer’s “Virginia Rappe & the Search for the Missing Juror.”)

Arbuckle Jury Split; Is Locked Up Over Night

Two of Women Jurors Reported Holding Out for Conviction of Comedian
Acquittal May come When Court Meets Today
Fatty and Friends Worried by Delay—Had Hoped for Speedy Liberty
His Wife Breaks Down
Prosecutor Arranges to Guard Actor from Violence in Case He Is Freed

By Bart Haley

San Francisco, Dec. 3.—The jury before which Fatty Arbuckle has been on trial for manslaughter is split and temporarily deadlocked.

Two of the five women members were reported this morning to have been holding out for the conviction. After seven hours of deliberation and seven ballots, the foreman reported at 11:10 last night that no agreement had been reached.

The court had remained in special session. The jury was locked up with orders to go to work again today. The court will reconvene at 10 o’clock. Fatty and his counsel and his friends, who had been hoping and laboring for an immediate and spontaneous acquittal, were shocked.

(It will be 1 o’clock in Philadelphia when the court meets today.)

The big comedian, whose troubles, the first real ones of his life, began with the Labor Day gin-and-orange juice party which Virginia Rappe was carried with mortal injuries, was badly shaken for the news from the jury room. For hours he had waited in an agony of anxiety which he could not quite conceal.

The building was invaded by a curious mob. Judge Louderback had informed the jury that he would wait until 11 0’clock. This decision followed the failure of the jury to reach a verdict in two hours of wrangling that preceded the dinner hour. At 11 o’clock there was no sign of life from the jury room. A deputy sheriff was sent to make inquiries. He returned with the news that a verdict had not been reached and that the jury wanted ten minutes of grace to try again. It tried again and failed.

Fatty stood up in the brilliantly lighted courtroom and reached wearily for his hat. Even the anti-Fattys felt a momemt of pity. Mrs. Arbuckle, who was sitting behind her husband, arose, sat down again, opened her handbag, got out her handkerchief and began to cry.

Only Gavin McNab, chief of Fatty’s counsel, appeared unmoved. The other lawyers looked dismal, but resigned.

“I’m not worried,” said Fatty, “it’ll be all right. But I wish they would hurry.”

There were good reasons why hurry seemed desirable. Doubts and wrangling and delays and the dim possibility of a permanent disagreement were not likely to help toward a calf-killing in the land of films or to make the way easy for the return from Elba, which, to Fatty, is almost as important as liberty itself.

A verdict of acquittal is expected today. Arbuckle, his sisters, his wife, his counsel and the friends who were with him when he went unhappily through the jammed corridors on the way to his hotel felt so sure of an acquittal on the first ballot that they were prepared to leave for Los Angeles this afternoon.

District Attorney Brady and his assistants were not in court last night. They left with the manner of men washing their hands of the whole business at the close of their final arguments and after a day of extremely bitter interchanges with the lawyers for the defense.

But Brady has provided a strong guard to protect the tragic funny man from cranks who have been sending him violent and threatening letters.

The ground over which the battle for Fatty’s liberty and rehabilitation has raged furiously and without rest since November 11 was strewn with strange wreckage last night. Mrs. B. Maud Delmont, who was the most conspicuous of the women guests at the fatal Labor Day party, was taken from her hotel last night and placed in jail under a bigamy charge registered by the authorities of Madera County. It was Mrs. Delmont who first accused Arbuckle of being the direct cause of Virginia’s injuries.

Irene Morgan, who was found poisoned in her hotel here on Thursday, returned, still very ill, to Los Angeles this morning. She had been brought into court as a witness for the defense. The police and private detectives, after working for twenty-four hours without sleep in an effort to find a man who was presumed to have poisoned Irene, quit the search in disgust.

They had sought high and low for a vehicle called, in the bright idiom of the police, “the poison taxicab”—a taxicab in which Miss Morgan said she rode just before a mysterious gentleman, “appearing much like one of District Attorney Brady’s detectives,” gave her deadly orange juice and poisoned candy. Physicians who were called in frantic haste to the Clift House [Hotel], where Irene was found, said last night that so far as they could determine, the young woman took a great overdose of headache powders, accidentally or otherwise.

The ante-mortem statement obtained by the physicians when they thought Irene was going to die glistens with the strange poetry of delirium. It is all about love and a noble past and proud ancestors in Sweden and a Duke from Spelice and the dead Virginia.

Mrs. Minnie Neighbours, of Los Angeles, another of the women who gave some of the most helpful evidence for the defense, is waiting here to answer formally to a perjury charge on Monday. District Attorney Brady caused Mrs. Neighbours’ arrest and said that her evidence was wholly false.

Fatty and his counsel have found time from all their other troubles to stand manfully by the refugees. Their doctors treated Miss Morgan. The lawyers will defend Mrs. Neighbours. Mrs. Delmont, who started all the trouble, will seemingly see the last of it. She will be left to shift for herself.

The mill of the trial ground on unhindered by these reports from the outside world or news of stragglers overcome by the wayside. The jury retired at 4:10 after Gavin McNab and Assistant District Attorney U’Ren finished their respective appeals. The courtroom and the corridors were packed and there was a mob in the street. McNab assailed District Attorney Brady by name and the District Attorney assailed McNab.

“No innocent man,” said Mr. U’Ren, “would have kept still as Arbuckle did, until he was driven by the collapse of his counsel’s case to stand in this court and tell a story that is obviously untrue. Through perjury and hypocrisy, he is seeking his freedom.”

McNab again bitterly charged Brady with maintaining a system of organized terrorism in his office. When he was not addressing himself particularly to the women of the jury. McNab made masterly use of the material at his disposal. When he addressed himself to the women, he made it clear, perhaps for the first time, that equal rights of citizenship have created a new dilemma for lawyers.

Should you appeal to the minds or to the emotions of women in the jury box? Mr. McNab appealed proudly to their emotions, to their emotions only, and the experiment—which may become historic—didn’t terminate auspiciously.

Judge Louderback’s charge to the jury sounded almost like a recommendation for conviction. And the first rumors from the jury room indicated that all five women members desired ardently to send Mr. Arbuckle to jail. Stephen Hopkins, a thirteenth juror, who was held as an alternate until the deliberation of the jury began and then released, reflected the other side of the jury’s mind when he said he could see no reason for a conviction.

About the state of mind of the five women of the jury there were from the first differences of opinion as wide as the seas. They were among the first women who ever sat in judgment on a case of the sort which, involving spectacular crimes or spectacular misfortunes of one of their own sex, would normally be decided by the blundering and purely masculine code known in courts as the unwritten law.

The jury had a wide, an almost limitless, latitude for the exercise of its sympathies or its prejudices. Neither the prosecution nor the defense pleaded a clear case. To an impartial eye it was plain that the State’s direct evidence was not sufficient to prove Fatty guilty, in a court or out of it. Neither did Mr. McNab and his associates demonstrate Fatty’s innocence. Only Fatty himself knows what went on in the room from which Virginia Rappe was carried to die.

When, after all the noise and clamor of the closing arguments was over, the lawyers admitted that they had felt, addressing the women of the jury, as if they were talking into a void or appealing to a granite wall. But the jury women toward the last were not merely inscrutable. They were more obviously bored and weary—weary of Fatty and the wrangling of McNab and Brady, of the doctors and the lingo of the clinics, of everybody in the courtroom, of the repeated loud references to gin and orange juice.

When at last the jury left the courtroom at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Fatty looked after them forlornly and his lawyers crowded about to make cheerful prophecies. Women, they told themselves and their client, were not fools about these things. Women could not be swayed by the befuddling sentimentalism that might cause men to do crazy things in cases like this. Women might be tender-hearted about all the rest of the world, but they were hard-boiled in relation to one another.

So the minutes passed. Fatty’s lawyers watched the clock anxiously and returned to the fear that was rending with them within. McNab, they were sure, had got to the jury. They felt that his address had been very moving. But it was not moving. Upon McNab it fell to initiate the long, long series of experiments which may have to be continued for years before lawyers of the present schools are able to talk effectually to mixed juries.

And upon the site of the Hall of Justice, lawyers of the future may yet erect in gratitude a monument in memory of Fatty’s chief of counsel and inscribe upon it: “On this spot Gavin McNab first demonstrated for posterity the manner in which a jury of the new age should not be addressed.”

McNab was Victorian. He begged the ladies of the jury to have no illusions. Yet he himself seemed full of them. McNab, the winner of a thousand great suits, the wise guide of a political party and mentor of a multitude of young lawyers, floundered when he sought to touch the consciousness of five average women and behaved like a mariner in uncharted waters at night. He began with Bethlehem and ended with “suffer the little children to come unto Me.”

He talked of the millions of children who had laughed at this most unfortunate man and dwelled long and tenderly upon the tradition of an unerring child’s instinct which he recommended as culminating proof of Fatty Arbuckle’s innocence and the cold brutality of the District Attorney’s office. McNab told of the need for a continuous reverence for all women.

At about the same moment, Irene Morgan in a mild delirium was telling them at the Clift Hotel to prepare for Duke of Spelice, who was coming to take her riding, and begging to be told where Virginia Rappe was. Mrs. Neighbours, another Arbuckle witness, was waiting to face a charge of perjury and Mrs. Maud Delmont, the third troubled woman in the case, was being taken to jail.

Fatty’s big car—someone said casually the other day it cost as much as a good-sized church—was waiting outside at the curb. It was not going to hang around the Hall of Justice a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. It was gassed and chauffeured for swift departure from this scene of trouble.

The jury had been out about twenty minutes when one of the Arbuckle counsel, who had passed a door that leads almost directly into the jury room, sat down among his associates and in almost inaudible whisper uttered one word:


Had McNab trusted too greatly to the woman of bright legend, to the woman of books written by sentimental men who make the unwritten law and not enough to the woman who votes? The thought may have occurred to some of the watchers.

It clearly did not occur to Fatty. He was not thinking. The blood was beating in his temples and upon his face fell the look of a man falling endlessly through space. There ensued a period of harrowing suspense until the jury disappeared stolidly to its hotel for dinner.

And the big car turned and rolled slowly down the street, but only to return at 8 o’clock. One salient had been lost. The battle waged for three weeks was not only for the Arbuckle of the present but for the Arbuckle of the future as well. A quick, unhesitating acquittal by the jury had been hoped for by the defense.

After the shock of the first disappointment, Fatty recovered and seemed to feel better. He loafed for a while in the corridor, when he returned, and smoked cigarettes, leaning comfortably against the wall.

“It’ll be all right,” said he. “I’m not a bit worried now, but I wish they’d hurry.”

Roscoe Arbuckle in court, December 1921 (Calisphere)