Francis X. Bushman and Virginia Rappe

[Early this morning, TCM host Jacqueline Stewart featured a documentary about the silent film actor Francis X. Bushman, narrated by one of his grandsons. The following provisional passage is from our draft and covers an episode in Bushman’s life that we didn’t expect to see covered in the documentary, that is, the interruption in Bushman’s film career following his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to Beverly Bayne. This was an era when studios treated disclosure of a divorce to be as toxic to a star’s career as drug addiction or homosexuality.

It was In the third week of September 1921, Bushman and Bayne appeared for an engagement at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater and were in the city during the first weeks of the Arbuckle case. The couple had already weighed in on their feelings about Roscoe Arbuckle in the press and Bushman shared his rather impersonal personal connection to Rappe.]

After Game Lady was completed , [Henry] Lehrman couldn’t afford to publicize it so its release was held up for months. With little to no money coming in, he ceased all production for the foreseeable future. In December, he had defaulted on a loan of $25,000 and was forced to move out of his Franklin Avenue house of five years. Although Lehrman had gambled and lost by going out on his own, he wasn’t the only one suffering financially. The ongoing postwar recession had reached Hollywood.

Matinee idol Francis X. Bushman described the situation after an airplane ride over Hollywood in which he could see fifteen studios seemingly at a standstill. He blamed “the needless extravagance” of studios and a recession, the “financial tightness [that] has hit the movie industry harder perhaps that any other, to such an extent that stars who formerly commanded $1,500 weekly now are glad of employment at $300 a week.”[1]

Bushman made these remarks while en route to New York City from Los Angeles. He had not made a film in two years due to his divorce and remarriage to the actress Beverly Bayne. The divorce was bad enough, but Bayne was pregnant at the time of her marriage and that brought their morals further into question. Studios shunned them and limited Bushman—who was once proclaimed “the king of the movies” during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915—and Bayne to performing in bedroom farces and the like on the vaudeville circuit.

In October 1920, the couple were engaged in a theatrical production in Los Angeles and hoping to resume their film careers. They rented a Mission-style bungalow at 2217 Canyon Drive from actor William Worthington—not only to accommodate themselves and their baby boy, but Bushman’s five children from his first marriage ranging in age from seventeen to nine. The living arrangements prompted a number of amusing articles about life with the Bushmans, made awkward by so many in such a small house and doubly so by the first Mrs. Bushman, who insisted on being close to her children by staying in an expensive hotel suite nearby on her former husband’s tab.

In November, Bushman’s nine-year-old son Bruce—Bushman’s namesake until his ex-wife had the boy’s name changed out of spite—suffered multiple fractures to his leg and hip. He was bedridden in Los Angeles and cared for by his new stepmother and father until a week before Christmas. His siblings had already left with the mother for their home in Baltimore.

Francis Bushman could not afford to renege on his bookings in various cities on the East Coast so he left Bruce in the care of a private nurse and he was routinely informed of his son’s progress. From the nurse, he learned that the actress Virginia Rappe was managing his bungalow and others on Canyon Drive. Apparently, Rappe interceded when a neighbor cursed Bushman for having so many children in the small bungalow and for the seeming desertion of his son, who was still in a leg cast up to his hip. Bushman never met Rappe, but recalled her kindness three days after her death while he and Bayne were performing in Portland, Oregon. He told a reporter that “Miss Rappe was in charge of the house, and I was in New York. My nurse, who was caring for young Bruce, said that Miss Rappe was a sweet, very beautiful young woman and had a big, clean heart. I am willing to believe her.”[2] Both Bushman and his wife excoriated the film colony for its “wild parties” and how real actors, like themselves, didn’t consider Arbuckle one. “He is just a fat boy,” said Bushman, and almost anything a fat boy does is funny. That is the way he is looked upon.”

Francis X. Bushman as Messala in Ben Hur (1925)

[1] “Postpone Attempt to Break into Movies, Says Bushman; Movie Idol Visits El Paso,” El Paso Herald, 20 December 1920, 1.

[2] “Los Angeles Scored by Beverly Bayne,” Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1921, I:2; and merged with “Beverly Bayne Denounces Hollywood’s Wild Orgies,” Buffalo Times, 19 September 1921, 9.

Bit Player #8: Crystal P. Rivers

[This is the last entry that observes the burial of Virginia Rappe and is meant as a postscript adapted from the working manuscript. That is to say, we may find some additional details about Crystal P. Rivers (1877–1944), who lived out his final years as an artist in Santa Barbara. We use this opening to set up events leading to the first Arbuckle trial, when the defense kept leaking news stories about Rappe having a daughter in Chicago.]

In the weeks that followed Virginia Rappe’s funeral, another interment took place nearby, that of “Master Breezy Reeves Jr.” as he was billed, “the Littlest Cowboy” and the son of director B. Reeves Eason. The six-year-old had been killed by a runaway truck outside his home and, like Rappe, was among the first group of actors to be buried in what became Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Meanwhile, cemetery employees informed police that a middle-aged man had been observed visiting Rappe’s grave by the reflecting pool almost daily.[1] Typically, the visitor came to lay bunches of fresh flowers as well. On a nearby palm tree that shaded the Rappe plot, he also hung a “a framed picture of a cluster of roses,” which bore the legend and enigmatically wrong date:

This is a promise delayed, Crystal P. Rivers.
Please do not remove this from the grave of Virginia
—Semper Fidelis (always faithful) from C. P. R.
Wednesday September 6.

With Roscoe Arbuckle’s trial date of November 7 approaching, newspaper reporters decided to meet the mysterious gentleman, Crystal Rivers, and make a human-interest story of him during the lull of real news about the case.

You fought for the honor God gave you to you
A beautiful bridal flower.
And through the years your heart beat true
Till the day and the fatal hour.

When Rivers was confronted, he said he had known Rappe since 1917, when friends of hers had introduced her to the self-styled “poet, artist, and inventor.”

According to the Los Angeles Record, Rivers lived “practically in seclusion, devoting much of his time to study and writing.”


“I loved Virginia Rappe,” he said to the San Francisco Examiner, “for her innocence, her beauty and her gracious charm. The memories of my meetings with her are as a father does his only daughter. She was the embodiment of all I have missed in life—a child on whom I might lavish my affections.”

The polymath Rivers may have enjoyed his “unusual platonic romance” with or without Rappe’s participation. He may have been a poet, artist, inventor when he could find the time, but when not putting fresh flowers on Rappe’s grave, he was mostly a factory worker and a widower. Eventually, the rains faded his poem and another person tended Rappe’s grave and filled its urn with sprays of black acacia and the like.

[1] The following passage is based on “Grave of Girl Daily Visited,” San Francisco Examiner, 3 November 1921, 12; “Mystery Visitor Decorates Grave of Virginia Rappe,” Los Angeles Herald, 3 November 1921, A12; “Identify Grave Visitor,” Los Angeles Herald, 5 November 1921, A3; “Solve Rappe Grave Puzzle, Los Angeles Record, 5 November 1921, 2; “Mystery Suitor of Rappe Girl Tells of Affection,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 November 1921, 9; 1920 U.S. Federal Census, California, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles Assembly District 75, Enumeration District 480, Sheet 3A, line 30; and other corroborative sources.

Composing a Nota Bene (N.b.) and filling the pornographic void of the Arbuckle case

We welcome other acknowledgements of the centenary of the Arbuckle scandal, especially the piece at Silentology and its sequel and the credit extended to the pioneering work of Joan Myers. Silentology’s new entries remind us of another centenary being observed, the hundredth anniversary of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuss (1921) and its limitation, that “what can be said at all can be said clearly” and “what cannot be said must be passed over in silence.” This problem very much exists for the Arbuckle case, for it is hard to be silent about it and hard to know when to shut up.

What is he doing in this blog? Ludwig Wittgenstein and his chalkboard, early 1930s

This thought may appear as a nota bene (regard well in Latin) or headnote for a chapter provisionally titled “The Life of the Party.” Here we reimagine Arbuckle’s Labor Day party as it evolves and devolves following Virginia Rappe’s crisis in room 1219. We believe that witness descriptions of events were self-censored so often the number of voids and circumlocutions left the prosecution few stable details with which to piece together a consistent narrative for the jury.

There are clues, indeed, one specific word that gives a hint at what was being covered up in the testimony. That word was “rough” and it was the term chosen by the state’s chief witness, the so-called “Avenger,” Maude Delmont to describe the party. It was used again by a minor witness, Betty Campbell, who was dismissed early but was rather loquacious about the latter half of the party. In the parlance of the early twentieth century, this wasn’t just sexual harassment, that women tolerated. It was aggressive touching, disrobing, grabbing breasts and crotches, giving in to dancing topless or even nude, and relenting to being pulled into side bedrooms for foreplay and sex.

Women were expected to go along with this and not be “party poopers,” so to speak. If a woman didn’t want to be dragged into a room, she shouldn’t be at the party. The testimonies about the Arbuckle party make it sound less licentious than this but at least two woman, Mae Taube and Joyce Clarke, were uncomfortable enough to get out of there.

One need only look at the blue movies and photographs from this era to know what Delmont and Campbell meant: coitus with men still wearing their garters, stockings, and shoes. (This is almost de rigueur in Roaring Twenties pornography). The testimony of every eyewitness tiptoes around this. It is the story that Maude Delmont might have been willing to tell but couldn’t. Graphic details were censored from her published statement.

District Attorney Matthew Brady’s surprise witness at the preliminary investigation in September (the Police or Women’s Court session), was the hotel maid Josephine Keza. She could see into room 1220 and watch men and women in a state of undress. This is what a “rough” party looks like, a sex party.

So, what do we say before one delves into “The Life of the Party”? Given what we have to work with, Occam’s Razor must be tossed out or used in a different way. Three of the principal attendees had excuses for not being there at the crucial moments. Were these excuses scripted and practiced? Was Semnacher indeed elsewhere at the opportune times such that he saw, heard, and said nothing. (He was compared to an evil little monkey by a S.F. clergyman writing for the Examiner.) Did Fishback really go off looking for seals to include in a future movie? He was on hand for most of the party up till then. Lowell Sherman’s testimony that he was too busy on the phone discussing a theater engagement to pay attention to what was happening around him, was proven false when it surfaced that he was with Delmont in a bathroom during the period Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together. Even Ira Fortlouis who was allegedly kicked out of the party earlier made a statement that he was with Delmont at the time that Rappe was allegedly screaming for help.

What we have seen in some of Arbuckle’s offhanded and callous remarks, made before his lawyers silenced him, was this disappointment in Rappe, that she had spoiled his party, that she wasn’t fun anymore, like some broken toy. Therein lies part of the mystery of what happened between these two.

Here, of course, there are several ways to speculate what happened including some that haven’t been raised yet. For example, during his first trial, Arbuckle took the stand and explained that he found Rappe on the floor of room 1219’s bathroom and proceeded to help her to his bed. Is it possible her bladder ruptured when she fell from the toilet or rolled off of his bed, etc.?

Reading the medical journals of the early twentieth century on cystitis and bladder rupture, there are rare instances when, if one cannot urinate readily and tries to force him- or herself to do so, bears down, his or her bladder can burst from the effort, go into shock, be unable to walk.

Imagine Arbuckle waiting on his bed, his potency on the wane, his sweaty back leaching into the sheets, and calling out, “Virginia, please hurry!”

Don’t laugh. This may seem in keeping with the feverish mind of Kenneth Anger, who tried to stick a Coke bottle where it didn’t belong, but it can’t be ruled out that this began as a consensual encounter and was interrupted by a medical emergency unrelated to Arbuckle altogether. Had Rappe’s crisis come purely from excessive fluid retention, it might explain why Arbuckle didn’t express remorse or accept blame for what happened to her.

So, we must have a headnote that tells the reader that the party that Zey Prevost, Alice Blake, Al Semnacher et al. describe reads as too innocent, as if sex wasn’t on the minds of any of these unchaperoned, lubricated attendees. Was the party little more than an afternoon open house or was it something more uninhibited? The possibility of the latter is the first of many “thought experiments,” a term we liberally borrow as well from Dr. Wittgenstein.

100 Years Ago Today: Henry Lehrman’s 1,000 tiger lilies for Virginia Rappe (and a fur for his Follies girl), September 17, 1921

On Saturday morning, September 17, 1921, Arbuckle woke once more inside cell no. 12 of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, having been denied bail the day before. A murder charge still hung over his head as he sat on the edge of his cot. It would be determined over the coming days at a preliminary investigation in a special Police Court session the known as the “Women’s Court,” which limited the intimidating number and often rude behavior of male spectators.

Meanwhile, on that same morning, in Los Angeles’ Central Station, a reporter witnessed the lid removed from the crate in which Rappe’s silver coffin had been shipped. But what he saw first was the striking orange blanket of a thousand tiger lilies.

The casket of Virginia Rappe and the tiger lily blanket (American Florist)

The flowers had been ordered by Rappe’s putative fiancé, Henry Lehrman, from San Francisco’s master florist, Albert O. Stein at the cost of $150 (over $2,200 adjusted for inflation).[1] The choice of such flowers had been deliberate—and, perhaps, at the suggestion of Mr. Stein whose work in floral arrangements for funerals, public events, table decorations, altar pieces, chuppahs for Jewish weddings, and the like made him the go-to for making the best impression.

As Lehrman said to the press more than once already, Virginia Rappe had fought off Arbuckle “like a tiger.”

Two weeks later, in early October, Lehrman still neglected to pay the $150 invoice. But his checkbook was open for a mink coat, which he gave to his new girlfriend, a Ziegfeld Follies girl and aspiring actress, Jocelyn Leigh, who, like Rappe, was another Chicago native.

The check for $75 bounced, as Miss Leigh learned when she returned to the furrier to buy some accessories on credit.

Albert O. Stein was still trying to collect his fee on the day Arbuckle was acquitted in April 1922.

Jocelyn Leigh (Tattler, May 1922)

[1] See “Arbuckle Fate Up to Jury, Belief,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 April 1922, 3.

100 Years Ago Today: Virginia Rappe returns to L.A., September 16, 1921

Before Virginia Rappe’s coffin was sealed, Lehrman sent his final instructions. “Tell her,” he wired, “Henry said that he still loves you; she will hear.”[1] One of Halsted’s morticians took care of whispering the sentiment into the dead woman’s ear.

This privilege might have gone to Maude Delmont, but her role as Rappe’s caregiver no longer extended to Rappe’s corpse, whereas Lillian Gatlin offered to accompany Rappe’s coffin on the trip back for the honor of doing so. Nevertheless, Delmont was miffed that she had been denied the chance to chaperone Rappe’s body given the devoted attention she had provided when she was alive. She quoted a tactful telegram from Lehrman thanking her for the courageous manner in which she had “defended unfortunate Virginia” and that it was his most sincere wish that she go with Rappe’s body.[2] But, as the state’s star witness, Delmont was stuck in San Francisco and the District Attorney’s office could hardly risk her disappearing.

Outraged at Lehrman’s last minute decision to ask Lillian Gatlinto accompany the body on the trip, one made behind her back, Delmont shouted at reporters, “She shall not go”. “There will be serious trouble if she tries to. She did not know Virginia Rappe.”[3] But Delmont’s willingness to sign a murder complaint against Arbuckle now meant it was impossible for her to leave San Francisco for the immediate future. A policewoman had been assigned to watch her, not only to prevent witness tampering but to prevent the witness from disappearing.

On Friday afternoon, September 16, Rappe’s coffin was taken by hearse to the Southern Pacific’s Third and Townsend Depot.[4] There Gatlin purchased a first-class ticket for herself and one for the body to be stamped corpse. For the deceased to travel by first class was not an extravagance but rather a railroad regulation. But the corpse’s accommodations were hardly that of a Pullman car. The silver coffin was placed inside a large pinewood crate, which was nailed shut, and loaded into one of the dark green baggage cars of Owl, the Southern Pacific’s night express to Los Angeles.

For most of the journey south, the train lacked the scenery that the coastal route took and mostly traveled in darkness before it pulled into Los Angeles’ Central Station by mid-morning. The Los Angeles Examiner found a headline (“Tears, Flowers, Friends, All Are Missing”) in what little ceremony there was to sliding Rappe’s coffin, enclosed in a plywood box, from a baggage wagon into the back of a waiting white hearse. The mortuary workers did take the trouble to display Lehrman’s blanket of 1,000 tiger lilies. The choice was deliberate—for he said to the press more than once that Rappe had fought off Roscoe Arbuckle “like a tiger.”

In gold letters, a white ribbon draped across the lilies read: “To My Brave Sweetheart, From Henry.” The poignancy of Rappe’s neglect—and penury—was also taken up by a brief editorial in the Los Angeles Times, which noted that a “flood of light is shed on the lives of the pretty, highly dressed movie-picture stars by the fact that when Virginia Rappe died as the result of her injuries in San Francisco, there was not a penny in sight to prepare for her burial. She was absolutely broke.”

Thirty minutes after Rappe’s coffin arrived, Arbuckle’s manager, Lou Anger, and his lead defense lawyer, Frank Dominguez stepped off the Lark, the train that took the Southern Pacific’s coastal route. If they saw Rappe’s body being picked up at the train station, no one would know anyway, for they refused to answer any questions directed at them.

Virginia Rappe’s coffin being loaded into a hearse (Calisphere)

[1] Burton L. Smith, “Arbuckle to be Tried on Charge of Murder [. . .] Body of Virginia Rappe Is Being Brought to Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1921, 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ernest Hopkins, “Tragic Return of Body Marks End of Trip Virginia Rappe Planned for Pleasure,” Akron Beacon Journal, 16 September 1921, 25.

[4] The following is corroborated in Arthur Turney, “Unescorted Body of Virginia Rappe Is Received in L.A.,” Los Angeles Evening Express, 17 September 1921, 1; “Rappe Girl’s Body to be Shipped to Los Angeles Today: Will Be Accompanied by Lillian Gatlin, Scenario Writer and Friend,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 September 1921, 6; “Pen Points by the Staff,” Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1921, 20; “8,000 at L.A. View Body of Virginia Rappe,” San Francisco Examiner, 19 September 1921, 3; “Thousands Pass Before Bier of Virginia Rappe,” Wichita Daily Eagle, 19 September 1921, 1; “Mob Blocks Traffic at Hollywood,” Los Angeles Record, 19 September 1921, 1, 2; “Virginia Rappe in Final Rest,” Los Angeles Times, 20 September 1921, 2.

100 Years Ago Yesterday and Today: S.F.’s “Bird Girl” rescues Rappe’s body from neglect

[An intractable WordPress coding error had required us to repost this entry from 9/15.]

When Henry Lehrman put Virginia Rappe on a pedestal, remembering her as “clean, decent, high-spirited,” he could ill afford to step off his moral high ground in Manhattan and return to the West Coast. It would take him three days to reach San Francisco, longer than it would take to bury Rappe, and then another three days to return. Even at a whirlwind pace, Lehrman would need nearly two weeks for the trip as well as the funds on hand. He could afford neither. His contractual obligation to finish an Owen Moore comedy in New York gave him cover to avoid making the expected public appearance to mourn his erstwhile lover.

Still, Lehrman could “direct” Rappe’s final appearance via long-distance telephone calls and Western Union telegrams. He could take advantage of the sympathy extended to him by Sidi Spreckels, Maude Delmont, and people in Hollywood who had worked with Rappe and admired her, including his protégé, Norman Taurog, who offered to interrupt the directing a motion picture to handle the funeral arrangements in Los Angeles.

While Rappe’s body laid in a morgue and in the cold storage of a mortuary, Arbuckle made headlines, some ink was spared for Rappe’s memory and her status as a victim, a woman who died young, in the prime of her life. The newspapers reported that her body was still unclaimed as the new week unfolded despite her having “friends numbered by the scores” and being “one of the prettiest members of the Los Angeles film colony”—whose beauty the embalmers and cosmeticians of Halsted & Co. had restored as best they could because such matters couldn’t wait for instructions or payment.[1]

Fortunately for Lehrman, the spectacle of Rappe’s seemingly unwanted and orphaned corpse was avoided when someone unexpected stepped forward to represent him and give his “loved one” her due, the writer and aviatrix Lillian Gatlin, the first woman to fly across the United States and the “bird girl” of San Francisco.

Gatlin may have associated with Rappe in Los Angeles, where Gatlin once worked as a scenario writer. They met earlier, however, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. That same year, Gatlin lost her lover and flight instructor, Lincoln Beachey, when he crashed into San Francisco Bay before thousands of horrified onlookers. On the first anniversary of his death, Gatlin flew over the spot where Beachey died and dropped a bouquet of roses. She made her rose drops an annual event and these became the centerpiece of San Francisco’s Aerial Days, which Gatlin expanded to honor American airmen killed during the First World War. 

Lillian Gatlin (Calisphere)

Gatlin may have regarded Rappe as an honorary bird girl herself for being the first Vin-Fiz girl. But Gatlin’s motivations for caring about Rappe’s body were really in keeping with her favorite charity, the Silent Big Sisters, which assisted young unmarried mothers and their babies. Although Rappe wasn’t a mother, there was something no less pathetic about her situation in death.

When Gatlin learned that no flowers had been displayed around Rappe’s body, she had two long-stemmed roses placed like guards at either side of Rappe’s bier. With that and a large bouquet from a person who wished to remain anonymous, a public viewing of Rappe’s body could take place and soon women and girls filed past the open casket. The visitation, however, quickly came to an end as the long lines and crowds outside Halsted’s forced the mortuary to close its doors.

[1] “Tragedy Victim Is Sent Home,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 1921, 2.

100 Years Ago Today: A Coroner’s Jury holds Arbuckle guilty of manslaughter, September 14, 1921

After three days of testimony, including the only time that Maude Delmont took the stand, San Francisco Coroner T. B. W. Leland instructed eight jurors to render a verdict. Doctors who treated Rappe or conducted the autopsy performed on her body testified as did eyewitnesses who attended Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party.

On the afternoon of September 14, 1921, the jury deliberated for hours and issued the following verdict.

We find that the said Virginia Rappe, female, white, aged about 25 years, single, residence Los Angeles, Cal., nativity unknown, occupation unknown, came to her death on September 9, 1921, at the Wakefield Sanatorium, from rupture of the bladder, contributory cause, acute peritonitis.

And we further find that said Virginia Rappe came to her death from peritonitis caused by a rupture of the urinary bladder. Said rupture was caused by the application of some force which, from the evidence submitted, we believe was applied by one Roscoe Arbuckle. We, the undersigned jurors, therefore charge said Roscoe Arbuckle with the crime of manslaughter.

We, the jury, recommend that the district attorney of San Francisco in conjunction with the grand jury, the chief of police, and the federal probation officials, take steps to prevent the recurrence of affairs similar to the one in which this young woman lost her life, so that San Francisco shall not be made the rendezvous of the debauchee and gangster.

Colbert Coldwell

A. T. Hunter

Eugene Simmons

R. J. Goff

W. Garner Smith

James Ging

W. E. MacPherson

Roscoe Arbuckle sharing some make-up with Lila Lee, 1921 (Library of Congress)

An eighth juror, Ben Boas, a bond broker, provided a minority verdict that agreed with his fellow jurors on all points save that “from the evidence submitted I am unable to determine who was responsible for the application of said force.” Eventually, his minority opinion would become the majority in subsequent venues of the Arbuckle case.

Source: “Manslaughter Charged against Arbuckle by Coroner’s Jury,” San Francisco Examiner, 15 September 1921, 1.

100 Years Ago Today: The Grand Jury meets to hear witnesses, September 12, 1921

Given that Arbuckle was the highest paid actor in 1921 and made millions more for hundreds of theater owners and others, District Attorney Matthew Brady grasped the magnitude of the case and his greatest fear was witness tampering. He knew that, as Roscoe Arbuckle waited for the Oakland Ferry for the last stretch of their trip, his lawyer Frank Dominguez had made a telephone call to the police, assuring that Arbuckle would turn himself in. But he suspected another call was made, to Arbuckle’s new lawyer in San Francisco, Charles Brennan, to learn of any developments that they would need to get ahead of.

What has gone under-appreciated in the early days of the Arbuckle case, indeed, in the hours after Rappe died on September 9, is how quickly Arbuckle responded to the possibility of his arrest and the accusation of murder against him. By midnight, a strategy meeting convened in the office of Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater, attended by two lawyers, a friendly journalist from the Los Angeles Times as well as three men who attended the ill-fated party.

In the annals of crisis communications, what was accomplished for Arbuckle could be the first modern example.

One aspect of this was to neutralize the witnesses who might inflict the most damage to the defense by making them aware of the risk–reward of doing so.

For an aspiring entertainer, Zey Prevost was just such a person. She had made a statement to police on Saturday, September 10, the day Arbuckle and his team spent driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Two days later, on the day the Grand Jury was to meet, she asked to change her story and remove any testimony that could be used to make Arbuckle responsible for the injury that led to Virginia Rappe’s death. Later, she testified in another venue that she had been approached by another of Arbuckle’s lawyers, Charles Brennan, on Market Street in San Francisco.

Q: What did Mr. Brennan say to you?

A: Just asked me if I had a lawyer—if I needed a lawyer, to tell him. I said “Sure.”

Q: Did he ask you anything further about remaining in town, or going out?

A: He asked me about staying in town. I said “I may stay in town a few days until this thing is over.”[1]

This was all she said of her conversation with Brennan. But she went away from it committed to undermining Brady’s case against Arbuckle before it even got off the ground. Only a threat of perjury and jail time convinced her to keep to her original statement. In any event, the defense, over time, was able to convince jury members to vote for acquittal in part because Brady allegedly coerced his witnesses to say what he wanted to hear.

If Prevost was somehow rewarded for her loyalty, it didn’t amount to much. She was signed as a vaudeville act a few weeks after the third trial. But that was short-lived and her career as a comedienne was soon over.

Alice Blake, a friend of Zey Prevost, was also seen as a “coerced” witness (Calisphere)

[1] See People vs. Arbuckle, 316–317.

100 Years Ago Today: The Captain of Detectives, September 11, 1921

Sunday, September 11, 1921, was a day of preparing for the next evening’s Grand Jury session. The preparation and ongoing investigations were overseen by Duncan Matheson, San Francisco’s long-serving Captain of Detectives. Unlike his subordinates, he was cast from a different mold and hardly the Irish American stereotype of Dashiell Hammett’s novels.

Born in 1865 in Nova Scotia, Matheson was of Scottish ancestry. As a young man, he emigrated to the United States and began working as laborer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. By 1900, he had married and was roadmaster for the Mojave District and in charge of track maintenance through the California desert. Then, in 1901, Matheson joined the San Francisco Police Department at the relatively advanced age of thirty-six and began working as a patrolman along the Mission Street wharves, where he was feared for the way he would swing a nightstick in breaking up fights and the like. His exploits were often newsworthy, including a time he crashed through a skylight while jumping from one building to another in pursuit of a gang of juveniles.

Over the first decade of the new century, Matheson became a real-life Untouchable—his resemblance to Sean Connery’s Frank Malone, is striking—rising in rank from sergeant to lieutenant by 1911. That year Matheson was put in charge of policing Chinatown, where he had been given the task of curbing its illegal gambling, lotteries, narcotics, and notorious tongs (gangs). Perhaps because the “Chinese were more afraid of him” than they were of the police chief, Matheson was promoted to Chief of Detectives by 1916.

Matheson gained notoriety for his role in the investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of the radical labor activist Tom Mooney for the Preparedness Day Bombing of July 22, 1916, along San Francisco’s Market Street. American socialists organized numerous protest rallies across the country in support of Mooney and Matheson is still recognized in historical accounts for the part he played in allegedly framing him.

One can imagine Matheson seeing himself as cut from the same cloth as the cowboys and others who settled the west. He was a skilled horseman, sometimes saddling up to lead a posse into the hill country around San Francisco in search of a suspect. And as the father of a teenage daughter, was protective and sympathetic to issues that would impact her as the 1910s came to a close and women’s suffrage and Prohibition loomed.

Duncan Matheson, S.F. Captain of Detectives (Calisphere)

A nondrinker and public speaker, Matheson once spoke before the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) about how he intended to enforce the new Volstead Act. He spoke to the Housewives League on the need to protect girls and young women—from themselves, for, as he noted, seventy percent of all the juvenile cases he handled involved girls who had gone “bad.” In early 1921, when the state tried to reduce funding for the State Home for Delinquent Women, Matheson spoke against the defunding given the rise in girls and young women involved in criminal activities.

As much as Matheson took a grim view of radicals setting off bombs in his city, he also shut down at least two high-profile abortionists, Dr. Ephram Northcott in 1919 for the botched abortion and death of an army nurse, and the infamous Dr. Galen Hickok in 1920, whose victims remains were buried on the grounds of his so-called “castle of mystery” overlooking Salada Beach. In October 1920, Matheson and his detectives investigated the murder of a so-called “nightlife habitué” and prostitute Ruby Allen. She had checked into the Knickerbocker Hotel and was later found dead, bound and gagged, the victim of an apparent robbery by one of her johns. Although Matheson claimed he knew who the killer was, no one was brought to trial.

Matheson, too, took a prominent role in the investigation of the brutal gang rape of two girls in a shack on Howard Street by a gang of juveniles in November 1920 that became a cause célèbre for San Francisco’s women’s groups and clubs that packed the courtroom to see Arbuckle brought to justice for what many of them believed was a rape. Lastly, in April 1921, Matheson busted a white slavery ring and included two men charged with conducting orgies with three young girls and grooming them to appear in pornography films and photography.

Having learned firsthand what some men were capable of doing to women, Matheson was primed to act when he was told what happened to Virginia Rappe at Arbuckle’s Labor Day party and saw what was left of this beautiful woman in the city morgue.

100 Years Ago Today: Arbuckle calls Rappe a bum

For most of Saturday, September 10, Roscoe Arbuckle and his pals Fred Fishback and Lowell Sherman once again drove north on Highway 4, which is now California 99 and Interstate 5, to San Francisco. Only this time in a much less joyful mood and with company. Arbuckle rode in his Pierce-Arrow which was driven by his chauffeur, and also carried his manager Lou Anger, and Frank Dominguez, his newly appointed attorney. Fishback followed in his car, accompanied by Sherman and Al Semnacher, the late Virginia Rappe’s manager/booking agent.

They had left Los Angeles at 3: 00 a.m., stopped for breakfast in Bakersfield, and reached Fresno at about 11:00 a.m., making good time.

As the two cars were being serviced and refueled at the A.B.C. Garage, an employee heard one of Arbuckle’s companions speaking to Arbuckle. “Say, a motor cop had been following you for a long while.”[1]

“Well,” the comedian retorted, “he’s been following you too.” Then he strolled over to the Hotel Fresno to purchase cigars and the latest papers to see what was being reported about him and Rappe, who was very much on his mind now if she hadn’t been over the past five days.

A desk clerk, Joe Davis, recognized Arbuckle standing by the cigar stand in the hotel lobby. Davis approached the film star and asked, “Well, who was the girl?”

Although outwardly jolly and carefree—like “Fatty” in the movies—Arbuckle took the opportunity to vent about his troubles, as one does with a stranger who one imagines is offering a sympathetic ear. He revealed a little of the man behind the celebrity who, on screen, seemed no more than a fat but lovable simpleton.

After giving the question some thought, Arbuckle lied about Rappe and disparaged her in the same breath. “I don’t know who she was,” he said, “some bum, I guess. They brought her in and we ‘bought a drink,’ and the first thing I knew she was drunk, and we got a room for her and called the manager in order to get a doctor.”

 “We’re going up to find out about this now,” Arbuckle continued, adding that he and his party were due at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But they wouldn’t arrive at the Oakland Ferry for another five hours.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921 (

[1] The following is adapted and quoted from “I Don’t Know Who She Was—Some Bum, I Guess,” Arbuckle Says; Sacramento Bee, 10 September 1921, 1; and “Arbuckle to Be Held Pending Probe of Death,” Fresno Morning Republican, 11 September 1921, 1, 6.