SAN QUENTIN, CA — On January 7, 1898, Theodore Durrant, 27, was hanged by the neck until dead in the gallows of San Quentin Prison.
The atrocities with which Durrant had been charged involved the April 1895 murders of Blanche Lamont, 21, and Minnie Flora Williams, 21, two congregants of San Francisco’s Emmanuel Baptist Church. Their bodies had actually been found hidden inside the house of worship.
Theodore Durrant also attended Emmanuel Baptist. He even worked there as a Sunday school administrator. The Toronto-born Durrant had lived in San Francisco since childhood and was studying to become a doctor at Cooper Medical College. Still, not everyone trusted him.Rumors had cropped up about Durrant suffering from sexually deviant mental illness. Some said they heard he slit a chicken’s throat while having sex with a prostitute and then reveled in the gushing blood. One parishioner even claimed she had walked in on Durrant naked in the church’s library.
Regardless, the Emmanuel Baptist community showed Durrant mercy. Alas, such talk took on terrified tones after Durrant turned out to be the last person seen in the company of both slain women.
On April 3, 1895, multiple witnesses saw Theodore Durrant accompany schoolteacher and education student Blanche Lamont on a trolley at around 2 P.M. They rode it together to a stop near Emmanuel Baptist, then walked inside the church.
Choir director George King later testified that, at 5 P.M., Durrant burst into the organ chamber looking pale and shaken. He asked King to go get him medicine.
When Tryphenia Noble, the aunt with whom Lamont lived, came by the church looking for Blanche, Durrant said he didn’t know where she went, but that he’d stop by later to drop off a book. Durrant never stopped by.
The very next day, Durrant attempted to pawn several women’s rings in the city’s seedy Tenderloin district. He failed. Several hours later, someone dumped those rings at Tryphenia Noble’s house in a plain wrapper upon which had been written, “George King” — a seeming attempt to pin blame on the choir director.After Noble reported her niece missing, Durrant took a fast and focused interest in Minnie Williams, another young parishioner. On April 12, just nine days after Blanche Lamont vanished, Williams departed at 7 P.M. to attend Good Friday services at Emmanuel Baptist.
Witnesses spotted Durrant and Williams arguing outside the church. One male passerby even intervened and advised Durrant to act like a gentleman. Brushing him off, Durrant and Williams stepped inside the facility — and she was never seen again.
The following day, congregants who gathered to decorate the church for Easter opened a kitchen cabinet and spotted Minnie Williams’ nude, dead body stuffed inside. Responding officers scoured the rest of the church and found the naked, mutilated remains of Blanche Lamont wedged between a pair of boards in the belfry.
Word went out fast to bring in Theodore Durrant. Cops caught him attempting to skip town the next morning — which was Easter Sunday.
Overnight, Theodore Durrant became notorious nationwide as “The Demon of the Belfry,” the only real suspect in what the press deemed yet another “Crime of the Century.”While no blood or other physical material connected Durrant to the murders, the circumstantial evidence came off as simply overwhelming. Regardless, he swore he didn’t do it.
The case proved so sensational and well known that the court screened 3,600 potential jurors before settling on the final 12.
Newspapers covered every moment of the three-week trial, including the appearance of “Sweet-Pea Girl” — a cheerful blonde “murder groupie” of sorts who brought Durrant flowers each day. She later claimed they got engaged.
The jury found Durrant guilty, and Judge Carroll Cook sentenced him to die. Durrant filed every possible appeal and delayed his execution as long as he could. All the while, his beloved sister — scandalous lesbian dance star Maud Allan — battled beside him.
Finally, Durrant met the hangman. With a hood over his head and a noose around his neck, the prisoner spoke his last words:
“I now go to receive the justice given to an innocent boy who has not stained his hands with the crimes that have been put upon him by the press of San Francisco. I am innocent. I say now this day before God, to whom I now go to meet my dues, I am innocent.”
A couple of weird postscripts occurred after Durrant died, suggesting to some that a “curse” may surround the case. First was that one Emmanuel Baptist Church pastor committed suicide, a second engaged in sexual misconduct, and a third got shot. Eventually, somebody burned the building to the ground.
Later, Durrant’s very existence was used in a libel case against Maud Allan, who electrified society in an explicit version of the Oscar Wilde play, Salome.
After a right-wing newspaper declared Allan a salacious subversive out to undermine society by way of the also homosexual Wilde, she sued to protect her name. Once the jury caught wind that Theodore Durrant was her brother, she lost. Fortunately, she did keep dancing long enough to be accused of spying for the Germans in World War I and sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife!
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Main photo: Theodore Durrant [Wikipedia]