Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

A Gift for Comedy

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle
Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

The gifted comedian Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle didn't use the weight that inspired his nickname to get a cheap, easy laugh. He would never be seen stuck in a doorway or chair, for example.

While his weight inevitably added to his humor his comic gifts elevated him beyond fat jokes. In the silent film era, he was considered second only to Charlie Chaplin in his talent. The big, agile man whose talent for pratfalls, somersaults, and extraordinary pie throwing brought joy to audiences of all ages.

But one fateful night, at a Labor Day party in San Francisco, the laughter stopped. Arbuckle was accused of a horrific crime, the tale of which would haunt him until his dying day

Arbuckle was born on March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas. He would later joke, "Two big things blew Smith Center, Kansas right off the map — my birth and a cyclone. No one has heard of the place since." His weight at birth has been reported as either 14 or 16 pounds. His family, nine children in all, moved to California when he was an infant.

Young Roscoe's family life was not happy. His father, the hard-drinking William Goodrich Arbuckle, named his son after a Republican politician, Roscoe Conkling. Curiously William Goodrich Arbuckle was not a member of the GOP but a Democrat. Dad blamed the boy's birth for his mother's health problems and was also nagged by a sneaking suspicion that this son was not biologically his. He often punished the boy unreasonably. One of the reasons the elder Arbuckle suspected he had not sired the boy was that Roscoe was so heavy while both his parents were slender. Since Roscoe's mother was a devout, pious Christian, the suspicion was probably unfounded but it did not change the fact that Arbuckle grew up in an environment of mistrust.

Roscoe Arbuckle, age 8
Roscoe Arbuckle, age 8

Other children often made fun of little Roscoe's weight, taunting him as "fatty." As a result of being bullied, Roscoe became a shy, tongue-tied child. He was self-conscious about his size but he had a strong appetite and used food to cope with emotional trauma. As happens so frequently, this became a vicious circle in which he was emotionally wounded by people jeering about his size, comforted himself by overeating, which increased both his weight and painful ostracism from others.

But the boy soon found that his shyness and self-consciousness seemed to magically melt away when he was performing in front of an audience. Roscoe could sing beautifully and was remarkably limber and agile despite his size.

Arbuckle made his stage debut at the age of 8. From then on, the blue-eyed, exuberant youngster saw a lot of the theater. Multitalented, he worked as a clown, a singer, and in acrobatic acts.

His mother died in 1899, when he was only 12. Shortly after that, he was abandoned by the father who had both emotionally rejected him and physically abused him. The teenager supported himself by doing odd jobs in a San Jose, California hotel. He sang while he worked. One day a professional singer overheard him and suggested he accompany her to an amateur night at a neighborhood theater. This theater was of the type where a long hook would come out to draw a performer who was not doing well off the stage. The humiliation of such a dramatic rejection terrified young Arbuckle but he made up his mind that he was going to perform and do well. He sang a couple of songs and then started entertaining the audience with a variety of jigs, somersaults and pratfalls. The hook came out from the wing and a panicked Arbuckle jumped and somersaulted out of its way until he finally dived into the orchestra pit.

The audience was delighted and he easily won the contest — and the attention of some important people in show business.

In 1904, the young Arbuckle sang for Sid Grauman at the Unique Theater in San Jose. He was what was called an "illustrated singer." As described in David Yallop's The Day the Laughter Stopped, an illustrated singer was one who sang "while gorgeously-colored slides with the lyrics were projected on a screen . . . thereby 'illustrating' the song."

During 1905, Arbuckle began a tour of the West Coast with the Pantages Theatre circuit. In 1906, the performer was in Portland, Oregon when he was hired by a man named Leon Errol to work in the Orpheum Theater. Then Arbuckle began another tour with Errol's company.

Arbuckle performed at the Last Chance Saloon, a watering hole for miners in Butte, Montana. Their resident singer was a popular, buxom blonde named Lilly who liked to drink She usually opened the show but one day she did not appear, probably because she was on a bender. The miners became raucous when Arbuckle went onstage in her stead. They gave him the finger and loudly threatened to tear the place apart.

The comedian had a brainstorm. He dashed to Lilly's dressing room. The audience was still restive but soon calmed down considerably when Lilly's unexpected replacement strolled onto the stage. She was a very large, well-dressed woman. As she sang, the miners were entranced by her lovely, soprano voice. The new singer became an instant hit. The next night and the next the Last Chance Saloon was more packed than ever. But on that night, a semi-sober Lilly walked in and saw the woman onstage who had taken her place. She was outraged. She ran onto the stage and tore her wig off of Roscoe Arbuckle's head. The comedian pretended to be scared and ran into the chairs and tables as she followed. As Yallop wrote, "The miners, convinced that the whole things was a superbly-rehearsed piece of comedy, howled with laughter as Roscoe, with Lilly in hot pursuit, jumped over tables, swung on lamps, did cartwheels and pratfalls, and finally vanished into the street."

However, the next day Errol's company left Butte. Lilly had too much clout to allow the cross-dresser usurper to rival her.

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