Slander In the Silent Era – Yellow Journalism Begins.

After culling through my research as it pertains to airwave abuse for both radio and television I came upon a story that goes back to the silent era.  You will see how “Yellow Journalism” was in it’s hey day even at this time in history.  A sad statement of the world we live in.

It is the case of the “genius of silent cinema” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who travelled the vaudeville circuit at a very young age.  He was said to be a born comedian and at 26, in 1913 he hit it big when he signed with the infamous Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Comany and became one of the Keystone Kops. 1

Arbuckle was a heavy man, 250 – 300 pounds and that was part of his comedy.  He moved gracefully, threw pies and humorously tumbled around. In 1921 Arbuckle signed a three-year contract with Paramount for a whopping $1 million dollars, an unheard amount in Hollywood at the time and to celebrate just having completed three pictures and his new contract with Paramount, Arbuckle and a couple of friends drove up from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Saturday, September 3, 1921 for a Labour Day weekend party.

The Party

Arbuckle and his buddies checked into the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. They were on the twelfth floor in a suite that contained rooms 1219, 1220, and 1221 (room 1220 was the sitting room). On Monday, September 5, the party started early. Arbuckle greeted visitors in his pajamas and though this was during Prohibition, the liquor was flowing.  One of the guests at the party was an actress named Virginia Rappé (RAP-PAY), a 28-year old clothing designer and model, who had a minor acting career in films.At  3 pm, Arbuckle decided to leave the party to get dressed to go sight-seeing with a friend. He went into his bedroom (1219). What happened in the following ten minutes is disputed.

Delmont’s version

Bambina” Maude Delmont, a woman whom California police had filed at least 50 counts of extortion, bigamy, fraud and racketeering she was known as a ‘professional co-respondent,’ for blackmailers and frequently set-up famous people in order to blackmail them, claimed that Arbuckle pushed 26 year-old Virginia Rappe into his bedroom and said, “I’ve waited for this a long time.” Delmont said that a few moments later party-goers could hear screams from Rappe coming from the bedroom. Delmont claimed she tried to open the door, even kick it in, but couldn’t get it open. When Arbuckle opened the door, supposedly Rappe was found naked and bleeding behind him.  She “remembered this event perfectly” after downing 12 shots of hard liquor at the party!

Maude “Bambina” Delmont

Arbuckle’s version:

Arbuckle says that when he left his room to change clothes, he went into his adjoining bathroom and found Rappe on the floor covered in vomit. He picked her up and put her on the bed to rest and got her a glass of water which he said she asked for. Thinking she was just overly intoxicated, he left her get dressed and at 3:10 pm. in his tuxedo found Rappe had fallen off the bed. After putting her back into the bed he went into Room 1220 to get help. When others then entered the room, they found Rappe tearing at her clothes (something that has been claimed she did often when she was drunk). Party guests tried a number of strange treatments, including covering Rappe with ice, but she still wasn’t getting any better. The hotel staff were contacted and Rappe was taken to another room to rest. A doctor was called and with others looking after Rappe, Arbuckle left for the sight-seeing tour and then drove back to Los Angeles.

Rappe Dies

Rappe was not taken to the hospital on that day. And though she didn’t improve, she wasn’t taken to the hospital for three days because most people who visited her considered her condition to be caused by liquor. After four days and a lengthy delay by her friend Delmont, Rappe was taken to the Wakefield Sanitorium on Thursday, a maternity hospital known for giving abortions. Virginia Rappe died the following day from peritonitis, an inflammation (irritation) of the peritoneum, the thin tissue that lines the inner wall of the abdomen and covers most of the abdominal organs by a ruptured bladder.  There are two forms of peritonitis primary and secondary. Primary peritonitis is usually caused by liver disease. Fluid builds up in the abdomen, creating an environment for bacteria to grow. Secondary peritonitis is caused by other conditions that allow bacteria, enzymes, or bile into the peritoneum from a hole or tear in the gastrointestinal or biliary tracts. Such tears can be caused by pancreatitis, a ruptured appendix, stomach ulcer, Crohn’s disease, or diverticulitis. Peritoneal dialysis, which uses the blood vessels in the abdomen to filter waste from your blood when your kidneys can’ t .2  

On September 11, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with the murder of Virginia Rappe after Delmont went to the San Francisco Police, and filed charges that Roscoe Arbuckle had raped and caused the death of Rappé.  He was held on flimsy evidence

Virginia Rappe

Yellow Journalism

The papers went wild with this story. Some articles had Arbuckle crushing her with his weight and others had him raping her with a foreign object (the papers went into graphic details). In the newspapers, Arbuckle was assumed guilty and Virginia Rappe was an innocent girl. The papers excluded reporting that Rappe had a history of numerous abortions, with some evidence stating she might have had another a short time before the party. William Randolph Hearst, the symbol of yellow journalism, had his San Francisco Examiner cover the story. According to Buster Keaton, Hearst boasted that Arbuckle’s story sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania one of the largest stories of the time.

The public reaction to Arbuckle was fierce. Perhaps even more than the specific charges of rape and murder, Arbuckle became a symbol of Hollywood’s immorality. Movie houses across the country almost immediately stopped showing Arbuckle’s movies. The public was angry and they were using Arbuckle as a target.

The Trials

With the scandal as front page news on almost every newspaper, it was difficult to get an unbiased jury. The first Arbuckle trial began in November 1921 and charged Arbuckle with manslaughter. The trial was thorough and Arbuckle took the stand to share his side of the story. The jury was hung with a 10 to 2 vote for acquittal. One juror, a Mrs. Helen Hubbard, was one of the hold-outs. Hubbard — who held fingers in her ears during defense testimony — bragged that no one could change her mind, and that she intended to vote for conviction from the moment she’d heard Roscoe had been arrested. Because the first trial ended with a hung jury, Arbuckle had to be tried again. In the second trial, the defense did not present a very thorough case and Arbuckle did not take the stand. The jury saw this as an admission of guilt and deadlocked in a 10 to 2 vote for conviction. In the third trial, which began in March 1922, the defense again became pro-active. Arbuckle testified, repeating his side of the story. The main prosecution witness, Zey Prevon, had escaped house arrest and left the country. For this trial, the jury deliberated for only a couple of minutes (just enough time to write the statement below out in the hallway) and came back with a verdict of not guilty.

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

Arbuckle Blacklisted

Being acquitted was not the end to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s problems. In response to the Arbuckle scandal, Hollywood established a self-policing organization that was to be known as the “Hays Office.”

On April 18, 1922, Will Hays, the president of this new organization, banned Arbuckle from film making. Though Hays lifted the ban in December of the same year, Arbuckle’s career had been destroyed.

A Short Come-Back

For years, Arbuckle had trouble finding work. He eventually began directing under the name William B. Goodrich (similar to the name his friend Buster Keaton suggested – Will B. Good). Though Arbuckle had begun a come-back and had signed with Warner Brothers in 1933 to act in some comedy shorts, he was never to see his popularity regained. After a small one-year anniversary party with his new wife on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle went to bed and suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep. He was 46.

As you can see, these type of cases have been a part of history for a long time and the similarities between so many cases that we have seen over the past 20 years are all the same.  The slander and defamation of radio and newspaper continues and the result is the “victim” always suffering even after innocence has been proven.

“A man is nothing without his good name.”
— Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle 


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  1. #1 by SRMK on May 19, 2012 - 6:29 pm

    I once read a book by someone who claimed to be infamous in Tabloid Journalism. He was quite smugly pleased by that title. This author whose name I cannot remember now stated: (paraphrasing) “people do not pay attention to “nice” stories, they do not remember them”, “but tell a story of nasty sex, humiliation and violence and everyone will recount even if it is their own version.” I’ve heard or read this comment many times in the past 3 years so I wonder which came first the chicken or the egg? Are humans hard wired to enjoy learning of the suffering of others or is it relief in knowing it is not we who are doing the suffering?

    • #2 by SGAA on May 19, 2012 - 6:59 pm

      I would love to find out the name of this book SRMK. If you ever do remember, please pass it on here… Thank you for your most insightful comments.

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