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

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Up until April 13, 1895, Theodore Durrant was seen as a paragon of Christian virtue. But once he was arrested, another picture emerged. (Courtesy image)
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This was the case that would have made John Walsh and Nancy Grace drool. It would have become a multi-part series on myriad true crime shows and given cable news hundreds of profitable hours. It was the case of the “Demon of the Belfry” and was San Francisco’s crime of the century.

Emanuel Baptist Church, founded in 1878, had a strange history. An evil star seemed to hover over the church’s ministers. The first two ministers killed themselves, and the third minister committed murder. This left the fourth minister, John George Gibson, to preside over the deadly events of 1895. Gibson, who was English, came to the United States in December 1888 and was hired at the church in 1894.

On April 3, 1895, Blanche Lamont, a 21-year-old teacher who had been taking advanced classes at Lowell High School, disappeared. She had last been seen in mid-afternoon boarding a streetcar with another girl. Lamont was an active member of the Emanuel Baptist Church on 21st and Bartlett streets and lived with her aunt, Mrs. Tryphenia Noble, in a house near the church.

Seeking to avoid a scandal, Noble did not report Lamont’s disappearance the next day, but she went to the church hoping to find her.

Theodore Durrant, Lamont’s friend who played with her in the church orchestra, approached Noble. Durrant, a 23-year-old medical student and superintendent at the Baptist Church Sunday school, asked about Lamont and told Noble that he had a book for her.

On April 7, after Noble reported Lamont’s disappearance to the police, Durrant called Noble, offered to help and repeated a rumor that Lamont might have been forced into a brothel. On April 10, while police searched brothels in the Tenderloin and talked to Lamont’s friends, her disappearance was reported in the newspapers. Witnesses reported that Durrant had met Lamont after school and rode with her on a streetcar. When police questioned Durrant, he admitted to riding with Lamont on the streetcar. After a brief ride, he had reportedly gotten off and that was the last time he saw her.

On April 12, Minnie Williams, a young woman who attended to the Emanuel Baptist Church, disappeared. The next morning, a number of women arrived at the church to decorate the altar for Easter services. As they were arranging flowers in the Church library, one of the women opened the closet door, revealing Williams’ mutilated body. A broken knife was sticking out of her breast and she had been stabbed multiple times. The room was suffused with blood; parts of her clothing had been stuffed down her throat.

Durrant was the last person to be seen with Williams and became the prime suspect.

When police discovered Williams’ purse in Durrant’s house, they went to arrest him. Detectives found Durrant in the East Bay, where he was drilling with his National Guard unit. The San Francisco detectives were met with hostility from Durrant’s commander, Gen. John Dickinson, who insisted that Durrant was incapable of such behavior. Police put Durrant on the train toward the Oakland Ferry to San Francisco …

The library room in which Minnie Williams was murdered shows blood stains on the wall, table and floor. (Courtesy image)

But where was Blanche Lamont?

Police had searched almost all of the six-story church the day before, stopping only when it became too dark to see. The next morning, they reached the church tower, which was locked. Breaking through the locked door, they beheld a stunning site. Lying in the corner of the tower was a naked woman; the body was so white it appeared to be marble. It was Lamont.

The cold air blowing through the tower had kept the body well-preserved for 10 days. But as the body was carried down through the church, it turned black and began to putrefy. Because of the state of the body, the coroner could tell little more than the cause of death: strangulation.

Reporters piled onto Durrant’s train and told him the latest news. He reacted with shock at the news that Lamont’s body had been discovered and with despair when he was told that Williams’ purse had been found in his room.

A lynch mob was forming at the Ferry Building when Durrant’s ferry pulled in, but police were prepared. One police squad held back the crowd while another squad rushed Durrant into a waiting horse-drawn cab. After a fierce ride up Market Street, pursued by an enraged populace, the cab clattered through the iron gates of The City’s jail.

Up until April 13, 1895, Theodore Durrant was seen as a paragon of Christian virtue. I can imagine mothers telling their rambunctious sons, “Why can’t you be more like that nice Mr. Durrant?” Young women batted their eyes at the future doctor and church leader; Durant was definitely prime husband material.

Once Durrant was arrested, another picture emerged. Durrant considered himself a ladies man and boasted of his conquests. Lucille Turner, a young church member, reported that Durrant had made improper proposals to her.

Alarming stories began to emerge from the Barbary Coast. The San Francisco Examiner reported that Durrant had been a regular visitor at a brothel at 404 Stockton St., where his wild singing and dancing earned him the nickname “Crazy Theo.” He was also said to engage in strange rituals in the bordellos on Commercial Street involving animal sacrifices.

But Durrant wasn’t the only suspect.

The behavior of the church’s minister, John Gibson, during the investigation seemed unusual. When Minnie Williams’ body was discovered, he asked the undertaker not to report the crime. He hid from reporters and never visited Durrant, his parishioner, in jail.

Durrant’s medical school classmates stood behind him, and Gen. Dickenson, one of California’s leading defense attorneys, volunteered to represent him. And while Isaiah Lees, San Francisco’s famed captain of detectives, gathered evidence against Durrant, Harry Morse, the legendary private detective who caught Black Bart, worked for the defense.

Both sides worked feverishly as the fall trial date approached.

Editor’s note: Look for the conclusion to this series on Sunday, Dec. 3.

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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