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Monster in the Belfry

Theo Durrant

The macabre scene in the little room off to the side of the death house at San Quentin was a fitting end to a gory and violent series of crimes, but even the bizarre actions of Theo Durrant’s parents shed little light on what had caused the handsome medical student, polite almost to the point of condescension, to turn into a monster and murder two young women.
 
As the dead body of William Henry Theodore Durrant, his face reflecting the after-effects of execution by hanging, laid in repose in the state-issue coffin not four feet from their table, his parents sat down to a sumptuous meal of roast beef, fruit salad and tea, enjoying the repast as if they did not have a care in the world.
 
Perhaps they took comfort in the idea that their son went to meet his maker as an innocent man. The pair was unshaken their belief that Theo did not commit the heinous murders of Minnie Williams and Blanche Lamont, whose naked, ravaged bodies were left hidden in a San Francisco church. If so, then they were the only ones who did, for even as the date of his execution neared, Durrant’s Baptist minister admitted he had trouble believing Durrant’s claim of unjust persecution. In response, Durrant converted to Catholicism.
 
The jurors who convicted Durrant of murder certainly had no trouble with the state’s case — they took just five minutes to return from their deliberations with a guilty verdict.
 
In 1898, Durrant went to the gallows without admitting any guilt, and nothing in his many statements to the press shed any light on his motivation to kill.
 
The public, though, was not really interested in what made Durrant a sexual murderer; they simply labeled him a monster.

Theo and Blanche

The epitome of late 19th century femininity and sexuality, 18-year-old Blanche Lamont was probably very pleased when Theo Durrant started courting her.
 
He was certainly a catch. In addition to attending medical school, Durrant was the assistant superintendent of the Sunday school at Emanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco. He was a member of the California Signal Corps, the contemporary equivalent of the National Guard. Everyone thought he was quite handsome, gallant and gentlemanly. He was courteous to the young and old alike, and as a student at Cooper Medical College, his future appeared bright.
 
Born in Montana but living with her aunt and uncle near Emanuel — with one “m” — Baptist Church on 21st Street, Blanche was young, but she was not naive. She knew she was attractive to men and took care to keep herself that way. Blanche dressed well and was studying at the Normal School just up the road from Cooper Medical College to be a teacher. The only known picture of Blanche appears to be taken from a school group photo where she looks ahead confidently, showing just a wisp of a smile. The photo only hints at what the press repeatedly described as her “doe-like eyelashes.”
 
So it came to be on a crisp April morning in 1895 that Theo and Blanche met up at the electric trolley stop near their respective homes on their way to school. Both were well-noticed by the other riders on the tram that morning. Blanche wore a billowing black skirt topped with a fashionable Basque jacket and a wide-brimmed hat that tied beneath her tender chin with a bright yellow ribbon.
 
Blanche LamontSitting close to Durrant, she stared ahead with a knowing smile on her face as he whispered sweet nothings in her ear and playfully slapped at her with the kid gloves she had removed upon boarding the train.
 
Very likely Durrant was making arrangements to meet Blanche that afternoon at church, but neither had religious intentions. It had become fashionable recently for young people to meet for clandestine sexual rendezvous in empty church rooms, and Emanuel Baptist had seen its share of such blasphemies. One of the church elders had mentioned this to fellow leaders, bemoaning, “I have heard stories of strange actions on the part of some of the young people of the church.”
 
Durrant and Blanche parted at the Polk Street stop and bade farewell as they went to their respective schools. Each spent a presumably non-descript day in their studies and before 2 p.m. Durrant was seen pacing anxiously near the trolley stop as if he was waiting for someone.
 
Witnesses said he nearly flew down the street in anticipation when he saw Blanche approaching. They boarded the tram together, joined by May Lannigan, who would later testify that she remembered the meeting vividly because “it was the man’s hair which attracted my attention. It struck me as unusual to see a gentleman with such long hair.” She explained that Durrant’s hair touched his collar in the back.
 
Another witness placed the pair walking toward Emanuel Baptist Church a short time later. Walking into the wind caused Blanche’s clothing to cling tightly to her full-bodied form which offended the witnessing lady’s Victorian sensibilities and cemented the encounter in her mind. The woman did not offer a suggestion of what Blanche should have done in the situation.
 
The last person to see Blanche alive was Caroline Leak who saw Durrant open the church’s heavy oak door and hold it as Blanche entered. At the last minute the wind caught the door and almost caught Durrant’s fingers as it slammed shut.
 
The newspapers that covered the murder of Blanche Lamont stated that the young lady, worldly yet demure, “did not part with life and honor without a struggle,” and that a “sexual outrage had probably occurred after death.”
 
None of that was known to church choral director George King as he entered the sanctuary to practice organ sonatas some three hours after Durrant and his victim. King had barely seated himself at the instrument and begun to pump the pedals before a very pale and somewhat disorganized Durrant appeared before him, he testified later.
 
“I’ve been fixing a gas jet upstairs,” Durrant explained. “Be a good fellow and go to the drug store and fetch a Bromo Seltzer.”
 
King complied and within moments of his return with the tonic, Durrant’s features took on their normal, handsome appearance. Durrant bade his friend farewell and strode out into the cold evening air.
 
As King practiced his Bach, the naked corpse of Blanche Lamont was hidden high above him, dark purple bruises on her neck a silent testament to the rage of the fiend who killed her and then laid her out as medical students do with their cadavers — her head propped between two blocks of wood and a third under her neck that lifted her chin.
 
After he had finished raping Blanche’s dead body, Durrant took her arms and folded them across her naked breasts as if to protect her modesty. He then left the bell tower and closed the seldom-used trap door, leaving his grisly work to the dust and flies.
 
Less than five hours after he killed a woman in the bell tower, Durrant was back at the Emanuel Baptist Church for an evening prayer service. There he spotted Tryphena Noble, Blanche’s aunt. He inquired after the student teacher.
 
Tryphena looked worried as she told Durrant that she hoped Blanche would be at the prayer service that night because she had not returned home from school and her absence was most disturbing.

Suspicion

For some reason never explained, Tryphena Noble waited three days before she reported Blanche’s disappearance to San Francisco police. Immediately suspicion fell on Durrant, who seemed preoccupied with sex. He confided to one classmate without prompting that he “had no knowledge of women,” and police learned that a young female parishoner had once been accosted in the church library by Durrant in, as she delicately put it, “his birthday suit.”
 
Contrasting Durrant’s claim of virginity, he bragged to other friends of his exploits in the brothels of Carson City and once boasted that he had raped a Native American woman.
 
Durrant did little to allay the suspicions that he was involved in Blanche’s disappearance.
 
“Perhaps,” he told police, “she has wandered from the moral path and gone astray.”
 
Durrant showed up unannounced at the home of Tryphena Noble and shared his fears that Blanche had been kidnapped by “white slavers” and forced into a life of prostitution. He vowed to rescue her from this horrid fate.
 
Down in the Tenderloin District Durrant tried to pawn some women’s rings but was unable to strike a deal with the pawnbroker. Shortly after this, Tryphena received in the mail three rings belonging to Blanche. They were wrapped in a paper bearing the name of George King, the church organist.
 
But without a body and no sign of foul play, the police could do nothing in the disappearance of Blanche except to hope that either the young woman would turn up alive, or that more clues to her fate would reveal themselves.

Theo and Minnie

Meanwhile, Durrant began paying attention to another church-going young lady, 21-year-old Minnie Williams. It was on Good Friday, April 12, 1895, that Minnie bade farewell to her boardinghouse companions and headed to a Christian fellowship meeting at the home of church elder. The boarders last saw Minnie at 7 p.m.
 
Minnie WilliamsA few minutes later Minnie was observed speaking sharply with Theo Durrant in front of the church. Their conversation was so heated that a man named Hodgkins felt the need to intervene.
 
“His manner was unbecoming to a gentleman,” Hodgkins said later. The peace restored, Minnie and Durrant entered the church together and Hodgkins went on his way.
 
Two hours later, Durrant arrived at the home of the Vogels, who were hosting the meeting. He appeared shaken and disheveled at the Vogel house and before joining his friends at the meeting, announced that he had to wash his hands. By the time the meeting broke up close to midnight, he appeared to have recovered himself.
 
The only odd thing anyone noticed was that on leaving the meeting Durrant said he was going to the church where he had “left something.”

Discovery

The next morning Durrant left San Francisco for a Signal Corps bivouac at Mount Diablo.
 
At the same time a group of ladies had gathered at the Emanuel Baptist Church to prepare for the Easter Sunday service by decorating the pews with flowers. The work was not difficult and it did not take them long to finish. With a few moments to spare the group decided to take a bit of refreshment in a room off the church vestibule used as a library.
 
No one was paying much attention as one of the ladies opened a cupboard door in search of teacups. With a horrible shriek, the woman took a step back and promptly fainted. The others in the room turned to look and what they saw sent the lot of them screaming in terror from into the street.
 
Their shouts prompted calls to the police who arrived on the scene and were directed to the library where they found the naked, brutalized body of Minnie Williams.
 
Minnie had been crammed into the cupboard. Her wrists were slashed, her breasts repeatedly stabbed and her underclothes had been forced down her throat with a stick.
 
The cuts on Minnie’s arms were so deep that not only had her killer sliced through the arteries, he had severed the tendons. The stab wounds to her breasts were made with a weapon of convenience, most likely a knife from the church kitchen. There was a difference of opinion as to whether Minnie had undressed herself willingly or if the killer had done so to facilitate his foul intentions. Eventually the coroner ruled that Minnie had been raped after death.
 
“It appeared that the cold-blooded wretch had deliberately unfastened his victim’s dress that the knife might penetrate her flesh,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.
 
Police had but one suspect — Durrant — and the Chronicle led its Easter Sunday morning edition with a proclaimation that not only had Durrant killed Minnie Williams, but that the Sunday School teacher had probably murdered Blanche Lamont as well. The paper goaded the police into searching the church for clues to Blanche’s disappearance.
 
The authorities made a perfunctory search of the church on Easter Sunday, not expecting to find anything of substance. This was a church, after all, and Blanche had been missing for two weeks. It was impossible to hide a body there for so long without discovery, particularly because the church was busy preparing for Easter.
 
Then someone remembered the belfry. It was largely ornamental because it held no bell and thus no one had any reason to go up into the cupola. A close examination of the rusty trap door hinges showed that it had recently been opened.
 
Reopening the door the investigators were met by the smell of death and the loud buzzing of flies. A policeman hoisted a lantern up into the steeple and peered in.
 
It was the bloated, decaying corpse of Blanche Lamont that greeted the police. She lay naked and dead, her face “was fearfully distorted, the mouth being open, exposing the pearly teeth and attesting the horrible death the poor girl had died,” was how one paper reported the discovery.
 
By the end of the day a detective from the San Francisco police department had reached Mount Diablo and apprehended Durrant. The barbarity of the crimes elicited a rage on the part of the people of the city and an angry mob met the ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf.
 
“Only the presence of a large police contingent prevented a lynching,” wrote crime historian Harold Schechter.

Durrant on Trial

Theo Durrant’s trial began in the fall of 1895 and was front-page news in every big city newspaper across the nation. The mustachioed medical student/Sunday School teacher yielded excellent copy for the penny papers that reported daily on the exploits in the courtroom.
 
The Sweet Pea GirlLike many other killers, Durrant drew his share of admirers and was besieged by marriage proposals and love letters. He was gentlemanly and gallant in the courtroom to his female admirers; each morning Durrant accepted a bouquet of flowers from a pretty blonde woman the press dubbed “The Sweet Pea Girl of San Francisco.”
 
The prosecution’s case was straightforward and simple, albeit circumstantial.
 
The defense tried a variety of tactics including accusing the church pastor who spent significant amounts of time alone in the church and had access to every part of the building. They pointed out that no blood was found on Durrant or any of his clothing, and there was no indication he had destroyed any clothes in the time prior to the discovery of the bodies.
 
Prosecutors proposed that Durrant was naked during the murder of Minnie Williams, lending credence to the belief she had been willing sexual partner prior to her murder.
 
Doctors who examined Durrant for the prosecution and defense debated on the stand about the young man’s soundness of mind.
 
“It was not claimed that Durrant was insane,” wrote Matthew Worth Pinkerton in his account of the case in Murder in All Ages, published in 1898. “Yet that there was something morally defective in his makeup is apparent.”
 
Durrant was probably a budding serial killer of the disorganized type. As the name implies, Durrant very likely did not plan to kill Minnie or Blanche — they were simply targets of opportunity whose deaths were provoked by some unknown trigger.
 
Blanche’s body might never have been discovered and her case never solved if Durrant had taken more care to hide Minnie’s corpse. His actions were not merely sloppy, they were proof that his psyche had broken down and he was out of control. This is not the same as being legally insane as the experts for both sides testified.
 
The distinction was apparent to the jury, which rendered a guilty verdict before the courtroom had cleared for what was expected to be lengthy deliberations.
 
Durrant was sentenced to death.

“An Innocent Boy”

The appeals process slowed the wheels of justice and it was not until three years had passed that Durrant faced the hangman. In the intervening years Durrant’s attorneys had spared no effort to save his life, bringing up the details of his sordid sex life, drunken debauches on the Barbary Coast and twisted fetishes. Still, court after court upheld the convictions and sentence. When the U.S. Supreme Court let the verdict stand, he announced that he was “ready to die like a Durrant.”
 
On the morning of his hanging he declined to confess his sins to his priest because he said he was not guilty. Then he climbed the gallows, his arms strapped to his side, and proceeded to deliver a lengthy oration on his innocence, blaming his convictions on the press.
 
“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,” he said.
 
As Durrant gathered his energy to continue his rant, the hangman slipped the hood over the head of the condemned man. From beneath the white bag, Durrant’s muffled voice continued:
 
“I do not look upon people now as enemies,” he said as the hangman adjusted the noose around his neck. “I forgive them as I expect to be forgiven for anything I have done…”
 
He paused briefly as the executioner slid the knot down the rope just behind his right ear. “I am innocent. I say now this day before God, to whom I now go to meet my dues, I am innocent…”
 
The hangman considered this a sufficient statement and pulled the lever which sprang the trap. Durrant dropped three feet below the gallows and he was dead immediately.
 
His body was placed in a black lacquer coffin and his parents were allowed to see their son. His handsome features were marred by the hanging. His blue eyes that some people claimed were pale to the point of glassiness bulged from his face and his blackened tongue protruded from between his lips.
 
It was thus that his parents received him in that small room off the San Quentin execution chamber, and he remained that way as they enjoyed their afternoon repast.
 
Durrant’s crimes were so heinous that no cemetery in the area would accept his remains. It took some time for his parents to find a cemetery in Los Angeles that would bury his ashes.

The Man in the Attic

Oesterreich murder trial

For years Fred Oesterreich was convinced he was hearing strange noises in his house but was always reassured by his wife, Dolly, that it was either his imagination or just some frisky mice.
 
It was odd, Fred thought, considering that the unexplained bumps in the night had followed him and Dolly not only through four houses in Milwaukee, where Fred operated a large apron sewing company, but to three more in Los Angeles, where the Oesterreichs moved in 1918.
 
Fred was apparently neither a superstitious nor a very curious man, because while he may have grumbled about the noises and the occasional disappearing item or empty humidor, he did nothing about it.
 
Dolly, whose given name was Walburga, felt neglected most of the time because Fred was always at his factory. As bad as being spurned felt, Dolly often preferred the loneliness to Fred’s company as he was a drinking man who like to get violent with his women when he was besotted. In 1913, the Oesterreichs were a childless, very wealthy and quite unhappy couple about to celebrate their 15th anniversary when the events that would culminate in Fred’s killing a decade later began.
 
It started innocently enough in Milwaukee on an average day when Dolly told Fred that her sewing machine was broken. Fred sent over one of the factory mechanics, a young man named Otto Sanhuber, described later in the memoirs of Beverly Hills Chief of Police Clinton Anderson as “a rather small man in horn-rimmed glasses.”
 
Another reporter was more descriptive, although it is a safe bet that the writer was operating with a bit of poetic license: “Little Otto stood just a smidgen under five feet, had a receding chin, buggy eyes and suffered from a severe case of acne. More often than not, his nose dripped.”
 
As is typical in stories like this, Dolly was attracted to the naive 17-year-old and soon Dolly was teaching Otto skills beyond sewing machine repair. He became a regular sight around the Oesterreich property, fixing Dolly’s frequently broken machine and performing other chores around the place for Fred.
 
“He had been popular with Mr. Oesterreich, too, until he took a trip to St. Louis with Dolly,” wrote Anderson. “After that, Oesterreich ordered Otto to stay away from both his door and his Dolly.”
 
As far as Fred was concerned, when Otto vanished after the confrontation the matter was closed. He and Dolly resumed their gloomy relationship, moving several times throughout their time in Milwaukee.
 
Near the end of the Great War, Fred looked to the west and opened another apron factory in Los Angeles. In 1918 he and Dolly settled in Southern California, upsizing their living arrangements as the business expansion proved more and more successful.
 
Fred occasionally complained about the cost of living in Southern California, as his grocery bill jumped significantly after the couple’s move from the Midwest. Dolly simply shrugged her shoulders and dismissed it like she did with his grumbling over the noises that she said were either mice or a settling house.
 
In August 1922, Beverly Hills police were called to the Oesterreich home by neighbors after a series of gunshots and a woman’s scream cut through the night. There officers found Fred lying on the floor of his living room, dead from three shots of a .25 caliber automatic. The autopsy showed that the gun was fired at very close range.
 
“The expensively furnished room showed evidence of a fierce struggle,” Anderson wrote. “An open French window, with the screen unlatched, suggested that the murderer had left the house hurridly.”
 
Locked in a walk-in closet, with the key on the ground in another room, was Dolly. She told investigators that she was hanging clothes in the closet when she heard a fight downstairs. As she turned to investigate, the closet door was slammed shut and locked. She could not provide any description of the killer or killers.
 
Further investigation revealed that while the house was disturbed, nothing was missing except Fred’s diamond-studded watch. Police were also confused about why a burglar would carry such a small firearm, “a gun more likely to be found in a lady’s purse,” one newspaper account said. Equally curious were the accounts of neighbors that they heard the Oesterreichs involved in a heated argument when the couple returned from an evening out.
 
Dolly OesterreichRigorous interrogation of the newly widowed woman yielded no leads. She acknowledged that she and Fred fought — frequently and loudly — but denied she had anything to do with his murder. Over the next few weeks police ran down their few leads, concentrating on discovering any secrets in Dolly’s background. There were none. No one who knew the couple or was friendly with either Fred or Dolly could shed any light on the possibility of a love triangle turned deadly. They had a reputation for bickering in public, but were never violent when others were around.
 
With no weapon, their main person of interest with a pretty solid alibi, and no sign of a lover, police let the case percolate — hoping for something helpful would brew up.
 
The Fates intervened about a year later when Captain Herman Cline, a Beverly Hills cop, dropped in on Herman Shapiro, the attorney handling Fred’s $1 million estate, to go over the facts of the case one more time. On Shapiro’s desk Cline saw a glittering, diamond-studded wristwatch. Shapiro confirmed that Dolly had given him the watch.
 
“Shapiro remembered a diamond studded watch had been taken from slain Fred’s wrist,” wrote crime reporter Max Haines. “When he mentioned this to Walburga, she smiled and said she had been mistaken. She found the watch under a cushion in the living room and simply wanted Shapiro to have it as a gift.”
 
Chief Anderson recalled in his memoirs that Dolly “had not considered it important enough to bother the police about.”
 
Of course the newspapers trumpeted the development, which prompted two informants to come forward independently with even more damning evidence against Dolly. Each man had disposed of a small-caliber pistol at Dolly’s request, they both said. One of guns was later recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits, while the other was found beneath a rose bush at the man’s home.
 
Again, Dolly had a ready — if unbelievable — excuse: “She explained the guns were old things kept around the house for many years,” Anderson said. “She had decided to get rid of them because, under the circumstances of her husband’s death, their presence in her home might prove embarrassing.”
 
It proved much more than awkward for Dolly. Although the newspaper reports do not say whether either gun was the murder weapon, their mere existence was good enough for the cops. In July 1923, Dolly was arrested for killing her husband.
 
“The District Attorney’s investigators hacked away tirelessly at her story, but without success,” Anderson wrote. “After they had tested and discarded every possible theory which might link her to the crime, the murder complaint against the widow was dismissed.”
 
Seven years passed and the case was all but forgotten when the Beverly Hills police received a strange phone call from attorney Shapiro. He and Dolly had apparently had a falling out and the attorney decided to tell police what he knew about Fred’s death. The attorney announced that he had a client who wanted to confess to the killing.
 
Investigators hurried to Shapiro’s office where they were met by the attorney and his client, Otto Sanhuber. The story he told borders on the incredible, but savvy readers who have been keeping track of the clues probably have an idea just what happened that August night in 1922.
 
It began back in 1913 when the broken sewing machine helped ignite a passionate affair between the handyman and the boss’s wife. When Fred fired Otto after the trip to St. Louis, Dolly was not prepared to give up her lover. Instead, she secretly installed him in a living space beneath the rafters in the attic of her home.
 
The arrangement continued for 10 years, through seven moves, including one across the country.
 
“Sanhuber ticked off four attics in Milwaukee and three in Los Angeles in which he lived before the murder ended his rent-free existence,” Anderson wrote. “When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1918, Otto had wanted to get out and join the army, but Mrs. Oesterreich wouldn’t hear of it.”
 
Sex and affection were the primary reason for the bizarre arrangement, but the relationship between Dolly and Otto evolved into something akin to a marriage.
 
“Through the years, every morning after the straight man of the house left for work among the aprons, Sanhuber would descend from his garret hideaway and help Mrs. Oesterreich with her housework,” according to one newspaper account. “At night he would steal back into his attic and read newspapers and magazines by candlelight until bedtime.”
 
One report — not confirmed in any other paper — said that Otto earned a small income by writing fiction for magazines: “To pass the time when he wasn’t performing at his specialty, Otto wrote adventure stories. Walburga typed them and sent them off to the pulps.” This should be taken with a grain of salt as the reporter also calls Dolly “a gorgeous woman with a figure that could wake a corpse,” and claims Fred was “filled with more holes than your average Swiss cheese” (The official account indicates Fred was struck three times).”
 
Occasionally Dolly would join him in his strange studio apartment.
 
Otto said that on the night of August 22, 1922 it was business as usual in the Oesterreich house, which meant an argument between the drunken Fred and his wife while Otto hid in the attic.
 
This night, however, would start violent and escalate into killing. In his confession Otto said he was listening to Dolly and Fred argue when Fred became physically abusive. Enraged to the point of irrationality, Otto burst from the attic and shot Fred to death.
 
Dolly immediately took command and set the stage to look like a burglary. She then told Otto to vanish.
 
In the ensuing years Dolly moved out of her mansion to a luxury apartment where she lived comfortably managing her investments. Otto finally moved out, married, and got a job as a janitor. Eventually, the guilt of his crime made him contact Shapiro.
 
Dolly was again arrested for her husband’s murder and jailed awaiting trial.
 
Otto went on trial first in 1930, and tried to back away from his strange confession without success. However, the case would hold one final twist.
 
The jury did not take long to convict Otto, but instead of finding him guilty of murder, he was convicted of manslaughter. At the time the statute of limitations on manslaughter was seven years and Fred’s killing occurred eight years before Otto’s trial. Otto’s attorney argued that he could not be convicted of manslaughter and thus could not be punished. The district attorney did not object and the judge ordered Otto freed.
 
Dolly went on trial several months later, defended by one of Hollywood’s elite attorneys, Jerry Geisler, who defended such notables as Errol Flynn (statutory rape), Busby Berkeley (murder), Benny (Bugsy) Siegel and Charlie Chaplin. Dolly took the stand in her own defense and put the blame all on Otto. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. The DA opted not to try the case again.
 
After the trial Dolly and Otto went their separate ways (Otto’s wife had vowed to stay with him through thick and thin). She lived in luxury to the ripe old age of 75, dying in April 1961. She left her multimillion dollar estate to her business manager whom she married two weeks before her death.
 
Otto’s fate is unknown.