true crime

Hollywood's strange first story of alleged sexual assault, where nothing was what it seemed.

Roscoe Arbuckle may have gone down in history as one of the legends of cinema, up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Instead, he’ll always be remembered for what happened in room 1219 at the luxury St Francis hotel in San Francisco.

During a three-day party in September 1921, a young model, Virginia Rappe, was found on a bed in the room, screaming in agony. Arbuckle was in the room with her. Rappe died four days later from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder.

Rappe’s friend, Maude Delmont, who was with her at the party, told police that Arbuckle had raped Rappe. She claimed the two had been drinking, then Arbuckle had pulled Rappe into the hotel room, saying, “I’ve waited for you five years, and now I’ve got you.”

Delmont said half an hour later, she heard screaming and tried to break into the room. When Arbuckle opened the door, Rappe was on the bed behind him. According to Delmont, Rappe said, “Arbuckle did it.”

Arbuckle’s version of events was that he had been drinking with Rappe, and she had become “hysterical”, complained of not being able to breathe, and had ripped off her clothes. He claimed he had later found her in the bathroom of the hotel room, vomiting, and he and some of the other guests had tried to revive her.

Police charged Arbuckle with manslaughter.

Hollywood's first sexual assault case.
Rising Hollywood star Roscoe Arbuckle. Image via Getty.

Arbuckle was Hollywood’s first million-dollar star. He’d been paid $3 million by Paramount to star in 18 silent films. He was also a talented singer and, despite his large size, was a gifted dancer who was light on his feet. His wife was the well-known actress Minta Durfee, but they had recently separated.

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Rappe, meanwhile, was not just a model, but had also had a few small film roles and was a fashion designer. She wore tuxedos, and asserted that women should have “equal clothes rights with men”. For “relaxation”, she would compete in car races.

Newspapers published all sorts of wild rumours. It was reported that Arbuckle had used a Coke bottle or a champagne bottle in the assault, and that the pressure of his 120kg weight, as he brutally forced himself on Rappe, had caused her bladder to explode.

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Studio execs, afraid of the impact on the box office, told their stars not to speak out in support of Arbuckle. Charlie Chaplin, however, defended Arbuckle, saying he knew him to be “a genial, easy-going type who would not harm a fly”.

But here's where the whole story becomes shrouded in mystery.

Wild rumours aside, the evidence against Arbuckle was strangely shaky. Rappe’s autopsy showed there were “no marks of violence on the body, no signs that the girl had been attacked in any way”. As for the star witness, Delmont, it was discovered she was a convicted criminal who had tried to extort money from Arbuckle.

So Arbuckle's lawyers used a predictable strategy to argue his innocence: complete character assassination of Rappe. At the time, the San Francisco Call & Post wrote, "We should learn whether Miss Rappe died as a result of attending the Arbuckle party, or many such parties… it will be the duty of the court to determine whether Miss Rappe was a 'virtuous girl' or a bad girl." There were rumours she was a sex worker, an alcoholic, and had venereal disease.

But still - the image remained in other spheres of an out-of-control man attacking a young woman, and by the time he appeared in court, his career was in tatters. People spat in his face outside the courtroom, and moral crusaders called for him to be given the death penalty.

Virginia Rappe - Hollywood's first sexual assault case.
Virginia Rappe. Image via Getty.
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The jury ended up deadlocked, 10-2 in favour of acquittal. A second trial produced another deadlocked jury.

By the time the third trial came along, Arbuckle had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees. He allowed his lawyers to go all-out on Rappe’s past, and ultimately, it was suggested that her death may have been caused by an illegal abortion.

The jury took just six minutes to find Arbuckle not guilty. They spent four of those six minutes writing him an apology.

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle," the apology read. "A grave injustice has been done."

Arbuckle held onto that written apology for the rest of his life.

To this day, it remains a mystery how Virginia Rappe died. Many now think it may have been the result of an accident - of two people, both Rappe and Arbuckle, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But almost a century later, it's exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. To pull apart tabloid sensationalism from true accounts, and sexist stereotypes from facts.

Even after he was acquitted, Arbuckle struggled to find work in Hollywood. His wife Durfee divorced him, although they stayed friends.

In 1932, Arbuckle began acting again, under his real name. The following year, on June 29, he signed a contract to star in a feature film. That night, he went out to dinner to celebrate the contract and the first anniversary of his marriage to actress Addie McPhail. He reportedly said it was “the best day of my life”.

That night he died in his sleep, aged 46.

Rappe, however, had her memory entirely maligned by the mystery surrounding her death. She was one of the first women to make a living as an actress and model, and was one of the pioneers of women adopting masculine clothing. But sexist rumours suggested in the decades after she died that she was at fault - for a freak injury no one has been able to compellingly explain.

While the events of September 1921 might always remain a mystery, the last few months have seen a dramatic shift in the way we respond to any accusations of harassment or assault. Not with stigmatisation or attempts to discredit the victim - but with respect, compassion and fairness.

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