Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

The Accused Testifies

Arbuckle on the witness stand
Arbuckle on the witness stand

On Monday, November 28, the defense called Roscoe Arbuckle to the witness stand. He was eager to testify. He had heard himself accused of one of the most terrible crimes imaginable and was relieved to able to publicly and emphatically deny it. He walked to the stand looking tired and drawn, with dark circles obvious under his eyes. He was neatly attired in a dark suit and white shirt and his expression appropriately somber. He would be on the stand for a little over four hours.

"Mr. Arbuckle," Gavin McNab began, "where were you on September 5, 1921?"

"At the St. Francis Hotel occupying rooms 1219, 1220, and 1221," the entertainer answered.

"Did you see Miss Virginia Rappe on that day?"

"Yes, sir."

"At what time and where did you see her?"

"She came into room 1220 at about 12:00 noon," was Arbuckle's calm reply.

Under the lawyer's questioning, Arbuckle gave names of others at the party. He told how he had planned to take Mae Taub into town and was going into the bathroom to get dressed when he discovered Virginia in pain.

"When I walked into 1219," the witness recalled, "I closed and locked the door, and I went straight to the bathroom and found Miss Rappe on the floor in front of the toilet. She'd been vomiting."

"What did you do?"

"When I opened the door, the door struck her, and I had to slide in this way to get in, to get by her and get hold of her. Then I closed the door and picked her up. When I picked her up . . . she vomited again. I held her under the waist . . . and the forehead, to keep her hair back off her face so she could vomit. When she finished, I put the seat down, then I sat her down on it.

"'Can I do anything for you?' I asked her. She said she wanted to lie down. I carried her into 1219 and put her on the bed. I lifted her feet off the floor. I went to the bathroom again and came back in two or three minutes. I found her rolling on the floor between two beds holding her stomach. I tried to pick her up but I couldn't. I immediately went out of 1219 to 1220 and asked Mrs. Delmont and Miss Prevon to come in. I told them Miss Rappe was sick."

He vehemently denied having ever put his hand over Rappe's on the door. He also told how a frantic Virginia had torn at her clothes and Arbuckle had helped her off with a dress and Fischbach came into the room. Then he said that Fischbach had taken the sick woman to the bathroom and put her in a tub of cold water. This was done, Arbuckle claimed, in hopes of calming down her apparent hysteria. When Virginia was carried back to the bed, Maude Delmont rubbed her with ice. Arbuckle said he tried to cover Virginia with the bedspread and an infuriated Delmont spoke rudely to him and he in turn barked, "If you don't shut up, I'll throw you out the window."

The witness remained unshaken under an intense cross-examination by Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman.

"What time did you say Miss Rappe entered your rooms?"

"Around 12:00," Arbuckle said.

"You had known her before?" Friedman asked.

"Uh-huh. About five or six years."

Arbuckle admitted to drinking some liquor but indicated that he was not drunk. The judge called a recess.

Court resumed with a startling exhibit by the prosecution. Virginia Rappe's bladder was brought into the courtroom!

Friedman tried to get Arbuckle to admit he had deliberately followed Virginia. The defendant stuck to his story. The DA tried to wring at least an admission of callousness from the witness.

"Did you tell the hotel manager what had caused Miss Rappe's sickness?"

"No," Arbuckle replied. "How should I know what caused her sickness?"

"You didn't tell anybody you found her in the bathroom?" the prosecutor asked incredulously.

"Nobody asked me."

"You didn't tell anyone you found her between the beds?"

"Nobody asked me," Arbuckle repeated. "I'm telling you?"

"You never said anything to anybody except that Miss Rappe was sick?"

"Nope."

"Not even the doctor?" Friedman pressed.

"Nope."

When Arbuckle stepped down, most observers thought his testimony had scored strongly for his defense.

Both the prosecutor and the defense put on expert witnesses to discuss the state of Virginia Rappe's bladder. Dr. William Ophuls was called by the prosecution and Dr. G. Rusk by the defense. According to Andy Edmonds, "The experts agreed on four points: that the bladder was ruptured, that there was evidence of chronic inflammation, that there were signs of acute peritonitis, and that the examination failed to reveal any pathological change in the vicinity of the tear preceding the rupture. In short — the rupture was not caused by external force."

The defense was jubilant. They believed it would be an easy victory.

However, prosecutor Friedman still thought the evidence pointed straight at Arbuckle. His summation painted a portrait of the actor as a cold-hearted sort. "This big, kindhearted comedian," he said sarcastically. "Did he say 'Get a doctor for this suffering girl?' No. He said, 'Shut up or I'll throw you out the window.'

"He was not content to stop at throwing her out the window. He attempted to make a sport with her by placing ice on her body. This man then and there proved himself guilty of this offense. This act shows you the mental makeup of Roscoe Arbuckle."

In his summation, McNab dramatically charged that his client was the victim of a vicious persecution. "It was a deliberate conspiracy against Arbuckle!" the indignant McNab thundered. "It was the shame of San Francisco. Perjured wretches tried, from the stand, to deprive this defendant, this stranger within our gates, of his liberty."

The first trial ended on December 4, 1921 when, after 43 hours of deliberation and 22 ballots, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. They were deadlocked, 10 to 2, in favor of acquittal.

One of the holdouts, Helen Hubbard, supposedly told the others that she would never change her mind because she had decided Arbuckle was guilty when she heard that he had been arrested.

The prosecution pressed the case a second time. The defense this time around went after the dead woman in a rather distasteful way, playing on popular prejudice against women who drank and enjoyed a variety of sexual partners.

Two major prosecution witnesses reversed their previous testimony. Zey Prevon testified that she had not heard Rappe accuse Arbuckle of hurting her. Of equal significance was the testimony of prosecution witness Dr. Heinrich who said he believed the overlapping fingerprints on the bedroom door may well have been faked.

The defense decided that the district attorney's case was so weak that they would not dignify it by seeming to take it seriously. They not only did not put their client on the witness stand but also did not make a closing summation! This backfired. Most of the jurors assumed that the failure to put on a strong defense was an implicit admission of guilt. This time the jury deadlocked again, but voted 10-2 for conviction, precisely the opposite of the first jury.

So the case went to trial a third and final time. This time the defense went all out. Arbuckle again took the stand. He appeared forthright in his denials. The district attorney operated under something of a handicap because one of its major witnesses, Zey Prevon, had left the country.

The jury not only came back with a quick acquittal but, on their own initiative, issued an apology to the accused saying he had been wronged. "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle," the jury's statement began. "We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.

"He was manly throughout the case, and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.

"The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.

"We wish him success, and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

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