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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Yesterday's Crimes: San Francisco's Press Hounds a Lady-killer to His Grave

Posted By on Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 11:34 AM

click to enlarge RANDY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

Author's Note: This is a follow-up to last week's "Yesterday's Crimes" column, which detailed the violent history of the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Capp Street and ended like a posthumous season of Deadwood. And now, on with the even more grisly sequel…

The Emmanuel Baptist Church was cursed from the moment it opened its doors on Capp Street in 1878. Its first two pastors killed themselves, and the third murdered San Francisco Chronicle co-founder Charles DeYoung in 1880. But even with three deaths in under three years, the little church endured. But a change was needed.

In 1890, the congregation moved to a new building on Bartlett Street between 22nd and 23rd, and things were quiet for nearly five years. When the Rev. John George Gibson took over in 1894, his predecessor didn’t even have blood on his hands.

The curse came back, however, and this time it was bloodier than ever.

It was Saturday, April 13, 1895. A group of church ladies was decorating the pulpit for the next day's lavish Easter Sunday celebrations when one of them found a young woman’s blood-drenched body in a small library storeroom.

"The girl had been assaulted, and her remains had been cut and hacked," the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash. later reported. The victim had also "been gagged by the assailant," with "part of her underclothing" jammed down her throat "with a sharp stick."

At first, the churchwomen thought the body was 21-year-old Blanche Lamont, a popular congregant who'd been missing for ten days. But the body was later identified as Minnie Williams, a woman who liked the church well enough to ferry over from Alameda every week to worship.

Lamont, meanwhile, remained missing for another day before a search of the church grounds uncovered her body; it was dumped at the top of a rickety staircase in the church's ominous bell tower. She was "stripped of her clothing with her hands clasped upon her breast" according to the Chronicle.

Unlike Williams, Lamont was not mutilated aside from "the marks of fingers that had been pressed deep into the tender flesh,” along with the ruin wrought by 11 days of decomposition.

The cursed church could now add a double homicide to its litany of misfortunes.

Police quickly arrested W.H.T. "Theodore" Durant, a medical student and superintendent of Emmanuel Baptist's Sunday school who several eyewitnesses identified as the man last seen with both victims. Durant denied killing the two women, but during a search of his house, police found Williams' purse in his coat. And a pawnbroker later testified that Durant tried to sell him one of Lamont's rings just days after her disappearance.

Durant's two-month trial moved a lot of newsprint as the Chronicle and Examiner vied to boost readership during the onset of their century-long rivalry. Durant also received bags of fan mail, much of it from female admirers. While he captivated the public, Durant’s often contradictory testimony didn't impress the jury — the only audience he needed to sway.

On Nov. 1, 1895, Durant was found guilty after 22 minutes of deliberation. His final public appearance came in San Quentin's death chamber on Jan. 7, 1896.

"I am an innocent man," Durant protested from the gallows at 10:34 a.m.

"I bear no animosity toward those who have persecuted me, not even the press of San Francisco, which hounded me to the grave," he added during a four-minute speech described as "poorly constructed" by the same press he’d excoriated.

A few minutes later, Durant was dead.

"After the drop, Durant did not struggle," the Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported. "In fifteen minutes, he was cut down; the neck was broken by the fall."

Following the murders, Mission District residents finally called for the haunted church on Bartlett to be burned to the ground, but again, it somehow endured. Even the earthquake of 1906 and the fiery conflagration that followed failed to bring the building down.

The church was finally dismantled plank by plank in 1915. City College’s Mission Campus occupies the site today.

"Yesterday's Crimes" revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past.

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About The Author

Bob Calhoun

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