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The Demon of the Belfry: San Francisco’s Crime of the Century, Part II

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Defense attorneys called 58 medical students to testify against Theodore Durrant, who claimed that he was at a lecture at the Cooper Medical College at the time of Blanche Lamont’s murder. (Courtesy photo)
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In April 1895, two young women were found murdered inside Emanuel Baptist Church. Theodore Durrant, a 23-year-old medical student and superintendent of the church’s Sunday school, was charged with the crimes.

While the evidence against Durrant for the murders of Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams continued to mount, questions remained. Williams’ killing was extremely bloody, yet, there was no trace of blood on any of Durrant’s clothes when police searched his house. And Durrant’s calm demeanor and faith in his own innocence impressed many people.

The prosecution had strong circumstantial evidence in the Lamont murder and decided to try that case first. Durrant had keys to the church entrance and to the belfry. Witnesses saw Durrant walking near the church with Lamont on the afternoon of April 3. Later that afternoon, the church organist saw Durrant stagger down the stairs looking pale and disheveled. Durrant claimed that he was overcome by a gas leak while fixing the lights, but a lighting expert rebutted Durrant’s story. A pawnbroker also testified that Durrant tried to sell him some of Lamont’s rings.

The case received so much publicity that 1,400 jurors were called before a jury could be impaneled. Durrant’s defense rested on two main strategies: finding another suspect and establishing his alibi.

Durrant’s lawyer pointed an accusing finger at the church’s pastor, John Gibson. A witness testified that a chisel matching the tool marks made on the door leading to the church belfry, where Lamont’s body was found, was located in Gibson’s tool chest, which was in his private office. Durrant’s lawyer also charged that the handwriting on a package containing Lamont’s rings resembled that of Gibson.

But it was Durrant’s alibi that mattered most. At 3 p.m., when prosecution witnesses said that Durrant was with Lamont, the defense claimed that Durrant was actually at a lecture at the Cooper Medical College. The defense produced the attendance sheet for the lecture, which showed Durrant marked as “present.” The lecturer also testified that Durrant was there. As added proof, the defense said it would produce Durrant’s lecture notes.

The prosecution argued it was common practice for students to cover for another absent student by answering the role call. In response, on Oct. 3, the defense called 58 medical students to testify. No student admitted to answering for Durrant during the role call.

Two weeks later, R. Graham, another medical student, demolished Durrant’s alibi. Graham testified that when he visited Durrant after his arrest, “He asked me first for my notes to compare them with his, and then he said that he had no notes of April 3, but that if I would loan him mine, he could establish his alibi.”

After a trial that lasted more than three months, it took the jury only five minutes to reach a verdict: guilty.

The courtroom erupted in cheers. Durrant was sentenced to death. Isabella Durrant, Theodore’s mother, threw her arms around her son.

“The parting of the mother and son was touching,” reported the Chronicle. “There was a long kiss, passionate and infinitely sad.” For the next two years, the case went through a series of appeals. Durrant began to have prophetic dreams.

“It seems as if I were two persons,” he told a reporter. “So distinct are my physical and spiritual natures.”

In Jan. 7, 1898, Durrant was executed, professing his innocence to the very end.

Isabella Durrant kept Theodore’s body in her house for five days and talked to it constantly. Finally, the body was cremated and kept in an urn. Isabella kept the urn with her whenever she traveled.

Durrant’s death did not end all speculation, and some still claim Pastor Gibson to be the real murderer. Those who believe this often cite a 1932 article in the San Francisco News, which repeated a rumor that Gibson confessed to the murders shortly before he died. This rumor, however, has been repeatedly debunked as early as a 1905 Oakland Tribune article, which pointed out that Gibson was still very much alive at the time.

So, was Theodore Durrant a real life Jekyll and Hyde, split between lofty spiritual aspirations and murderous carnal desires?

“As soon as Durrant was jailed, the chief of police was deluged with information from all sources proving that the man under arrest was a degenerate of the most perverted type,” recalled San Francisco police officer Billy Heyneman. “Photographs were received from women of the half world [prostitutes] revealing the prisoner in all sorts of disgusting poses.”

Durrant may not have been alone in his sexual aberrance. The late Kevin Mullen, a former deputy police chief, told me that he once spoke with an old man who had been a jailor in San Quentin in 1897. The man claimed to have witnessed Durrant and his mother having sex. Letters from Durrant, found in the collection of his sister Maud, give credence to this incestuous relationship. Violinist Leo Cherniavsky, Maud’s close friend and executor, destroyed these letters after her death.

Because of the scandal, Maud Durrant changed her last name to Allan. She became an internationally celebrated dancer, famous for her erotic “Dance of the Seven Veils,” as Salome. It is said that Theodore Durrant’s death strongly influenced Maud’s dance themes of death and loss of innocence.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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