Fatty Arbuckle was a highly successful silent film era actor. He was reknown for his impressive comedic talent and singing abilities, as well as his incredible size. In his era, the early 20th century, a man of Arbuckle’s size was not common at all. He attracted all sorts of attention, often negative, for his body mass. Still, he was known to be an extremely kind man, soft spoken and very much a gentleman. Despite his addiction to morphine and alcohol, he was happily married to a woman he met a few years before his talent was put on display by the burgeoning Hollywood theatrical scene. Despite his popularity, kind-hearted nature and impressive wealth, he fell victim to a tragic accusation: rape.
Shortly after signing an unbelievable contract for unprecedented amount of money, Arbuckle and two of his friends decided to travel north to San Francisco and throw a soiree to celebrate Arbuckle’s absolute stardom. Over the course of a Labor Day weekend during the early days of the Prohibition Era, Arbuckle and his friends rented three rooms at the St. Francis hotel in downtown San Francisco. They revelry and merriment began early in the day on Labor Day; the ensuing dance party and socializing was fueled by a large stash of banned liquor.
Around 3 P.M., Arbuckle retired to his room to get changed and travel around the city. At this time, a young woman named Virginia Rappe was in his bathroom, in intense distress from alcohol consumption and her personal medical issues, profusely throwing up. Arbuckle helped her to his bed, as he thought she merely had drank too much. He left the room briefly and came back, only to find her writhing body on the floor. Arbuckle, once again, placed her back on the bed. Rappe was an intensely disturbed and unstable individual. She was born to a single mother and, by some accounts, had already had four abortions by the tender age of sixteen. She had fought bouts of venereal disease, had medical conditions that were worsened by her alcoholism and took to claiming men had harmed or wronged her once she was drunk.
Observing this situation between Arbuckle and Rappe was the manipulative Bambina Delmont. She had a terrible reputation as a serial accuser of misdeeds in order to swindle and blackmail various celebrities in Hollywood. Once she had seen Arbuckle repeatedly leave the room and return the crafty gears in her mind began to turn. Belmont would falsely claim she had to force her way into the room, only to find Rappe nude and bloodied, with Arbuckle’s obese and nude body blocking the door.
In reality, Arbuckle had left to grab a bucket of ice, as to ease the pain she claimed to be emanating from her swollen abdomen. He and some guests began to rub ice on her abdomen and her thighs, trying to calm her insistent cries. At this juncture, Rappe uttered a fatally damning statement to the rapt attention of Belmont: “What did he do to me, Maudie? [Arbuckle] did this to me.” Rappe was placed in an ice bath that calmed her nerves and eased her outbursts. Hotel staff was contacted and she taken to a room to rest. A doctor administered morphine to ease her pain. She eventually was admitted to a hospital a couple days later, where she died of a ruptured bladder.
Arbuckle traveled back to Los Angeles, only find out that within a week, his whole life would crumble before his eyes. An ambitious young prosecutor in San Francisco wanted a blockbuster case and saw this situation as his case. His star witness, the aforementioned Belmont, changed her story significantly every time she recounted the incident to authorities. That did not stop him from pursuing Arbuckle legally.
However, what felled Arbuckle was the machinations of William Randolph Hearst, a calculating man who saw the incredible power of the emerging national press. He was the leading proponent of yellow journalism and actively sought to distort stories and situations in order to further his profits and status.
He published incredibly sensationalistic fare that painted Arbuckle was a serial abuser of Rappe, having not just ruptured her bladder through his great weight that crushed her body, but also assaulted her with a Coke bottle. Hearst played off America’s distrust of Hollywood’s sexual freedom and rampant abuse of substances. Further, painted the obese Arbuckle was a rank glutton, even though Arbuckle had been overweight since childhood – suggesting biological reasons for his weight. Still, this media coverage was absolutely damning and completely ruined Arbuckle’s career. He subsequently was tried three times for his role in the death of the Rappe, with the final trial resulting in acquittal, with the jury issuing an apology—completely unprecedented for a jury.
In the aftermath, he was temporarily banned from Hollywood and had his movies banned as well. He was allowed to return and began to do work under a pseudonym, Will B. Good. Little came of this so he took to abusing alcohol and morphine to ease his anguish. In the summer of 1933, right after signing a new contract to do a new movie, he died of a heart attack in his sleep at age 46.
In the aftermath of this debacle, it is universally recognized that Arbuckle was innocent of the rape accusation. As usual in America, a dogmatic and hateful witch-hunt — usually fueled by the media — results in innocent people having their lives completely ruined, only to have people posthumously issue apologies for their inability to rationally approach accusations of crimes and misdeeds. America, starting with the Salem Witch Trials, has a long and off-putting history of abusing the criminal justice system in order to slake America’s thirst for moral judgmentalism. However, what is most salient about the Arbuckle situation was the role the media played.
Hearst was a pioneer in yellow journalism, a type of reporting that is, essentially, sensationalizing news stories with the aim of increasing profits. Hearst was a master of misleading headlines, manipulating facts to fit a prefabricated narrative and pitting underdogs against allegedly far more powerful forces. This sort of reporting has lead to the wasteland of so-called news sites such as Jezebel, Daily Kos, Fox News and MSNBC. Just about any mainstream news source has strong roots in yellow journalism.
In his greedy and self-absorbed pursuit of control of media, Hearst created a false god of sorts, as he helped establish that the media is the decider of what is or is not a significant story, what the issues to be debated are, the character of the people they report, etc. He established that the media is the ultimate authority in America. His completely negative portrayal of Arbuckle did not just reaffirm the image conservative society held of Hollywood, but inadvertently created the media Leviathan that we have today.
People never complain when the media reports stories in a way that affirms their ideology or sympathies, they don’t speak out when a story is clearly slanted in a way that dishonestly represents an issue they agree with. People only complain when figures in media represent an issue in a way that conflicts with their ideology or sympathies. Take Trayvon Martin. The whole issue was an embarrassingly obvious example of this, as two discrete camps — both created and fueled by the media — emerged, with one camp claiming Zimmerman did not kill Martin out of racism and the other camp asserting Martin was killed because of his race.
The question that never surfaced was whether the state could prove that Zimmerman met the standard of proof necessary to convict a person of a hate crime. That was the sole issue presented, not the deluge of side issues produced by the media in order to drive revenues. I have no doubt most people have a strong opinion on this issue and that is the point — the media wants to decide the arc of issues and what you think. All liberal outlets were distraught at Zimmerman’s acquittal, wondering aloud why the jury got the verdict wrong, while the media got it right. The media gets to be the deciders while people get a public forum in which they prove they aren’t X, Y or Z; in the Zimmerman case, people get a public forum in which they can prove they are not racist.
As was seen with the tragic life of David Reimer, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle was just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. His place amongst the stars was aborted by the despicable machinations of a woman possessed with the desire to rip apart men who were more successful than her. On that fateful day in a San Franciscan hotel, Belmont found a perfect target in Arbuckle — a fat, emerging star of the suspiciously-viewed Hollywood who was too kind and nice for his own good. He was just an object, a cog in the games of the self-possessed people around him: Belmont who wanted to sow the seeds of discord, the prosecutor who desired the Californian governorship and William Randolph Hearst who desired to both discredit Hollywood and maximize his profits.
Eventually, Arbuckle’s life was lost to the depressing vices of alcohol and painkillers, but his demise portends greater lessons for America. As Hearst proved, the media Leviathan he helped created wasn’t interested in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, but profits based out of preying on America’s collective social psychology. This Leviathan exists to this day, pretending to provide objective news while shunting said news through the idea that the media is the decider of truth in society.
Whether truth or rationality was the goal of American media at any point is irrelevant because of what America media has become — a massive authoritarian project aimed at maximizing profits through recruiting loyal followers that suborn their own thoughts and interpretations of situations, events and people through the lens of the preferred media provider. The great sleight of hand is media allowing people enough space to believe they are thinking for themselves or coming to realizations when in fact it is spoon-fed to them by media.
Was the information that exonerated Arbuckle readily available to the consumers of media? No. He was treated as guilty from the outset and Hearst actively suppressed any information or evidence that contradicted his narrative that Arbuckle was nothing more than an obese rapist that killed his victim through his weight. Hearst’s supreme desire to control the narrative far outweighed the reporting of facts over interpretations. People thought they were realizing that Arbuckle was a gluttonous rapist – they were told that in a fashion that made them think it was a judgment they made, not made for them.
You should always beware a man that seeks to deny your access to knowledge, for in his heart he seeks to be your master.