The Demon of the Belfry

Theo Durrant was a medical student in old San Francisco, who, likewise, was deeply involved in the activities of his family church, Emmanuel Baptist. He was even the leader of the youth group “Christian Endeavor”, and was a well-known local Scoutmaster. He was, in every sense of the word, an upright, outstanding young man. But, as always, there was a fly in the spiritual ointment that comprised Theo Durrant; a wrinkle in the psychic fabric which comprised the totality of his being.

It began quite innocuously , with Theo (who , besides being an usher and Sunday-school teacher, was also Church Librarian and part-time sexton) was entrusted with a master key to the premises. Theo, whose mind must have ever been crawling with ideas and opportunities to enact some of his less savory fantasies, had, up until that time, never had the opportunity to enjoy the uninterrupted privacy the acts he contemplated required. But there must have been something about the sterile sanctity of his church, the well-scrubbed purity of the female parishioners, that sent his fertile, hot little mind into an erotic no-mans-land of sick imaginings.

The first hint that something was wrong about Theo (the first “warning sign” that, perhaps, the nice, decent, ail-American churchgoing lad was quite possibly mad as a hatter) was also completely, perversely ignored. Theo, one fine Sunday after services, invited a young lady into the library to join him for a short discussion. When the compliant young lady found her way to the reading room, she was horrified as Theo Durrant strode out of the shadows, entirely naked from head to foot. We can only imagine what he might have said at this point, if he said anything at all. However, we do know that the young woman fled from the room in terror, screaming in either horror, embarrassment, or disgust; possibly some combination of all of them. At this point, any rational person would expect that the church pastor (whose name goes, strangely, unrecorded in every account) would have had the temerity to take the young man aside, and explain to him, as gingerly as possible, why it was inappropriate for a full-grown man to expose himself in such a lewd and shameless fashion to an embarrassed young lady, particularly within the confines of a church. (In fact, as things stand today, Theo Durrant would have been immediately jailed for indecent exposure, and quite possible charged with attempted sexual assault. At the very least, he would have been confined to a psychiatric facility for an indeterminate duration of time. But, alas, things were handled in a much more circumspect fashion in that delicate day and age.)

His first murder victim, Blanche Lamont, was a distinctively attractive young out-of-towner, who came to San Francisco to make her way as an actress. Quickly deciding to attend Emmanuel Baptist as her church of choice, she made an immediate impression on young Theo Durrant, who, we may safely assume, was only able to physically be close to women when cutting open their cadavers at the medical college. The two became fleeting, flirting acquaintances.

It was one bright, sunny, otherwise happy day when, having last been seen departing from a street car, Blanch Lamont was sighted making her way to Emmanuel Baptist Church. Although he later claimed he, coincidentally was on the same car, Theo Durrant claimed he never saw her, nor did anyone claim to have seen him ever riding that particular car at that exact time . As to what the young lady was doing going to church at that particular hour, we can only surmise that Theo Durrant must have set up a pre-appointed tryst. At any rate, when she arrived, the baleful, hypnotic strains of church organ music resounded through the old building, as the organist was sitting alone practicing. Luckily for Durrant, the volume of the music, as well as the intense concentration of the musician, drowned out the sounds created by what came next. Durrant, stripped naked as the day he was born, stepped slowly from the closet, giving the young woman time to absorb what must have seemed to him like a brilliant, honest gesture. (Some may take note of the personal symbolism that might be involved in Durrant’s choice of locale. It should not be lost on anyone that he chose to murder his victims in a library [a church library, no less], and that the significance of this might lie in the fact that, as a restrained, perfect young scholar, Durrant spent his days in repressed solitude, pouring over books when he wasn’t busy dissecting cadavers. It may be that this ritualistic stripping of himself in a place of study, in a building devoted wholly to piety and abstinence, may have added an extra fillip of fetishistic pleasure to his madness. Or it may have been purely symbolic. Cynical people will say it meant nothing at all. However, we digress.)

Blanche Lamont with students

Blanche Lamont erupted into the expected fit, but, unlike his first attempt at exposing himself to an unwary woman, Theo Durrant sealed his fate, and the fate of the unfortunate young woman, by pouncing upon her in a frenzy of rage and sexual excitement, and throttling her. He quickly and easily snuffed out her life, letting her fall to the floor as he stood gasping from excitement and exertion above her. He had, mysteriously, completed something in his psyche, fed some inner demon that lurked in the miserable recesses of his unarticulated soul.

He quickly donned his clothing, dragging the corpse behind him into the walk-in closet from which he always emerged, and then proceeded to rape the still warm cadaver. He then did something very strange, but which , in light of later events , was necessary in that it allowed him the time to commit his second murder. He dragged the body behind him, clutching a fistful of her long hair, through a back hallway and up a flight of stairs to a ladder which led to the church belfry. He then climbed the rickety old ladder, trailing the corpse of his victim behind him. The work must have been grueling. He laid the young woman out in a gentle repose, using a stray block of wood as a pillow, and carefully folded the hands across the breasts. He must have considered, at that very moment, how peaceful she looked; as if she was only sleeping.

It was at this moment he began the process of expiating whatever psychic guilt would linger in the mind after committing such a grotesque deed. Or, perhaps, in the depths of his insane mind, there was no guilt, only satisfaction, and a knowledge that he had released a soul into the infinite. After all, she was a good Christian girl.

Making his way downstairs, Durrant himself had the very bad fortune, as he was exiting the building, of encountering the organist, who was just closing up for the evening. The man, upon remarking how terrible Durrant looked, was reassured by the young man that he had simply been working at a gas jet, and accidentally had made himself sick. Unsure whether or not he actually believed that, the organist simply shrugged and left the young man to his own devices, unaware that the sound of his own musical talent being expressed had helped to cover the screams and stifle the evidence of the foul deed that had just been perpetrated.

It was only a scant time later that Blanche Lamont was missed, and a manhunt was called (which, of course, was to no avail, as the corpse was still moldering, undetected, in the belfry of Emmanuel Baptist Church). Ironically, as a local Scoutmaster, it was the handsome, respectable young killer himself, Theo Durrant, who was entrusted to lead his troupe of young cadets through the surrounding hillsides in search of the missing girl. Theo himself had a most interesting theory regarding the missing Miss Lamont: that she had been kidnapped, forcibly addicted to opium, and sold into the burgeoning “white slave” trade. (Despite the sordid nature of his imaginings, this , actually, was not an uncommon occurrence in San Francisco in the late 19th century, as young women were, at times, kidnapped and sold into prostitution, to be used by pimps and hustlers and kept as drug-addicted sexual slaves.)

However, the sheer excitement of the prospect seemed to rivet Durrant as he explained his theory to young friends. Indeed, they could see the macabre joy it afforded him, and some of them must have passed a fleeting thought as to how much Theo Durrant actually knew about kidnapping, sexual slavery, sadism, and Ms. Blanche Lamont. Interestingly, it was some short time later that the grieving parents of Blanche Lamont received, quite by surprise, a package through the mail. In it, the girl’s rings were found, along with the names of the church organist and a Sunday school teacher. Though this was a surprising turn of affairs, the police quickly deduced it was little more than a red herring. In the hindsight of history, we can perhaps see that, in the depths of his distorted soul, Theo Durrant must have wanted to be caught. (This self-destructive “cat and mouse” game with the police is a regular feature of serial murder cases, and one of the most perplexing and diabolical aspects of the personality of these perpetrators.) Likewise, one should note the careless sloppiness with which Durrant committed these crimes, almost as if he were ambivalent about whether or not he should ever be detected as the guilty party. (Is this, in effect, the way such individuals [who are incapable of feeling guilt in any conventional sense] attempt to expiate the deeper, internal feeling of remorse that they understand as a sort of subconscious drive to acquit themselves of the responsibility for their actions?)

Minnie Williams

At any rate, it was from this idle, gross gossip, this compulsive need for Durrant to hint at a far more horrifying fate for his victim than anyone else imagined, that gained him his only known sexual love affair. Not much will ever be known of Minnie Williams, but one thing was for certain: she was a darn sight more liberated than most other women of her generation. What other folks perceived as a slightly sordid undercurrent in Durrant’s personality, she perceived as the hint of an awesome sexual prowess and a deviant appetite. It was not long before they were engaging in sexual trysts in the church library. Apparently, this transpired several times, but the final assignation proved deadly. It was directly after most folks had filed out from Sunday services, when Minnie Williams and Theo Durrant slipped for the last time into the church library, and began to make love. Whatever feral , barbaric thing had been crawling around the depths of the hideous mind of Theo Durrant suddenly reared upward from the black chasm of his being. In a fit of sexual frenzy , he thrust his hands around the neck of Minnie Williams, choking the life from her as she thrashed wildly around the room.

She was damn hard to kill.

He managed to rip her dress off, thrusting the material of it down her throat. He then pulled a surgical knife from his trousers and slashed her neck and wrists, finally rendering her desolation complete. However, the scene of the crime was a picture of total havoc. He pulled the bloody body into the large closet, fell on top of it, and ravished the corpse. He then walked quietly out the front door of the church, into the bright daylight, as if the whole world was his oyster. It was only the next day that several women discovered the scene of horror in the library, where splashes of dried blood and overturned furniture lent mute testimony to the scene of violence that had been perpetrated on the premises only the previous day. Moments later, they found the ravaged corpse of Minnie Williams where Theo Durant had carelessly left it.

A general panic ensued among the women who, fearing the culprit might still be hiding on the premises, rushed out to alert the authorities. It was only a short time later that police, leading the way, returned to the church to confront a scene of appalling homicide. One unnamed officer, upon a hunch, decided that he would ascend the rickety stairs to the belfry, and, upon doing so, discovered much what he had expected: a second body, “as white as marble,” laid out as if in blissful repose, with the head resting upon a block of wood. It was immediately discernible, to all involved, that young Theo Durrant was the most likely culprit, as he was the only fellow with access to the building after hours. Theo first staunchly protested his innocence.

Theo Durrant in prison

A quick trial followed, resulting in a sentence of death by hanging. Three years of appeals transpired before the sentence was finally carried out. Curiously, Theo Durrant walked to the gallows in an amazingly restrained manner, only imploring the executioner to, “Don’t put that rope on me, my boy, until I’ve talked.” The hangman was having none of it, and William Henry Theodore Durrant fell through the trap door and into eternity, on January 7th, 1898. One final grotesque anecdote revolves around the claiming of their son’s body by Theo’s rather cold and obnoxious parents.

As the body was brought into the waiting room after the execution, a warder at the prison asked them if they would like a cup of tea. Mrs. Durrant, indicating that that would be quite nice, was pleasantly surprised to note that the tray that was wheeled in not only contained a kettle and cups, but the remains of a sumptuous roast and some plates. Mrs. Durrant and her husband sat themselves down and began to feast, stopping only to pause as the body of Theo, his face swollen black and his tongue bit nearly in two, was brought in and transferred from a gurney to a pine box. Mrs. Durrant looked at the corpse of her son, chewed reflectively, and continued to finish her impromptu meal alongside her husband. After all, she would later claim, it never helps to grieve on an empty stomach. Theo Durrant was cremated.

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