Friday, March 21, 2014

Chaplin's Mann Act trial begins, March 21st, 1944

Chaplin with his attorney Jerry Giesler, at the Los Angeles Federal Building,
 March 21, 1944

Chaplin arrived at the courthouse at 9:15am wearing a "navy blue double-breasted suit, gleaming black shoes, a plain blue polka-dot tie with knot askew, and a gray Homburg hat." The first day of the trial* was devoted to jury selection. Chaplin sat in a red leather swivel chair at the defense table and "drummed nervously on a table top with his well-manicured fingers and occasionally blew his nose." Chaplin recalled in My Autobiography that when they entered the court room, his attorney, Jerry Giesler, parked him in a chair and then circled the room. "It seemed everyone's party but mine," he remembered. Two prospective jurors were excused when they admitted they might be prejudiced because Chaplin is a British subject.
"At one point, Chaplin, whose only prior lapse from stolidity had been the execution of a tap dance under the table with his tiny, black-shoed feet, began sketching, pursing his mouth into a whistle while doing so. Deft detective work by the gentlemen of the press, who were convinced he was sketching prospective juror No. 2, the girl with the droopy mouth and long black hair, revealed the sketch to be an arched bridge over a river, across which a steam locomotive was chugging its way." Chaplin later remembered that his attorney told him not to doodle because the press would get hold of it, analyze it, and draw all sorts of conclusions from it. Charlie said that the sketch of the bridge and train was something he used to draw as a child.

Charlie doodling in court (with his natural left hand)
The end result

Then something odd happened: "After calling the roll of fifty-six prospective jurors, twenty-eight of them women, Judge J.F.T. O'Connor read the indictment, pronouncing Miss Berry's first name as 'Jo-ahn.' Later, Federal prosecutor Charles H. Carr told the judge, without further explanation, 'I respectfully suggest that Miss Barry may not be in the category of a complaining witness." Judge O'Connor said, 'All right, I'll just refer to her as Joan Berry.'

By the end of the first day, seven men and five women were seated tentatively as jurors.

Charlie signs autographs (with his right hand) outside the Federal Building, March 21, 1944

*Chaplin was charged with violation of the Mann Act which is basically transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. In Oct. 1942, Chaplin had paid for a train ticket to New York for Joan Barry. The indictment contained two counts: one for the ticket to New York and one for the return ticket.

New York Times, March 22, 1944
Chicago Daily Tribune, March 22, 1944
Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Read the complete story of Chaplin's Mann Act trial "as it happened" here.


  1. I can't remember if I asked this question before, when Mann Trail photos came up before - but did anyone else out there read Jerry Geisler's book? I have a paperback copy (I think it's called "his story, or "Get me Geisler") and he spends a chapter on the Chaplin trial and it's an interesting read - he talks about how when the trial started, he was amazed at the amount of vitriol and hatred people in the halls, outside the courthouse, newspapers, etc had towards Chaplin and how, at the end of the trial, these same people had completely changed their view of him and even the jury were shaking hands with him.

    He also has interesting chapters on Errol Flynn's statutory rape trial, Bubsy Berkeley's drunk driving/manslaughter trial and some interesting non-famous client cases he handled as well.

    1. I haven't read the book but I have an issue of the Saturday Evening Post from 1959 which has an article by Giesler about the Chaplin case (and others). It may be an excerpt from his book. But he does talk about all the hatred people had for Chaplin. He also said that Charlie was the best witness he ever had and how lonely and forlorn he looked just sitting at the defense table--with only the toes of his shoes touching the floor. I think Giesler also defended boxer Kid McCoy on a murder charge not long after he was photographed at the Chaplin studio refereeing a "boxing match" between Charlie and Mack Swain.

    2. You might have said this in the post but was your issue with the Post's article that Giesler wrote?

  2. There was a fascinating chapter in the book called "the man in the attic" about a guy who stayed in the attic of the house of the woman he loved while she was living downstairs with her husband - he even moved when she moved and lived in another attic - he was pale from no light and eventually the husband was killed and the case was about his devotion to this woman. it was weird! I found the book in a junk stack at the local consignment store and read it over 2 nights. Every case was very interesting