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 young 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.
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.
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.
Because the first trial ended with a hung jury, Arbuckle had to be tried again. In the second Arbuckle 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 and came back with a verdict of not guilty. Additionally, the jury wrote an apology to Arbuckle:
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.
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.
By Jennifer Rosenberg 🙂