Although William Henry Theodore Durrant was called Theo by friends, the handsome and well-liked Sunday School superintendent soon earned a more sinister nickname: “The Demon of the Belfry”.
Theo Durrant worked for the Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco. On April 13th, 1895, members of the church were preparing for that Sunday's Easter service when someone opened a closet in the church library and discovered the mutilated body of a young woman. She had been strangled to death and stabbed, her wrists cut so deeply that her hands had practically been severed from her body. Cloth from her undergarments had been stuffed down her throat with a stick, and later examinations revealed that she had probably been raped.
Initially, investigators expected the body to belong to 20-year-old Blanche Lamont, who had gone missing 10 days before, and who had last been seen entering Emmanuel Baptist Church in the company of Theo Durrant. However, the body proved to be that of 21-year-old Minnie Williams, also a member of the church's congregation and a former romantic partner of Durrant's. The night before, she had been seen in a heated discussion with Durrant. A passerby would later attest that Durrant's "manner was not becoming to a gentleman."
After the discovery of Minnie Williams' body, a thorough search of the church was conducted, and the body of Blanche Lamont was found in the belfry. While Williams' body had been mutilated and mostly clothed, this one was completely naked and almost serene, posed with the hands folded across the chest. Like Minnie Williams, Blanche Lamont had been strangled and likely raped.
Theo Durrant had courted both of these girls in the past–for a period, even at the same time. He and Minnie had been seeing each other for some time when he made an overtly sexual advance that worried Minnie. He met Blanche in 1894 and broke it off with Minnie for the new girl. Theo proposed to Blanche only a few months later. She thought he was joking, and later found out he had been engaged to another woman the whole time, cementing her decision to say no.
Thanks to his history, Theo immediately became the prime suspect in both murders, and police picked him up in short order. Around the same time, Blanche Lamont's aunt, with whom she lived, received a package in the mail containing Blanche's rings. The package bore the name George King, the church's choir director, but when police showed the rings around local pawn shops, one of the pawnbrokers recognized them, and said that a man matching Durrant's description had been in trying to sell them a few days before.
Throughout his trial and up to his death by hanging, Theo Durrant maintained his innocence in connection to both murders. However, the many eyewitnesses who saw him with each girl shortly before their deaths and Durrant’s easy access to the areas where he left the bodies made it easy for a verdict to be reached.
Indeed, Durrant's case did not look good. According to SFGate, the accused was compared to "Jack the Ripper, the Marquis de Sade and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" throughout the trial. The jury found him guilty within five minutes of deliberations—though, by some accounts, they worried that the speed of their decision might appear to be too rapid, so they finished their cigars before returning to the courtroom and delivering the verdict.
Throughout the trial, people flocked to the courtroom, many of whom came to catch a glimpse of the "handsome killer." One woman was dubbed the "Sweet Pea Girl" by the press, as every day she brought Durrant a bouquet of those same flowers. He is said to have sometimes worn one in his lapel.
During the trial and in its aftermath, a number of salacious stories surfaced relating to Durrant's dark side–though whether they are true or not remains unknown. Some claimed that he frequented the brothels on Commercial Street, where, according to one account, he once brought a pigeon or a chicken and slit its throat during sex, letting the blood run over his and the sex worker’s bodies. Such acts certainly sound like the work of a "Demon of the Belfry." Whether they are true or simply lurid exaggerations in the face of real-life brutality may never be known.
Featured photo of Theo Durrant's mugshot: SFGate