Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe

How Did She Die?

What exactly did happen to Virginia Rappe? There is no doubt that the immediate cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Why did the bladder rupture?

One common theory is that Rappe had just undergone an illegal and botched abortion. She is said to have told others at the party, "I need money for an abortion." There are two ways this statement can be interpreted. The first, and most obvious, is that she was pregnant at the time she said it. The second is that she had just had a pregnancy terminated and needed to pay the person who had performed the operation.

Was Rappe pregnant at the time she died? The surprising answer is that we do not know. Several of her organs, including her uterus, were removed after the autopsy and secretly destroyed. The physician believed to be behind the destruction of these parts was Dr. Rumwell, a man reputed to perform abortions. Perhaps he wanted to hide evidence that he had recently performed an illegal procedure.

An anonymous writer called "Shush" speculates in Web-based analysis "What Really Happened to Virginia Rappe?" about the cause of her peritonitis. "Shush" notes that there are three major reasons for peritonitis. One of them, due to dialysis treatments, doesn't apply in this case. Another, related to cirrhosis of the liver, could be a factor since there are some who believe the actress was an alcoholic. However, "Shush" observes that "this leaves out the whole issue of the ruptured bladder" and "it's hard to believe that Virginia's ruptured bladder played no part in her death."

The third type of peritonitis, secondary peritonitis, "caused by bacteria entering the peritoneum through a hole somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract" fits the case best in the opinion of "Shush." While dying, Rappe had told a nurse that she had been having an abnormal vaginal discharge for about six weeks. This may or may not have been related to a venereal disease. This infection may have traveled upward into her intestines. The vomiting may have ruptured her already distressed bladder.

Edmonds gives an account in which Arbuckle did contribute to her ruptured bladder but in an innocent manner. At the party, the guests started doing "high kicks" in an effort to see who could kick the highest. Arbuckle re-injured the burn he had recently gotten so he sat down.

According to Edmonds, it was well known among Arbuckle's acquaintances that he was ticklish and they would often tickle his ribs, causing him to double over and jerk his knee up. At the party, Rappe (who may or may not have known this about the comedian) got Arbuckle up off the sofa then impulsively tickled him. His knee automatically shot up and jabbed the actress' stomach. She shrieked in sudden pain and fled to the bathroom.

The author notes that, if this story is true, it explains Rappe's alleged remarks, "What did he do to me?" and "He did this to me" but without imputing any criminal action to Arbuckle.

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