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Hollywood's First Scandal: The Fatty Arbuckle Murder Trial

Hollywood's First Scandal: The Fatty Arbuckle Murder Trial
July 23, 2020 - 14:31 / Lucas Anderson

Hollywood had one of its first scandals when silent film star Roscoe Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe in 1921. Here's how it went down nearly one century ago.

Roscoe Arbuckle's series of murder trials in 1921 and 1922 is a story with no winners or silver linings.

The actor, who was also known by his character's screen name of "Fatty" Arbuckle, was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's silent era in the 1910s and '20s. But that all came to an end on Sep. 5, 1921, when Arbuckle hosted a party at his hotel suite in San Francisco, California.

Four days later, 25-year-old Virginia Rappe had died following an incident at the party, and Arbuckle was charged with the crime. He'd stand trial three separate times in six months, but he and no others were ever convicted in Rappe's death. 

Here's how it all went down.

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Hollywood's First Scandal: The Fatty Arbuckle Murder Trial

Virginia Rappe dies after attending Roscoe Arbuckle party 

On Sep. 5, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle had reason to celebrate. He'd secured a new million-dollar contract with Paramount Pictures after having already made millions and starred in over 100 films.

To mark the occasion, a friend of the actor arranged a gathering at Arbuckle's San Francisco hotel suite. Model and aspiring actress Virginia Rappe and her friend, Maude Delmont, were in attendance. To this day, the exact events of the party are not confirmed, but Rappe suffered a ruptured bladder while there and died four days later from peritonitis caused by the condition.

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Public reception of the incident boiled down to the conflicting account of Rappe's friend, Delmont, and Arbuckle's version of Rappe's time at the party. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Delmont related a story to police that involved her responding to Rappe's yells while in a bedroom with Arbuckle. When he let Delmont in the room, a groaning and injured Rappe allegedly told her: "Arbuckle did it."

On the other hand, Arbuckle said that the pair shared a few drinks, after which time Rappe became "hysterical" and began stripping her clothes and vomiting. Arbuckle added that he and Rappe were never alone.

He was charged with manslaughter, leading to a November 1921 trial that was accompanied by sensationalized press coverage, which leaned heavily on Delmont's version of the events. However, Delmont was never called as a witness in the trial because she had a criminal record and was seen as a questionable source.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle portrait dated 1919.

The prosecution suggested that Arbuckle's imposing size inflicted the internal injuries to Rappe during a violent sexual assault. Today, the San Francisco D.A. is also viewed as a disreputable figure who was bent on convicting Arbuckle in the aftermath of press hysteria and public outcry.

Arbuckle's defense, meanwhile, argued that Rappe had a pre-existing bladder condition, and the autopsy supported his case, saying there "were no marks of violence on the body, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way." Still, the first - and a second - case resulted in a mistrial. The third time around, Arbuckle was acquitted and the jury issued him a written apology, according to History.

Roscoe Arbuckle's career was ended by the scandal

In the aftermath of the trial, Arbuckle's career was all but over at the age of 35. His friends and collaborators included silent-era legends Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but his films had been banned and he was virtually blacklisted following the nearly six-month scandal.

Keaton later gave him a share of profits with his production company, and the actor did later perform in a few roles under the pseudonym William Goodrich. Arbuckle died at age 46 in 1933, 11 years after his trials.

More tragic yet, Virginia Rappe's life was lost. Many studies of her death have taken place, but it remains unconfirmed if she was truly the victim of a crime that went unpunished, or if she suffered a tragic health incident. The 25-year-old appeared in 10 films in her short lifespan.

Virginia Rappe in a ca. 1920 portrait.