He was a respectable, 23-year-old San Francisco medical student, Sunday school teacher and church worker – and a disturbed double sex killer…
William Henry Theodore ‘Theo’ Durrant was born in 1871 in Toronto, Canada, and moved with his family to San Francisco, California, in 1879. Durrant lived with his parents and sister and was studying at college to be a doctor.
Intelligent, hardworking and generous, Durrant was highly regarded by everyone who knew him. He was leader of a Christian group, the superintendent of Sunday school at the Emanuel Baptist Church and did maintenance work in the building.
Yet he raped and murdered a young woman named Blanche Lamont in the church on 3 April 1895. And, just nine days later, savagely raped, mutilated and murdered 21-year-old Minnie Williams.
On Saturday 13 April 1895, the day before Easter, members of the church were getting the church ready for Sunday’s service. Then, one of the helpers went into the library and made a horrific discovery – the mutilated body of a young woman lay there.
She’d been strangled and stabbed, cut on the head and face, and her wrists slashed so deeply the hands were almost severed from her body. Cloth torn from her underwear had been pushed down her throat with a sharp stick. A broken knife blade was still in her breast. When police examined the body, they found she’d also been raped.
At first, it was thought the body was that of a 20-year-old woman named Blanche Lamont, who’d gone missing nine days before. But a church member identified the woman as 21-year-old Minnie Williams, also a member of the church.
Blanche Lamont had moved to San Francisco to study and lived with her aunt. She, too, was a member of the church, and Durrant was smitten with her. Less than three months after they met, he asked her to marry him. But Blanche learned Durrant had been unofficially engaged to another member of the church when he proposed to her, so she ended their romantic relationship but they remained friendly.
On 3 April 1895, Durrant met Lamont at the trolley stop just after 2pm. They rode together, and were seen walking to the Emanuel Baptist Church and going in together. The church choir director and organist, who was practicing on the organ, testified that Durrant came downstairs at 5pm, looking pale, dishevelled and shaken.
Later, during the evening service, Blanche’s aunt came to the church looking for her. Durrant asked after Blanche, and her worried aunt told him she’d not come home. Three days after Blanche’s disappearance, her aunt reported her missing to the police.
Police questioned Durrant at the time because he was the last person with whom she’d been seen, and also because a young woman at the church said she’d once come upon Durrant nude in the church library. Police didn’t have a body or any evidence that anything had happened to Blanche, so she remained listed as a missing person.
Now police investigating the murder of Minnie Williams learned she’d last been seen in a heated discussion with Durrant in front of the church. When the pair calmed down they went into the church together. When the police learned of Minnie’s connection to Durrant, he became their prime suspect in Minnie’s murder – and Blanche’s disappearance.
Horrifyingly, a search of the church building now revealed another corpse in the church belfry. In contrast to Minnie’s clothed but mangled body, this young woman was naked, laid out on her back after her death, her hands folded carefully across her chest, so white and serene it was said she looked like a marble statue.
It was Blanche Lamont. She’d been strangled and probably raped, then posed by her killer. The same day, Blanche’s aunt received a strange package in the post. Inside were three rings belonging to Blanche. Police showed the jewellery to pawn-shop dealers, one of whom said a man fitting Durrant’s description had tried to pawn them.
Theodore Durrant was arrested for the rape and murder of the two young women.
Behind the mask
But what of the man who was seemingly an upright citizen, church member and soon-to-be doctor? Police digging into his past now learned some disturbing details about the ‘respectable’ young man.
For a year or so during the early 1890s, Durrant was a regular at the brothels in the city several times a week. He was known for his strange behaviour. He always brought with him, in a sack or a small crate, a pigeon or chicken and, during sex, he’d cut the bird’s throat and let the blood trickle over his body.
Throughout his trial, the courtroom was packed. Women especially flocked to the courtroom for a glimpse of the handsome young killer.
The evidence against him was so overwhelming that the jury found him guilty in less than half an hour. Yet, while his January 1898 execution brought closure to the families of Minnie Williams and Blanche Lamont, it also left many unanswered questions.
Why had Durrant raped and murdered two young women whom he’d known well and apparently liked? What motivated a man devoted to his parents and sister, and an active church member, to kill? The Press hinted that a depraved monster lurked under his pious exterior, and referred to him as ‘the Demon in the Belfry’.
Mental health issues?
Reviews of Durrant’s family and medical history suggest his father suffered from manic depression, and that Durrant himself nearly died from meningitis, or ‘brain fever’, a condition that often left survivors with brain damage.
It has been suggested that he may have been in a manic phase when he killed the two women, and the behaviour he showed at that time corresponds with this – a sufferer may become highly energetic and very talkative, have high energy levels and feel sexually uninhibited. When not in the throes of the disorder, Durrant was apparently a mild-mannered, caring individual with a high regard for women.
Durrant was sentenced to hang in February 1896 but the appeals process lasted for nearly two more years. On 7 January 1898, he finally went to the scaffold.
Given the chance to say his last words, Durrant began a long, rambling speech declaring his innocence. He showed no sign of stopping but, when he paused for breath, the hangman seized his opportunity and quickly pulled the lever to open the gallows trapdoor.
Theodore Durrant, the Demon of the Belfry, was sent to meet his maker.