Unlocking History: 1897 film of notorious killer helped shape state’s filming policy

Unlocking History: 1897 film of notorious killer helped shape state’s filming policy

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. 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.