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Fatty and Duke

The tale of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle has some eerie similarities to the Duke lacrosse scandal.

12:00 AM, Jul 21, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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The man is bantam thin, and he enters the store carrying a metal bucket. The expression on his face is a mix of naiveté and determination. He is wearing a flat porkpie hat which, in a few years, will become famous. He fiddles with several brooms, flips a coin several times, then tastes a drop of molasses from a barrel's spigot.

He places the bucket on the counter in front of a clerk, who is a rotund young man wearing a bowler hat three sizes too small, pants that show four inches of white socks, and the slightly pained expression of one enduring tight shoes. The customer puts the porkpie hat on the counter, and points to the bucket. The clerk fills it with molasses.

The clerk--who is built like a Dutch barge--demands payment. The customer indicates his coin is at the bottom of the bucket, under the molasses. While the customer isn't looking, the irritated clerk pours the molasses from the bucket into the customer's hat. When the customer puts on his hat, the dark molasses drips down his face, soaks his clothes, and covers the floor.

The customer's shoes become stuck in the muck, and the fat clerk tries to help lift the customer off the floor, but the customer's shoes act as if they've been nailed down, and then, of course, things only get worse. The plot is minimal and the mayhem is maximal, and the store is quickly reduced to a shambles.

The Butcher Boy was made in 1917, and is one of the great slapstick silent movies. It is notable, too, because it was Buster Keaton's first film, and because it helped make Roscoe Arbuckle the most popular movie actor in America, save maybe only Charlie Chaplin.

Roscoe Arbuckle was billed as Fatty, though he hated the nickname and his friends never called him by it. In 1921--back when a plumber earned about $2,600 a year--Fatty Arbuckle signed an unprecedented million dollar per-year contract with Paramount Pictures Corporation. More Americans could recognize Arbuckle's perfectly round face than President Harding's.

Two years later, Fatty Arbuckle's career was in ruin. The media and public had turned on him and he faced the prospect of the gas chamber, having been accused of the vicious rape and murder of a young actress. Most historians and analysts now believe the charge was entirely false, and that Arbuckle had nothing to do with the woman's death.

The similarities between Fatty Arbuckle's travails and those of the three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape are eerie and instructive. And for anyone interested in justice, they are alarming.

Fatty Arbuckle celebrated his contract with Paramount by driving his new $25,000 Pierce Arrow up the coast to San Francisco with two friends. They rented a suite at the St. Francis Hotel, and they began to party. It was a hot ticket. Two aspiring actresses were admitted, Virginia Rappe (pronounced Ra-PAY) and Margaret Delmont. Everyone was drinking and dancing to a Victrola. Two more young women were admitted ten minutes later: Alice Blake and Zey Prevon.

According to Arbuckle's trial testimony, this is what happened up in his St. Francis suite: he tried to enter the bathroom, but someone was leaning against the door. He squeezed in to find Virginia Rappe on the bathroom floor, moaning, vomiting, and clutching her stomach. Thinking she was drunk, he cleaned her up, then carried her to a bed and left her there to rejoin to the party.

According to the prosecutor: Arbuckle pushed Rappe toward his bedroom, saying, "I've waited a long time for this." A few moments later screams came from the bedroom. Maude Delmont tried to open the door but could not. Then Arbuckle opened the door from the inside, and when Delmont entered the bedroom, she found Virginia Rappe naked and bleeding. According to Maude Delmont, Rappe cried out, "He did it. I know he did it. I have been hurt. I'm dying."

Virginia Rappe wasn't immediately taken to a hospital because Arbuckle and others thought she was merely drunk. When Rappe didn't improve, two doctors attended to her, and then she was finally admitted to Wakefield Sanitarium, a maternity hospital, where she died the following day--four days after the alleged rape--from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Fatty Arbuckle was indicted for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe.

So let's compare then and now.