By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
For over 150 years, California’s prison system has had to adapt to new media. In the early 1940s, San Quentin Warden Clinton T. Duffy wired cells for radios. But before movies and television sets were commonplace in prisons, the department grappled with the notion of allowing a filmmaker into the prison as early as 1897. (Information on today’s filming policies can be found online, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/documentaries-and-filming.html.)
Convicted murderer Theodore Durrant, dubbed “Demon of the Belfry” by the press, was due to be executed at San Quentin. To help raise funds for his defense, Durrant’s parents contracted with the operator of an animatoscope to film the inmate. The family charged admission for this early film to raise money for his defense as his appeal was before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1895, Durrant was convicted of murdering two young women and hiding their bodies in a church belfry and a closet. His trial went on for years, garnering headlines and multiple pages of coverage.
By all appearances, 23-year-old Theodore Durrant was an upstanding young man. He was a member of the California Signal Corps (a sort of precursor to the National Guard), superintendent of the Sunday school at Emanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco and a medical student at Cooper Medical College.
“It was on the third of April, 1895, that Blanche Lamont, a girl of some twenty years, left her home to attend … school. Blanche Lamont did not return. Her mysterious disappearance was reported to the police, published in the papers and was one of the incidents of the day. On the 13th of April, 1895, the day before Easter Sunday, some ladies of Emanuel Baptist Church went to that place of worship for the purpose of decorating. When going about, they opened the door to a small room … in the library and were horrified to discover the body of a young girl, subsequently identified as the body of Minnie Williams. … The finger of suspicion soon pointed to Theodore Durrant,” according to Report of the Trial of William Henry Theodore Durrant, published in 1899.
Authorities connected the disappearance of Lamont to the murder of Williams and the church was searched from top to bottom. “The nude corpse of Blanche Lamont was discovered in the unfinished belfry of the church. … Durrant was arrested while away with the signal corps,” according to the report.
Williams was small, weighing around 90 pounds, and was a live-in companion to a merchant’s wife in Alameda. She knew Blanche Lamont and they both attended Emanuel Baptist Church. Williams was 21 at the time of her murder. Durrant was a known acquaintance of both women. He had recently visited Williams in Alameda and, according to the report, “took her over to Fruitvale and there in a lonely spot made an improper proposal to her. She immediately informed (her employer) of this occurrence.”
Durrant never faced trial in the Williams murder because prosecutors believed their evidence in the Lamont case was stronger.
Both women were strangled and raped. Lamont’s body was positioned as a medical cadaver, with her head between two blocks of wood and another under her neck to keep her head upright. Her arms were crossed over her chest. Williams was also attacked with a knife, pieces of it broken off in her body. Police found Williams’ purse in an overcoat in Durrant’s home.
After a trial lasting weeks, it took the jury only 20 minutes to reach a unanimous guilty verdict.
After repeated appeals, and an argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1897 Judge Bahrs sentenced Durrant to hang.
Film as fundraiser
“Victims of a morbid curiosity will soon be given an opportunity of indulging their passion by seeing Theodore Durrant through the medium of the animatoscope. A few days ago permission was asked of the Warden at San Quentin to take Durrant’s picture. There is a stringent rule at the prison which forbids visitors bringing photographic apparatus inside the walls,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 8, 1897. “To overcome this difficulty it was necessary to obtain a special order from the Prison Directors. This was done, and yesterday morning Durrant’s father … and an animatoscope operator presented themselves at San Quentin.
“Durrant rehearsed his part in the morning’s drama and the whole affair was over in a short time. Most of the pictures taken were of the kind showing animated scenes, and Durrant appears in a variety of attitudes. The films will be sent east to be developed and within a month, the pictures will be ready for exhibition. Great secrecy has been maintained by all parties interested in the affair, and it is doubtful if the prison officials were aware of the full intentions of the animatoscope people.”
In the Philip Hoare book, “Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century,” the author focused on the film.
“The Durrants used yet more modern technology to propagate their message. Theo invited the owners of an animatoscope, an early kind of film camera, to record him picking flowers in the prison garden, raising the blooms to sniff delicately, presumably in an effort to convince viewers that he was a sensitive young man incapable of horrible murder,” he wrote.
The Durrants showed their film in San Francisco.
“Warden Hale angry,” read the headline of the San Francisco Call, Dec. 17, 1897. The warden’s daughter could be seen in the film. “In the animatoscore exhibition on Market street there is a picture of Durrant entering the gate at San Quentin. Several reporters are in the picture and also the Warden’s daughter Sadie.”
“A friend who saw the picture notified the Warden, and yesterday afternoon he came to the city. He went straight to the exhibition, paid his 10 cents, and was soon convinced that his friend was correct,” the paper reported. “After the close of the exhibition he explained who he was, and made a demand upon the management that the picture be not exhibited in the future. This was refused, and he left threatening to apply to the courts for a writ of injunction.”
Durrant’s appeals didn’t work and the state carried out his sentence, executing him at 10:37 a.m., Jan. 7, 1898.
“The most noted criminal of the nineteenth century was officially dead,” reported the Sacramento Union, Jan. 8, 1898.
As for the church with its infamous belfry, it was severely damaged in the great 1906 earthquake and demolished.
Executioner relieved of duty
Amos Lunt, “the famous executioner” of San Quentin, oversaw 21 executions, including Durrant’s hanging. Lunt was also a former chief of police for Santa Cruz as well as a Civil War veteran.
After exhibiting signs of extreme stress, he was relieved of his duty as executioner and reassigned as a guard, according to the San Francisco Call, Oct. 23, 1899. His condition worsened and he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane at Napa.
Judge Bahrs, who sentenced Durrant to death a decade earlier, “reluctantly signed the order of commitment,” reported the Call, Oct. 31, 1899.
“Recently … he has suffered from an attack of softening of the brain and his end is expected at any time,” reported the Sausalito News, Aug. 31, 1901. “The career of Lunt as a hangman was a remarkable one. … For seven years he filled the office of state executioner and nineteen murderers were hanged by him (and with two others he oversaw their executions).”
“Amos Lunt, the man who as hangman in San Quentin prison placed the noose about the necks of upward of a score of condemned murderers and who lost his reason through brooding over the gruesome tragedies in which he played a leading role, passed away Friday morning in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Lunt had been confined to the institution for more than a year. He was a physical and mental wreck,” reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Sept. 23, 1901.
Durrant’s famous sister
Durrant’s sister, Maud, studied music and dance in Europe. Years after her brother’s execution, she was the toast of London using her stage name, Maud Allan.
“Information was received here yesterday that Maud Allan, the mysterious danseuse at the Palace theater in London, who has taken that great city by storm and who nightly receives the adulation alone according to London’s favorites, is none other than Maud Durrant of San Francisco, sister of Theodore Durrant, who was hanged for the murder of Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams 13 years ago. … Hitherto all that was known of the wonderful dancer was that she was an American, whose success was as sensational as her art,” reported the Associated Press, April 19, 1908.
She is best known for creating “Vision of Salome,” based on the Oscar Wilde play, “Salome” in 1906. Her dancing and storytelling inspired what is known today as modern dance.
She was also an author, publishing an autobiography titled “My Life and Dancing,” in 1908. There is another more risque book attributed to her as well.
With silent movies making a splash, filmmakers turned to popular stage performers at the time. In 1915, she starred in the silent film “The Rug Maker’s Daughter.”
She eventually retired from the spotlight and returned to California to teach dance. She died in 1956.
Case makes celebrities
The Durrant case was in the public eye for so long, those associated with the case were also of public interest for years.
“Mrs. Caroline S. Leak, one of the most important and sensational witnesses in the trail of Theodore Durrant … died suddenly yesterday at her residence,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 2, 1899. She was 70. “At the time of the tragedy in the belfry of the Emanuel Baptist Church, Mrs. Leak resided … across the way from the church. She was sitting at the front window of her house and saw Durrant and Blanche Lamont enter the side door of the church together on the afternoon on which the murder occurred. That was the last time Lamont was ever seen alive.”
Eugene N. Deuprey served as one of Durrant’s defense attorneys. He was 55 when he died.
“Deuprey was a family figure in legal and political circles,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 5, 1903. “(He) gained further prominence as the attorney for Theodore Durrant.”
Dr. John S. Barrett, San Francisco’s autopsy surgeon who examined the bodies of Lamont and Williams, died at age 37 in Arizona, according to the San Francisco Call, Dec. 11, 1907. “Barrett, a young physician who figured prominently in the Durrant murder trial, died at Prescott, Ariz., on Monday. He was a native of Sacramento. … His testimony formed an important link in the chain of evidence that sent the murderer to the gallows.”
“Judge J.T. Coffman … and General John Dickinson have formed a law partnership,” reported the Sotoyome Scimitar, March 30, 1909. “General Dickinson is well known throughout Sonoma County, as well as elsewhere. … He has been identified with many prominent cases. He defended Theodore Durrant through his long fight for life through all the courts of the state and the supreme court.”
Dickinson, 58, died later that same year. For a decade, he held a commission as a brigadier general in the state militia (today’s National Guard).
“Two weeks ago General Dickinson, who had been in poor health for several months, came to his ranch (near Healdsburg) to rest and recuperate. … (His) name has been familiar for his connection with many of the greatest legal battles in the history of the state. He took a prominent part at the trial of Theodore Durrant,” reports the San Francisco Call, Aug. 23, 1909.
In 1910, a former detective was promoted in the city’s police department, taking the top job.
“The appointment of John Seymour to be chief of police gives excellent promise,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 3, 1910. “As a detective, Mr. Seymour ranks among the best. It was his work largely that brought Theodore Durrant to the gallows.”
In 1910, “Capt. William S. Barnes, one of the prominent attorneys of the west, died early this morning at his home at Salada Beach. Bright’s disease is given as the cause of death. … While district attorney of San Francisco, he secured the conviction of Theodore Durrant, who was executed at San Quentin prison for the killing of Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, March 14, 1910.
“A Fairbanks, Alaska, cable says that Rosalind Tiffany, who became famous as the ‘Sweet Pea Girl’ during the trial of Theodore Durrant in San Francisco, has won a fortune in mining property by the decision of the federal court,” reported the Sacramento union, Aug. 2, 1911.
“Judge who sentenced Durrant dies at Bay,” reads the headline in the Sacramento Union, Dec. 13, 1915. “George H. Bahrs, San Francisco attorney and former superior court judge, died here (on Dec. 12). He served as superior judge from 1894 to 1900, and it was in his court that Theodore Durrant … received his final death sentence. Judge Bahrs, who was 53 years old, served San Francisco as civil service commissioner under three administrations.”