Canceled: Fatty Arbuckle’s Fall from Grace
Fatty Arbuckle was one of the first artists recognized as a celebrity, so it makes sense that he was the first to be tied to a career-debilitating scandal. In an era where film creators attempted to anonymize actors, he had broken through and become a recognizable fan favorite. Everything changed when he was associated with the death of Virginia Rappe, and even after a not guilty verdict, it took more than a decade to repair his reputation.
The Crime and the Time
In 1921, the early stages of Prohibition, Fatty Arbuckle and a few friends hosted a party at the St. Francis Hotel in Los Angeles. During the weekend-long party, guest Virginia Rappe was found in one of Arbuckle’s hotel rooms, writhing in pain. Days later, she died due to a ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis.
The public heard several pieces of information, and it remains challenging to determine what really happened today. Here are just a few:
Arbuckle was seen leaving the room where Rappe was found. He steadfastly claimed he only helped her from where he found her on the bathroom floor to rest more comfortably on the bed.
Rappe had been drinking like all other attendees at the party. Still, the party taking place over several days seemed to make it difficult to pinpoint exactly who was awake, asleep, drunk, or sober at any point during the weekend.
Bambina Maude Delmont, a new friend who attended the party with Rappe, accused Fatty Arbuckle of raping Virginia Rappe, ultimately causing her death. She stated that Rappe told her about the attack, but no other witnesses to the claim ever emerged.
Delmont was a difficult witness as she had a police record for extortion, prostitution, and blackmail. While it didn’t mean she was lying, the prosecutors worked very hard to keep her off the stand since so much of the case rested on her accusation.
It was also rumored that Delmont had attempted to blackmail Arbuckle, which again doesn’t mean she was lying, but it certainly doesn’t help her credibility.
Multiple witnesses testified that Rappe had suffered from cystitis and venereal disease, leaving the jury with the idea that her death could have easily been the result of her pre-existing conditions.
It is important to remember that, though we may be relatively unaffected while reading these today, in the early 1920s, this was an incredibly shocking story. Additionally, people who had seen Fatty Arbuckle in the film had likely developed a kind of attachment to him and may have felt betrayed as they read the accusations. Then, like today, the public tends to connect to and even develop a kind of ownership of celebrities, often feeling more entitled than they are owed.
Arbuckle was initially charged with murder, which was later amended to manslaughter. I couldn’t find much detail about the change, but I would guess that murder was a reaction to the shocking crime and public outrage, and it was eventually realized that it would be too difficult to convict. A manslaughter conviction was more attainable.
The Trial in the Courtroom
Arbuckle was tried three times–two hung juries and an acquittal. Those who enjoy trial science should find everything they can about each trial because:
The first trial was almost an acquittal, with just one hold for a guilty verdict.
The second jury swung shockingly in the other direction, with the majority voting to convict. What could have changed?
Nearly losing the second trial and the frustration of presenting this case for the third time contributed to a change in the approach to the trial. It is reported that Arbuckle didn’t want to attack Rappe’s character in the first two trials. Still, by the third, he gave the okay to present evidence of various “immoral” facts and rumors related to previous acts and her lifestyle in general. Much like we see in court cases today, the approach of victim-shaming likely helped him earn not only an acquittal from the jury but an apology that the case had even been brought against him.
The Trial in the Media
That this crime occurred during Prohibition likely contributed to how it was received by the public. Here was proof that the consumption of alcohol leads to devastating results. Rumors were beginning to surface about rampant debauchery in Hollywood, and yellow journalism (what we might call clickbait today) only fueled the fire. In the 1920s, most people only had to read it to believe it, so Arbuckle’s conviction by the public was swift.
Possibly one of the first celebrities to be canceled, though no one had a name for it at the time, Fatty Arbuckle didn’t have the same opportunities after his trials as he had before the scandal. Protests erupted outside theaters where his films showed, and he was dropped by various business partners. In just a few months, Hollywood’s biggest movie star became the world’s biggest pariah.
A Decade Later
A little more than 10 years after his acquittal, Fatty Arbuckle was again experiencing success in the film industry. While he had found work behind the scenes and used a different name in previous years, it wasn’t until 1933 that he seemed to be making “big” deals again, returning to work with major studios. Sadly, after a celebratory dinner with his wife marking a life-changing new professional partnership, Arbuckle died of heart failure in his sleep.
Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths
For what seems to have been one of the most publicized crimes of the era, I am amazed at how many people I’ve talked to about this didn’t know the story. My first few recommendations are articles that summarize the case and its challenges, as well as how the media coverage affected everything from the investigation and reporting to the trial itself and Arbuckle’s life post-scandal.
Michael Schulman recently published a piece in the New Yorker called Fatty Arbuckle and the Birth of the Celebrity Scandal that I found to be very well-researched and engaging. Schulman provided a lot of detail while still keeping the piece moving–hitting all of the most pertinent points in the story to allow the reader to experience the case’s complexity.
The Smithsonian Magazine also published The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial, another well-researched and informative article written by Gilbert King, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
I’ll also recommend one of the podcasts I listened to–and I listened to several. Fatty Arbuckle: Scandal in Hollywood, a Crimes of Centuries with Amber Hunt podcast, was, in my opinion, the most professionally researched. There are a few others available, and I didn’t have any serious issues with the others. I just didn’t find them to be as credible. I always cringe when I hear critical elements of research glossed over with statements like, “I don’t really know which of these is accurate…” or mispronunciations of notable names (people, places, etc.). Amber Hunt definitely did her homework.
And finally, I’ve seen the book Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe recommended in a few different places, so while I haven’t read it myself, I’ve added it to my reading list.
If you have additional resources or thoughts about the case, please drop them in the comments!