Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

'Minty, I Swear to God'

Arbuckle was originally arrested for first-degree murder, a crime punishable by the death penalty. Later, the charge was reduced to manslaughter that carried a possible ten-year prison sentence.

Earl Rogers, father of Adela Rogers St. John, predicted that the entertainer would face prejudice because of his size. "Arbuckle's weight will damn him," Rogers prophesied. "He will no longer be the roly-poly, good-natured, funny 350-pound fat man everybody loves. He will become a monster. If he were an ordinary man, his own spotless reputation, his clean pictures would save him. They'll never convict him, but this will ruin him and maybe motion pictures for some time."

The comedian's sexual attack on Virginia Rappe, the prosecution argued, had ruptured the victim's bladder, causing her death. The first trial began on November 14, 1921. The prosecutor was San Francisco District Attorney Mathew Brady, an ambitious, hot-tempered man with a dramatic manner that often came in handy in the courtroom.

Gavin McNab was the lawyer defending Roscoe Arbuckle. Like Brady, he was a native of San Francisco. He was a respected attorney who was often hired by people associated with the motion picture industry.

Presiding over the case was Judge Sylvain Lazarus.

Despite their marital difficulties, Minta Durfee believed her husband innocent of the felonies of which he stood accused.

She had visited him in jail before he was bailed out. "Roscoe," she began, embarrassed but needing his reassurance, "I have only one question to ask you. Please don't get angry but I must know. Were you in any way responsible for Virginia Rappe's death?"

"Minty, I swear to God I never touched that girl like they say I did," he told her.

That was good enough for Minta. She appeared regularly in the courtroom to show her support for him.

The prosecution's first witness was a nurse named Grace Halston. She glared at the defendant, obviously convinced of his guilt. She testified that the late Rappe had several bruises on her body and that her organs were torn in a way that suggested force.

McNab got Halston to admit that the ruptured bladder could have been caused by cancer and that the bruises might have been caused by Rappe's heavy jewelry.

Dr. Arthur Beardslee testified that the bladder seemed to be injured from force inflicted from outside of her body. On cross-examination, he admitted that Rappe had said nothing to him indicating she had been assaulted by the accused. Beardslee also said that the sick woman would have benefited from surgery.

The defense attorney zeroed in on this admission. "Then, Dr. Beardslee, let me ask you this," he began. "If you saw evidence that Miss Rappe would benefit from surgery, why was no surgery ordered at that time?"

"I have no answer for that," he said.

"You have no answer," McNab observed. "I wonder if Miss Rappe might be alive today if you had."

Brady called Betty Campbell to the stand. She was a model who had been at the party. She testified that, about an hour after the alleged rape, she had seen Arbuckle relaxed and enjoying himself. Edmonds wrote that, "Brady tried to use this in an attempt to show Arbuckle had neither remorse nor concern for the condition of Virginia Rappe." Under cross-examination, Campbell said the comedian seemed not the least bit intoxicated. Then McNab dropped a bombshell. Campbell testified that the prosecutor had threatened to get her imprisoned if she didn't testify against Arbuckle.

This understandably sent Brady into a frenzy of objections.

The defense attorney presented the judge with affidavits from Alice Blake and Zey Prevon backing up the claim of intimidation by the prosecution. Prevon was called to the stand and testified that she had signed the statement saying Rappe had claimed, "He killed me," under duress. Alice Blake made similar assertions from the witness stand.

The prosecution struck a hard blow with the testimony of a security guard who had worked at Lehrman's Culver City studio. The former security guard, Jesse Norgard, testified that Arbuckle had once shown up at the studio and offered him cash in exchange for the key to Rappe's dressing room. The comedian supposedly said he wanted it to play a joke on the actress. Norgard said he refused to give out that key.

Oddly, the woman who had originally made the accusation against Arbuckle, the shady Maude Delmont, never appeared in court, something the defense would gleefully point out.

Dr. Edward Heinrich, a criminologist who was especially expert in fingerprints, testified that partial prints of Rappe were found on the inside of the door to 1219 with Arbuckle's superimposed over them. This seemed to indicate that the two had struggled over the door and implied that the actress tried to open it while the comedian slammed it shut.

To rebut this testimony, McNab would put Ignatius McCarthy on the stand. McCarthy had been a federal investigator. He said he could prove the fingerprints were faked. McNab also called to the stand a hotel maid who claimed she had dusted the door several times before it was sealed and examined by the District Attorney.

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