Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster

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by Harold Schechter

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San Francisco, the 1920s. In an age when nightmares were relegated to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and distant tales of the Whitechapel murders, a real-life monster terrorized America. His acts of butchery have proved him one of history's fiercest madmen.

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San Francisco, the 1920s. In an age when nightmares were relegated to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and distant tales of the Whitechapel murders, a real-life monster terrorized America. His acts of butchery have proved him one of history's fiercest madmen.

As an infant, Earle Leonard Nelson possessed the power to unsettle his elders. As a child he was unnaturally obsessed with the Bible; before he reached puberty, he had an insatiable, aberrant sex drive. By his teens, even Earle's own family had reason to fear him. But no one in the bone-chilling winter of
1926 could have predicted that his degeneracy would erupt in a sixteen-month frenzy of savage rape, barbaric murder, and unimaginable defilement -- deeds that would become the hallmarks of one of the most notorious fiends of the twentieth century, whose blood-lust would not be equaled until the likes of
Henry Lee Lucas, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Drawing on the "gruesome, awesome, compelling reporting" (Ann Rule) that is his trademark, Harold Schechter takes a dark journey into the mind of an unrepentant sadist -- and brilliantly lays bare the myth of innocence that shrouded a bygone era.

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Chapter One

It was not claimed that Durrant was insane, yet that there was something morally defective in his make-up is apparent. Cases like his do not, most happily, often occur, but their occurrence is frequent enough to show that "man is joined to the beasts of the field by his body," and may become something worse than a beast of prey, when he flings aside conscience, love of humanity and God, and resolves, no matter at the expense of what crimes, to gratify his bestial tendencies.

Matthew Worth Pinkerton,
Murder in All Ages (1898)

To all outward appearances, Theodore Durrant ("Theo" to his friends) was a fine, upstanding specimen of young American manhood. A bright and personable twenty-three-year-old who still lived at home with his parents, he spent his weekdays pursuing his M.D. at San Francisco's Cooper Medical College. When he wasn't engaged in his studies, he could generally be found at the Emanuel Baptist Church on Bartlett Street, where he served as assistant superintendent of the Sunday School, church librarian, and secretary of the Young People's Society. His sense of civic duty seemed as strong as his Christian devotion. In addition to his other activities, he was a member of the California militia signal corps.

He was good-looking to boot: tall, trim, and athletic, with an erect carriage and fine, almost feminine, features -- high cheekbones, full mouth, big, blue eyes. True, some of his acquaintances found the cast of those eyes slightly disconcerting. In certain lights, they seemed pale to the point of glassiness, "fishlike" (in the words of one contemporary).

Still, Theodore Durrant cut a handsome, even dashing, figure. Women tended to find him deeply attractive. To a striking degree, he had a good deal in common with another clean-favored psychopath, born fifty years later, with whom he shared a name: Theodore Bundy.

To be sure, even before Durrant's monstrous nature was revealed to the world, a few of his intimates had caught glimpses of his dark side. To one companion, he bragged of his visits to the brothels of Carson City. To another, he described the time when he and three acquaintances, a trio of hard-drinking railroad workers, had assaulted an Indian woman.

Still, his friends weren't especially troubled by these confessions. Even a paragon like Theo needed to sow his wild oats. And the rape victim, after all, had only been a squaw.

Among the respectable young women who were irresistibly drawn to Theo Durrant was an eighteen-year-old named Blanche Lamont. A student at the Powell Street Normal School, where she was training for a career as a teacher, Lamont -- a striking blonde with an eye-catching figure -- was a relative newcomer to San Francisco, having arrived from Montana in 1894. She had moved into the home of her elderly aunt, a widow named Noble. Sometime shortly after settling into her new life, Blanche Lamont met and became enamored of the charming young medical student, Theo Durrant.

On the afternoon of April 3, 1895, following a full day in the classroom, Blanche emerged from the Powell Street school to find Durrant waiting for her on the sidewalk. Witnesses saw the couple board a trolley, then disembark in the neighborhood of the Emanuel Baptist Church. An elderly woman who lived directly across from the red, wooden church observed the handsome young pair enter the building at precisely 4:00 P.M.

It was the last time Blanche Lamont was seen alive.

dWhen her niece failed to return home that evening, Mrs. Noble contacted the police. The next day, having learned of Blanche's friendship with Durrant, several officers showed up at his home to question him. Durrant's response to the girl's disappearance was slightly peculiar -- he seemed notably indifferent, casually suggesting that she might have been shanghaied by a gang of white slavers.

Still, the officers had no reason to suspect the estimable young man. The newspapers ran a few stories on the case, while the police fruitlessly pursued their investigation. Theo Durrant made a personal visit to Mrs. Noble to offer his own singular brand of reassurance. There was no doubt in his mind, he declared, that Blanche was still alive, though probably imprisoned in a house of prostitution. He would do everything in his power, he vowed, to rescue the poor girl from bondage.

In the meantime, Durrant turned his attentions to another lady friend. She was a petite, twenty-one-year-old brunette named Minnie Williams, who had come to know and love Theo through their shared involvement in the church.

On Good Friday, April 12, 1895 -- nine days after Blanche Lamont's disappearance -- Minnie Williams left her boardinghouse at around 7:00 P.M., informing the landlady that she was going off to attend a meeting of the Young People's Society at the home of its supervisor, Dr. Vogel. She never made it to the gathering. Not far from the Emanuel Baptist Church, she met Theo Durrant. Escorting her to the darkened building, he unlocked the front door with his personal key and led her to the seclusion of the library.

Later that evening, at around 9:30 P.M., Theo showed up by himself at Dr. Vogel's house. The young man's normally pallid complexion was even whiter than usual, his hair was dishevelled, his brow beaded with sweat. Explaining that he had been stricken with a sudden bout of dyspepsia, Durrant hurried to the bathroom. When he emerged a while later, he appeared completely recovered.

The rest of the evening passed so pleasantly that Theo was sorry to see it end. Still, it had been a tiring day and he needed some sleep -- particularly since he was scheduled to leave town early the next morning on an outing with the signal corps. They were heading for Mount Diablo, fifty miles from the city.

Durrant and his fellow volunteers had already reached their destination when several middle-aged ladies arrived at the Emanuel Baptist Church the following day, April 13, 1895, to decorate it for Easter. After completing their task, they repaired to the church library and immediately spotted a reddish-brown trail that led to a closed-off storage room. One of the women pulled open the door, let out a shriek, and fainted. Others ran into the street, crying for the police.

The sight that had sent them screaming from the church was Minnie Williams' mutilated corpse, sprawled on the floor of the storage room.

The young woman had been subjected to a monstrous assault. The condition of her body was vividly described in a contemporary account.

Her clothing was torn and disheveled. She had been gagged, and that in a manner indicative of a fiend rather than a man. A portion of her underclothing had been thrust down her throat with a stick, her tongue being terribly lacerated by the operation. A cut across her wrist had severed both arteries and tendons. She had been stabbed in each breast, and directly over her heart was a deep cut in which a portion of a broken knife remained. This was an ordinary silver table-knife, one of those used in the church at entertainments where refreshments were served. It was round at the end, and so dull that great force must have been used to inflict the fearful wounds; indeed, it appeared that the cold-blooded wretch had deliberately unfastened his victim's dress that the knife might penetrate her flesh. The little room was covered with blood.

Later, after examining the young woman's remains, the coroner concluded that Minnie Williams had been raped after death.

This time suspicion fell immediately on Theo Durrant. That suspicion was confirmed when, searching Durrant's bedroom, investigators discovered Minnie Williams' purse stuffed inside the pocket of the suit jacket he had worn to Dr. Vogel's gathering the evening before.

By Sunday morning, the San Francisco Chronicle was openly naming Durrant as the killer, not only of Minnie Williams but of Blanche Lamont as well -- even though there was no definitive proof that the latter had been murdered.

But that situation was about to change.

That same morning -- Easter Sunday, April 14, 1895 -- a party of police officers arrived at Emanuel Baptist Church to conduct a search. They had little hope of success. After all, the Lamont girl had been missing for eleven days, and it seemed highly unlikely that a decomposing corpse could have been stashed on the premises without attracting any notice, particularly during the busy week preceding Easter. Still, they wanted to cover every possibility.

After making a thorough, fruitless search of the main part of the building, they ascended to the steeple. Overlooking Bartlett Street, the steeple had a strictly ornamental function, since it housed no bell. In fact, it was completely boarded up from inside. Few members of the church had ever entered it.

As they pushed open the steeple door, however, the investigators were immediately assaulted by a putrid stench. One of the officers struck a match, and its flickering light revealed the source of the fetor.

"Upon the floor of the lower room of the tower, just inside the door," wrote one reporter, "lay the outraged, nude, and bloated remains of what had once been a beautiful and cultivated girl, Blanche Lamont. A glance told the experienced searchers how the unfortunate young lady had met her death. About her neck were blue streaks, the marks of the strong, cruel fingers that had been imbedded in her tender flesh, choking out her young life. The face was fearfully distorted, the mouth being open, exposing the pearly teeth, and attesting the terrible death the poor girl had died."

That the outrage was the work of a medical student seemed confirmed by the singular position of the corpse. Its head "had been raised by placing a piece of wood under it, or 'blocked,' in the parlance of medical students, who so arrange cadavers on the dissection table." As with Minnie Williams, the autopsy revealed that Blanche Lamont had been the victim of a necrophiliac assault.

News of the discovery quickly spread thoroughout the Bay Area. By noon on that glorious April day, it seemed, one contemporary has recorded, as though "the entire city had poured into the streets. Thousands crowded around the church, while the streets in front of the newspaper offices were packed with masses of humanity, all struggling to get a view of the bulletin boards."

Telegraphs were dispatched to every sheriff's office in the vicinity of Mount Diablo. At 5:00 P.M., the San Francisco police received a message from one of their own, a detective named Anthoney, who had set out from the city as soon as Blanche Lamont's corpse was found. He had tracked down and apprehended Durrant at a place called Walnut Creek, not far from Mount Diablo.

By the time Anthoney and his captive were headed back to San Francisco, the City was in an uproar. An enormous mob assembled at the ferryhouse to await their arrival from Oakland. Only the presence of a large police contingent prevented a lynching.

Durrant's trial, which commenced in September 1895, was a nationwide sensation. For the three weeks of its duration, the courtroom was packed to overflowing, mostly with young women who couldn't seem to get enough of the accused. One pretty, blonde-haired fan -- dubbed "The Sweet-Pea Girl" by the press -- presented him daily with a bouquet of the flowers.

Much to the dismay of his female admirers -- and the disappointment of his lawyers, who did their best to cast suspicion on the church's pastor, the Rev. John George Gibson -- it took the jury only five minutes to convict Durrant. He was sentenced to die without delay.

His attorneys, however, managed to postpone his execution for three years. Finally, on January 7, 1898, Durrant was led to the gallows. He died insisting that he was "an innocent boy."

The psychological specialists who examined him, however, had formed a very different opinion, declaring him a "moral idiot." Those who sought explanations for this deficiency in his family background were tantalized by his parents' behavior on the day of his execution.

Immediately after the hanging, the prisoner's corpse was placed in an open coffin and carried into a waiting room. Durrant's formerly handsome face was a ghastly sight -- skin blackened, eyes bulging, tongue jutting grotesquely from his gaping lips.

When his parents arrived to claim the body, a prison official, as a gesture of courtesy, asked if they might not care for some tea. Mr. and Mrs. Durrant leapt at the offer whereupon a tray, loaded not only with tea but with a complete roast-beef-and-potato dinner, was brought into the room.

Then, with their dead child's body stretched out only a few feet away, Theo's parents sat down to enjoy their midday repast. Even the convict who had carried in the tray shook his head in disgust when he overheard Mrs. Durrant ask her husband for a second helping of beef.

Fortified by their meal, Durrant's parents were now faced with a dilemma: how to dispose of their son's corpse. Public detestation of Durrant was so intense that no cemetery would accept him. His parents were finally forced to transport the remains to Los Angeles for cremation.

"The Durrant murders and the shocking disclosures that followed stirred the people of the Pacific coast as nothing did before," wrote one of his contemporaries, "and the rejoicing at his death was almost universal."

Indeed, the people of the Pacific coast had gone to extraordinary lengths to expunge every trace of Durrant's existence. Nothing, not even his corpse, was suffered to remain. By refusing him even a burial plot, the citizenry of San Francisco were sending a message -- that creatures like Theo Durrant would never be allowed to defile their fair city.

It's a grim irony then that, even before it had purged itself of one monster, San Francisco had already become the birthplace of another.

He was born there on May 12, 1897, while Durrant's lawyers were mounting a last, desperate effort to save their client from the gallows. Like Durrant he would grow up to take a lively interest in religion (though he would never be mistaken for a choirboy). Their sexual proclivities were similar, too, since they shared a taste for postmortem rape.

There was, however, a major difference between the criminal lives of the two men. Appalling as it was, Durrant's violent career was mercifully brief. It lasted only nine days, the time between his first and final atrocities.

Earle Leonard Nelson would also savage two women -- one in San Francisco, one in San Jose -- during a nine-day period.

In his case, however, that was only the beginning.

Copyright © 1998 by Harold Schechter

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