On 5 September 1921, Roscoe went to San Francisco with two friends, checked into three rooms by the St. Francis Hotel, and used one for a little party. One of the guests was 26-year-old bit player Virginia Rappé.
When Roscoe saw her vomiting, she said she felt ill and asked to lie down. Roscoe carried her into the bedroom and went for help. When he returned, she was on the floor, tearing at her clothes, and violently convulsing. She was put in a cold bathtub and taken to another room, after which Roscoe called the manager and doctor. The doctor declared she’d had too much to drink, and gave her morphine.
Two days later, she was hospitalized, and Maude Delmont, whom she’d only met a few days before the party, accused Roscoe of rape. The doctor found no evidence, though Mrs. Delmont continued with her accusations.
On 9 September, Virginia passed away from secondary peritonitis and a ruptured bladder.
Mrs. Delmont went to the cops, and they jumped to the wild conclusion that Virginia’s bladder had ruptured due to the impact of Roscoe’s massive body.
Virginia’s manager, Al Semnacker, accused Roscoe of raping her with ice. Over time, it transmogrified into a bottle of champagne, Coca-Cola, and milk. Witnesses testified Roscoe only rubbed ice on her stomach to try to ease her abdominal pain.
Mrs. Delmont made a later statement to police in hopes of getting money from Roscoe’s lawyers.
Roscoe was arrested and arraigned on manslaughter charges on 17 September. After almost three weeks, bail came through.
Suite 1221 of the St. Francis Hotel, shortly after the party
During the three trials, several witnesses testified Virginia suffered from cystitis, which worsens by the imbibing of alcohol; venereal disease; and several substandard abortions within a few years (the last one days before the party).
The sleazy William Randolph Hearst absolutely loved this story, since it “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.” This was one of a number of Hollywood scandals which led to the creation of the infamous Hays Code.
The public judged Roscoe guilty immediately, and he went from mega-star to public enemy overnight. Many called for his death, studio executives issued a gag order prohibiting anyone from speaking up on his behalf, and his films were banned.
Though yellow journalists portrayed Roscoe as some obese sex fiend who literally threw his weight around with innocent young ladies, Roscoe was extremely shy with women, very sweet-natured, chivalrous, and known as “the most chaste man in pictures.”
Charlie Chaplin, who was in England at the time, positively spoke of Roscoe to reporters, and Roscoe’s best friend Buster Keaton got a mild reprimand for publicly speaking up in his defence. Cowboy actor William S. Hart, however, said some downright nasty, damaging things.
In response, Roscoe wrote a premise for a film parodying him as a wife-beater, bully, and thief, and sold it to Buster. In 1922, Buster made this film as two-reeler The Frozen North. Hart was so pissed, he didn’t speak to Buster for years.
Prosecutor Matthew Brady, San Fransisco District Attorney, made many public pronouncements of Roscoe’s alleged guilt, and pressured witnesses to lie under oath. During the indictment hearing, Mrs. Delmont was the star witness. Though the judge threatened to dismiss the case, Brady refused to let his own star witness testify by the actual trial.
Like many other liars, Mrs. Delmont was eventually caught. She had a very long criminal record, with numerous convictions for fraud, bigamy, extortion, and racketeering. She also supposedly was making a career out of luring men into compromising situations and taking photographs for use in divorce proceedings.
Roscoe’s lawyers also found a letter in which Mrs. Delmont admitted her plan to extort money from Roscoe.
During the three trials, Roscoe’s estranged wife Minta regularly came to court to support him. One time, she was shot at while entering the courtroom.
In addition to all the witnesses being caught out as liars, the abovementioned evidence about Virginia’s health also came to light.
Roscoe testified last, saying exactly what had happened at the party and how he’d tried to help.
A mistrial was declared, and a second trial, with a new jury, began 11 January 1922. More monkey business was uncovered, and there was another mistrial. A third trial began 13 March 1922.
Roscoe’s lawyer was much more aggressive the third time around, and finally, a unanimous not guilty verdict was declared, along with a major apology:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for 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 evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.