27 September 2016

Fatty Arbuckle's three murder trials - 1921 and twice in 1922.

According to the SmithsonianRoscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933) was always a chubby young man who weighed about 118kg, suffered many infections, and had addictions to morphine and alcohol. Yet Arbuckle was one of the most popular and highest paid silent stars of the 1910s. By mid 1921, Paramount Pictures had paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 silent films, and he’d just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. The portly comedian’s latest film, Crazy to Marry, was playing in theatres across the country. 

To celebrate, his friend Fred Fischbach planned a three-day Labour Day bash at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, but the days leading up to the party were not happy ones. Arbuckle was in Los Angeles having his car serviced when he sat down on an acid-soaked rag at the garage and burned his buttocks. He was tempted to cancel the trip northward, but Fischbach disagreed. Fischbach arranged had everything from the rooms to the guests to the liquor, so Arbuckle reluctantly agreed to participate in the party.

On Labour Day 1921, Arbuckle was walking around in his pajamas when he saw Maud Delmont and 25-year-old actress Virginia Rappe. He was concerned that their naughty reputations might alert police to the gin party. But the food and booze were flowing by then, and the music was playing.

By the end of that week, Fatty Arbuckle was arrested for murder sitting in Cell No. 12 on felony row at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of Virg­inia Rappe. Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theat­res. Delmont was a witness for the prosecution who would never be called to testify because police and prosecutors knew her story was nonsense. Yet she still ruined Arbuckle’s career.

A newspaper front page, Sept 1921.
How could the details be revealed before the first trial started in Nov 1921?

On the front pages of William Randolph Hearst’s national chain of newspapers, the lurid story was published before Arbuckle had a chance to tell his side of the story. The very attractive Virginia Rappe was 25 years old when she arrived at the St. Francis Hotel. Maude Delmont painted a sinister portrait of Arbuckle. Delmont said that after Arbuckle and Rappe had had a few drinks together, he pulled her into an adjoining room. After a half-hour, Delmont heard Rappe screaming, so she burst through the locked door. Arbuckle came to the door in his pajamas, smiling his foolish screen smile. Behind him, Rappe was sprawled on the bed, moaning. Arbuckle did it, Delmont told the police.

The Hearst papers sold more papers about the Fatty Arbuckle scandal than the sinking of the Lusitania. While raping Virginia Rappe, the papers surmised, the heavy star had ruptured her bladder; sexual depravities were rampant.

Arbuckle turned himself in and was held for three weeks in gaol. Police released a mug shot of the dejected actor, photographed in a suit and bow tie. Arbuckle’s lawyers requested that the public make no judgment until all the facts were established. But they quickly realised Arbuckle would have to make a statement, and the comedian told a very different story from Maude Delmont’s.

HE said that after having a few drinks with Rappe, the actress became hysterical, and started to tear off her clothes. At no time was he alone with her, and had witnesses to corroborate the point. He found Rappe in his bathroom, vomiting, and he and several other guests tried to revive her from what they believed was intoxication. Event­ually, they got her a room of her own where she could be treated by a doctor and recover. But she died.

Arbuckle was charged with rape and manslaughter and scheduled for trial that November. San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady saw the case as the perfect opportunity to jump-start his career in politics, but his star witness, Maude Delmont, was problematic. Was she a lifelong friend of Rappe’s; or did they meet just days before the party. She also had a criminal history of fraud and extortion, Brady discovered. Then there was the matter of the telegrams that Maude Delmont sent to attorneys in both San Diego and Los Angeles: “WE HAVE ROSCOE ARBUCKLE IN A HOLE HERE CHANCE TO MAKE SOME MONEY OUT OF HIM.”

Arbuckle’s lawyers introduced medical evidence from Rappe’s autopsy which concluded that there “were no marks of violence on the body, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way.” The defence also had witnesses with damaging information about Rappe’s past. The doct­or who treated Rappe at the hotel testified that she had told him Arbuckle did not try to sexually assault her. Too late! Arbuckle’s reputation was in a shambles, even after his close film colleagues Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin vouched for his character.

In the first trial in Nov 1921, Arbuckle took the stand and the jurors voted 10-2 for acquittal. So the prosecution tried him a second time and the jury was deadlocked again. It wasn’t until the third trial, in March 1922, that Arbuckle allowed his attorneys to call the witnesses who had known Rappe to the stand. He had little choice; he had spent $700,000+ on his defence. The witnesses testified that Rappe had suffered previous abdominal attacks; drank heavily and often disrobed at parties after doing so; was promiscuous, and had an illegitimate daughter.

Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle
Virginia Rappe.

In April 1922, the third jury acquitted Arbuckle of manslaughter after deliberating for just five minutes. The jury wrote: Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. He was manly throughout the case and told a straight­forward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will accept the judgement that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Nonetheless there was an immediate shunning by Hollywood and all of Arbuckle’s acting roles disappeared. The destruction of copies of films starring Arbuckle was completed. In November 1923, Mrs Arbuckle successfully applied for divorce. Arbuckle changed his name and worked behind the scenes, directing films for friends who remained loyal to him. A decade later, in June 1933, he had a heart attack and died in his hotel room. He was 46.


Let me add the following points to the Smithsonian article.

The USA became a nation that was outraged to discover a sordid side to the off-screen lives of Hollywood stars. Until that point, film stars were assumed to be more respectable than ordinary citizens. Yet Rappe had already made a something of a name for herself as a model, designer, actress and party girl. And in Los Angeles, Delmont was already known as Madam Black and a blackmailer; she procured young women for parties where wealthy male guests might find themselves accused of rape. Perhaps women filmstars' off-screen lives were viewed through a sexist and nasty screen :(

Maude Delmont, the one who spoke on Virginia’s "behalf" during the trials, seemed to escape all criminal charges. Delmont was not present at any of the events she described and was not called to testify at any of Arbuckle's three trials because of her own extensive criminal background (eg extortion).

Maud Delmont

What was the impact of Prohibition (1920-33) on Hollywood life in the early 1920s? Liquor might have been associated with violence, the criminal underworld and police bribery, but it was readily available to anyone with a bit of money.

Sub judice contempt comes with publishing material which might interfere with the administration of justice while proceedings are under the judge. This is, to avoid a trial by media by prohibiting the publication of material which might prejudge issues during particular proceedings, or place pressure on those involved in the trial, including jurors, witnesses or potential witnesses. [In the USA, there are also First Amendment concerns about stifling the right of free speech which prevent such tight restrictions on comments sub judice]. 

So how did William Randolph Hearst’s national chain of newspapers get the story first and how were they allowed to blurt out the lurid details in public, before the first trial even started?  Any publication that prejudiced the course of justice eg details of the defendant's previous criminal convictions, should have been in contempt. Arbuckle's previous convictions should have only only to be considered by the court AFTER the verdict,  to help it to decide on an appropriate punishment.

In the USA, under the rules of double jeopardy, acquittal bars the retrial of the accused for the same offence, even if new evidence surfaces that further implicates the accused. Were the last two of Fatty Arbuckle's trials illegal?

Remember Will Hays, the very nasty censor hired by the motion picture industry to restore its image? He banned Fatty Arbuckle from appearing on screen. Had there been a different President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922, the damage to Arbuckle's career may not have occurred. Hays changed his mind eight months later, but the damage was done.


Deb said...

In the post war years, some parents used to call their chubby children "Fatty Arbuckle". Even in Australia.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The general agreement about Arbuckle has always been that he was railroaded. Like the blacklists of the 1950's, once the damage was done, it was difficult to remove.

Perhaps some of his films were destroyed, but a great many did survive. When I was growing up, a lot of old Fatty Arbuckle films were shown on TV along with other silent movies. Some are still available now on DVD, so we can still judge his talent and personality.

Ann ODyne said...

oh dear, that telegram "we have him in a hole and a chance to make money". sleazebags.
the CIA also 'saw a chance' in Sweden 2010: and yet the two [disappeared] Swedish women who entertained Julian Assange back then have never ever claimed he raped them. Too many Americans are emphatic they want to treat him as Arbuckle was treated, so no change. Thanks again for another intriguing post.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I was always vaguely aware of this story so thanks for filling in the details.
Like Parnassus, above, my mind went to the McCarthy witch hunts; I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the prevailing ethos of those times had made it all possible in the 1950s. The story has film noir written all over it!
It's a fascinating tale with many unlearned lessons for today.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Amazing. Since it was 1922 when Fatty Arbuckle's career and fame came to an end, it was an entire generation before Australian ex-servicemen got back to raise their families during the 1946-52 era. In the meantime, where would the men have seen the old, silent films?

Hels said...


there are many cases in legal history where justice was not done or mistakes were made. I suppose that in many cases, we will never know the true story involved in murder, manslaughter, rape etc cases.

So at least if we knew that under the rules of double jeopardy, the retrial of the accused for the same offence would be totally illegal. Was there any concern about the rules of double jeopardy in the 1922 trials? Back in 1922, was there a general belief that Arbuckle was railroaded?

Apologies Jim. I have been sick in bed for 6 weeks. My thinking and typing has been jumbled :(

Hels said...


"Too many Americans are emphatic they want to treat Julian Assange back as Arbuckle was treated, so no change". But how many Americans remember the principles of Fatty Arbuckle's case? Do you think the CIA may give lectures to new recruits on stars' sexual behaviour, their personal politics, their friends and associates, where they travel and other private stuff.

Actually I am more disgusted with Britain's and Australia's treatment of Assange than I am of the USA's treatment of our Australian citizen.

Hels said...


I love the comparison. Alcohol, celebrity, money, pretty women and sex sloshed around in both eras (1920-22 and 1950-7). But if the 1950s McCarthy witch hunts were to be truly comparable, I would like to know if Arbuckle held strong political views, kept his political views to himself or could not have cared less about politics.

Andrew said...

While he was acquitted, he still suffered a miscarriage of justice. Our judiciary has to ensure our media does not breach reporting laws and if it happens, the judiciary needs to come down on them like a ton of bricks.

Parnassus said...

Hi again, I'm sorry that you haven't been well. Please take care of yourself and get better soon! --Jim

Hels said...


The entire legal process was so outrageous, Fatty Arbuckle suffered miscarriage after miscarriage of justice. Lost his wife. Lost all his bookings already organised for his films. Became impoverished.

Towards the end of reading Arbuckle's biography, I was in despair. I really did start being uncertain about Australian commitment to sub judice contempt and the rules of double jeopardy. Possibly we are too naive to notice what is happening here, just as California must have wondered about their legal rights in 1921-2.

Hels said...


thank you. No-one likes being sick, but I especially don't like it. The biggest problem for a blogger is diminished sight. My typing has grammatical and spelling mistakes (which I try never to have) and handwriting that looks like drivel.

Train Man said...

The sentence "there was an immediate shunning by Hollywood and all of Arbuckle’s acting roles disappeared" sounds like a religious tract describing those women who had been identified as witches.

Hels said...

Train Man

I also see something of the campaigns against unacceptable people in the Salem witch trials, the Arbuckle murder and rape trials, and Senator McCarthy's relentless terror campaign-gaolings-expulsions.

What is strange about this comparison is that the Salem witches were weak, female and not young. But Arbuckle was young, successful, famous, male and rich. McCarthy's victims were even more important, scholarly, creative and politically active. So what is the common factor we are missing? And why did McCarthy use sex crimes to attack a number of politicians and others inside Parliament and in public.

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Hels said...


thank you. Do you think that nothing much has changed between 1921-2 and now?