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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 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.