100 years ago today: How to make Virginia Rappe’s favorite cocktail on the stand

Mrs. Winifred M. Burkholder appeared as a prosecution witness on April 6, 1922, during the final Arbuckle trial. After the defense announced that it had closed its case, she took the stand to rebut the parade of witnesses who testified in support of the defense contention that Rappe had suffered from a chronic ailment that compromised the structural integrity of her bladder such that it could burst spontaneously. The primary target of her rebuttal was, Virginia Warren, a Chicago nurse who claimed that Rappe gave birth to a child in 1908—the year that followed Rappe’s appearance in the Chicago Tribune as a rising young art model much in demand.

Like Rappe, Burkholder was a model but older and from an entirely different background. She had abandoned her husband and young son in rural Minnesota a in 1908 or ’09 to study fashion design and illustration in Chicago. During this time she reinvented herself and likely met Rappe either taking the same classes or working the same fashion shows.

Burkholder also managed models and led a troupe of young women on a tour of various department stores in the Midwest and South in 1913. Rappe was one of her stars in the traveling “Promenade des Toilettes” and garnered much attention for the “tango skirt” with its risqué slit up the front.

Burkholder kept in touch with Rappe as late as 1914, another year in which the defense found a doctor who claimed to have delivered another of Rappe’s purported progeny. Since his deposition was tossed out, Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s chief counsel, concentrated on trying to shake other aspects of Burkholder’s rebuttal, especially in regard to her dates.

Rappe’s guardian, Katherine Fox, testified that Virginia was in San Francisco in the late summer of 1914. But Burkholder insisted that Rappe was in New York City visiting relatives, a family with the surname of Gallagher.[1]

During the course of asserting that Rappe had never been seriously ill or pregnant to her knowledge,  Burkholder disclosed Rappe’s favorite drink.

Mrs. Burkholder said that she frequently went to cafes with Miss Rappe and that the girl, though not in the habit of drinking extensively, would order a Bronx cocktail before dinner and a French liqueur afterward. This brought the question from Gavin McNab, chief defense counsel:

“How is a Bronx made?”

“Of gin and orange juice, I believe,” the witness responded, “and Virginia had hers made mostly of orange juice, as she did not like the taste of gin.”[2]

She got the basic ingredients right but for a really good Bronx cocktail the bartender should add a little dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters.

The great irony here is that a Bronx was Arbuckle’s favorite cocktail for his traditional late breakfasts according to Merritt in Room 1219. But it must be said that Arbuckle liked the sweet vermouth variant, also call an “orange blossom.”

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[1] “Gallagher” is the maiden name found on the death certificate of Rappe’s grandmother. But that surname doesn’t agree with the correlative information on the death certificate of Rappe’s mother, Mabel Rapp. This is why, in the closing arguments, McNab was incredulous about the woman buried as being Rappe’s true grandmother. For us, it’s still an intriguing clue that might shed light on Rappe’s paternity, which, for her, was a man in New York.

[2] A.P. Night Wire, “Defense Is Contradicted,” Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1922, 1.

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 Virgina 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.

100 Years Ago Today: The bladder with a fuse on top, October 22, 1921

Before meeting with Minta Durfee as she was en route to join her husband in San Francisco, Chicago attorney Albert Sabath had been digging into Virginia Rappe’s earlier life in his city. In doing so, and without ever appearing in a San Francisco courtroom, the former amateur playwright may have done as much as Arbuckle’s lawyers in situ in crafting a counter-narrative that would take the focus off of the movie star. With such musicals as Campus Capers and Hoo-sier Girl to his credit, Sabath had a knack for telling a story and dramatizing the life of Virginia Rappe probably came easily. But the line between real life and poetic license was tailored to the needs of his client.

In effect, Sabath was tasked with reworking Rappe’s adolescence with cooperative defense witnesses who were willing to neatly frame “their” stories as predictive evidence for Rappe’s later behavior, bladder problems, and early death. Sabath merely had to ask the right questions to limit the testimonies to information that would suggest Rappe’s death had been a predestined event and Roscoe Arbuckle was nothing more than a witness with really bad timing. Sabath had the added advantage of knowing firsthand about Rappe, from the time when her Hoosier “fella” was Harry Barker, a friend of his.

Sabath’s investigations on Arbuckle’s behalf went on long enough to dig deep, to find useful and reliable people with stories to tell, elicit, and massage as necessary. Perhaps John Bates was one of Sabath’s candidates. Bates being the man who presented himself as a concerned party inquiring about Rappe’s estate on behalf of her purported orphaned “little girl”. But Bates, could have been an outlier, a freelancer.

After the rumor of the abandoned “daughter” ran its course during the second week of October, the next story that “leaked” was about chronic cystitis that Rappe allegedly suffered in girlhood. On Saturday, October 22, a syndicated article from the International News Service appeared, quoting a nurse named Virginia Warren. “Sensational information,” the piece began, “bearing on the early life of Virginia Rappe,

beautiful movie actress, who died following a party staged by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, has been made in a disposition by Miss Virginia Warren, Chicago nurse, it was revealed today. Miss Warren and Mrs. Josephine Ross [sic], both made depositions to counsel for Arbuckle which are to play an important part in his coming trial. Miss Warren declared she was a nurse in attendance upon Miss Rappe in 1908. At that time, Miss Rappe, only 14, was in a delicate condition and was in the care of Mrs. Ross, in the latter’s apartment near 24th street and Wabash avenue, Chicago, according to Miss Warren.

“I first saw Virginia Rappe in 1908,” Miss Warren said. “I was called as a private nurse to attend her. She was in the apartment of Mrs. Josephine Fogarty [sic], now Mrs. Josephine Ross.

“Miss Rappe was then only 14. She was in a delicate condition. She had been taken to Mrs. Ross’ apartment by her sweet, old grandmother.

“She was also suffering at that time from a bad attack of bladder trouble. On one occasion while she lay on her bed, she suddenly screamed., half rose and clutched at my waist. Her fingers tore into my skin and made deep scratches.

“Then Virginia suddenly grabbed her night gown at the shoulder and almost tore it off her body.

Miss Warren said Miss Rappe told her at that time that her bladder trouble made her violent at times. She said she remained in Mrs. Ross’ home for five days.

Miss Warren said she decided to help Arbuckle because, as she explained, “As a nurse, I know that a girl who has had bladder trouble at 14, and in after years drank to some extent, and possibly neglected herself at times, could easily puncture her bladder. The least strain or twist would do it.”

Mrs. Ross also made a deposition in which she corroborated that of Miss Warren.[1]

Miss Warren, the only African American to testify at one of the Arbuckle trials, covered every facet of the defense’s strategy to divert attention away from Arbuckle’s role in Rappe’s death.[2] However Warren was talkative and her testimony defied credulity by too closely matching the details of Rappe’s preexisting illnesses to the condition in which she was found in room 1219. It was obvious she had been coached.

Nevertheless, her testimony likely had little effect, few major market newspapers carried the story, and her account varied little from the stories that followed which all sounded suspiciously familiar.

Sheet music for the musical Campus Capers (1910) by Albert Sabath (Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries)

[1] Compiled from International Wire Service, “Say Miss Rappe Was Always Delicate,” Buffalo Enquirer, 22 October 1921, 1; “Virginia Rappe Was Mother At the Age of Fourteen Declares Chicago Nurse,” Topeka State Journal, 22 October 1921, 1; “Miss Rappe’s Early Life Is Now Revealed,” Evening News (Wilkles-Barre), 22 October 1921, 1; and “To Reveal Past of Miss Rappe, Victim of Arbuckle Party,” Coshocton Tribune, 22 October 1921, 1.

[2] Virginia Warren indicated herself as “Mu,” for mulatto on the 1910 census and, in 1920, as white while living with a boarder named “John Williams” who indicated his race as “Mexican,” which, like “Cuban,” was a way for light-skinned African Americans to pass as white.