Silent comic movie star, Rosco Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle was on the verge of becoming the next Charlie Chaplin.
"Fatty" celebrated his new $3-million dollar studio contract on Labor Day weekend by driving up to San Francisco and moving his entourage into a suite at
the Biltmore Hotel. Struggling Jazz Age starlets showed up to "network." There was plenty of alcohol to go around.
Virginia Rappe was one of these struggling starlets. She had done some screen work, but her career wasn't really going anywhere. She liked to drink and party.
Virginia had a reputation: she liked to strip naked when she drank.
On December 5, 1921, Virginia went to Fatty's party with her friend Maude Delmont and drank too much as usual. At Fatty's party, she was found vomiting in
the toilet. Surgery was performed, but she died three days after the party.
Maude Delmont swore out a complaint, accusing Fatty of rape and murder. According to her, Arbuckle had dragged Virginia into his bedroom saying, "I've
waited five years to get you." Rappe had cried out for help from behind the locked door and Delmont had banged on the door. At last, Arbuckle emerged,
perspiring from the struggle. When Delmont had rushed in to the bedroom, she found Virginia naked and bruised, yelling, "I'm hurt. I'm dying. He did it,
Arbuckle was tried for manslaughter. The tabloids had a field day turning Fatty into a monster. According to them, Fatty had raped Virginia and his 266-pound
tonnage had caused her bladder to rupture. But after Doctors Ophuls, Rumwell and Wakefield conducted a post-mortem on Virginia's corpse. They found no bruising
or signs of violence. Finally, they determined that death resulted from peritonitis.
(Peritonitis was a difficult illness to conquer in those days. Houdini would die of the same cause in 1926.)
District Attorney Matthew Brady ignored the public statement issued by the doctors and released a statement to the press: "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."
However, Brady soon learned that Maudie Delmont was a scheming opportunist, but, apparently, he was too. While Virginia was still suffering 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." Furthermore,
Maudie had been locked inside a bathroom with Lowell Sherman for at least an hour before Virginia was found vomiting. When Brady learned the truth, he
decided to proceed with the case and was careful not to put Maude Delmont on the stand.
There were three trials. Defense Attorney Gavin McNab was forced to display Virginia Rappe's moral and medical history to the world. To say she was
promiscuous is an understatement. As a teenager, she had five abortions in three years. At 16, she had an illegitimate child. Since 1907, she had a series of
bladder inflammations and chronic cystitis. She had gonorrhea.
The first trial was dismissed as the jury was hopelessly deadlocked. One juror, Helen Hubbard, had stubbornly continued to vote guilty while all the others
voted for acquittal. At the beginning of the trial she had announced she would vote guilty "until hell freezes over." During deliberations she had refused to
discuss the evidence, look at the exhibits, or even read the trial transcripts. It was later revealed her husband, a lawyer, did business with the District
At the end of the second trial, the tainted jury came in deadlocked nine to three for conviction.
During the third trial, McNab put Arbuckle on the stand and revealed the true motives behind Delmont's complaint, "the complaining witness who never
witnessed." The jury was out and back in five minutes with an acquittal. They had spent the five minutes composing a statement:
"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice had been done to 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.
Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame. We wish him success."
Arbuckle was found not guilty, but his career was ruined. After years of struggling, he was on the eve of a new beginning as a director when he suddenly
died of a heart attack in June 1933 at the age of 46.
As a direct result of the Arbuckle trial, Hollywood's top leaders 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. For thirty years, the "Hays office" self-regulated the business. In 1930, the Motion
Picture Production Code was established.
"The hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to keep still for the twelve weeks between September 10th, when I heard that Virginia Rappe had died in a San
Francisco hospital, and November 28, when I went on the witness stand to tell my story for the first time.
As soon as I was told that I was being held responsible for Miss Rappe's death and that I would have to clear myself in the eyes of a jury and of the world, I
wanted to tell the truth. No one but myself could tell the whole truth of the affair, for no one else knew. Other people knew part of the story, and some of
them thought that they knew a great deal more than they really did, but I alone could tell everything.
However, I realized that my attorneys knew best and that if I spoke too soon there would be danger of hurting my case and that the wisest thing would be to
keep silent until the right time came to speak. So although I did not look forward with any pleasure to going on the witness stand--no man likes to have to
defend himself against charges that he knows are unjust--I was really glad that at last the chance had come to let the whole world know that I was not guilty of
the crime charged against me.
I did not hurt Virginia Rappe in any way whatever. I never had any intention of hurting her. I would not hurt any woman.
Whatever motive inspired the people who accused me, it was not knowledge that I had done the thing they said I did. It seems almost impossible to me that anyone
could be so cruel and malicious as to make such terrible charges against a man without the most positive proof to support those charges, and yet that is what
I was accused of saying and doing things that never entered my mind, and not only that, but things I did say and do were twisted and misinterpreted until
they sounded very different from the truth.
People have talked about me as entertaining a gay party in my rooms at the hotel that day. It has been referred to again and again as the "Arbuckle party."
It wasn't my party at all. The only person who came to those rooms that day at my invitation was Mrs. Mae Taube, with whom I had made an engagement to go
driving in the afternoon.
Other people invited all the other guests. Most of the guests I had never seen before that afternoon. Miss Rappe came at the invitation of Fred Fishback, and
he invited her at the suggestion of Ira Fortlouis, who had seen the girl and thought she would do for a model. Mrs. Delmont came with Miss Rappe. I really
don't know how the others happened to come. The first thing I knew, they were there, and that was all there was to it.
I had arisen that morning about 11 o'clock, and had put on my pajamas, bathrobe and slippers. If I had had any idea that people were coming to the rooms, I
certainly would have changed my clothes, but, as I say, the people simply walked in. When they were there, they made themselves at home, went back and forth
between the rooms, and I had no time to dress. I hadn't invited them, but they were in my rooms, and I couldn't be rude.
There were three rooms in the suite, 1219, 1220 and 1221. The sitting room was 1220, and the other two were bedrooms, one on each side of the sitting room.
Most of the time the people stayed in 1220, but they went into the other rooms whenever they wanted to.
Early in the afternoon I saw Virginia Rappe go into Room 1221. I did not see her come out again. It was almost time for my automobile to arrive, and so I went
into Room 1219, which was my bedroom, intending to dress. I had no idea that there was anybody in the room.
I closed the door into 1220 and locked it, because the people were going back and forth between the rooms, and I wanted to keep them out while I was dressing.
I went straight to the bathroom, and as I opened the door, it struck against something. I pushed in, and saw Miss Rappe lying on the floor, clutching her
body with both hands and moaning. Of course, I thought right away that she was ill, and my first thought was to help her.
As quickly as I could, I picked her up from the floor and held her while she suffered an attack of nausea. She seemed to be very sick, but she had been
drinking some liquor, and I thought that was the trouble.
And by the way, the liquor which was served that afternoon was not mine. All I know about it is that Fred Fishback went to the closet in Room 1221 and brought
out a couple of bottles of Scotch whiskey and a bottle of gin. Some orange juice and seltzer were sent up from downstairs, and everyone helped himself to drinks.
Miss Rappe drank gin and orange juice, about three drinks.
As soon as Miss Rappe was able, I helped her out into the room. She said something about wanting to lie down, and I set her on the edge of one of the
beds. She lay down, and I lifted her feet to the bed and left her there for a minute, as I thought that she was simply ill from too much liquor and would be
all right if she could lie quietly.
I stepped out of the room for a minute, and when I came back, Miss Rappe was lying on the floor between the two beds, again clutching her body and moaning.
All this time she said nothing that I could understand, just moaned and seemed to be in pain.
I picked her up and laid her on the bed. Then I went out into 1220, and found Zey Prevost there. I said: "Virginia is sick" and Miss Prevost went into Room 1219.
Mrs. Delmont was not in 1220 when I came out. I know that she has said and Miss Prevost has testified that they knocked at the door from 1220 into 1219, and
Mrs. Delmont has insisted that she kicked as well as knocked, but I never heard a sound, and when I came out to get somebody to help Miss Rappe, Mrs. Delmont
was not in sight.She came in a moment later from Room 1221, and went into Room 1219 with Miss Prevost.
I followed them into the room, and saw Miss Rappe sitting on the bed, tearing at her clothing. She had both hands gripped in her waist, and was ripping it to
shreds, gritting her teeth and making noises. She tried to tear the green jacket she was wearing, but she could not tear it. Then she took hold of her stockings
and garters and ripped them off.
I told Mrs. Delmont and Miss Prevost to make Miss Rappe stop tearing her clothing, but she wouldn't stop. She acted like a person in a terrible temper,
almost beside herself. She didn't scream or say anything, just moaned and tore at her garments.
One sleeve of her waist was hanging by a thread. I thought perhaps the best thing would be to try to quiet her instead of opposing her, so I sent over to
her and took hold of the sleeve, and pulled it off, saying: "All right, if you want it off, I'll help you." All I meant was that she seemed in an
uncontrollable spasm of some kind, and I was afraid that if tried to argue with her, she might hurt herself.
After that I went out of the room, and when I came back a little later, Miss Rappe was lying unclothed on the bed and Mrs. Delmont was rubbing her with a
piece of ice. I picked up a piece of ice that was lying on Miss Rappe's body, and asked Mrs. Delmont what was the idea. It seemed to me pretty dangerous
treatment for anybody but a doctor or a nurse to try.
Mrs. Delmont turned on me angrily and told me to shut up and mind my own business--that she knew how to take care of Virginia. It made me angry, for all
I wanted to do was to help the sick girl, and Mrs. Delmont was talking to me in a way I didn't like, so I told her to shut up or I would throw her out of the
window. Of course, I wouldn't really have done it; it was just one of those things one says in a moment of anger without any idea of literal meaning.
That is an example of how things I really did say have been twisted and turned against me. It has been made to sound as if I had said that to Virginia Rappe
while she lay there suffering and ill. I said it, but I certainly did not say it to Miss Rappe, nor did I mean her when I said it. I would have been a brute to
have spoken to a sick girl like that.
I realized by that time that Miss Rappe was probably more seriously ill than I had thought, and should have a room to herself, so I went back into the other
rooms and asked Mrs. Taube to telephone to the manager of the hotel and ask for another room. The manager came up in a few minutes, and told us where we might
take Miss Rappe.
We rolled her up in a bathrobe--she had been lying nude on the bed all this time, and uncovered except after I had managed to pull the spread out from under
her and cover her with it. Then I took her in my arms and started down the hall toward the other room. When I was nearly there, she started to slip from my
arms; she was limp and half-conscious, and very hard to hold. I asked the hotel manager to lift her up a little, but he took her in his arms and carried her
into the room.
After she was put to bed, I told them to get a doctor, and then I went back to my rooms.
I did not know that Virginia Rappe was even seriously ill until I got word of her death. I went back to Los Angeles the next day, because I had reservations
on the steamer for my party and my car. There was never any thought in my mind that Miss Rappe was suffering from anything more than the effects of too much
liquor or an attack of slight illness. The news of her death was my first intimation that it was serious.
The State's witnesses have testified that they heard screams coming from my rooms. I know that all afternoon the window was wide open, and any sound louder
than an ordinary conversation could have been heard without any difficulty; and people who occupied adjoining rooms have declared that they heard nothing.
They have made a great deal out of some finger prints that were found on the door of Room 1219--the door that lead into the hallway. Experts have tried to
show that the prints must have been made by Virginia Rappe's fingers and mine, and that when they were made, her hand was against the door and I was trying to
drag it off.
I don't know where they get such ideas. There seemed to be marks on the door when it was brought into the courtroom, but I certainly did not put them there.
I am positive that I never touched that door with my hand all day, as I had not gone out into the hallway, but only into the other rooms of the suite. Certainly
I never touched it in the way they said I did. It's a mystery to me.
Jesse Norgaard, who said he was a janitor at the Culver City studios when Miss Rappe and I were both working there, testified that once I asked him for the
keys to her rooms, saying that I wanted to play a joke on her. I suppose the idea was to show that I tried to force myself into her room when she didn't want
to let me in.
That is absolutely false. I never made any such request of Norgaard, nor did I offer him money for the keys, as he said I did. In fact, when I saw Norgaard on
the witness stand, I couldn't remember ever having seen him before. He may have been at the studios, but there were so many people there that I couldn't
remember them all.
All this talk of my having been infatuated with Miss Rappe or trying to "get her," is absurd. I knew her for several years; we had worked at the same
studios, and I had met her in other places, but that was absolutely all.
I knew when I went on the witness stand that my cross-examination was going to be as rigid as it could be made, but I had no fear, for I was telling nothing
but the truth. I know that the lawyers tried many times to catch me on details, but they couldn't, because everything I said was true, and there was no need to
remember what I had said the first time.
No man can do any more than to tell the truth, and it was the truth I told on the witness stand.
A great many very harsh and unjust things have been said about me since this affair began and they have hurt me very much. I have always had many friends,
but I found when this trouble came, who my real friends were.It has hurt me deeply to think that the people to whom I have tried to give good
clean enjoyment for so many years could turn on me and condemn me without a hearing. I suppose every man accused of crime must expect that, but it didn't
make it any easier for me.
I have been very grateful to the other people who refused to believe that I was guilty merely because I was accused of crime. There have been many of them. I
have received many many letters and telegrams from people all over the country, assuring me that they believed in me, and I am glad to know that I have these
If everything is straightened out at last and I am cleared of all the charges, I hope that these friends will be as ready to welcome me back on the screen as I
shall be glad to get back. I like to make people laugh and enjoy themselves. It pleases me because children are amused at my pictures, and I have always tried
very hard not to do anything in any picture that would offend or be bad for the children.
One really good thing has come out of all this trouble. It has been the means of reuniting my wife and myself after five years of separation. We are happy to be
together again, and we have discovered that the things that kept us apart were very unimportant after all.
Mrs. Arbuckle has been wonderfully loyal to me during all this trouble. She came all the way across the continent to be with me, and every minute she has stuck
by me. Her faith and love, and the faith and love of her mother, who is like a mother to me, have been my greatest helps all these long hard weeks.
While, through the technicalities of the law, I have not been legally acquitted of the charge of manslaughter in connection with the death of Virginia Rappe, I
have been morally acquitted.
After the organized propaganda, designed to make the securing of an impartial jury an impossibility and to prevent my obtaining a fair trial, I feel grateful
for this message from the jury to the American people. This comes, too, after hearing only part of the facts, as the efforts of the District Attorney
succeeded, on technical objections, in excluding from the jury the statements from Miss Rappe to several people of high character, completely exonerating me.
The undisputed and uncontradicted testimony established that my only connection with this sad affair was one of merciful service, and the fact that ordinary
human kindness should have brought upon me this tragedy has seemed a cruel wrong. I have sought to bring joy and gladness and merriment into the world, and
why this great misfortune should have fallen upon me is a mystery that only God can, and will, some day reveal.
I have always rested my cause in a profound believe in Divine justice and in the confidence of the great heart and fairness of the American people.
I want to thank the multitude from all over the world who have telegraphed and written to me in my sorrow and expressed their utmost confidence in my
innocence. I assure them that no act of mine ever has, and I promise them that no act of mine ever shall cause them to regret their faith in me."
- Roscoe Arbuckle
December 31, 1921