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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.

The press then: The New York Times ran front page stories on the Arbuckle scandal. One of the headlines: "Arbuckle Dragged Rappe Girl To Room, Woman Testifies." David Yallop, author of The Day the Laughter Stopped: the True Story of Fatty Arbuckle says, "The New York Times, which was to become a relentless critic not only of Arbuckle but of any person or group who tried to help him. . . competed daily with the tabloids, lending authority to the attack." The Hearst newspapers ran extra editions. Writing for Hearst, Lannie Haynes Martin said Virginia Rappe's "every impulse was said to have been wholesome and kindly," and compared Arbuckle's St. Francis hotel party to "the corrupt saturnalia of ancient Rome." William Randolph Hearst later said that the Arbuckle scandal sold more newspapers than the Lusitania sinking.

The press now: Newsweek's treatment was typical: on its May 1 cover, the magazine ran mug shots of two of the accused Duke lacrosse players, with the headline, "Sex, Lies & Duke."

Public reaction then: A dozen policemen had difficulty controlling members of the Women's Vigilante Committee, who appeared at the courthouse for Arbuckle's trial. As Stuart Oderman writes in Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, "At a signal from their leader, who cried 'America, do your duty,' the committee . . . covered Roscoe with spit." Movie director Henry Lehrman said he'd murder Arbuckle if he were acquitted. Gloria Swanson said Arbuckle was a "fat, course, vulgar man." Theater owners across the country announced that Fatty Arbuckle films would no longer be shown in their places of business.

Public reaction now: On March 26, a group of citizens performed what they termed "a wake-up call," standing outside the Durham home where the alleged Duke rape occurred, banging pots and pans. Duke University suspended the lacrosse team, later reinstating it for next season.

The changing story then: The Arbuckle prosecution was based largely on the testimony of Maude Delmont, who admitted to the grand jury that she had consumed ten drinks of whiskey the day of the party. "Maude Delmont was known to be a woman often hired to get compromising photos of men for the purposes of manipulation or blackmail," says Howie Tune of the Reno Gazette-Journal. Delmont told the grand jury that Arbuckle and Rappe were in the bedroom an hour, and that she (Delmont) heard Rappe screaming. She claimed that when Arbuckle emerged his clothes were wet and clinging to him.

But Maude Delmont changed her story each time she re-told it, and eventually the prosecution deemed her not credible. She was never called as a witness.

Another young lady at the party, actress Zey Prevon, initially told the police, "When I walked into the room, Virginia was writhing on the floor, and in pain, and she said to me, 'He killed me. Arbuckle did it." But later, before the grand jury, her recollection was different: "I didn't see very much, and I was repeating what Maude Delmont had told me."

The changing story now: The alleged Duke lacrosse team accuser originally told police that 20 men had raped her. Later she said it had been three men. Raleigh-Durham station WRAL reports that a police report stated the accuser first said she was groped, not raped. She repeatedly altered her account of how much she had drunk that night. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus says the accuser has changed her story six times now.

The other dancer that night, Kim Roberts, first told police that the accuser's account of being raped was "a crock." She said she was with the accuser all the while the accuser was in the house except for five minutes. But Roberts later said a rape might have occurred.

The prosecutor then: District Attorney Matthew Brady prosecuted Arbuckle. In Hollywood: the Pioneers, Kevin Brownlow writes "An intensely ambitious man, he planned to run for governor. Here, presented to him in the most sensational terms, was the scandal of the century--an apparent open and shut case." One of the guests at the St. Francis hotel party, model Betty Campbell, testified that Brady threatened to jail her if she didn't testify against Arbuckle.

The prosecutor now: Mike Nifong is the Durham prosecutor. He is running for reelection in a heavily African American district. The victim is an African American, as is the other dancer. Nifong told the Raleigh News & Observer that he has given 50 to 70 interviews regarding the case. In the election for district attorney on May 2, he defeated two Democratic opponents in the primary. No Republican had filed to run against him, but several are now considering it.

The physical evidence then: The prosecution argued that Arbuckle's weight (somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds) burst Virginia Rappe's bladder during the rape. Yet the defense lawyers showed that such an occurrence--a bladder bursting from this kind of external force--was almost an impossibility. The defense also introduced evidence showing that syphilis or cancer could have cause the rupture, as could coughing, sneezing or vomiting. In Frame-Up, Andy Edmonds writes that Dr. William Ophuls was called by the prosecution and Dr. G. Rusk by the defense, and both agreed that "the bladder was ruptured, that there was evidence of chronic inflammation, that there were signs of acute peritonitis, and that the examination failed to reveal any pathological change in the vicinity of the tear preceding the rupture. In short--the rupture was not caused by external force."

The physical evidence now: The nurse-in-training found the Duke accuser's body to be normal, with no bruises, Newsweek reports based on medical documents quoted in defense pleadings. The nurse determined the accuser had swelling in her vaginal walls, which can be caused by normal intercourse. Fox News has said the victim acknowledged having intercourse with three men before the party. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus reports that the accuser told police she had performed using a vibrator several hours earlier, which could also have caused the swelling.

Reviewing this and other evidence, Newsweek's Evan Thomas and Susannah Meadows conclude the district attorney "had very little evidence upon which to indict three players for rape." On April 10, results of the DNA tests taken of 46 Duke lacrosse players revealed no connection between the players and the accuser.

Arbuckle's first trial resulted in a hung jury. So did the second trial. At the end of the third trial, the jury deliberated only six minutes, during which time they wrote an apology to Arbuckle which said, "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. . . . There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. . . . We wish him success. . ."

It wasn't to be. Buster Keaton never deserted his friend Fatty Arbuckle, and in the years ahead gave him a few directing jobs, which Arbuckle did under a pseudonym. But Arbuckle never reclaimed any of the glitter or the money or his reputation. He died June 29, 1933 at age 46, of heart failure, the medical examiner concluded. Buster Keaton was more accurate: "He died of a broken heart."

No one knows how it will end for the Duke lacrosse players.

James Thayer is a frequent contributor to The Daily Standard. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.