AFTER MORE than 80 years of journalistic investigation, the consensus among students of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal is that in acquitting the comedian of manslaughter, the jury got it right. So who, or what, killed Virginia Rappe? David Yallop, in his 1979 study The Day the Laughter Died, presents compelling evidence that the culprit was the person or persons who botched an illegal abortion. Rappe, an orphan who was raised on the mean streets of Chicago, was known to have had the operation at least five times before then. San Francisco was a common destination for out-of-town patients who wanted to have the procedure performed in anonymity. It’s speculated that this was the very reason the Los Angeles–based Rappe was in the Bay Area on the fateful weekend.
The evidence? The autopsy revealed a tear in the bladder, which is consistent with a poorly performed procedure. This would explain the excruciating abdominal pain she suffered at Arbuckle’s party. More intriguing, though, was the in-court testimony about a postmortem examination that was conducted illegally prior to notifying the coroner about Rappe’s death. The examination was done at a maternity hospital, where Rappe was brought when her condition was diagnosed as fatal—which raises the question of why a woman would be brought to such a place if concerns were not pregnancy-related. Here the very organs that could have confirmed whether or not the actress had an abortion were removed and destroyed. Did hospital personnel perform this quickie postmortem as a means to cover up their own culpability in the death of a patient?
There are, however, those who view proponents of the abortion angle as conspiracy buffs. Rappe may well have suffered from peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen that would be aggravated by consumption of alcohol. All these years after the fact—and after the death of all the principals involved—the truth may never be known.