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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.
“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.
Eventually the coroner ruled that Minnie had been raped after death.
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.

Goodbye, Mr. Chipps

J. Frank Norris

A week before his murder trial in January 1927, the Rev. J. Frank Norris announced that his Sunday sermon would be on the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Norris was clearly putting himself in the position of Christ; he was a righteous man oppressed by the forces of a state that wanted him silenced.
When that argument failed to sway the general public, the Rev. Norris went to the Old Testament Book of Esther which recounts the story of Haman and Mordecai — a gallows built by the king’s favorite prince, Haman, to execute Mordecai was instead used to hang Haman, a biblical lesson that all princes and hangmen should take to heart. Like Mordecai, Norris was convinced that his trial was a vendetta sponsored by those who opposed him speaking the truth.
A media-savvy man before his time, Norris, who was a world-famous Texas Baptist evangelist and well-known foe of evolution, hosted a radio station at his church, published a newspaper, and broadcast his sermons nationwide. One can imagine what he would have done with the Internet or cable television.
“Since the death of William Jennings Bryan, Dr. Norris is considered the outstanding defendant of fundamentalism in the United States,” wrote an INS wire service reporter. “He was a close friend of ‘the Great Commoner‘ and is said to possess the last letter (Bryan) ever wrote — a letter dealing with the victory of the fundamentalist forces in the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee.”
Although he was well-known among those on the evangelism circuit, the mainstream Baptist churches of the United States did not have much use for the minister. Twice he was refused a seat at the Baptist General Convention, as were other representatives of his church.
Perhaps it was his background which gave the church elders some concern: This trial would not be Norris’s first time in the docket. In 1912, his church in Fort Worth burned and he was indicted in connection with the fire, deemed to be arson. With a defense paid for by a supportive congregation, Norris was acquitted of arson and perjury. Following the burning of the church Norris said he received written death threats.
“The minister defied his enemies and on the night he was ordered to leave he stood on a box on a downtown street near where he said his enemies ‘had headquarters and preached,'” an anonymous reporter informed readers. “He waged an unceasing war against evil as he saw it, and in his church organ, the Searchlight, as well as in the pulpit denounced individuals by name for sins of which he said they were guilty.”
The homicide victim, Dexter E. Chipps, was almost as famous in Texas as his killer. Chipps was a wealthy businessman and pioneer in the hardwood lumber business of the state, according the San Antonio Light.
Chipps was shot and killed in the minister’s study on July 17, 1926. According to the prosecution, a drunken but unarmed Chipps went to Norris’s house to protest against the evangelist’s criticism of the businessman’s close friend, Fort Worth mayor H. C. Meacham.
Norris claimed Chipps attacked him without provocation.
“Mr. Chipps had previously threatened the Rev. Mr. Norris with violence,” said defense attorney Marvin Simpson. “The minister shot to protect himself when he was called upon within the precincts of his private office.”
Both sides would present witnesses who claimed to see Chipps in the office building the day he was gunned down. They differed on just where they saw the lumberman, however.
Whether or not Chipps was shot in the minister’s office or in the vestibule outside the study was the major question in the case for on it hinged Norris’s self-defense claim. An easier case for self-defense could be made if Chipps was killed in the study, while the state attempted at trial to show Chipps was leaving the meeting when he was shot.
Chipps was shot five times: one through his left side four inches below the collar bone, two wounds through the right shoulder, and two others close to the heart. One of the bullets passed through Chipps’s body and through his left elbow.
Chipps died on the stretcher in the church office without making any statement, the ambulance driver testified.
Although there was a blood stain about the size of a half-dollar found in the vestibule, its presence there was inconclusive. It might have left there when Chipps’s body was removed. To bolster Norris’s claim of self-defense, a bullet hole was found in the ceiling of his office. That could have been the bullet that passed through Chipps’s body.
The case of the Rev. Norris was great fodder for the newspapers of the time, and Norris had no problem talking to the press.
“How do you reconcile the killing of Chipps with the Commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill?'” asked one reporter.
“That is not difficult,” the pastor replied. “The New Testament commandment sic) against killing means killing with hate. The reason my shooting of Chipps was not murder is because my bullets were not winged with hate,” Norris preached, obvlious to the location of the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament. “There was no hate back of them. God did not intend man to run from a rattlesnake.”
During jury selection after the case had been moved at the request of the defense to Austin, Norris said the only thing that could convict him of murder was if there were too many Catholics on the jury.
“It was the purpose of the Catholics who had been drawn to qualify and go on the jury. Everybody can draw their own conclusion,” he told reporters. “It was the determined purpose of the prosecution to send the case to a large city where there was a big percentage of bootleggers, Roman Catholics and other enemies of evangelical Christianity.”
On the other side, Norris, a reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan (he denied this), had the support of that organization.
Norris had a solid argument that he could not get a fair trial in Tarrant County: At the change of venue hearing, Mayor Meacham admitted that he had agreed to pay $15,000 (about $200k today) personally toward the prosecution of the minister for the murder of his friend.
The gallery was packed by observers — mostly members of Norris’s church — when the trial opened. His loyal supporters had already raised about $20,000 (approximately. $270k today) for his defense.
The weather was unseasonably cold for Austin, so the choice seats were near the coal-burning stove on the side of the courtroom.
A special prosecutor had been appointed for the state: William P. (Wild Bill) McLean, described as “a picturesque figure of Southwest court circles,” was an unusual choice; he was usually a defense attorney.
Norris was successful during jury selection: all 12 men on the jury professed a literal interpretation of Genesis and disputed the idea of evolution. The jury was overwhelmingly Protestant.
The prosecution’s star witness was Roxie Parker, widow of a Tarrant County judge. She had been trying to interest the minister in buying her farmhouse for use as a Sunday School camp. According to Parker, the minister agreed to come look at the property but had never shown up. As a result, she decided to drop by his office to see if he was still interested.
“It happened that the day and the hour she selected for the visit was that fatal day and hour when Mr. Chipps lost his life while on a mission of protest,” Wild Bill explained to the jury in his opening statement. “As she stepped to the door of the anteroom leading to Norris’s private office, a man came out of the inner door. She stood at the threshold of the room and it proved to be at the threshold of a tragic adventure.”
Thanks to reporters who used to get paid by the word, we know that when she took the stand, Parker appeared as “a little widow in black, past middle life, a little white-faced woman in gold-rimmed spectacles, a small lace collar, gray gloves, and with a soft voice.”
The man who appeared in the anteroom was a hale and hearty, albeit angry, Dexter Chipps, she said.
“The man had one hand on the door knob,” she said. “He stepped through the inner door just as I arrived at the outer door. I heard the man say, ‘I’ll be back.'”
As Chipps said he would return, he turned slightly and for a moment appeared to be heading back into the office, she said.
“I saw Dr. Norris. He had a gun. There was a shot,” she recalled in dramatic fashion for the jury. “The man staggered and reeled toward the wall. I turned and went down the stairs. Before I reached the stairs I heard two or three more shots.”
According to Parker, Norris was standing about five feet away from Chipps when he fired the fatal shots.
During cross-examination Parker stood behind her story, rarely even deviating from the words she used during direct.
“I saw Dr. Norris shoot the man when the latter was leaving Dr. Norris’s private office,” she testified.
A second witness, Harold Rains, was employed by a tire company that rented part of the first floor of the building where the shooting took place. He testified that he heard the shots and raced up the stairs where Norris told him, “I’ve killed me a man.”
One of the first witnesses for the defense was a former Fort Worth police officer who described Chipps as “a dangerous bully and an almost habitual drunkard.”
“I was in Dr. Norris’s office the day before the killing to talk to him about the sheriff’s race and I told I had heard Chipps threaten to kill him and told him the kind of man Chipps was,” testified Fred Holland.
The defense presented testimony by L. H. Nutt, a deacon in Norris’s church, who, not surprisingly, testified that the shooting took place in the pastor’s study. According to Nutt, who said he witnessed the shooting, Chipps refused to leave and threatened Norris.
“I will kill you if you don’t leave my friends, Meacham, Roach, and Austin alone,” he said Chipps yelled at Norris.
Nutt said that Norris fired in self-defense after Chipps “made a motion as if he would draw a gun and said, ‘Now, let’s go to it.'”
Norris on the standOf course, the star witness was the Rev. Norris himself, who took the stand as the defense’s last witness.
Norris said he first spoke with Chipps on the day of the murder by telephone and that the businessman arrived at his office about 20 minutes later.
“He closed the door and stood for perhaps a minute staring at Mr. Nutt. After remarking to Mr. Nutt that he knew him, Chipps turned to me and said he would kill me if I didn’t stop talking about his friends.”
Norris said he went to the door to the anteroom and demanded that Chipps leave.
“He walked out of the study and into the anteroom. When almost even with the telephone desk, he turned and said: ‘Remember what I have told you. I mean every word of it.'”
With tears in his eyes and an uncharacteristic tremor in his voice, Norris said he saw Chipps reach back to his hip, at the same time he began moving toward the minister.
“Then I shot him.”
After hearing the prosecution call for the death penalty for “the pistol-packing parson,” the jury retired to deliberate. It took the members just two ballots and less than 90 minutes to find Norris innocent of murder.
Wild Bill McLean was angry with the verdict, but like Pilate, washed his hands of the matter.
“When he goes back and begins slandering people again, and you open up the paper and see where he has killed another man — not a poor drunken man this time, he’ll be your criminal and not mine,” he said.