Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

The 'Wild Party'

Sources differ on whether or not Virginia was invited to the party on September 5, 1921 or crashed it along with her manager, Al Semnacher, and a woman accompanying them named Bambina Maude Delmont. Delmont had had many run-ins with the police. She had been charged with extortion, bigamy, fraud, and racketeering. In Frame-Up, Edmonds writes that Delmont was "a professional correspondent: a woman hired to provide compromising pictures to use in divorce cases or for more unscrupulous purposes such as blackmail."

Seeing Rappe and Delmont, Arbuckle is said to have voiced concern. Their bad reputations, he feared, might cause police to raid the party.

Several other people attended the party at one point or another. One was a nightgown salesman named Ira Fortlois who was friends with Fischbach. Actresses Zey Prevon and Alice Blake also showed up.

Bambina Maude Delmont
Bambina Maude Delmont

The party had a lot of catered food and snacks, bootleg booze, and dancing to the music playing on the Victrola. As is usual at such gatherings, there was joking and laughter, flirting and storytelling. At one point, Delmont put on Lowell Sherman's pajamas; at another the two of them went into his room.

Arbuckle decided to leave the party at about 3 p.m. to drive a friend of his, Mae Taub, into town. Ironically, Taub was the daughter-in-law of Billy Sunday, a fiery evangelist who strongly supported Prohibition, but she did not seem to mind being in a place where illegal liquor was flowing freely.

The comedian went to his adjoining bedroom to change clothes. Exactly what happened after that would become a matter of fierce dispute.

According to the story Arbuckle gave and to which he stuck, he entered the bathroom to find poor Rappe lying in a dead faint on the floor. He picked her up and placed her on a bed.

"Water," the sick woman requested in a weak voice.

Arbuckle brought a glass of cold water to her. Thinking she was probably just suffering the ill effects of too much drinking, the comedian left the room to dress himself for his ride.

When he went back to the bedroom, he saw that Virginia had rolled off the bed. She was lying on the floor, moaning and writhing. He helped her back onto the bed, then left for a bucket of ice. The ice would serve a dual purpose, Arbuckle believed: it would calm the woman down if she was really hysterical but it would also show whether or not she was faking. Buster Keaton had told his friend that one can discern a faked fainting or hysterical fit by holding ice against the suspected person's thigh. According to Edmonds' book, Arbuckle placed the ice on Virginia's thigh. Yallop's volume has him putting it directly on her vulva. In either case, it did no good.

Delmont came into the room. She saw Arbuckle placing an ice cube on the sick woman's thigh. The two discussed Virginia's distress. Both thought she was merely drunk.

Then Virginia began tearing at her clothes and screaming. The sounds caused other partygoers, Zey Prevon and Alice Blake, to rush in. Still believing that Virginia was just soused or deliberately making a scene, an aggravated Arbuckle told them, "Shut her up! Get her out of here. She makes too much noise."

Fischbach went into the room, and seeing Arbuckle putting ice on the semiconscious woman, teased him that he was still able to do something raunchy despite the burn on his backside and leg. "Having fun with her?" he asked.

The comedian was in no mood for jokes and snapped at Fischbach.

Suddenly Virginia began screaming. "Stay away from me! I don't want you near me!" she shouted at Arbuckle. Then she turned to Delmont and said words that would damn the entertainer, "What did he do to me, Maudie? Roscoe did this to me."

The bathtub had been filled with cold water and Virginia was placed in the tub. Time in the water seemed to have a calming effect on the distressed woman. Fischbach and Arbuckle helped her out of it and escorted her to room 1227. Delmont went into the room with them. Arbuckle phoned the hotel manager and hotel doctor. The latter was not available but another physician, Dr. Olav Kaarboe, came to the room and took a look at Virginia. His diagnosis was that she was simply drunk.

With Virginia lying in bed, the party continued. There was more drinking and dancing and the sort of flirting and acting silly that usually characterizes where alcohol is served.

Later, Arbuckle took off for the delayed trip with Mae Taub. He dropped Taub off at her requested destination. After he returned, the hotel physician, Dr. Arthur Beardslee, arrived to take a look at poor Virginia. He gave her a shot of morphine and Virginia drifted off to sleep for the night.

William Randolph Hearst (AP)
William Randolph
Hearst (AP)

The next day, Dr. Beardslee again treated Virginia with morphine. He also catheterized her because Delmont told him the sick woman had not urinated in many hours.

Later, Delmont called Dr. Melville Rumwell, a man she knew well enough to call "Rummy." When the doctor arrived, Delmont told him, as she had previously told Beardslee, that Virginia took sick after a drunken Roscoe Arbuckle dragged her into a room and raped her or at least tried to. Rumwell found no evidence of rape but treated the girl for pain and trouble urinating.

Tuesday afternoon, Arbuckle checked out of the hotel.

A couple days later, a feverish Virginia Rappe was finally taken to a hospital. She died there on Friday, September 9, of peritonitis, an acute infection that was, in her case, caused by a ruptured bladder. Why that bladder ruptured would become a matter of great dispute and the most serious importance.

Authorities would allege that Rappe's bladder tore because the overweight comedian sexually assaulted her. Rumors swirled around that he had also raped her with an instrument like a Coca-Cola bottle or a champagne bottle. However, these rumors were undoubtedly false. No such attack was even alleged in court.

The newspapers were filled with headlines about the sexual horror Roscoe supposedly perpetrated against young Rappe. It was Hollywood's first major scandal although it would, of course, by no means be its last.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, poses in character
Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, poses in character

Newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, had a field day. Yellow journalism was at its peak and readers were regaled with stories about Arbuckle's supposedly debauched private life and his alleged cruelty to the deceased Virginia Rappe. Hearst once bragged, to Arbuckle's good friend Buster Keaton, that the Examiner had sold more newspapers because of the Arbuckle case than the sinking of the Lusitania.

The comedian was bewildered by his dizzying fall from public grace. "I don't understand it," he complained. "One minute I'm the guy everybody loved, the next I'm the guy everybody loves to hate."

In the meantime, San Francisco District Attorney Mathew Brady was conducting repeated interviews with Maude Delmont, his prospective star witness. Every time she talked about the events of that terrible night, her story changed.

When Brady brought the Arbuckle case before a grand jury, he threatened Zey Prevon with prosecution for perjury unless she agreed with a police statement alleging that a dying Virginia Rappe had said, "Roscoe hurt me."

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