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Tried In The Media

The first clash of Hollywood celebrity, the media, and the law came in the case of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933). Arbuckle was one of the highest paid and most popular actors in the growing motion picture industry. Arbuckle threw a party at a San Francisco hotel on September 5, 1921. During the party, a woman named Virginia Rappe ran screaming from a bedroom, became ill, and died mysteriously four days later. Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of Rappe.

The accusation caused a sensation in the national press and rumors spread wildly regarding Arbuckle's involvement in the death of Rappe. Perhaps more interested in selling his papers than in justice, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) printed numerous articles about the story. Hearst papers published stories smearing the reputation of Arbuckle and his friends, many of whom were urged not to testify on Arbuckle's behalf for fear of losing their careers.

Hearst raised so much contempt against Arbuckle that his wife, who maintained her husband's innocence, was shot at as she entered the courthouse during one of the three resulting trials. Hearst, for his part, was delighted, boasting that the Arbuckle case sold more newspapers than the German sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, which brought the United States into World War I (1914–18).

Arbuckle's first two trials resulted in mistrials (where juries are unable to agree on a verdict). Arbuckle was acquitted (found innocent) in his third trial, and many believed him the victim of a setup. The jury from the third trial even wrote Arbuckle an apology letter, a very rare event in American justice. The media frenzy and accusations were too much to overcome, however, and Arbuckle never worked in the movie industry again.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawMedia - History Of The Media And The Courts, Tried In The Media, The Crime Of The Century