Fatty Arbuckle: The Booze Orgy, the Dead Actress, and Hollywood’s First Killer Scandal

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle [WikiMedia Commons]

When Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle came into the world on March 24, 1887, he was not yet “Fatty.” In due time, though, that’s how the world would come to know the rotund and charismatic Kansas native.

First, the public joyfully loved Fatty as a silent film comedy superstar who mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton. Then they reviled him even more severely as an accused rapist and murderer.

That alleged combination of heinous felonies was reported to have taken place in San Francisco on September 5, 1921.

There, on a break from filming, Fatty and a pair of pals rented three rooms at the St. Francis Xavier Hotel to mount a wild “whoopee party.” They packed the place with drunken flapper girls and oceans of alcohol. Since Prohibition was in full effect, that meant that the booze was of the dangerous “bootleg” variety. All of it was entirely illegal.

Related: 6 Mysterious Hollywood Deaths That Still Haunt Us

In the course of the bacchanal, aspiring starlet Virginia Rappe fell cripplingly ill and collapsed in Room 1219. Rappe had a reputation for overdoing it with drinks and then screaming about painful stomach ailments. She had undergone multiple outlaw abortion procedures and suffered from agonizing, chronic urinary-tract infections, which liquor harshly irritated.

Fatty Arbuckle in Love (1919), movie poster [promotional image]

Fatty Arbuckle in Love (1919), movie poster [promotional image]

Regardless, the hotel doctor doped up Rappe with morphine and let her be, believing she’d just sleep off whatever it was that had seized her. The revelry raged on, then, while Virginia Rappe lay unconscious.

On September 7, Rappe checked in to a hospital. She died the next day, succumbing to a ruptured bladder. Bambina Maude Delmont, who accompanied Rappe to the bash, said that Fatty Arbuckle had raped her friend, and his enormous girth must have caused the fatal injuries to her organs.

Related: The Shocking Murder of Director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood’s Silent Era

At a press conference, Al Semnacker, Rappe’s manager, stated that Arbuckle had used a piece of ice to vaginally penetrate the prone woman. By the time that claim reached the public, the story had morphed to Fatty violating Rappe with a Coca-Cola bottle (in some accounts, it was a wine or champagne bottle).

The story caught on in a flash. And, despite it coming to light later that Bambina Delmont had been trying to extort money from Arbuckle, the hideous prospect of an obese lecher murdering an innocent young female with his sickest perversions never went away.

In fact, though, many witnesses later testified that Arbuckle had actually put Rappe to bed in an unoccupied room and used ice to rub her midsection, which she described as feeling like it was on fire. Arbuckle also said he brought Rappe a Coca-Cola in hope that it might settle her stomach.

Related: Where’s Charlie? The 1977 Grave-Robbing of Hollywood Legend Charlie Chaplin

Regardless, the scandal continuously snowballed. William Randolph Heart’s mighty print media chain, which he built on “yellow journalism” (what we now call “fake news”) condemned Arbuckle as guilty from day one.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's St. Francis Xavier hotel room, following the wild party [Wikipedia]

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s St. Francis Xavier hotel room, following the wild party [Wikipedia]


Hearst outlets reported rabidly on sick and sadistic nonstop orgies among the Tinseltown’s elite, where no extreme was taboo. Hearst himself loved it, stating that the Arbuckle affair “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.”

Related: Patty Hearst: 5 Pop Culture Highlights of the Heiress-Turned-Terrorist Case

Right-wing Christian groups who viewed movies as the devil’s most powerful seduction trick to date, arose mightily to proclaim that they had been correct all along, and that Hollywood was in fact a “Sodom by the Sea” that needed to be monitored, censored, and, ideally, pushed into the Pacific Ocean.

For that, Fatty’s film-industry friends and collaborators resented Arbuckle profoundly. His alleged transgressions provided the puritanical groups with precisely the fodder they’d been after.

Related: The Black Dahlia Murder First Horrified the Public in 1947 — And It’s Haunted Us Ever Since

The studios openly disavowed the star who had made them so rich, and banned his pictures from playing anywhere, even going so far as to recall them from theaters all over the planet and destroy many of the prints.

The movie-biz money men also cowed Arbuckle’s costars and creative collaborators into silence. When Buster Keaton, Arbuckle’s dear friend, said something about believing Fatty to be innocent, the studios instantly reprimanded him.

Between November 1921 and April 1922, Fatty Arbuckle stood trial three times for the death of Virginia Rappe. The first two proceedings resulted in hung juries. The third jury not only quickly acquitted him, but each member signed a statement of apology that read:

“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for 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 woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”

"Arbuckle Exonerated" newspaper story [Wikipedia]

“Arbuckle Exonerated” newspaper story [Wikipedia]

It didn’t matter. Six days after the not-guilty verdict, Will H. Hays, the rigidly self-righteous head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (and who became most famous for instituting the “Hays Code” of movie censorship) banned Arbuckle from working on films anywhere in the United States for one year.

Arbuckle’s career never recovered. His films languished in lock-up and literally disintegrated into nonexistence. No one would hire Arbuckle. No would associate with him.

Arbuckle did direct a bit under the pseudonym “William Goodrich,” but the stink of media-enflamed scandal always clouded his every move. Fatty missed out on working through the entire rest of the 1920s, up until the end of the silent era that he had so hugely figured in establishing.

In 1932, more than a decade after repeatedly beating his raps, Warner Brothers did sign Arbuckle to a new contract. He made several shorts for them and, on his wedding anniversary, the studio said they wanted Arbuckle to direct and star in a new feature film.

After hearing the news, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle declared, “This is the best day of my life,” and then, almost immediately, dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot. He was 46.

Read more:
Smithsonian
History
BBC
Thought Co
The Guardian
Arbucklemania

Main photo: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle [WikiMedia Commons]

  • Martha Bartha

    He wasn’t Guilty. Blown out of Proportion!

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  • lasheekahaaron

    She shouldn’t of had so many abortions. And then drinking liquor also smh. It’s not his fault

    • Katlynk

      This is a lot of tabloid style information. Greg Merritt’s excellent and meticulously researched book, Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, completely refutes those abortion rumors about Virginia Rappe. She is the real victim of the incident because she lost her life.