'Cancel Culture,' Roaring Twenties-Style
Jack Dempsey (left) and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

'Cancel Culture,' Roaring Twenties-Style

Kevin Mims
Kevin Mims
12 min read

The term “cancel culture” has become hotly contested of late. Critics say it is indiscriminately used to describe different degrees of mass opprobrium produced by transgressions that range from the trivial to the criminal. Now, while mob justice is never a particularly good idea, it is certainly true that some instances are more serious than others. Probably the worst kind involves a serious accusation made against a public figure, who is then investigated and cleared, but whose life and reputation are never allowed to completely recover.

I was reminded of this reading Claire Lehmann’s recent essay about the fate of Giovanni da Col, a young man driven from the journal he founded amid accusations of sexual and financial impropriety, despite the fact that these claims had been investigated and found to be baseless. Woody Allen, meanwhile, had his career belatedly derailed by the reemergence of child molestation allegations, first made by his estranged partner Mia Farrow during an ugly custody fight in 1992. These claims, too, were thoroughly investigated at the time and dismissed, but that has not prevented shame and reprisals 25 years later.

Injustices like these are obviously not unique to our time. If we look back 100 years or so, to the 1920s, we find similar instances of persecution and shunning that outlast vindication of the accused. It may be of little consolation to da Col and Allen today, but history has not been kind to those who participated in these campaigns and a lot more sympathetic to its victims.

During the so-called Roaring Twenties, prizefighter Jack Dempsey was one of America’s biggest celebrities, his fame surpassed only by that of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and a few stars of the silent screen. But in January of 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter by Dempsey’s ex-wife, Maxine, in which she accused the heavyweight champion of having illegally conspired with his manager and others to evade the draft during World War I. This was an explosive accusation. The war was still fresh in the minds of most Americans, many of whom had fought in it and/or lost loved ones in it. The idea that the country’s most famous fighting man might have illegally shirked his obligation to fight for his country struck many as scandalous. Soon editorial writers were calling Dempsey a slacker, a coward, or worse. In his biography of the champ, Jack Dempsey, The Manassa Mauler, writer Randy Roberts quotes this wretchedly wrought editorial from the New York Times as typical of the media pile-on that occurred after Maxine’s letter was published:

Dempsey says that he is not a draft dodger. Technical facts sustain him. His adherents assert that his negative patriotism, negative actions, brings [sic] him forth from the slacker shadows and put him, head up and dauntless, in the clear light of noble duty, nobly done…Dempsey, whose profession is fighting, whose living is combat, whose fame is battle; Dempsey, six feet one of strength, in the glowing splendor of youth, a man fashioned by nature as an athlete and a warrior—Dempsey did not go to the war, while weak-armed, strong-hearted clerks reeled under pack and rifle; while middle-aged men with families volunteered; while America asked for its manhood…There rests the reason for the Dempsey chorus of dispraise.

The main “technical fact” that sustained Dempsey’s argument that he was no draft dodger was the simple truth: he had been granted a 4-A exemption by the draft board in San Francisco, his home at the time. In the World War I era, a man could be exempted from military service if he could prove that he worked in an industry vital to national security, or if he could prove that he was the sole support of his family. Dempsey applied for an exemption on the grounds that he was the sole supporter of his wife, his parents, his widowed sister, and her children. This was true except for the fact that Maxine, a prostitute by trade, frequently grew bored during Dempsey’s long road trips and returned to her old profession, which meant she was not entirely dependent on Dempsey. It is understandable why Dempsey might have wanted to leave that information off his exemption request.

In his biography, Roberts points out that Dempsey was hardly the only celebrated American athlete to have avoided combat during WWI:

During a time of war, an athlete is placed in a unique position. Most men who return safely after serving in the military during their twenties can resume their normal occupation when they are discharged. But if an athlete is forced from his occupation for two or three years during his prime, the results can be disastrous.

He notes that Babe Ruth enlisted in the Massachusetts Home Guard, a reserve unit, which allowed him to serve both his country and the Boston Red Sox during the war years. Likewise, writes Roberts, “Bill Tilden literally served out his stint in the Signal Corps giving tennis lessons to his commanding officer in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of professional athletes followed this path, technically doing their duty but not missing a single season of athletic competition.”

Today, a prominent individual can find himself in the hot seat for behavior engaged in years ago (appearing in blackface, making a gay joke, etc.) which wasn’t all that controversial at the time. Likewise, back in the twenties, some hyperpatriotic types began retroactively trying to shame celebrities who had employed technical gambits during the war years to avoid combat. Still, the controversy surrounding Dempsey’s 4-A exemption might have died out quickly had Maxine (possibly prodded by a newspaperman who was paying her to keep the story alive) not continued to heap coal on the fire. Soon she was telling the Chronicle’s readers that she had letters written in Dempsey’s hand that proved her accusations. Before the end of January 1920, many American Legion posts had adopted resolutions condemning Dempsey’s war record—or lack thereof. Very soon the US Attorney’s office began looking into the matter.

By February, however, Maxine had tired of the game. She met with US Attorney Charles W. Thomas, the government’s point man on the case, and confessed that everything she had said about her ex-husband was untrue. She claimed she made up the charges because she had falsely believed Dempsey to have had an affair with another woman during the time that he was married to Maxine. Now Maxine had learned that her suspicions were ill-founded and wanted to clear her ex-husband’s name. She described him as “a wonderful man and husband” who had always supported his large extended family.

Alas, Thomas was already committed to his prosecution of Dempsey. He secured a grand jury indictment against Dempsey and his manager Jack Kearns for conspiracy to avoid the draft. The trial, held in San Francisco, was a national sensation. Thomas put Maxine on the witness stand and forced her to recount the work she did as a prostitute back in 1917, when she was still married to Dempsey but estranged from him. He also put two of her fellow prostitutes on the stand, to verify that Maxine was a working girl in 1917 and not dependent on her husband’s financial support. According to Roberts, “Although each of the women spent an hour or more in recounting events that had no bearing on the case, both agreed on one important thing: Jack Dempsey had never sent his wife a penny.”

The next day, Dempsey’s defense attorney, Gavin McNab, cross-examined Maxine extensively, eventually forcing her to concede that she had initiated the scandal in the hope of benefitting financially from it. Here’s Roberts again (the material he quotes is from contemporary newspaper accounts of the trial):

As McNab pressured, Maxine turned bitter. With “apparent enjoyment” she told of her adventures as a prostitute: “So eager was she to dwell on the sordid details of her life in one city after another that she ran ahead of the questions.” Dempsey sat silent as Maxine made it “unmistakably clear” that she tired of marriage after several months. For her the “underworld” life of prostitution and crime was preferable to holy wedlock. If she confessed that Dempsey did send her some money—the only part of her testimony germane to the case—she also accused him of being stingy and hard to live with.

The Dempseys’ marriage was largely a sham, but it was a complicated one. While Jack lived and trained in San Francisco, Maxine stayed with his Mormon parents in Salt Lake City. McNab was able to produce witnesses from the Salt Lake City offices of Western Union who provided written proof that Jack had wired considerable amounts of money to both his wife and his parents during the war years.

All of that might have been enough to earn Dempsey an acquittal, but the coup de grace to the government’s case came the following day when McNab put Dempsey’s mother, Celia Dempsey, on the stand. As Roberts notes, “Her story might well have won Dempsey’s nomination for sainthood.” Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a little white-haired, wrinkled woman with hands gnarled by hard work and shoulders bent by years,” she testified that her husband was crippled by arthritis and suffered from both addle-mindedness and melancholia. She also cared for a daughter, Effie Clarkson, who suffered from various physical afflictions. Her sons Johnny and Joseph had been exempted from the draft due to ill health. Another son was stabbed to death while selling newspapers in Salt Lake City. Without Jack, she told the court, “We wouldn’t have had anything.” She noted that after Jack defeated Jess Willard for the world heavyweight boxing title, he sent his family $20,000, so that they could buy a house.

Dempsey himself eventually took the stand and noted that he had raised $330,000 for the war effort by fighting in charity events. He also noted that his efforts as a recruiting officer in Philadelphia helped inspire several hundred young men to sign up for work in shipyards that built naval vessels. He also testified that, when he had the money and knew where to find her, he always sent Maxine support checks.

He was followed to the witness stand by Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy (not the future president), who testified that Dempsey had been in the process of enlisting when the war ended and the Secretary of the Navy ordered that enlistment be halted.

It took the jury only ten minutes to acquit Dempsey of all the charges against him. Alas, it took the public and the press a lot longer. Cliff Wheatley, a sportswriter for the Atlanta Constitution, opined in a column that Dempsey’s reputation was forever tainted by the scandal and that he was unworthy of holding the honor of being heavyweight champion. Wheatley argued that all patriotic Americans ought to hope that Dempsey would lose his title in an upcoming bout with Frenchman Georges Carpentier, who had fought valiantly in WWI. And, indeed, though the bout was held in New Jersey, the crowd heavily favored the foreigner (who was knocked out by Dempsey in the fourth round). Even Carpentier’s 1975 obituary in the New York Times rehashed the incident: “Considerable American public opinion favored Carpentier because he was a war hero, while Dempsey was considered a slacker who had avoided military service.”

Roberts sums up the damage done by the scandal in these words:

The draft issue did not end in 1920. Throughout the rest of his career Dempsey heard the word slacker often attached to his name. While walking down the streets of New York, boxing in exhibitions, or even acting on the Broadway stage, he would inevitably encounter questions…Always sensitive on the subject, he suffered psychologically from the cheap insults. A friend, Dan Daniel, said that one of Dempsey’s happiest days was when he enlisted for World War II. Only then could Dempsey let the issue sleep in his own mind.

Curiously, Dempsey’s 1920 trial in San Francisco would not be the biggest or most salacious celebrity trial in that town during the Roaring Twenties. The very next year, film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle would be put on trial for the alleged rape and manslaughter of an actress named Virginia Rappe, who died four days after attending a party in his room at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The evidence against Arbuckle was weak. Rappe was examined by a hotel doctor on the day of the party and found to be suffering only from extreme alcohol intoxication. She was taken to a hospital, where a woman named Bambina Maude Delmont, a short-term friend of Rappe’s who had attended the party with her, told doctors that Rappe had been raped by Arbuckle. Rappe was examined by a physician who found no evidence of rape. She died the next day, after which Delmont repeated her rape accusation to the police, who turned over their findings to the district attorney. The case probably would never have been brought to trial if San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady hadn’t hoped to use the publicity from the trial as a springboard to the governor’s office. The story was exaggerated and sensationalized by a media culture that recognized that celebrity sells. According to Wikipedia, certain groups that claimed to be upholders of public morals called for Arbuckle to be executed.

It took three trials to settle the matter (Arbuckle was defended by Gavin McNab, the same attorney who handled Dempsey’s defense). The first jury voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal. The second jury voted 9-3 in favor of conviction. The jury in the third trial deliberated for only six minutes before declaring Arbuckle not guilty. The jury also took the nearly unprecedented step of issuing an apology to Arbuckle for the ordeal he had been through. It read:

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for 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 on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Alas, the acquittal didn’t do much for Arbuckle’s career. Here’s Wikipedia again on the aftermath:

Despite Arbuckle’s acquittal, the scandal has mostly overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. His films were banned after the trial and he was publicly ostracized. The ban was lifted within a year, but Arbuckle only worked sparingly through the 1920s…He later worked as a film director under the pseudonym William Goodrich…Arbuckle died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1933 at age 46.

Dempsey and Arbuckle were both innocent men. Dempsey’s career recovered from the scandal his legal troubles engendered. Arbuckle’s didn’t. Both men suffered serious psychological distress from which they never recovered.

Arbuckle has received some posthumous vindication from fiction writers. His story has been lightly fictionalized in novels such as Scandal in Eden, by Garet Rogers, Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins, and I, Fatty, by Jerry Stahl, all of which are sympathetic towards their protagonist. I know of only one novel that deals with both the Dempsey and Arbuckle scandals. Published in 1984, Shirley Streshinsky’s A Time Between is the story of Hallie Duer, a pioneering young feminist newspaperwoman who finds herself covering both trials for the fictional San Francisco Times (a stand-in for the Chronicle). Streshinsky uses an interview between the fictional Hallie Duer and the historical Gavin McNab, to highlight interesting similarities between Dempsey and Arbuckle:

“It seems to me [said Duer] that Dempsey and Arbuckle have some things in common. Both are from poor families, they had to work their way to the top, they knew hard times.”

McNab picked up, “Dempsey lived the hobo life and married a prostitute,” he said. “Both were born into a social stratum where drinking and womanizing were part of life. It isn’t surprising that Dempsey could move into the Hollywood crowd. He and Arbuckle have some mutual friends—did you know that? Then, when they become celebrities, their fans want to pretend—and want them to pretend—that they live a middle-class Methodist life, pure as the driven snow…the thing is, both Dempsey and Arbuckle are strong, silent men who are innately decent. Dempsey’s trouble was caused by a divorced wife who was put up to it by a sportswriter. Arbuckle’s troubles started with a sad incident, and were compounded by a liar [Delmont] and an ambitious politician [Brady] who tried to amplify those lies and have them accepted as truth. I suspect both Dempsey and Arbuckle will carry scars from their San Francisco trials till the end of their days.”

The 1920s—and the cases of Dempsey and Arbuckle in particular—offer warnings in these overheated and confusing times about the dangers of trial by media and a rush to judgment. Reputations and careers, once tainted by accusation may never recover, even if those accusations turn out to be based on nothing but hearsay and lies or motivated by nothing more noble than score-settling. There are those who may argue that people like Dempsey and Arbuckle are acceptable collateral damage in the fight over values. But it is more important still to ensure that we establish the truth of the matter at hand, and that the punishment fit the crime…should one turn out to have been committed at all.


Kevin Mims

Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Salon, and others.