The Scandal of the Decade

     The Fatty Arbuckle trial was Hollywood’s most sensational scandal of the Roaring Twenties. Really, trials would be more accurate—the poor man endured three during 1921 and 1922, as the first two juries were deadlocked.

     Large since birth, Roscoe had been nicknamed Fatty as a child. He reportedly hated the name but it stuck, and he made the best of it. His weight (reportedly 250-300 pounds) certainly didn’t diminish his career on the stage and later in silent films. If you are familiar with the Keystone Cops, you know Fatty Arbuckle—he’s the biggest cop in the bunch, the one on the far right in this picture.

     Fatty was a good actor (see an early Keystone Cops film here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg1iVu62hiw), a great singer, a wonderful dancer, and a kind person: he was supposedly responsible for discovering or mentoring young comic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope. But that wasn’t enough to save him when he was accused of rape and murder after a wild party in a San Francisco hotel.

     The yellow press of that era went wild with the story, fabricating lurid details and printing anything that would sell papers. Fatty was accused of raping a woman and crushing her to death with his huge bulk. Or he raped her with a coke bottle. Or a champagne bottle (and this during Prohibition!). Or ice cubes. Whatever. Evidence was next to nothing, and the prosecution’s star witnesses had stories that changed every day, but the gullible public swallowed it whole. And gutless Hollywood moguls, who controlled the actors at that time, forbade anyone to comment on the story in a way that would support Fatty. They were terrified that the scandal would spread to Hollywood and ruin business, which to some extent it did.

     What actually caused the death of the young woman (an alcoholic who had undergone repeated abortions) only four days after the party was a ruptured bladder, possibly brought on by a recent abortion. She never accused Fatty of rape, and doctors found no evidence of rape or violence. The reason she wasn’t taken to the hospital sooner was because her friends all assumed she was drunk or hungover, and would sleep it off as usual. When she finally reached the hospital, peritonitis had set in, and she died.

      The first trial was a travesty of justice. The second was an exercise in stupidity—the defense decided to show their contempt for the prosecution’s case by not putting Fatty on the stand or even making closing remarks, something some members of the jury interpreted as an admission of guilt. So a third trial became necessary.

Next: Fatty’s vindication—and then punishment!

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