April 4th, 1944: Chaplin is acquitted in Mann Act case

Charlie during a break in closing arguments. April 4th, 1944

After two and a half hours of closing arguments, the jury deliberated from 11:00am until 6:00pm. Chaplin later recalled that he thought it should have taken no longer than ten minutes to reach a verdict. A few moments before the jury came came back, a “tense” Chaplin was discovered alone by a reporter before a “dial telephone” in the corridor of the federal building:

In one brown freckled hand he clutched a dime, and in the other a bit of paper torn from a yellow legal pad and bearing his home telephone number.

Apologetically, with the humanity of a man facing a possible ten years in prison, and with the humanity of a man who rose from a child vaudeville trouper in England to the French Legion of Honor, Chaplin asked: “I don’t know much about these telephones. Would you dial this number for me?”

The reporter obliged and, nervously, Chaplin took the receiver in his hand.

“May I speak to Mrs. Chaplin please?” There was a pause. “The jury is still out, darling. I think I’ll be here quite a while, but I just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you.”

Then Chaplin returned to the second floor, on which Judge J.F.T. O’Connor’s court was located, and joined his attorney, Jerry Giesler, in a virtual lock-step pacing, each with his hands folded behind his back.

The nervous march was broken only when an elderly man screwed up his courage and approached Chaplin, a rabbit’s foot in his hand.

“Rub this for luck, Mr. Chaplin,” he beamed self-consciously. Chaplin put out his hand at once, almost eagerly, and rubbed, the fuzzy token of luck.  The old man backed away in embarrassment, but bounded back at once–this time holding out a box of aspirin tablets.
Chaplin grabbed a couple and shook the old man’s hand. It was then–just before 6 p.m.–that word came that the jury had reached a verdict.

Chaplin returned to the courtroom “scratching his nose” and took a seat at the defense table. He remembered later that his lawyer warned him: “Whatever the verdict is, don’t show any emotion.”

As the jury filed in, Giesler sat with his head down, staring at his feet, nervously muttering under his breath: “If it’s guilty, it will be the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever known!” And he kept repeating, ‘This will be the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever known!”

As the court clerk read the verdict, Chaplin’s lips trembled and he clutched the knot of his necktie. The jury of seven women and five men found him not guilty. Chaplin rapidly patted Giesler’s hand.

Prosecutor Carr shakes Charlie’s hand.

Yells of “hurray!” went up from the jammed spectator section along with a burst of applause. Chaplin later wrote that he never knew he had so many friends.  After the judge brought the courtroom back to order he addressed Chaplin: “Mr. Chaplin, your presence will no longer be required by the court, you are now free.” He then offered his hand from the bench and congratulated him, so did the prosecuting attorney, Charles H. Carr.

Giesler told Charlie he should now thank the jury. One by one, he shook each juror’s hand. “I thank you,” he said repeatedly with tears in his eyes.

“I’d almost like to kiss him, ” said one woman juror.

Courtroom spectators throw their arms around Charlie. 

“I had faith in the American people,” Chaplin said. “I believe in American justice. I’ve had a very fair trial.”

Juror R.T. Segner was asked by the prosecuting attorney how the verdict was reached. He said that the deliberations centered mostly on the transporting of Barry to New York in October 1942 and whether there was intent to indulge in immoral purposes.

“We felt that he was more or less through with her,” Segner explained, “and that he gave her the money because he was a good fellow.”

Informed of the verdict at her home, Joan Barry had “no comment one way or another. After all, I was just a government witness and testified the best I could remember. If the jury believed him, that is their privilege.”

Chaplin’s wife, Oona, who was four months pregnant, fainted when she heard the news on the radio. Asked about the verdict later, she said, “I’m so glad I can hardly speak. I knew he was innocent.”

That night, Charlie and Oona dined quietly at home. “We wanted no newspapers, no telephone calls. I did not want to see or speak to anyone. I felt empty, hurt, and denuded of character. Even the presence of the household staff was embarrassing…That night I reeled off to bed with the happy thought of not having to get up early in the morning to attend court.”

Daily Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), April 5, 1944
Daily Boston Globe, April 5, 1944
Freeport Journal Standard, April 5, 1944
Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Read the complete story of Chaplin’s Mann Act trial “as it happened” here.


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