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The Demon of the Belfry, Theodore Durrant

Home | Short Feature Story | The Demon of the Belfry, Theodore Durrant

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Theodore Durrant was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1871, and while a child came to San Francisco with his parents, who gave him a good education. In 1895 he was a medical student at Cooper Medical College. He pretended to be a devout Christian and was one of the most active members of Emanuel Baptist Church, which is located on Bartlett, near Twenty-Third Street. The younger members of this church organized a society for social purposes, and Durrant was elected Secretary, and was also a Superintendent in the Sunday-school. In 1894 a most estimable young lady, named Blanche Lamont, left her home in Dillon, Mont., because of poor health and came to San Francisco to continue her studies for the purpose of eventually following the vocation of a school-teacher.

Theodore Durrant

Theodore Durrant

She made her home with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. C. G. Noble, at 209 Twenty-First Street, where her sister, Maud, also resided. Blanche was a very religious girl and seldom went to places of amusement, but when she did she was usually accompanied by her relatives. She always attended the Emanuel Baptist Church and was a member of the Christian Endeavor, where she was a great favorite, because of her lovable disposition and good qualities.

On the morning of April 3, 1895, Miss Lamont left home as usual to attend the Boys’ High School, in which building she was taking a course at that time. While en route to this school she was accompanied by Durrant, who, after leaving her, went to the Cooper Medical College. After Miss Lamont finished her studies at this school she repaired to the Normal School on Powell Street, between Clay and Sacramento, where she was to take instructions in cooking, between 2 and 3 p. m. Shortly after 2 o’clock Durrant appeared in front of this school and waited impatiently until nearly 3 p. m., when Miss Lamont came out of the building accompanied by a classmate named Minnie Edwards. Durrant approached and engaged Miss Lamont in conversation. Miss Edwards continued to the corner and got inside of the next southbound Powell street car and saw Durrant and Miss Lamont take seats on the dummy, Miss Lamont having her school books with her. Two other classmates of Miss Lamont, Miss Lanagan and Miss Pleasant, who were walking home, also saw her sitting on the dummy with Durrant.

On this day some street-pavers were re-laying some old-fashioned paving at Twenty-Second and Bartlett Streets, and as Attorney Martin Quinlan was passing this place curiosity prompted him to stop and watch the re-laying of this almost obsolete style of paving. While so doing, Theodore Durrant, whom he knew well, passed with a young lady of the same general appearance of Miss Lamont.

They were then walking in the direction of the Emanuel Baptist Church, a few hundred feet distant. Quinlan fixed the time as about 4:15 p. m., because of an appointment he was about to keep with a Mr. Clark on Mission street.

Diagonally across the street from this church, at 124 Bartlett Street, lived a Mrs. Leake, who had a married daughter named Mrs. Maguire, whose home was in San Mateo. On this date the daughter came to San Francisco, called on her mother and then went downtown to do some shopping, informing her mother that she would be back in the early afternoon.

As it was growing late the mother became uneasy about her daughter and sat in the window eagerly awaiting her return. At seventeen minutes past four she looked at the clock and then returned to the window, but instead of seeing her daughter approach she saw Durrant, whom she knew well as a member of her church, and a young lady of Miss Lamont’s general appearance walk up to the church, where Durrant opened the side gate and followed the young lady inside. This was the last seen of Blanche Lamont.

About 5 p. m. George King, the church organist, came to the church for the purpose of practicing for the next service. He had hardly begun his practice when Durrant opened the door leading down from the belfry. Durrant and King had been close friends, and King stated that when Durrant opened this door he was very pale, nervous and weak and was without a coat and hat. He stated that Durrant explained his weakened condition by saying that he had been up near the roof, trying to locate a leak in the gaspipe and had been overcome by gas. King ran to a drug store near Valencia and Twenty-Second Streets and returned with a bottle of bromo-seltzer, which Durrant drank.

When he claimed that he had recovered, King asked him to assist in carrying a small organ from the auditorium upstairs down to the main floor.  Durrant consented, but King stated that he detected no odor of gas whatever while upstairs, and furthermore that all the gas fixtures had been inspected by plumbers just previous to this time and were in good condition. Shortly after removing the organ the two men left the church, Durrant walking to King’s home with him, although Durrant’s home was in an opposite direction and he claimed to be feeling weak because of his alleged narrow escape from gas asphyxiation.

That night a prayer meeting was held at the church. Blanche Lamont, not having returned home, caused her aunt, Mrs. Noble, to worry greatly. Thinking Blanche might possibly have gone to the home of some friend, and would, as usual, attend the prayer meeting, Mrs. Noble also attended the meeting in hopes of seeing her niece. The lady was almost distracted, but refrained from telling of Blanche’s disappearance, believing that the girl would return. Durrant had a seat just in the rear of Mrs. Noble, and during the services said to her: “Is Blanche here to-night?” Mrs. Noble replied: “No, she did not come.”

Durrant then said: “Well, I regret that she is not with us to-night, as I have a book called ‘The Newcombs,’ for her, but I will send it to the house.”

After a few days of suspense Mrs. Noble could stand the strain no longer and she communicated the mysterious disappearance of her niece to the police and the press. As Durrant was “above suspicion,” no one considered it worthwhile to mention the fact that they had seen her in his company on the day of her disappearance. Durrant called on Mrs. Noble and offered his services in the search for the lost girl, and subsequently intimated to Mrs. Noble and a fellow student named Herman Slagater that he had received information which caused him to arrive at the conclusion that Blanche Lamont had not departed from this life, but worse: she had departed from the life of morality, and was even then in a house of ill repute from which he would endeavor to persuade her to return to the path of righteousness. A few days after making this statement, the church janitor saw Durrant at the Oakland Ferry landing and asked him what he was doing there. Durrant replied that he was working on a clew he had obtained as to Blanche Lamont’s whereabouts.

At the time of Miss Lamont’s disappearance she had three rings in her possession, and on April 13 the postman delivered to Mrs. Noble an Examiner, wrapped in the usual fashion for the mail, and upon opening it, the three rings which Blanche Lamont wore fell out.

Subsequently, Adolph Oppenheimer, who conducted a pawn shop at 405 Dupont Street, identified Durrant as the man who attempted to sell one of these rings to him, between the 4th and 10th of April.

On April 12, an estimable young lady named Minnie Williams, left the home of C. H. Morgan in Alameda, and as she was about to leave his employ she had her trunk sent to the residence of Mrs. Amelia Voy at 1707 Howard street, in this city. Miss Williams was also a member of the Emanuel Baptist Church and on this very day she announced to the Morgan’s that she contemplated attending a meeting of young church members to be held at the home of a dentist named Dr. T. A. Vogel, at 7:30 that evening.

The girl never appeared there, and Durrant, who was secretary of the society and should have been prompt in attendance, did not arrive until 9:30 p. m., and his excited and overheated appearance was a matter of general comment among those present. The meeting adjourned at 11:25 p. m. and the young folks repaired to their homes with the exception of Durrant, who, for reasons best known to himself, went to Emanuel Baptist Church at this midnight hour.

April 13, the day Mrs. Noble received her niece’s rings, was the Saturday preceding Easter Sunday, and the Christian ladies proceeded to this church laden with flowers to suitably decorate in honor of the greatest anniversary of the Christian year.

Mrs. Nolt, of 910 Twenty-First Street, accompanied by Misses Minnie Lord and Katie Stevens, were among the first to arrive, and in the library they found the horribly mutilated remains of Minnie Williams. Her clothing was partially torn from her body and she had been repeatedly stabbed, then gagged and outraged. Some of her torn clothing had been stuffed down her throat so tightly that it required considerable effort to remove it. A broken knife blade was still in her breast.

The police immediately instituted an investigation and Captain Lees, who was at the time in Los Angeles, proceeded to San Francisco to take charge of the case, assisted by Detectives John Seymour, Ed. Gibson and others.

Charles Hill, of 203 1/2 Bartlett street, stated that about 8 o’clock on the preceding night he had observed a young lady of Miss Williams’ appearance enter the church in company with a young man whom he thought was Theodore Durrant. This caused a search to be made for Durrant at his home, but it was learned that early on the morning of the discovery of Minnie Williams’ body, he had left the city with the Signal Corps of the State Militia. A search was made of his clothing in his room, and Minnie Williams’ purse was found in his overcoat. Detective A. Anthony was detailed to trail Durrant and arrest him, and on Sunday, April 14, Anthony and Constable Palmer arrested him near Walnut Creek, notwithstanding the indignant protest made by Lieutenant Perkins against this “outrageous accusation.”

While Anthony was engaged in apprehending Durrant, the remainder of the detective force began a systematic search of the church, with the result that they found even a more blood-curdling sight in the belfry than that beheld by the ladies in the library.

This belfry was in semi-darkness, but enough light entered for the detectives to behold what appeared like a marble carving of an absolutely nude girl lying on the floor, with a block of wood under her head. She was laid out on her back after death with her hands carefully crossed over her breast, in a position similar to that of bodies used by medical students in the dissecting room. A far more thorough search was necessary to locate her clothes and school-books, but they were eventually found poked in between the studs and the lath and plaster of the building. Blanche Lamont’s name appeared in the books.

An autopsy disclosed the fact that she died from strangulation but decomposition had reached such a state that it was impossible to determine if an outrage had been committed. While the body was as white as marble as it lay in the cool belfry, when it was removed to the body of the church, where the air was much warmer, it turned almost jet black.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming amount of evidence, which proved conclusively that Durrant accompanied Miss Lamont from the school to Emanuel Baptist Church, he denied having seen her that day and attempted to prove an alibi by swearing that he was at Cooper Medical College at the time it was alleged he was in the very act of murdering this girl. While it is true that the records showed that some one answered his name at roll call at the conclusion of Dr. Cheney’s lecture, it was shown that it was customary for the students to answer for each other in case of absence, and no one would swear that Durrant was present at this lecture. As proof that he was not present, it was shown that several days afterward he persuaded a fellow student, Mr. Glaser, to give him the notes that he, Glaser, had taken at the lecture. As soon as the finger of suspicion was pointed toward Durrant, information poured in to Captain Lees, proving that the prisoner was a degenerate of the most depraved class. For obvious reasons, names cannot be given of young ladies to whom he made the most disgusting propositions, and the wonder of it is that he was not killed, or at ,least exposed before. But in most instances the nature of his insults were such that the young ladies offended feared to inform their relatives, lest they would take the law in their own hands. One young lady told her mother that some time previous to these murders, Durrant had inveigled her into this same library and excusing himself for a moment, returned stark naked and she ran screaming from the church.

Although Minnie Williams was frightfully butchered and the room resembled a slaughter-house, not one drop of blood could be found on Durrant’s clothes, and there is no doubt but that he was naked when he committed this crime. He probably strangled Blanche Lamont in the library and then dragged her body up to the belfry, head first. That this was the manner in which he got her body to the place where it was found was proven by the finding of hairs from her head which caught in splinters on the steps.

Durrant also attempted to inveigle Miss Lucille Turner into this library for the purpose of making a “physical examination.”

The preliminary examination of Durrant began before Police Judge Charles Conlon on April 22, 1895. He was de-fended by General John Dickenson, and later by Eugene Duprey. On May 22 he was held to answer before the Superior Court for both murders. Captain Lees and District Attorney William Barnes decided to try him for the murder of Blanche Lamont, as that appeared at the time to be the strongest case, but subsequently additional evidence was gathered which made the Minnie Williams case even stronger than the one on which he was tried.

His trial began before Judge Murphy on July 22, 1895, and over one month was occupied in selecting a jury, during which time over one thousand prospective jurors appeared in court.

During the trial the Alcazar Theater Company produced a play called the “Criminal of the Century,” which was a dramatization of the Durrant murders. This was produced in defiance of an order of court prohibiting its production, and as a result W. R. Daily, the manager, was sent to jail for three days for contempt of court.

During Durrant’s trial fifty witnesses testified for the prosecution alone. On September 24 the case was finally submitted to the jury, and after deliberating five minutes, brought in a verdict of guilty with the death penalty attached.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the lower court on April 3, 1897. The day of execution was then set for June 11, 1897.

At this stage of the proceedings, Governor James Budd was appealed to, and after making an extensive personal investigation, he concluded that Durrant was guilty and refused to interfere.

On April 10, 1897, he was taken to San Quentin, and another appeal taken which was denied.

On January 7, 1898, he was hanged.

He protested his innocence to the last and was one of the coolest murderers who ever mounted the scaffold. When Warden Hale started to read the death warrant to him he said: “I will waive that right and spare you an unpleasant duty.”

The parents took charge of the body immediately after the execution, and as they feared grave-robbers, they attempted to have the body cremated, but no crematory in San Francisco would accept the corpse, so strong was the public sentiment. A Los Angeles firm accepted it, however, and it was cremated in that city on January 13, 1898.

In nearly all cases when a celebrated criminal is captured, a certain class of women take advantage of the opportunity to leap into the lime-light by showering him with attentions, and the more atrocious and depraved the criminal, the more these women appear in evidence. This case was no exception to the rule, and as soon as the trial began a young woman of prepossessing appearance became a constant attendant and almost daily presented Durrant with testimonials of her sympathy in the shape of small bunches of sweet peas, which accounted for her being known as the “Sweet Pea Girl.” Durrant did not know the girl, but with characteristic mendacity, he claimed that she was a friend who had positive knowledge of his innocence, but he was too “chivalrous” to divulge her identity. It subsequently transpired that she was Mrs. Rosalind Bowers, and was even then neglecting her young husband to worship at the shrine of this degenerate. She afterwards lived in a Sutter-street house under the name of “Grace King,” and was accused of inveigling a wealthy clubman named Edward Clarke into a marriage while he was under the influence of liquor.

The author has a photograph taken of Durrant at a picnic when he was only sixteen years of age, and the position in which he posed proves conclusively that he was a degenerate even as a child.

Shortly before these crimes were committed, Durrant’s sister Maude went to Europe to study music. Fourteen years later it was learned that “Maude Allen,” who was creating a sensation in Europe with the “Vision of Salome” dance, was in reality Maude Durrant.

Source: Thomas Samuel Duke, “Celebrated Criminal Cases of America,” The James H. Barry Company, 1910.

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Note: According to San Francisco historian Herbert Asbury, Durrant was known to San Francisco prostitutes at the time for a strange fetish. “For a year or so during the early eighteen-nineties Durrant visited the brothels in San Francisco’s Commercial Street several times a week. He always brought with him, in a sack or a small crate, a pigeon or a chicken, and at a certain time during the evening’s debauch he cut the bird’s throat and let the blood trickle over his body.”

Note: A book about this case was published in 2001. Sympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San Francisco by Virginia McConnell