The tale of the 'Demon of the Belfry,' San Francisco's forgotten Jack the Ripper
Updated 7:00 am, Monday, October 31, 2016
Editor's note: This is the fifth in a five-part series on infamous San Francisco murders of yore. You can read the previous installments in the related links down below.
Theodore Durrant had time with Blanche Lamont’s body.
After he strangled her in the belfry of Emmanuel Baptist Church, he carefully removed her clothes and jewelry. He folded her arms over her bare chest and tried to position her head, but it kept lolling to the side. He took two wooden blocks and used them to prop up her head. An anatomy instructor at Cooper Medical College, where Durrant was a student, would later testify that such blocks were useful for “elevating the bodies and preventing decomposition.”
Durrant surveyed his work one last time before closing the door, jamming the lock and descending the stairs. No one would find it odd that the young man was in the belfry.
After all, he was the assistant Sunday school director.
“The Demon of the Belfry” murders, committed just seven years after the infamous Whitechapel slayings, drew instant comparisons to Jack the Ripper for their shocking brutality. But unlike the Ripper, Durrant killed young middle class women, luring them into the church they all attended before raping and murdering them. Durrant was well-liked, a Signal Corps member and a future doctor. But beneath his buttoned-down Victorian niceties, there were warning signs.
William Henry Theodore Durrant's family moved to San Francisco when he was eight and, and Theodore displayed signs of manic-depressive tendencies even as a youngster. As he grew into manhood, a disturbing rumor started circulating among San Francisco’s sex workers: a young man named Theodore enjoyed murdering birds during intercourse and spreading the birds’ blood on his body.
Durrant kept the company of many young women at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Bartlett St. in the Mission. Later, some would come forward to admit he’d made lewd propositions to them — so lewd that the ladies kept silent for fear their fathers or brothers might kill Durrant.
No one knows whether Durrant planned his murders or if he committed them in a fit of rage. But much is known about the hours leading up to his first slaying.
At 2 p.m. on April 3, 1895, Durrant met Blanche Lamont at the Polk St. electric trolley stop. The pretty 20-year-old had recently moved to San Francisco to live with her aunt; her family hoped that leaving Montana would improve her health. Blanche began attending Emmanuel Baptist and there met Durrant. The pair were rumored to be courting.
Unluckily for Durrant, dozens of people saw him with Blanche on the trolley that day — enough to craft a nearly block-by-block account of his movements. The pair sat together, Durrant with his arm around her, gently playing with her gloves as he whispered in her ear. They got off together at the 21st St. stop. A neighbor across the street from the church saw the pair enter. Blanche never left.
At 5 p.m., church organist George King bumped into Durrant, who was stumbling down the stairs from the belfry. He was pale and shaking. Durrant told King he’d been investigating a gas leak and had nearly inhaled a fatal dose.
When King later thought back to the incident, he realized something: There was no smell of gas.
Church gossip went into full swing the next day as word spread that Blanche hadn’t come home the night before.
One of Durrant’s fellow medical school students asked him what he thought of the girl's disappearance. Perhaps, Durrant suggested, she was coerced into prostitution.
“She is easily led,” he said.
By April 12, there was still no sign of Blanche. And Durrant was ready to kill again.
His second victim was fellow parishioner Minnie Williams, a petite 21-year-old with a penchant for gossip. Minnie, it seems, thought she was in something of a love triangle between herself, Durrant and Blanche. The Chronicle reported Minnie told her employer that she’d gone on several dates with Durrant, including one in Fruitvale during which he asked her to have sex with him. She refused; he did not forget that refusal.
That wasn’t Durrant’s only motivation for murder, though. During the trial, a friend of Minnie’s testified that she appeared out of sorts after Blanche vanished.
“I know too much about the disappearance of Blanche,” she confessed but refused to elaborate further.
The night of April 12, Durrant escorted Minnie to church. Unlike Blanche, Minnie did not go quietly. Several witnesses saw the pair fighting outside the church around 8 p.m.
“He appeared to be pleading and she was protesting,” one witness testified. Durrant finally took Minnie by the elbow and led her inside.
Minnie wasn’t done fighting. Durrant stabbed her nearly half a dozen times with a kitchen knife, breaking off the handle in the process. He slit her wrists. And then he strangled her by shoving her underwear down her throat. An autopsy showed Durrant raped her before and after death. When he was done, he stuffed Minnie in a closet and fled the church just in time for his 9 p.m. meeting at a church elder’s house.
The ladies of Emmanuel Baptist were busy preparing for Easter services the next morning when they realized they were short on prayer books. One woman suggested there might be more in the closet. When they opened the door, Minnie’s body toppled out.
The police were called, and a search was launched. They feared Minnie’s was not the only body in the church; surely Blanche too was hidden there.
When police finally broke into the belfry, a chilling sight awaited them. An officer on the scene said her body was “white like a piece of marble,” posed like a statue in the cold room. When they brought her body into the warm church down below, police said it turned black.
It was not hard to identify the last person to see Blanche and Minnie alive. Later that day, police found Durrant with his Signal Corps unit and made the arrest.
The district attorney elected to try Durrant for only Blanche’s murder given the overwhelming evidence in her slaying. Over one thousand people were brought in as potential jurors before the trial could begin.
The opening remarks, delivered by assistant district attorney Edward Peixotto, were as poetic and dramatic as the so-called "crime of the century" warranted.
“Unsuspecting, [Blanche] entered the little gate of the church which unbeknown to her was then the portals of heaven,” he told the jury. “The Devil and the angel entered the house of God.
“‘Come hither,’ said the Devil, ‘let us ascend together the belfry leading toward heaven.’”
Durrant, the prosecution argued, was a sexual maniac with a plan. He’d hoped that by stripping Blanche of her clothes and jewelry, if her body was ever found, people would assume she was a vagrant who’d snuck into the church and died. He even tried to sell her most distinctive piece of jewelry: a diamond ring she always wore. The pawnbroker turned him down, though; the diamond was too small to be of any value.
In the course of the trial, Durrant was compared to Jack the Ripper, the Marquis de Sade and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. San Francisco and the rest of the nation hung on every word. One Oakland woman ordered her husband to read her the trial transcript every day, a task that sometimes took hours. When he started reading trial summaries instead, he came home to find his wife gone. A note left behind said she was “dissatisfied with her home and wanted a change.”
The prosecution must have felt confident as they entered the final day of the trial. The witness testimony was overwhelming, even if the physical evidence was not.
“This man now stands before you stripped of truth, naked in his guilt,” they said in their closing statement. “He is as naked, unclothed and bereft, as he left the body of that young girl in Emmanuel Baptist Church.”
There could be no other verdict, the prosecution argued. The Demon of the Belfry must hang.
The jury deliberated for five minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
On Jan. 7, 1898, after a breakfast of steak, eggs, ham and toast, Durrant was led to the gallows at San Quentin.
The crowd of 200 had been hoping for a dramatic confession, but they were to be disappointed.
“This crime was fastened on me by the press of San Francisco, but I forgive all,” Durrant said as the hangman placed the noose around his neck. “It is they who have forever blackened the fair name of California.”
Witnesses agreed that the speech sounded staged. Durrant hung, the guiltiest man alive in the eyes of all but his dear mother.
Mrs. Durrant never once doubted her son’s innocence, and her behavior after Theodore’s death perhaps validated those who thought his madness ran in the family.
Moments after being hanged, Durrant’s body was taken to a private room. Mr. and Mrs. Durrant kissed their son’s face and wept until the warden walked in to offer them tea and a bite to eat. According to the 1947 book ‘San Francisco Murders,’ onlookers were horrified to glimpse Mrs. Durrant calmly eating next to her boy’s corpse.
"Papa," witnesses overheard her say, "I’ll take some more of that roast."
For the next six days, Mrs. Durrant kept vigil over her son while Mr. Durrant searched for a crematorium that would accept Theodore’s body. Reporters and rubberneckers tried to peer into the cottage on 425 Fair Oaks St., hoping for a glimpse of the macabre family. According to newspapers, Mrs. Durrant spent every waking hour talking to her dead son.
On Jan. 13, Mr. Durrant convinced a crematory in Pasadena to take Theodore’s body.
"His body was stout," notes "San Francisco Murders," "and took longer than usual to burn."
If you go searching for that cursed belfry today, you won’t find it. After the discovery of Blanche and Minnie’s bodies, neighbors on Bartlett St. demanded the city burn the church down. Perhaps the city should have heeded that advice.
Emmanuel Baptist continued to be a center of tragedy as long as it stood. One pastor took his own life; one was caught in a sexual scandal; another went on to murder Charles de Young, founder of the Chronicle. In 1915, Emmanuel Baptist was finally demolished.
The spot today is a pretty one, filled in by a row of pleasant-looking homes. But the site must have seemed pleasant once to church elders too when they picked it in the 1800s.
It was only later they found out what once stood on the land they'd chosen:
A haunted house.