'Fatty' Arbuckle Trials: 1921-22
"Fatty" Arbuckle Trials: 1921-22
Defendant: Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: Gavin McNab
Chief Prosecutor: Matthew Brady
Judge: Harold Louderback
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trials: November 14-December 4, 1921; January 11-February 3, 1922; March 13—April 12, 1922
Verdicts: First and second trials: Jury deadlocked; Third trial: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: The trials of "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood's most popular and highest-paid comedian, for manslaughter not only destroyed the defendant's career, they also focused America's attention on the level of morality in the movie-making kingdom. Coming just when nationwide efforts were under way to censor the film industry, the trial brought the immediate establishment of "the Hays office" and, in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code—the industry's self-regulatory system.
In five years, "Fatty" Arbuckle had climbed from the vaudeville stage to the 1$1,000-a-day pinnacle of stardom in silent films. America adored his uproarious antics with the Keystone Kops, his deadly aim with a custard pie, his lightfooted, talented dancing. He was the first movie comedian to sign a $3-million contract.
When America learned that Arbuckle had thrown a wild party in a San Francisco hotel at which he—according to a complaint sworn out by one Maude Delmont—had raped and murdered actress Virginia Rappe, it was ready for a lurid trial. The country got not one but three trials, each loaded with juicy details of the alleged sexual rampage committed by the 266-pound Arbuckle. For eight months, the Hearst newspapers fed the country a diet of three-inch headlines. But, as the jury of the third trial recognized by voting acquittal in only five minutes, the sensationalism of the newspapers and the truth were far apart.
Tabloids Conjure up Lurid Details
The indisputable facts were that 26-year-old film actress Virginia Rappe went to Arbuckle's party on Labor Day with her friend Maude Delmont, drank too much, was violently ill with severe abdominal pains for three days, and died on Friday of peritonitis brought on by a ruptured bladder. On Monday, Delmont swore out her complaint. Arbuckle was charged with murder.
The disputable "facts" or allegations were myriad and sordid. They included the charge that the comic had been alone with the actress in a bedroom for an hour during the party, at which time he raped her. "I'm hurt, I'm dying. He did it, Maudie," Rappe was reported to have yelled when Arbuckle left the room.
The doctor who examined Rappe's body just after she died on Friday issued a public statement:
The post-mortem examination showed a ruptured bladder, the rupture being due to natural causes. There were no marks of violence on the body. There was absolutely no evidence of a criminal assault, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way.
District Attorney Matthew Brady ignored that statement on Monday as he watched Delmont swear out her murder complaint. The tabloids that morning had already published Brady's statement that "the evidence in my possession shows conclusively that either a rape or an attempt to rape was perpetrated on Miss Rappe by Roscoe Arbuckle. The evidence discloses beyond question that her bladder was ruptured by the weight of the body of Arbuckle either in a rape assault or an attempt to commit rape." Brady's main source was Maude Delmont.
What Brady did not yet know was that on Wednesday, as Virginia Rappe lay in pain in the Arbuckle hotel suite, Delmont had sent a telegram to each of two friends: "WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE. CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM." Her official complaint—with its description of how Arbuckle had dragged Virginia Rappe into his bedroom saying, "I've waited five years to get you;" how Rappe had cried for help from behind the locked door and Delmont had banged on the door; how Arbuckle had at last emerged, perspiring from the struggle and she had rushed in to find Rappe naked and bruised and dying—all had been a fabrication. Delmont, the D.A. learned on Monday afternoon, had been locked in a bathroom with one Lowell Sherman for an hour when Arbuckle went to his bedroom for a few minutes and found Rappe vomiting into the toilet in that room's bathroom.
When Brady learned the truth, his extensive statement was already in newspapers around the world. He decided to proceed with the case. But he knew that if he brought Maude Delmont to the witness stand, his prosecution would fall apart. When it came to the trials, he never called on her.
The grand jury attributed the ruptured bladder to "some force which, from the evidence submitted, we believe was applied by Roscoe Arbuckle." Therefore, it charged the comedian with manslaughter. In the police court's committal proceedings, Arbuckle's lawyer established that Virginia Rappe's manager had been not only her lover but Maude Delmont's as well, and announced that the manager and Delmont had planned to extort money from Arbuckle.
"A General Lowering of the Moral Standards"
Meantime, boards of censors, mayors, and film exhibitor associations in countless cities, as well as the states of Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Kansas, banned all Arbuckle movies. The Anti-Saloon League, the Moral Efficiency League, the Women's Vigilant Committee of San Francisco, and club women everywhere agreed. Pastors in pulpits nationwide echoed the words of the minister in Hollywood's Little Church Around the Corner: "The real essence of this Arbuckle matter is a general lowering of the moral standards in this country."
In this atmosphere the police judge weighing committal for trial concluded:
I do not find any evidence that Mr. Arbuckle either committed or attempted to commit rape. The court has been presented with the merest outline.… The district attorney has presented barely enough facts to justify my holding the defendant on the charge which is here filed against him.
But we are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone; we are not trying the screen celebrity who has given joy and pleasure to the entire world; we are actually, gentlemen, in a large sense trying ourselves.
We are trying our present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance. The issue here is really and truly larger than the guilt or innocence of this poor, unfortunate man; the issue is universal and grows out of conditions which are a matter of comment and notoriety and apprehension to every true lover and protector of our American institutions.
I have decided to make a holding on the ground of manslaughter.
The first trial produced 60 witnesses, including 18 doctors. Through defense witnesses, lawyer Gavin McNab revealed Virginia Rappe's moral as well as medical history: As a young teenager, she had had five abortions in three years; at 16, she had borne an illegitimate child; since 1907, she had had a series of bladder inflammations and chronic cystitis; she liked to strip naked when she drank; the doctor who attended her in the several days before she died concluded that she had gonorrhea; when she met Arbuckle for the first time on Monday, she was pregnant and that afternoon had asked him to pay for an abortion; on Wednesday, she had asked her nurse to find an abortionist.
On the stand, "Fatty" Arbuckle was simple, direct, unflustered. He related how he had tried to help the ill actress, spending not more then 10 minutes with her before Maude Delmont dismissed him.
Medical testimony proved that Virginia Rappe's bladder was cystitic—one of the causes of rupture of the bladder.
"Until Hell Freezes Over"
The jury was out for 44 hours before Judge Harold Louderback dismissed it as hopelessly deadlocked. Members later revealed that one juror, Helen Hubbard, had announced at the start that she would vote guilty "until hell freezes over" and that she refused to discuss the evidence, look at the exhibits, or read the trial transcript. All others voted acquittal until the end, when one other joined her.
Hubbard's mother-in-law was the first California Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her husband, a lawyer, did business with the D.A.'s office. Why defense attorney Gavin McNab let Hubbard, who was clearly biased, get onto the jury remains a mystery.
Four days later, 12 of Hollywood's top leaders, including Samuel Goldwyn, Lewis J. Selznick, and Adolph Zukor, asked William Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee and President Warren G. Harding's postmaster general, to become the czar of the film industry. His assignment, at $100,000 a year for three years, was "to have the industry accorded the consideration and dignity to which it is justly entitled." The assignment stretched into thirty years, and thus began "the Hays office" and, ultimately, the self-regulation provided by the Motion Picture Production Code.
Arbuckle Tried Again … and Yet Again
Trial number two brought even more defense testimony on Virginia Rappe's habit of stripping when she drank. It also discredited some major evidence: the identification of "Fatty" Arbuckle's fingerprints on the hotel bedroom door. But the defense decided not to put Arbuckle through the ordeal of testifying again, and so deprived the second jury of seeing his strongly effective manner on the witness stand. This jury came in deadlocked nine to three for conviction.
The third time around, Gavin McNab put Arbuckle on the stand and left no doubt about his version of the hotel party. He also managed to get in still more detail of Virginia Rappe's lurid past. He reviewed how the district attorney fell for the outlandish charges of Maude Delmont, "the complaining witness who never witnessed."
The jury was out and back in five minutes with its verdict: "We the jury find Roscoe Arbuckle not guilty of manslaughter." The foreman then read a statement that the jurors had spent the five minutes composing:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.
He was manly throughout the case, and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success.…Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
Six days later, Will Hays banned Roscoe Arbuckle from the screen. The decision, however, was not his. The heads of Paramount, Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky, knew that Arbuckle had become poison at the box office. If his own company banned him, Hollywood would never forgive them. So they got Hays to ban him. Based on average Arbuckle box-office draw before the trials, Paramount's projected loss was more than $100 million.
Hays lifted the ban eight months later, and "Fatty" Arbuckle started work in January 1923 on a two-reeler, Handy Andy. Under constant pressure from reporters, he soon quit and, under an assumed name, turned to directing. Over the next 11 years, he directed, made stage appearances, ran a popular Hollywood nightclub, and paid off debts amounting to nearly $1 million. At last, in 1932, Jack Warner invited Arbuckle to perform in a "talkie." The Hays Office permitted just one, a two-reeler, to see if the public accepted him. It did, and Arbuckle signed for six more. In June 1933, he finished the film, celebrated at dinner, and went to bed. Within minutes, his 46-year-old heart stopped beating.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Olson, James S. Historical Dictionary of the 1920s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts On File, 1982.
Yallop, David A. The Day the Laughter Stopped: The True Story of Fatty Arbuckle. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.