Tag Archive for strangulation

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.

Suicide by Person or Persons Unknown

The Feely Family

The universe teaches us that most often the simplest explanation is the correct one. It does not always work out that way, but more often than not it does.
This philosophy, commonly known as Occam’s Razor, can be seen in murder investigations where detectives start by looking at those closest to the victim and working their way out in an ever-widening net.
So in 1936, when Pittsburgh police announced that the deaths of Eleanore Feely and her two young children came about as the result of a murder-suicide, most rational people who looked at the evidence scratched their heads in wonder at this official explanation.
On July 20, 1936 — the day after the Max Schmeling/Joe Louis fight where the German knocked down the Brown Bomber — another story featured just as prominently on a number of front pages: the discovery of Eleanore, 30, and her two children, Robert, 5, and Janice, 3, violently slain in the children’s playroom in their first-floor apartment. All had been attacked with an ice pick, but the actual cause of death in each murder was strangulation. The Feelys’ landlord discovered the family slain in their locked 7-room apartment, which was undisturbed.
Eleanore’s husband and the father of the children, Martin Feely, a professor of phys ed at the University of Pittsburgh, was at a boy’s summer camp in New Jersey about 320 miles away at the time and was quickly cleared of any involvement. Eleanore and the children were scheduled to join him in a few days.
The two children each suffered a stab wound to the left temple and were strangled, apparently with a tourniquet that was still wrapped around Eleanore’s neck. The killer had used a hammer to twist the tourniquet around her throat. A single thumbprint from what was assumed to be a man based on its size was found on the hammer, but there were no other fingerprints.
Eleanore also suffered a stab wound to her left temple but also had ice pick-inflicted wounds to her chest. There were no signs of sexual assault or robbery, which pushed police to look at other scenarios. The one they chose — and the semi-official explanation on the books to this day — was that Eleanore killed her children and then took her own life.
Detectives theorized that Eleanore, “nervous and distraught after nursing the boy through a serious attack of scarlet fever, strangled her two children with a rope, stabbed them with an ice pick, stabbed herself by throwing her body against the ice pick which she held handle first against the wall, and then strangled herself,” according to Lead Detective Samuel E. Wheeler.
“I have talked with physicians who claim it is perfectly possible for Mrs. Feely to have killed the children and herself,” Wheeler said.
There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that it is incredible and far-fetched. Regular readers of the Register know that truth is stranger than fiction, so we cannot discount the police theory out of hand. Detectives were presented with what was essentially a locked-room mystery without any visible clues and it appears that they gave up trying to solve the puzzle without expending much effort.
We must also content ourselves with the description of the crime scene that was featured in the press. There were no descriptions of any kind of blood spatter which might have led the cops to believe the murder-suicide angle was correct. In addition, no mention was made of any fingerprints on the ice pick. However, reporters were quick to point out the thumbprint on the hammer (which was later determined to have come from an investigator), so it is likely that neither Eleanore’s prints nor anyone else’s were on the pick.
As an example of how silly the police theory is, consider that Eleanore was right-handed, so it is not plausible that she would attempt to kill herself with an ice pick using her weaker hand. It is easy to accomplish, but a person who has just stabbed and strangled two children would be pretty much operating on autopilot in some sort of psychotic break, so it would be muscle memory, not calculated thought, that would determine how wounds were inflicted. A right-handed person will use their right hand in such a situation. The police theory also never explained how Eleanore managed to wipe her prints off the hammer after she was dead. On the other hand, the integrity of the crime scene appears to have been compromised considering that an investigator’s print was the only one found on the hammer.
We will not even discuss the absurd theory that she held the ice pick against the wall and ran into it several times before giving up and strangling herself.
Not surprisingly there were strong differences of opinion about Eleanore’s mental state. Her husband and other members of the family were adamant that Eleanore was of completely sound mind and would never even consider hurting her children or herself. They described her as “cultured and intellectual, a brilliant student in school at Springfield, Mass.,” where she met her future husband.
“I don’t know what the cause could have been,” said her grief-stricken husband. “But I’m sure she didn’t do it herself. I am positively convinced my family was murdered and I intend to push the investigation.”
Martin also stated that the hammer and ice pick were not his.
Pressed by the family, Mayor William N. McNair told Eleanore’s brothers, Robert and Richard Buckley, that the case “would not be dropped until a definite solution is found.”
Eleanore’s kin were not alone in thinking the official explanation was a crock. An investigator for the Coroner’s Office was convinced that someone else was responsible.
“John Artz, special coroner’s investigator, stuck doggedly to his theory that the three were victims of a cold-blooded killer who left no clues,” wrote the New Castle (Penn.) News.
“I don’t care what the police say,” he told reporters, “Someone — some ghoul — killed this mother and her children.”
During a 3-day coroner’s inquest in November 1936 the conflicting theories were aired before a jury, which rejected the murder-suicide theory in favor of criminal homicide by person or persons unknown.
This was little more than a moral victory for the survivors, as a coroner’s jury, like the grand jury, does not try cases. Essentially the jury’s verdict states who died, what manner of death (i.e., accident, suicide, homicide, natural, unknown.), when it happened, and where the death occurred. A finding of homicide by a coroner’s jury can lead to an investigation, but the police and prosecutor are not bound by the verdict and are free to pursue or not pursue an investigation. Usually this is seen when the jury returns a manner of death of unknown or when the facts in possession clearly indicate a mistake by the jury.
The Pittsburgh police grudgingly reopened the investigation, but with the head of detectives still convinced that Eleanore killed her children and herself, it was an investigation in name only. To them, the case was de facto solved.
In 1937, saying he was disgusted with the Pittsburgh police and hopeless of ever solving the case, Martin Feely quit his job at Pitt and moved back to Massachusetts.
The case remains open or closed depending on your point of view.