September 11

This Day in History

Crime

Sep 11, 1921:

Silent-film star arrested for murder

Fatty Arbuckle, a silent-film era performer at the height of his fame, is arrested in San Francisco for the rape and murder of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle was later acquitted by a jury, but the scandal essentially put an end to his career.

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born on March 24, 1887, in Smith Center, Kansas. He worked as a vaudeville performer and starting in 1913, began appearing in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops comedies. Arbuckle became known for his comedic pratfalls and pie-throwing. In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own company and began writing and directing films, many of which starred his friend and fellow comedian Buster Keaton.  In 1919, the heavy-set actor signed a $1 million per year deal with Paramount Pictures, an extraordinary sum for the time.

In early September 1921, Arbuckle went to San Francisco with two male friends for a short vacation and checked into the St. Francis Hotel. The men hosted a party in their suite, during which a guest named Virginia Rappe, who had been drinking, became ill. Rappe, who was in her twenties, died several days later from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Maude Delmont, another guest at the party, claimed Arbuckle had raped Rappe and injured her bladder.

Arbuckle’s arrest on September 11 by the San Francisco police soon generated a massive scandal. Arbuckle maintained his innocence, but he was lambasted in the press and the public, unused to Hollywood scandal, boycotted his films. The politically ambitious San Francisco district attorney was determined to prosecute Arbuckle, even though Delmont turned out to be a questionable witness, with a criminal record of her own. Several other witnesses would later claim the prosecution had intimidated them into giving false testimony.

After two mistrials, the jury in Arbuckle’s third trial found him not guilty and even issued him an apology. Despite this favorable outcome for Arbuckle, the U.S. film industry nevertheless temporarily banned him. He subsequently attempted a comeback and even directed several films under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich, but his career never fully recovered and he struggled with alcoholism. Arbuckle died of heart failure at age 46 on June 29, 1933, in New York City.

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