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The "Fatty" Arbuckle Scandal

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A picture of silent screen comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle.

A full-length studio portrait of the silent screen comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) wearing a black hat and sticking his finger in his mouth. (circa 1920)

(Photo by Mitchell/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At a raucous, three-day party in 1921, a young starlet became severely ill and died four days later. Newspapers went wild with the story: popular silent-screen comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had killed Virginia Rappe with his weight while savagely raping her. Though the newspapers of the day reveled in the gory, rumored details, juries found little evidence that Arbuckle was in any way connected with her death.

What happened at that party and why was the public so ready to believe "Fatty" was guilty?

"Fatty" Arbuckle

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had long been a performer. When he was a teenager, Arbuckle traveled the West Coast on the vaudeville circuit. In 1913, at the age of 26, Arbuckle hit the big time when he signed with Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company and became one of the Keystone Kops.

Arbuckle was heavy - he weighed somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds - and that was part of his comedy. He moved gracefully, threw pies, and humorously tumbled.

In 1921, Arbuckle signed a three-year contract with Paramount for $1 million - an unheard of amount at the time, even in Hollywood. To celebrate just having finished three pictures at the same time and to celebrate his new contract with Paramount, Arbuckle and a couple of friends drove up from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Saturday, September 3, 1921 for some Labor Day weekend revelry.

The Party

Arbuckle and friends checked into the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. They were on the twelfth floor in a suite that contained rooms 1219, 1220, and 1221 (room 1220 was the sitting room).

On Monday, September 5, the party started early. Arbuckle greeted visitors in his pajamas and though this was during Prohibition, large quantities of liquor were being drunk.

Around 3 o'clock, Arbuckle retired from the party in order to get dressed to go sight-seeing with a friend. What happened in the following ten minutes is disputed.

 

  • Delmont's version:
    "Bambina" Maude Delmont, who frequently set-up famous people in order to blackmail them, claims that Arbuckle herded 26 year-old Virginia Rappe into his bedroom and said, "I've waited for this a long time." Delmont says that a few minutes later party-goers could hear screams from Rappe coming from the bedroom. Delmont claims she tried to open the door, even kick it in, but couldn't get it open. When Arbuckle opened the door, supposedly Rappe was found naked and bleeding behind him.

     

  • Arbuckle's version:
    Arbuckle says that when he retired to his room to change clothes, he found Rappe vomiting in his bathroom. He then helped clean her up and led her to a nearby bed to rest. Thinking she was just overly intoxicated, he left her to rejoin the party. When he returned to the room just a few minutes later, he found Rappe on the floor. After putting her back on the bed, he left the room to get help.

When others then entered the room, they found Rappe tearing at her clothes (something that has been claimed she did often when she was drunk). Party guests tried a number of strange treatments, including covering Rappe with ice, but she still wasn't getting any better.

The hotel staff were contacted and Rappe was taken to another room to rest. With others looking after Rappe, Arbuckle left for the sight-seeing tour and then drove back to Los Angeles.

Rappe Dies

Rappe was not taken to the hospital on that day. And though she didn't improve, she wasn't taken to the hospital for three days because most people who visited her considered her condition to be caused by liquor.

On Thursday, Rappe was taken to the Wakefield Sanitorium, a maternity hospital known for giving abortions. Virginia Rappe died the following day from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder.

Arbuckle was soon arrested and charged with the murder of Virginia Rappe.

 

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