The Death of Virginia Rappe

The Death of Virginia Rappe

Image for postVirginia Rappe, from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, published Calisphere. Accessed August 25, 2019.

Virginia Rappe

Virginia Rappe came into the world on July 7, 1895, in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was Mabel Rapp, a sometimes chorus girl with no husband or father for her baby daughter. When Virginia was 11, her mother passed away, and she went to live with her grandmother. But Virginia had bigger dreams.

At age 14, the beautiful brunette began posing for local artists and fashion designers. When Virginia reached the age of majority, she set sail west to San Francisco, California. She made a name for herself as both a model and a dress designer. She posed for a dress Designer named Robert Moscovitz. Virginia and Robert fell in love, and the two became engaged. This happiness was short-lived; a streetcar accident cut his life short.

After the death of her fiance, Virginia moved south to Los Angeles to pursue a career on the big screen. Virginia wasn?t exactly an unknown. She found work among the most brilliant artists of the silent film era to include drag revolutionary Julian Eltinge and a very young Rudolph Valentino. She even received an award as the ?Best Dressed Girl in Pictures.?

In 1919, Virginia found love once more. This time with Hollywood director and producer Henry Lehrman, which guaranteed work for the young starlet. By 1920, The couple moved in together and planned to marry.

Roscoe ?Fatty? Arbuckle

Image for postRoscoe ?Fatty? Arbuckle, 1921. Public Doman

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas. His, Mary, and William Arbuckle, parents were slight in build. Imagine their surprise when their baby boy bounced into the world, weighing between 13 and 16 lbs. The size of the child was such a shock, that his father didn?t believe him to be biologically his, and shunned not so little Roscoe. The birth itself was traumatic for Mary and contributed to her death 12 years later.

The Arbuckle family moved to Santa Ana when Roscoe was eight years old, where his father found hotel work. Roscoe?s school mates in Santa Ana cruelly called him ?Fatty,? and it stuck. Frank Bacon?s Vaudeville Company stopped over at the Santa Ana hotel and invited Fatty to perform on their stage. Fatty was happy to oblige to the delight of audiences, thus cementing his type-cast as the funny and loveable fat boy.

Upon his mother?s death, William cut the Fatty off from all support and vanished from the child?s life. Luckily, he was able to find work for room and board at the local hotel. Roscoe would sing during his workday. He had a natural talent for singing that was soon noticed by his employers. Management asked to sing in the hotel bar, which he did gladly.

Somehow, the stars aligned for young Fatty. Sid Grauman invited him to perform in the Unique Theater in San Francisco. From there, he traveled with the Pantages Theater group, where he met his wife actress Minta Durfee.

Fatty?s career took off like a whirl-wind. The character actor toured China and Japan in 1909. He put in his work doing bit parts for $3 a day. Paramount recognized Fatty?s earning potential as the chubby funny guy, and by 1914 they paid Fatty $1,000 for each day of work plus royalties to the tune of 25%. In 1918, Paramount offered Fatty an unheard-of contract; he would receive $3million to appear in 18 movies over three years. This contract made Fatty highest-paid actor in Hollywood, second only to Charlie Chaplin.

The Party in Room 1219

September 5, 1921

It was Labor Day Weekend, and Fatty?s pals Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback planned a party to beat the band. Despite the prohibition, Fred promised a weekend of fun fueled by booze, women, and general debauchery. Fred procured a bootleg case of gin and reserved rooms 1219,1220, and 1221 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Virginia and her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, reached the party at 10:30 AM. Virginia?s manager and Fatty?s friend, Al Semnacher, accompanied the women. Ten minutes later, more revelers joined, including showgirls Zey Pyvron and Alice Blake.

Virginia had met Fatty before. Her fiancee was a long-time acquaintance of the actor. He would later claim that Virginia was revolted by Fatty, who behaved in a crude and classless manner. He said she was utterly unaware that Fatty would also attend the gala. But he was there, and Virginia and company drank bottomless gin blossoms until everybody was sufficiently sauced.

Virginia was unwell by that afternoon. She excused herself to Fatty?s private suite, room 1219. Fatty followed shortly after and locked the door behind him. Whatever happened behind that locked door is a mystery. Still, those events would end the career of America?s favorite comedy actor, and Virginia would be dead.

Bambina ?Maude? Delmont, who preferred to be called Maude, was the first to realize something was amiss. She heard Virginia?s screams emerging from the room. She went to check on her friend. Fatty answered the door wearing only his pajamas and a robe. He silently flashed a sinister smile towards Maude. Behind him, Virginia lay on the smaller of the two beds ?writhing in pain? and tearing at her clothing according to Maude.

?He did this!? Virginia screamed, ?He hurt me! I?m dying!?

Maude, to be clear, accused Fatty of the rape and murder of her friend, Virginia Rappe. At some point, Al Semnacher arrived on the scene and suggested an ice bath to sober her up. Al and Maude gave Virginia an ice bath, but it only made her pain worse, and her screams louder. Maude even rubbed ice over Virginia?s painful belly. Fatty, according to Maude, threatened to throw Virginia out the window for being so loud but left the room instead.

Al and Maude decided to call the hotel doctor. Dr. Karhoe examined Virginia at approximately 4 PM, but couldn?t find anything wrong with her. Virginia suffered unbearable agony until Maude called for the in-house doctor?s return. At 7 PM, she was seen by Dr. Beardslee instead of Karhoe, who gave Virginia a shot of morphine to help her sleep it off. According to The Medico-legal Journal, Volumes 39?40, DR. Beardslee returned at 4 AM and again at 5 AM on September 6. Beardslee admitted that Virginia appeared to be suffering from an internal injury, and likely needed surgery. He inserted a metal catheter into her urethra and said he knew instantly that her bladder was injured. The doctor did not know the severity of or the reason for the injury. He speculated external force causes most bladder ruptures; a slight fall or severe vomiting could be enough, though he doubted either scenario

Maude spent the day nursing her friend who drifted in and out of consciousness. Fatty and his pals checked out of the hotel early and sailed down California?s central coast to Los Angeles. Virginia?s lucid moments were marked with agony and screaming. Maude asked the doctor to return because Virginia was getting worse. The doctor agreed. Virginia needed more help than they could offer. However, a trip to the hospital would likely result in a visit by the police, and there was no time to clean up evidence of illegal alcohol.

The aftermath of Fatty?s party.The Aftermath of Fatty?s Party.

Instead of a proper hospital, they brought Virginia to the Wakefield Sanatorium, which served as a maternity hospital and sometimes abortion clinic. Dr. Rummfeld, a known abortionist, examined her. Alcohol poisoning was the initial diagnosis. At least what he wrote down despite Dr. Beardslee?s findings.

Virginia?s condition continued to decline over the next few days despite treatment. During wakeful moments, Virginia told her nurses that Fatty did this to her. Virginia slipped into a coma and died on September 9, 1921.

Image for postImage for postVirginia?s casket, drapped with flowers. Charlie Chaplin?s child bride, Mildred, provided the dress Virginia was buried in. Riverside Daily Press, Volume XXXVI, Number 223, 19 September 1921.

Immediately, Dr. Rumwell and Dr. Orphus performed an autopsy ?at the request of friends of the deceased.? The doctors confirmed that Virginia?s bladder ruptured. In their expert opinions, the injury to the bladder was between one and twelve days old. It appeared distended, but also exposed to force. The doctors removed her stomach and sent it to the city chemist for testing. They also removed Virginias female parts and instructed an orderly to incinerate them. The orderly was stopped just in time. The state of California requires a coroner to perform all autopsies when the manner of death is unclear. Rumwell and Orphus autopsy was completely unauthorized.

The organs were recovered and given to Dr. Strange, who would perform the official autopsy. Dr. Strange determined that the cause of death was peritonitis, an infection of the membrane lining the abdominal wall. In their expert opinion, peritonitis resulted from Virginia?s ruptured bladder. The bladder had ruptured by some external force. Roscoe Arbuckle applied the external force during the commission of a sexual assault. That very day, Fatty Arbuckle was arrested and charged with for the murder of Virginia Rappe.

Investigation and Trials

Image for postFatty Arbuckle with Lawyers and his brother. Public Domain

The investigation was a circus. Fatty was arrested and charged with 1st-degree murder on September 10, 1921. The state of California, at the time, disallowed bail in any murder case. Still, Fatty was released the same day on his own recognizance. Before he left the jail in San Francisco, the headlines appeared.

Reporters everywhere painted Fatty as a hedonist and a brute. His Labor Day party was written up as an orgy. Rumors of rape by glass bottle sent journalists into a tailspin. The same newspapers printed disparaging statements about Virginia?s character. They didn?t write her up as a rising starlet who met a sad and untimely end. They wrote her up as a woman of loose character, who often took her clothes off at parties. It was reported, incorrectly, that Virginia had venereal disease. Mack Sennett even accused poor Virginia of causing such a crab outbreak, that he had to fumigate the entire studio. Neither Fatty or Virginia got a fair shake from the press. Randolph Hearst himself said that the Arbuckle debacle sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.

Image for postSan Pedro Daily News, Volume XIX, Number 234, 1 November 1921

If the investigation was a circus, the trial was a whole dumpster fire. The malicious gossip didn?t stop at the courtroom doors. The first order of business from the defense was to discredit any possible witnesses. They were all drunk. Maude Delmont was a liar and a madam. Those who couldn?t be discredited mysteriously forgot what happened by the time they got on the witness stand. Al Semnacher had one important recollection. He recalled that Fatty told him he placed a piece of ice inside Virginia. He was asked to repeat the statement in Fatty?s exact words. Al, couldn?t bring himself to say repeat the words. Instead, he wrote them down. The DA read them out loud, ?He said he put a piece of ice in Virginia Rappe?s snatch.?

The prosecution took the same ugly course of action by attempting to defame Fatty. Roscoe was a sex fiend who came from a broken home. He was nothing more than a drunken, drug-addicted misogynist like his father before him. Fatty endured three trials in this case. Virginia?s grieving fiance said under oath that he would kill Fatty on site if he weren?t convicted. However, they couldn?t convict him on the murder charge, so they downgraded it to manslaughter.

During the third trial, Fatty?s attorney?s encouraged him to keep his mouth shut. He gave an attorney approved account of that night?s events that directly opposed Maude?s ever-changing story. Fatty claimed that Virginia was hysterical. He only washed Virginia?s face and laid her on the bed. She fell on the floor, and he picked her up. It wasn?t his fault that she tore her clothing to shreds. All he did was help her. We have to say it is true because, on April 13, 1922, a jury acquitted Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle in a court of law. However, the irreparable damage to Fatty?s reputation was already done. Theaters owners and moviegoers alike boycotted Fatty?s movies. He was a social pariah, unable to work under his own name. Fatty died of a heart attack at age 46.

100 Years Later

There is a relatively recent theory that Virginia sustained the bladder injury during a botched abortion, unrelated to the events of Fatty?s party. Maybe she did have an abortion. Death is what happens when women are forced to undergo illegal abortions instead of safe ones. It would also explain why Virginia ended up in the Maternity Ward at Wakefield instead of a typical hospital. Dr. Strange mentions that Virginia had a distended bladder before experiencing ?Some external trauma.? Maybe an abortion did cause that before she yelled, ?He did this! He hurt me!? The dying woman had no reason to lie.

It?s been nearly 100 years since the death of Virginia Rappe, and we as a society, still can?t get it right. Often, women who complain of sexual assault become targets of character assassination. Why is the knee-jerk reaction to slut-shame and victim blame women into silence? Why is the thought of sullying the good names of men more important than saving the lives of women? The Harvey Weinstein scandal proves this sad fact. The casting couch is still fully operational, and Virginia?s death is as relevant today as ever. Thankfully, women are standing together in solidarity, even in the face of retaliation. Because of them, the world is a safer place to be female in. If Virginia could, I?m sure we?d hear her shout ?Me Too!?

Further Reading:

The Day The Laughter Stopped, David Yallop

You Must Remember This (YouTube)

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, Greg Merritt

Roscoe ?Fatty? Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887?1933

Hollywood?s First Scandal: Fatty Arbuckle and the Party that Ended His Career


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