18 September 2021

U.S silent film star Fatty Arbuckle was wrongly charged with murder in 1921!

Fatty Arbuckle and the beautiful Virginia Rappe

Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle (1887–1933) was a hugely success­ful silent film star and director. In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own company and many of his films starred his friend and fellow comedian Buster Keaton. Para­m­ount Pic­tures had paid him $3m in 3 years to star in 18 films, and he’d signed another $1m contract with Par­amount. The comed­ian’s latest film, Crazy to Marry, was play­ing in theatres ac­ross the country. So in Sept 1921 his friend Fred Fischbach plan­ned a big weekend party at San Francisco’s St Francis Hotel.

Fischbach provided plenty of bootleg booze, despite Prohibit­ion! On Labour Day, Arbuckle awoke to see many uninvited guests. He was walking around in his pyjamas when he saw Maude Delmont and Virginia Rappe, and wor­r­ied that their reputations might alert pol­ice to the booze. Del­mont ran a Los Angeles brothel and was a blackmailer; Rappe was a 25 years old mod­el, actress and party girl. But the party food, booze and music were flowing by then, so Arb­uckle remain­ed silent.

A story appeared on the front pages of William Randolph Hearst’s national newspapers, even before Arbuckle was interviewed. In a week, Fatty Arbuckle was sitting in a San Franc­isco cell, held without bail for the killing of act­ress Virginia Rappe. Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theatres, and America was out­raged to discover Arbuckle’s sordid off-screen life.

Front page of the Oakland Tribunal, 1921, 

Maude Delmont was a prosecution witness who wasn't called to testify against Arbuckle be­cause her story was dodgy. Yet she ruined Arb­uckle’s career. She told police that after Arbuckle and Rap­pe drank tog­ether, he pulled the actress out saying, I’ve waited for you 5 years! Delmont soon heard Rap­pe screaming, so she kick­ed the locked door. Arb­uckle eventually opened the door in pyjamas while Rappe lay moaning on the bed.

A doctor arrived and he allowed Rappe to stay at the hotel for some days before she was taken to a hospital; there she died of a rupt­ur­ed bladder. The Hearst papers beat up the story, saying Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal got papers sold. While sexually assaulting Rappe, the papers guessed, Arbuckle ruptured her bladder.

Arbuckle turned himself in and was held for 3 weeks in gaol. His law­y­ers asked citizens to wait for the truth.

Arbuckle finally told his story. After drinking with Rappe, she’d became hyst­erical, couldn't breathe and tore off her clothes. He was never alone with her, as Arbuckle insisted and his witnesses ver­if­ied. He found Rappe in his bathroom, vomiting, so some of the guests tried to revive her from alcoholic abuse. Eventually they put her into bed to recover.

Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter (not rape) and scheduled for trial that Nov. San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady saw the case as the chance to kickstart his political career, but his star witness Delmont was erratic. And she had a criminal history of fraud and extortion. This Madam procured young women for parties where wealthy male guests were accused of rape, then blackmailed.

Yet Brady proceeded to trial anyhow. The newspapers ensured Arbuckle’s reput­ation was ruined, even after his friends Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin vouched for him. There was medical evidence show­ing that Rappe had had a chronic bladder condition, and her autopsy found NO signs of attack. The defence did have wit­nesses with damaging inf­orm­at­ion about Rappe’s past, but Arbuckle wouldn’t let them testify. The hotel doctor who treated Rappe testified that she said Arbuckle did not try to sex­ual­ly assault her.

 Arbuckle and his team in court, late 1921

At the 1st trial Arbuckle gave evidence in his own defence, and the jur­ors voted 10-2 for acquittal. In the 2nd trial, the jury dead­locked again. In the 3rd trial, in Mar 1922, the law­­yers questioned the witnesses who’d known Rappe. Witnesses attested that Rappe had suffered past abd­om­inal attacks; drank heavily; disrobed at parties; was promiscuous, and had a secret child. The 3rd jury ac­qu­it­ted Arbuckle of mansl­aughter in 5 minutes, and publicly state­­d: We feel that a great in­justice was done to Roscoe Arbuckle.

Although cleared, Arbuckle faced ruinous legal bills and a public still convinced of his guilt. But in 2021, the mystery remains: why did Rappe die?

I knew about the Hays Code in Hollywood (1930-67) but Arbuckle’s trials were 1921-22! Straight after the 3rd trial, the mot­ion picture industry hired Will Hays as a censor; he banned Fat­ty Arb­uckle from films! This scandal was hugely con­tro­v­ersial, and re­formers publicly mourned the de­cline of trad­it­ional moral values in post-WWI soc­iety.

Roar­ing 20s Hollywood was a very racy era! Films were deal­ing with ad­ult content, projecting images of women in power and mak­ing their own choices. There were off-screen stories of drugs, al­cohol and partying, then the ind­us­try was rocked by really huge scandals: the death of young actress Olive Thomas (1920), murder of director William Desmond Taylor (1922) and manslaughter by Fatty Arb­uck­le.

So in 1922 the film industry created the Motion Pict­ure Prod­ucers and Dist­rib­utors Association, with Republican policymaker Will Hays as pre­sid­ent. Hays’ use of public relations for self-regulation in the in­dustry meant the prin­ciples governing The Pro­duction Code had to be popular.

Code enforcement also meant Mabel Normand’s work was lost to history. She had directed Ch­arlie Chap­l­in’s portrayal of his famous Tramp character and col­l­ab­or­ated with Buster Keaton. Since she’d made some of her best works with Arbuckle, her career ended in 1927.

Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton

Blacklisted, Arbuckle contin­ued directing film comedies for friends who’d rem­ained loyal, called William B.Goodrich. Until he had a heart attack in 1933 and died at 46. See The Forgotten Films of Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle (2005).

For trial details, read The Many Trials of Fatty Arbuckle


LMK said...

My father loved silent films as a little boy. I wonder if he knew about Fatty Arbuckle.

Andrew said...

I've read a little about Arbuckle and his trials and travails and I was always of the opinion he wasn't guilty. His life turned rather sad after the death.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that Arbuckle's crime for which he was blackballed was not murder, but instead attending the kind of low parties that you describe here. Hollywood was very averse to scandal, hence all of the arranged marriages and so forth. Mary Astor cut back her career supposedly due to health problems, but before that she had seriously scandalized the public with her wild private life. People think that "The Code" is gone, but in many ways it is more deeply entrenched than ever. Look how may acting careers have been ruined in recent years (albeit some of them deservedly) due to scandal.

Hels said...


my dad also loved silent films. But the only time he used the actor's name to me (in the mid 1950s) was warning not to eat chips or we would end up as little fatty arbuckles.

Hels said...


we will never know which male actors, film directors and financiers abused their power over women they worked with. Even today, we have no certainty about Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Jeffrey Epstein's real behaviour. Imagine how difficult it was for the women, when thousands of men returned home after WW1 finally ended.

But Arbuckle wasn't charged with sexual abuse. He was originally charged with murder, then reduced to manslaughter, but both of those crimes were ridiculous. Nobody believed he was ever involved in killing. Yet Matthew Brady, Will Hayes and their nasty colleagues continued to ruin Arbuckle's short life till the end, as you noted.

Hels said...


Hollywood might have been very averse to scandal, but the effort to wipe out scandal was inequitably applied. Naked boobs and unmarried couples in bed horrified the official censors, but wage exploitation was ignored, and racist portrayals went on without hesitation.

The Code required that pictures be wholesome and moral *cough*, yet as you say, in many ways it might be even more entrenched decades after the Code.

Fun60 said...

Your posts are always so interesting. I had heard the name 'Fatty' Arbuckle many times but knew nothing about him other than he was a silent film actor. How easy it is for the media to ruin someone's reputation. I could never convince my mother that just because it was written in a newspaper that didn't mean it was true.

Hels said...


there was no television in 1921-2 in the US and radios were very expensive and rare. So you are quite right when you suggest that newspapers were the way to quickly spread gossip, malicious or otherwise. Look at the front page of the Oakland Tribunal 1921, complete with bulky black headlines and a spontaneous photo.

Such front pages appeared all over the country, especially in William Randolph Hearst’s prestigious national newspapers. They were perfectly right in thinking "the more outrageous the headlines, regardless of truth, the more papers they would sell!" So your mum was right - a silly story became true, once it was widely published.

DUTA said...

'Nothing new under the sun'. Even nowadays, with all the progress made, human society destroys people and careers through, often, unfounded accusations.

Hels said...


Yes!! I looked up the rules for publishing evidence in newspapers, BEFORE the court case has been completed. NEVER
• report anything said in the absence of the jury
• reveal prior convictions
• breach any suppression orders
• publish reports that imply guilt or innocence of the accused
• publish reports, including interviews, that could affect witnesses
• publish confessions
• allow pictures of the accused where identity is an issue
• allow any contact with jurors.
Anyone reporting Committing Contempt may be fined or gaoled for a fixed period of time.

Is this true outside Australia as well?

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde. Nunca ouvi falar desse erro tão terrível. Parabéns pelo seu trabalho excelente. Um bom sábado e com muita saúde.

Hank Phillips said...

Thanks so much for clearing that up. I am still unsure of the meaning of the last 2 sentences, but have wondered that the brouhaha was all about for over two decades. It is odd to read about three trials when the Constitution is supposed to protect us from double jeopardy and witchhunts. Then again, the text of the Volstead Act makes it clear the Bill of Rights was superseded when the 16th and 18th Force Amendments took effect. A revenue act of 1908 mandated the poisoning of excise-exempt ethanol with methanol and other "denaturants." Blindness and death resulted and the Methodist White Terror and Anti-Saloon League shrugged those off as the just desserts of all who disobey "the" law. Only when this fanaticism collapsed the economy in 1920-1933 did voters finally scrape most of it off their parchment. --LIBtranslator

Hels said...


I am not sure it was a mistake. I think that the police, prosecutors, newspaper editors and censors were pushing their political issues so hard, they rushed to judgement before the evidence was available. And they persisted, even after the court freed Arbuckle and apologised to him.

Hels said...


thank you for mentioning Methodist White Terror and Anti-Saloon League, at least regarding another case. I didn't find any debates in the Fatty Arbuckle case about religion and alcohol, but now I will have another look.

bazza said...

I remember that, as schoolboys, we used to insult each other by taunting, "Fatty Arbuckle" without knowing what the significance was. It was only much later that I learned he was a real person and later still, about the scandal. As you suggest, the Hays Office never really went away and there remains alarming double-standards in Hollywood today...
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s mechanically mendacious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


if a boy played (eg football) very well, the parents on the boundary used to yell "Up there Cazaly" if he took a screamer and "Fatty Arbuckle" if he played sluggishly. I too knew it was rude, but I also didn't remember it referring to a silent film star from 40 years earlier.

Just a mention of the Hays Code starts up my old anxiety responses. We might have expected right wing and brutal McCarthyist responses to Hollywood actors, directors, writers and musicians in the 1950s, getting stronger as the Cold War strengthened. But where did the destructiveness of the Hays Code come from in the early 1920s?

mem said...

I have wondered about the election of judges and prosecutors . It seems to me that the candidates will play to the most base of public opinion rather than doing what is right in the law and ethical. I am glad we don't have that system here.

Hels said...

It is essential for good government that the judicial function is separated from the legislative and executive functions, and the judicial power is vested in independent judges. As in Australia, Britain etc. Judges in these countries can still make judicial or personal mistakes, of course, but they would not be mistakes on political party lines.

But in America, Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S Senate. So a racist, sexist or right wing President would tend to select judges who fitted nicely into his own philosophical views. Consider the judges' decisions in Texas just now, and look who appointed the most right wing of them.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I'm sure I've seen some of his films ... as kids we used to so enjoy these sorts of films - I also knew he 'had a past' but certainly not the story ... fascinating - thanks for the post - cheers Hilary

Student said...

Hilary, we know that a lot of film and sports stars have a past, but rarely are the stories accurately revealed. Christine Keeler gossip documentaries are still on tv every night.

Viola said...

Fatty was too honour able for his own good when he refused to let witnesses testify about Rappe's past! That is quite surprising. The book sounds very interesting.

Viola said...

Did you watch the drama series The Trial of Christine Keeler? It was excellent, and sympathetic to her, I thought. I read a book about her, and I am reading David Profumo's book about his parents. Christine's son is running a campaign for her pardon. Considering her abuse, grooming, etc, it is a worthwhile cause, I think.

Hels said...


Fatty Arbuckle made several mistakes in his court cases, I am assuming because he was so famous, he thought his reputation would withstand the political nastiness. Clearly his lawyers were more astute than he, an actor, was. And Will Hays was even more astute.

Hels said...


I remember the Profumo affair back in 1961 very well indeed, but of course limited by the views being disseminated at the time. It would be altogether a different story now, I imagine, if all the events were reanalysed with new evidence and with a modern understanding of gender roles. And other famous cases as well.