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"Fatty" Arbuckle Trials: 1921-22

Tabloids Conjure Up Lurid Details, "a General Lowering Of The Moral Standards", "until Hell Freezes Over"

Defendant: Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle
Crime Charged: Manslaughter
Chief Defense Lawyer: Gavin McNab
Chief Prosecutor: Matthew Brady
Judge: Harold Louderback
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trials: November 14-December 4, 1921; January 11-February 3, 1922; March 13—April 12, 1922
Verdicts: First and second trials: Jury deadlocked; Third trial: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The trials of "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood's most popular and highest-paid comedian, for manslaughter not only destroyed the defendant's career, they also focused America's attention on the level of morality in the movie-making kingdom. Coming just when nationwide efforts were under way to censor the film industry, the trial brought the immediate establishment of "the Hays office" and, in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code—the industry's self-regulatory system.

In five years, "Fatty" Arbuckle had climbed from the vaudeville stage to the 1$1,000-a-day pinnacle of stardom in silent films. America adored his uproarious antics with the Keystone Kops, his deadly aim with a custard pie, his lightfooted, talented dancing. He was the first movie comedian to sign a $3-million contract.

When America learned that Arbuckle had thrown a wild party in a San Francisco hotel at which he—according to a complaint sworn out by one Maude Delmont—had raped and murdered actress Virginia Rappe, it was ready for a lurid trial. The country got not one but three trials, each loaded with juicy details of the alleged sexual rampage committed by the 266-pound Arbuckle. For eight months, the Hearst newspapers fed the country a diet of three-inch headlines. But, as the jury of the third trial recognized by voting acquittal in only five minutes, the sensationalism of the newspapers and the truth were far apart.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940