Hollywood Superstar Accused of Raping Aspiring Actress to Death
Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, better known as Fatty Arbuckle (1887 – 1933), was a comedian, director, screenwriter, and early superstar actor during the silent film era. A heavy man, weighing about 300 pounds, he incorporated his heft into his comedy, moving gracefully, tumbling, throwing pies, and being an all-around lovable and jolly fat guy. In addition to acting, Arbuckle was a Hollywood mover and shaker. He mentored Charlie Chaplain, with whom he formed a close personal friendship, and discovered and launched the careers of future stars such as Buster Keaton and Bob Hope.
Then scandal struck, and destroyed Fatty Arbuckle’s career and reputation. It began with a wild party at a San Francisco hotel, where Arbuckle and friends rented adjacent luxury suites in September of 1921. Several women were invited, and at some point during the revelry, an aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe, was found seriously ill in one of the suites. The hotel’s doctor examined her, concluded she was just super drunk, and gave her morphine to calm her.
Two days later, Rappe was rushed to a hospital, and there, a friend claimed that Fatty Arbuckle had raped her at the party. The next day, Rappe died of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Medical examinations found no evidence of rape. Newspapers had a field day, however, printing increasingly salacious stories. Some alleged that Fatty Arbuckle had killed Virginia Rappe with his weight while raping her. Other stories claimed that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with a piece of ice. That eventually grew into accusations that he had ruptured her insides by raping her with a bottle of Coca-Cola or champagne.
Police investigators went with the theory that the heavy impact of the overweight Arbuckle’s atop Virginia Rappe during sex caused her bladder to rupture. Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing but was arrested and charged with essentially having raped Virginia Rappe to death. It was a major media event – the OJ Simpson criminal scandal of the day.
Arbuckle was regarded by those who knew him as good-natured and shy with women – “the most chaste man in pictures“, as some put it. Charlie Chaplain, for example, “knew Roscoe as a genial and easy-going man, who would not harm a fly“. However, newspapers went with a far different image, depicting him as a gross pervert, who routinely used his massive bulk to overpower and rape innocent girls.
The prosecution’s case fizzled, however, when it emerged that San Francisco’s District Attorney, an ambitious man with plans to run for California governor, had pressured witnesses into lying. The defense also obtained a letter from the state’s star witness, Virginia Rappe’s friend who had had first leveled accusations of rape, admitting that she had planned to extort money from Arbuckle.
In the trial, the state produced little credible evidence, and medical experts demonstrated that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by an internal inflammation, not by an outside force. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal, and a mistrial was declared. A second trial again ended in a 10-2 deadlock in favor of a not guilty verdict. A third trial was launched, and at its conclusion, the jury took just six minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Arbuckle was thus exonerated, but his reputation and standing never recovered, and his career was effectively destroyed.