In 1921, Hollywood film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of the brutal rape and murder of beautiful 26 year old actress Virginia Rappe. Fatty Arbuckle went to trial for manslaughter 3 times, resulting in 2 hung juries and finally an acquittal. Despite the “not guilty” verdict, Fatty Arbuckle’s career was ruined and his life left in shatters. He died in 1933 of a heart attack at the age of 46. Before the rape allegations, he had been earning $1 million a year; an incredible amount for 1921.
But what really happened the night of September 5, 1921 in Fatty Arbuckle’s hotel room, that resulted in the death of Virginia Rappe? The tabloids wrote that after a wild party filled with drinking illegal booze (it was Prohibition), Fatty went wild and raped Virginia Rappe. His great weight was such that his attack actually caused the Virginia Rappe’s bladder to rupture. She died in horrible agony.
The titillating details of the scandal sold newspapers by the thousands, and the Tabloid Press went into a feeding frenzy attacking Fatty Arbuckle. The public could not get enough. People no longer saw Fatty Arbuckle as the adorable overweight clown. He was now just an oversized sex-crazed monster.
The truth is that Virginia Rappe did die of a ruptured bladder, but she was not raped and did not even have sex on the night of the party. Despite her beauty, Virginia Rappe was a very unhealthy young woman. Months of drinking poor quality Prohibition-era liquor had done its damage, as did the several illegal abortions she had undergone. She also had cancer, which is the most likely cause of the rupture that resulted in her death.
However, the truth did not matter to San Fransisco District Attorney Matthew Brady. He wanted to get elected Governor of California, and the fame surrounding the Arbuckle trial was his ticket to becoming known as the “law & order” candidate who sent a crazed sex maniac to the gas chamber. Brady intimidated witnesses, kept key information from the defense team, and outright lied.
The public and press had already decided that Arbuckle was guilty, even before the trial began. Fatty Arbuckle’s ex-wife Minta Durfee came to court to show support and testify as to his good character. Her appearance was cut short when someone fired a gun at her outside the courthouse.
The public did not seem to care about the facts of the case. The first fact was that no rape charges were ever even filed, since there was no evidence of any sexual activity. The second fact was that the Hearst newspapers were paying big bucks for the “true stories” of anyone who was at the party or claimed to be. Hearst knew that the headline”actress raped and murdered” sells a lot more papers than “actress dies of cancer.”
There was some damning testimony from the Prosecution. An “expert criminologist” was produced, who said he found Arbuckle’s bloody fingerprints all over the wall in Virginia Rappe’s hotel room. The Defense team, however, brought forth the hotel maid who testified that she had completely cleaned the room days before this so called “criminologist” had ever even been allowed to examined it. She also stated there was no blood and no bloody fingerprints on the wall even before she had cleaned the room.
The Hotel Doctor, Arthur Beardslee testified that Virginia Rappe’s injuries were caused by the external force of a large weight on her (like Fatty Arbuckle). In fact, the doctor was really just trying to save his own career and medical license . Early at the party, Virginia Rappe was in extreme pain and Arbuckle had immediately called the hotel doctor (Beardslee). The doctor’s diagnosis was that “This girl’s just drunk. Let her sleep it off.” Arbuckle followed the doctor’s advice and put her in a separate room while the party continued in the main room. Poor Virginia Rappe died alone and in agony in a hotel room, while a wild party raged a few rooms down.
It took 3 trials, and bit by bit the Defense team was able to bring the true facts to light. The third jury came in with a Not Guilty verdict, and even wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Arbuckle for all he had been through.
But the stress and financial burden of the trials had been too much. Fatty Arbuckle was never the same again. Even today, the majority of people who recognize the name “Fatty Arbuckle” identify him as “an old-time movie star who raped and murdered a young woman.” The Truth has a short lifespan, but really juicy Rumors and Lies live forever.