In 1921, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the highest paid men in Hollywood. But on September 5 of that year, Arbuckle's life took a horrible turn nobody could have predicted. An aspiring actress, 25-year-old Virginia Rappe (pronounced ra-pay), took ill under strange circumstances at a weekend party Arbuckle was holding at a San Francisco hotel. Four days later, she was dead.
Arbuckle stood trial three times for Virginia's death. Two of the trials ended with hung juries. The third brought an unprecedented apology from the jury:
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. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
After the dust settled, it appeared that Virginia had died from delayed complications of a botched abortion, an abortion that according to a local criminal abortionist, would have been Virginia's fifth. A definitive cause of death will never be known, because her autopsy was performed illegally on site at Wakefield Sanitorium, an alleged abortion mill, without consulting the coroner's office. One of the doctors overseeing the autopsy, Dr. Melville Rumswell, was reputed to be an abortionist.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
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