The Scandal That Could Have Killed Early Hollywood | by Ida Larsdotter | Jul, 2022

A comedy legend was accused of a horrible crime. How would the burgeoning film industry survive the disgrace?

Photograph by Nicholas Demetriades, nd

RRoscoe Arbuckle was discovered after he failed to impress the audience at a talent show. Roscoe, also known by the nickname 'Fatty', was a timid boy. He had a real musical talent, but low self-esteem. Years of verbal abuse from his father had left Roscoe scared to perform in front of an audience.

In 1904, Roscoe was working as a handyman at a hotel. The seventeen-year-old had a habit of singing to himself while he worked.

One day, a guest happened to overhear Roscoe’s singing. The guest happened to be a successful opera singer. He was so impressed with Roscoe’s voice, that he approached the boy and introduced himself. The opera singer asked Roscoe if he’d be willing to perform at a talent show that night. Roscoe reluctantly agreed.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, theater managers would use a large hook to pull bad performances off the stage. 'Getting the hook' was humiliating. Roscoe was terrified it would happen to him.

Yet Roscoe still went up on that stage in a theater in Santa Ana. The teenager was clearly nervous. He began singing, but his nerves got the better of him. Roscoe messed some parts of the song up, and the audience was not having it.

The booing began, and Roscoe saw the hook emerging. In a desperate attempt not to get the hook, Roscoe somehow somersaulted into the orchestra pit. The onlookers assumed the stunt was a part of his act and began laughing.

Roscoe won the talent competition and was invited to perform with a vaudeville group.

Picture of Roscoe Arbuckle and costar Betty Ross Clarke, c 1921. Unknown photographer. Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

By 1921, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was famous. He’d starred in several movies and made a name for himself as a comedian. Roscoe also directed and wrote scripts for films he starred in. He became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

On September 5th, 1921, Roscoe and two friends decided to go on a short vacation to San Francisco. They drove up from Los Angeles and checked into the St Francis Hotel.

Roscoe’s friends Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback wanted to celebrate Labor Day with a party. They invited some of the other hotel guests up to one of their rooms.

Two of the people they invited were Maude Delmont and Virginia Rappe. Maude and Virginia were both aspiring actresses. Although they hadn’t yet experienced a lot of success in their careers, they often socialized with famous actors.

Virginia Rappe, unknown photographer. Nd Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

After some time at the party, Virginia began to feel bad. She left the party in room 1220. When Maude realized her friend de ella was missing, she began to look for her. Maude found Virginia in room 1219. Virginia was seriously ill, and Maude called for the hotel doctor to examine her.

The hotel doctor thought Virginia’s symptoms were due to intoxication. He gave her morphine and told Maude that Virginia would be better after she sobered up. However, Virginia did not get better. On September 7th, she was hospitalized.

Maude followed Virginia to the hospital. There, Maude told a doctor that Virginia had been sexually assaulted. The doctor examined Virginia and found no evidence of sexual assault.

Virginia Rappe died on September 8th from an inflammation in the abdomen. Officially, the cause of the inflammation was due to a ruptured bladder.

After Virginia had passed away, Maude was questioned by San Francisco Police. She told them that Virginia had been assaulted by Roscoe Arbuckle. Based on Maude’s statements, the police determined that Roscoe’s weight could have caused Virginia’s bladder to rupture. The police don’t seem to have interviewed any medical professionals.

Roscoe’s mugshot, 1921. Unknown photographer. Publicdomain.

Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested and charged with murder on September 10th. The trial against him began on November 14th.

The prosecutor, Matthew Brady, made several statements to journalists about Arbuckle’s guilt. Brady had plans to run for governor of California and believed winning the Arbuckle trial would be beneficial to his campaign.

Brady was of the opinion that he wasn’t just prosecuting Roscoe Arbuckle, but all of Hollywood. He wanted the public to think that the film industry, and everyone who worked in it, was immoral. To be sure that he would win the case, Brady pressured some witnesses into making false statements.

Arbuckle pleaded 'not guilty' to all charges laid against him. Although the evidence was on his side of him, such as there was no evidence of an assault, the media was against him. In poorly researched articles, 'journalists' described Arbuckle as a 'monster' who had brutally murdered Virginia.

Arbuckle’s defense presented several witnesses from the party who testified that Roscoe had not gone into room 1219 with Virginia. The defense also presented Virginia’s medical history as proof. Virginia had suffered from chronic urinary tract infections which worsened when she consumed alcohol.

Photograph of Arbuckle and his lawyers, c 1921. Unknown photographer. Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

Roscoe Arbuckle was found not guilty on April 12th, 1922.

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We also feel that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof added to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.

The Jury statement, read by the jury foreman.

In the court of public opinion, Roscoe Arbuckle was found guilty. The films he had made and starred in were banned, the media was still talking about the 'evils of Hollywood', and Maude Delmont was touring the US with the show "The woman who signed the murder charge against Arbuckle."

It did not matter that Delmont was considered to be an unreliable witness by the prosecution, or that the prosecutor himself had been found out to have coerced his witnesses into false statements. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was spared jail, but his career would not recover.

Arbuckle died in 1933 due to a heart attack. He was 46 years old.

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