The "Fatty" Arbuckle Scandal

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 September 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 was 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.

Eventually, the hotel staff was 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.

Yellow Journalism

The papers went wild with the story. Some articles stated Arbuckle had crushed Rappe with his weight, while others said he had raped her with a foreign object (the papers went into graphic details).

In the newspapers, Arbuckle was assumed guilty and Virginia Rappe was an innocent, young girl. The papers excluded reporting that Rappe had a history of numerous abortions, with some evidence stating she might have had another a short time before the party.

William Randolph Hearst, the symbol of yellow journalism, had his San Francisco Examiner cover the story. According to Buster Keaton, Hearst boasted that Arbuckle's story sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.

The public reaction to Arbuckle was fierce. Perhaps even more than the specific charges of rape and murder, Arbuckle became a symbol of Hollywood's immorality. Movie houses across the country almost immediately stopped showing Arbuckle's movies.

The public was angry and they were using Arbuckle as a target.

The Trials

With the scandal as front page news on almost every newspaper, it was difficult to get an unbiased jury.

The first Arbuckle trial began in November 1921 and charged Arbuckle with manslaughter. The trial was thorough and Arbuckle took the stand to share his side of the story. The jury was hung with a 10 to 2 vote for acquittal.

Because the first trial ended with a hung jury, Arbuckle was tried again. In the second Arbuckle trial, the defense did not present a very thorough case and Arbuckle did not take the stand. The jury saw this as an admission of guilt and deadlocked in a 10 to 2 vote for conviction.

In the third trial, which began in March 1922, the defense again became pro-active. Arbuckle testified, repeating his side of the story. The main prosecution witness, Zey Prevon, had escaped house arrest and left the country. For this trial, the jury deliberated for only a couple of minutes and came back with a verdict of not guilty. Additionally, the jury wrote an apology to Arbuckle:

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

He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.

The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.

We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty-one days to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

"Fatty" Blacklisted

Being acquitted was not the end to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's problems. In response to the Arbuckle scandal, Hollywood established a self-policing organization that was to be known as the "Hays Office."

On April 18, 1922, Will Hays, the president of this new organization, banned Arbuckle from film making. Though Hays lifted the ban in December of the same year, Arbuckle's career had been destroyed.

A Short Come-Back

For years, Arbuckle had trouble finding work. He eventually began directing under the name William B. Goodrich (similar to the name his friend Buster Keaton suggested - Will B. Good).

Though Arbuckle had begun a come-back and had signed with Warner Brothers in 1933 to act in some comedy shorts, he was never to see his popularity regained. After a small one-year anniversary party with his new wife on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle went to bed and suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep. He was 46.