It was Labor Day, Monday, September 5, 1921. Roscoe Conkling was taking a much-needed break from his hectic work schedule. He and two friends, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fishback, who also worked in the silent film industry, had driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco to blow off some steam. They rented three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel. Two rooms were for sleeping and the third room was designated for partying.
On that Monday afternoon, the three friends invited several women up to the party room. One of those in attendance was Virginia Rappe, an actress who had been in at least thirteen silent films. In the film industry, Virginia was known for the “richness of her taste in clothing.” She was often called “the best dressed woman in the movies.”
The partygoers consumed large quantities of illegal alcohol. In 1921, prohibition in the United States was in its second year. During the party, Virginia was suddenly “stricken seriously ill.” One of the women at the party called the front desk and asked for help. She said one of the women, Virginia, had “become hysterical and was tearing off her clothing.” Before a physician could be called, Virginia collapsed.
When the general manager arrived, he was shocked to see the state of the party room. It was in total disarray. Pieces of broken furniture, alcohol bottles containing various amounts of liquor, and other debris were scattered throughout the room. The bed seemed to be the only piece of furniture in the room which was not overturned or outright destroyed. There on the bed, he found Virigina unconscious and, depending on who investigators asked, partially or completely nude. The manager called for a doctor who determined that Virginia had an “acute attack of alcoholism.” Her condition had not improved by the following morning and the doctor transported her to a nearby sanitarium. Based on the condition of the party room, the illegal liquor, and the state of Virginia’s health, the hotel manager asked Roscoe and his friends to leave the hotel. They returned to Los Angeles.
Despite the best efforts of several doctors, her condition did not improve. At about 1:30 p.m. on Friday, September 9, 1921, 30-year-old Virginia Rappe died. An autopsy found that she had died from a ruptured bladder. Upon her death, police began to investigate the affair. When investigators began questioning eyewitnesses, they got different stories as to what had occurred. The partygoer’s memories were blurred by alcohol. Some of them claimed Roscoe attacked, beat, and possibly raped or attempted to rape Virginia while others, including Roscoe himself, said he had nothing to do with her condition whatsoever. Within days of Virginia’s death, Roscoe was arrested and charged with murder. News spread quickly about Roscoe’s arrest for murder. Theaters all over the country refused to show Roscoe’s films.
Roscoe’s trial began on November 14, 1921. At about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday night, December 4, after deliberating for 30 hours, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The vote was 11-1 for acquittal. The case against Roscoe would have to be tried again. The second trial began on January 11, 1922. On February 3, after 40 hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked. The vote this time was 10-2 for conviction. After a second mistrial, a third trial began on March 13, 1922. By this time, Roscoe was forced to sell his home and his collection of cars to pay his legal fees. On April 12, jury deliberations began. Everyone expected jury deliberations to last for days as they had in the previous two trials, but the jury returned in only six minutes with a unanimous verdict… not guilty. After reading the not guilty verdict, the jury foreman read a prepared statement:
“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 [Roscoe], 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 woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”
Despite his best efforts, Roscoe’s film career never recovered. His reputation was damaged beyond repair. Friends said Roscoe found solace in a bottle. On June 19, 1933, a dozen years after Virginia’s death, there was hope for restoring Roscoe’s film career. He signed a contract with Warner Bros. to star in a feature-length film. That night, Roscoe, his third wife, and friends celebrated Roscoe’s first wedding anniversary and the new film contract. He told friends, “This is the best day of my life.” As he slept that night, Roscoe died from a heart attack. He was just 46 years old. Despite being wildly successful in the silent film industry, you may have never seen his films because of his tarnished reputation and the banning of his films, but you certainly have heard his name. In Hollywood, Roscoe had a nickname which he hated… “Fatty.” The man who was ultimately acquitted after three harrowing trials was Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle.
1. The San Francisco Examiner, September 10, 1921, p.1.
2. The Sacramento Bee, September 10, 1921, p.1.
3. The Marysville Appeal, September 11, 1921, p.1.
4. The San Francisco Examiner, September 11, 1921, p.2.
5. The San Francisco Examiner, September 12, 1921, p.3.
6. Woodland Daily Democrat, September 15, 1921, p.1.
7. The San Francisco Examiner, December 4, 1921, p.1.
8. The San Francisco Examiner, February 4, 1922, p.1.
9. The San Francisco Examiner, April 13, 1922, p.1.
10. The Fresno Bee, June 29, 1933, p.1.