|On Labor Day, September
5, 1921, silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and a roommate,
Fred Fishbach, entertained guests in their 12th floor suite, rooms 1219,
1220, and 1221 at the St. Francis Hotel
Street. Arbuckle, a popular performer who
had written, directed and appeared in dozens of films, was nonplused when
the party was crashed by disreputable starlet Virginia Rappe, but
the actress was allowed to stay. (Rappe was known to have had five abortions
before the age of 16 and was expelled from the Keystone studio by mogul
Mack Sennett because Rappe had been spreading venereal disease throughout
the lot.) Another woman of questionable character, Maude Delmont, who had
been previously charged by police as an extortionist and racketeer, was
also in attendance at the St. Francis suite. When Rappe became violently
ill from internal injuries related to bladder dysfunction, Arbuckle assumed
she had had too much to drink. Arbuckle and the others tended to Rappe,
who was alternately vomiting and writhing with pain.
When Rappe died four days later, Delmont spread the word that Arbuckle had raped and crushed the woman. The story stuck and twelve weeks later, Arbuckle was placed on trial by San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady. Fueled by inflammatory coverage in William Randolph Hearst's Examiner, Arbuckle was convicted in the eyes of the public though Brady's case was so weak that a judge reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter as Delmont's conflicting stories fell apart.
After the jury deadlocked at 10-2 to acquit, Brady retried the case. In the second trial, defense attorney Gavin McNab attempted to shun the prosecution's assertions by refusing to put Arbuckle on the stand and by making no closing argument. This strategy backfired somewhat when the jury in the second trial deadlocked 10-2 to convict.
In 1923 in a third, yes third, trial, Arbuckle was at last acquitted. In addition, the jury drafted a statement exonerating the actor completely, stating that there was not the "slightest proof" to connect Arbuckle with any crime in the matter. But it was too late. Arbuckle's film career was ruined. On April 18, 1922, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle became the first actor blacklisted by the infamous Will Hays, a government official whose office subverted free speech in Hollywood. Though he would direct films under the name William B. Goodrich, it was ten years before Arbuckle was allowed by a major studio to act in films. Arbuckle died of heart failure in 1933 at the age of 46. Having completed a series of shorts for the studio, Arbuckle had signed a contract to appear in features for Warner Brothers the day before his death. His comeback was not meant to be, however, and because of the power of scandal, Fatty Arbuckle remains widely remembered as an obese silent film actor who crushed a lady to death during an afternoon of debauchery.
Copyright 2001 Hank Donat