The Bell Tower: The case of Jack the Ripper finally solved in San Francisco

The Bell Tower: The case of Jack the Ripper finally solved in San Francisco

by Robert Graysmith



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780895263247
Publisher: Regnery Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/1999
Pages: 552
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.80(d)

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Chapter One

Pastor Gibson

Showers and fog swept in through the Golden Gate, gliding across San Francisco Bay and spilling like snow over Mile Rock's lonely light. When fog and rain drift silently together, hand-in-hand, Coastal Miwok Indians consider it an omen. The local Native Americans call it "Sad Weather," a time when the weary creep into their shelters and the strongest of chieftains die.

    Fog flowed on toward the Mission District, an area known for decades in the region's press as the "Haunted Area," and enshrouded a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare known citywide as the "Haunted Street." There it lapped quietly at the base of an elongated gray frame edifice of horizontal stick-work built to look like a small cathedral. Saw-toothed finials, like teeth, raced from steep-pitched gables along roof lines, ornamental brackets nestled beneath each projecting eave, and, at the west, three-pointed Gothic arches marked the entrance to Emmanuel Baptist Church. Unrecessed as it was, the temple butted up against the sidewalk of 131 Bartlett Street, but this only emphasized its most startling aspect—the sinister, swaying tower that sprang dramatically from its northwest corner.

    The Reverend John George Gibson opened the door to the bell tower for the first time at the end of 1894, soon after he had been hired as Emmanuel Baptist Church's new minister. He entered the shadowed well of the tower carrying a candle and observed a dank, unfurnished room carpeted in dust. He strode to the unfinished planks of the stairway leading to the first level and felt the spire quiverin the wind before he had gone many steps. He heard the bells of faraway churches and watched flurries of dust spin at his feet.

    The higher he rose the more the tower trembled from the winds rushing down Bartlett Street. The narrow staircases stretched and twisted forty feet to the first of three landings. In all, these uneven steps climbed upward at wild angles to a level where slanted ventilators and balcony supports signified the beginning of the great steeple.

    Thirty-five years old, exactly five-foot, nine-inches tall, and fair-haired, the pastor displayed a small, sandy moustache. He habitually twisted and tugged at its ends until they pointed heavenward. Gibson had a wide, round face, but was a full-blooded, broad-shouldered, athletic fellow, who, though stubby, was well built. His blue-gray eyes, sly and imperious, were heavily hooded. The sleepy lids kept his secrets cloistered, and at times an invisible curtain, like the third lid common to birds, seemed to drop down over them. His new flock noted something strange, hypnotic, and wonderful about his eyes, a perpetual languidness that never failed to draw you in. But he rarely blinked, and this unnerved many.

    Something had scarred Gibson's finely rounded neck so terribly on both sides that he kept a red scarf wrapped around it. Occasionally he relied on his white clerical collar to conceal the imperfection, but beneath this he absently rubbed the deep wounds on either side. The scars were the result of an accident, attack, or birth defect that he would not or could not discuss. "His neck, badly scarred on either side" commented the San Francisco Examiner, "was the one unpleasant feature of an otherwise pleasing appearance."

    The new reverend held a lofty, almost insolent attitude. Easily offended and long to hold grudges, Gibson lost his temper at the slightest provocation. The contentious pastor's outbursts were legendary at his former parishes, but these tales had not preceded him. Still, the reports nipped at his heels like so many trailing hounds, and he cautioned himself, "None of that here, not during the first months at a new church." And like curtains of gentle rain, tranquillity dropped down over him. That his disguise was convincing was evident in a news article—"Pastor Gibson gives the air of a thoughtful, mild, and chastened man, as though he had done battle with his personal demons and won."

    Though he had a fair complexion, almost fair as a woman's, the pastor flushed and reddened to the point of alcoholic blotchiness when excited or angry. Effeminate in both voice and manner, Gibson spoke like a gentleman or lord and sang with a fine, loud voice that rattled the false ceiling over the choir.

    Gibson had been enticed to the San Francisco church with a contract offer of a thousand a year, but the board, always thrifty, had begun to haggle. Ultimately, Gibson had settled for the smaller figure of $800 annually.

    Edinburgh-born on August 14, 1859, Gibson had moved to London and boarded at Camberwell on Church Street while a divinity student at Spurgeon's College. During that time, he had gained an intimate knowledge of the city and its East End, a section of abject poverty. From 1881 until 1887, he had toiled as the pastor of St. Andrews Church, St. Andrews University, Scotland, where he had once studied. After tendering his resignation, Gibson's whereabouts over the next year were unknown or sketchy at best.

    At St. Andrews John George Gibson disliked being called John, preferring instead the name Jack. In December of 1888, for reasons as mysterious as the origins of the wounds on his neck, Pastor Jack packed up and left Britain to try his fortune in America. This was the date the pastor claimed, though it might have been four to five months later. After his arrival in New York ("It was at the end of 1888, as far as I can remember," the pastor told his flock vaguely, as if anyone could forget the day he first set foot in a new land) he traveled to New Jersey. When queried about the date in 1895, the secretary of Spurgeon's College replied that he had "no means of ascertaining the date of [Pastor John George Gibson's] leaving for America. There is a notation of him serving at New Brunswick, but whether that is New Jersey or Canada I don't know." Then on to California, by rail. There he labored in Red Bluff for three and one-half years and in Chico for two and one-quarter years. Pastor Jack became well known as a musician and as the writer of popular religious tracts. Encouraged by his Red Bluff flock, he authored a book, Outlooks from the Zenith.

    Pastor Jack had been looking for some time for a church suited to his needs, and it was with a sense of delight and relief that he arrived at the gray cathedral. The pastor delivered his first sermon in the church on November 11, 1894, and was well received. The local newspapers, however, had one view of the mild reverend doctor that did not set well with his self-concept.

    "He acted like a man whose whole life had been run in one groove, like one who had never 'lived up' with the world and who had been jostled out of his narrow line of life," wrote the Examiner.

    Still, the ladies of the Emmanuel Baptist flock considered Pastor Jack a "very up-to-date divine," and the men thought him an adequate "fire-escape"—a preacher who would keep them from the fires of hell. The pastor sang solo beautifully from the pulpit at every service, and his quiet, lulling, musical speaking voice had an almost hypnotic effect, enhanced by his heavily lidded eyes.

    The pastor continued heavenward among the dusky passage. In the dark he saw the vague lines of the rafters of the main auditorium. The stairs were narrow, only two feet wide, and he had to climb almost seven stories of them. He caught his coat on nails hammered haphazardly into timbers and unfinished sections of the church spire. Halfway up, Pastor Jack stepped onto a rugged platform, but only after climbing over the railing of the stairs. This was the first landing, and here he relit his candle, which had been blown out by the wind.

    Over the first days of November the pastor had prodded, had carefully molded both his pliable congregation and intractable board. Without permission he'd hired a new sexton, Frank A. Sademan, a sinister man whose penetrating gaze made everyone but the pastor uneasy. Pastor Jack could also have lived in the church, but chose instead to reside in a tidy second-floor lodging in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Moore at 901 1/2 Valencia Street at the corner of 20th, directly north of the church, only three blocks away, following the sweep of the Haunted Street.

    Naturally, the new pastor also had a study within the church. Beyond the church arcade lobby, north and south staircases led to the main body of the church on the second floor. From there a curving staircase at the southwest corner climbed to the third floor, the gallery and site of the reverend's study. It was also the location of the Baptistery, and the entrance to the first floor of the bell-tower at the northwest corner. Pastor Jack's hermitage sat several stories above the right rear door at the northeast corner, and there he stored five black silk robes, a toolbox, copies of his book, his religious papers, and a comfortable couch that could be converted into a bed.

    Later, considerable controversy about the wisdom of having a bed inside the church arose. Almost immediately wild rumors and potential scandal began brewing. All had implications to yet again shock the beleaguered church—which had seen two ministers commit suicide and one commit murder. Frequent visits at night by young men and women attracted the attention of policemen on the beat who developed fine suspicions about what really went on in the temple at night.

    "I've heard stories of strange actions on the part of some of the young people of the church," said Alexander Zengler, a Russian upholsterer who resided to the south of the church. Dick Stanton, a neighbor to the north, complained that it was a common thing to see men and women "go into the church by the side gate at all hours of the day or night. These daily visits became so common that no one paid any attention to it any longer and the people had ceased commenting on it. There was a light in the church nearly every night. It came from the pastor's study."

    William Randolph Hearst's Examiner, always on the lookout for fresh scandal, commented: "The visits of young people to the church were the subject of a neighborhood scandal.... The institution was held in anything but high regard by the neighbors."

    They suspected that orgies were being held by the young people in the church after hours. But no one could figure out how they were getting in because of the many locks on the church. To enter from the front, on Bartlett Street, required two keys—one to open an iron gate and one to unlock any one of the three heavy church doors. The churchmen, though they religiously kept the northeast rear door locked and bolted, usually left the southwest gate standing open.

    Five people and four of their associates had access to the Haunted Church at different times. All five principals possessed a single key, but each key was different and opened just one of five separate doors—the front door, the southeast rear door, the library reading room, the library storage room, and the bell-tower.

    Now just who had a key to what, wondered Pastor Jack as he reached the first turn of the third flight of stairs leading to the gallery. The bright lights of the auditorium shining up from far below lit the pastor's face with the same light that illuminated the mysterious figures neighbors claimed to have glimpsed striding the former rookeries. Mentally, the pastor made an index in his mind of all who had access to Emmanuel Baptist Church at night. Theo Durrant, a Sunday school teacher, had a key to the southeast rear door, one that he had forged and had no right to possess. Pastor Jack pondered whether the pious young Theo knew that the reverend had knowledge of this illegal key.

    Finally, the last landing lay before Pastor Jack. He was now seventy-six feet in the sky, above the roof of the church, and still the spire shot needle-like above him. Four slatted ventilators in the darkened tower let shafts of light in through narrow cleats. It was silent except for the hiss of wind in the twelve-foot-square rough board room. Beams shot into the darkness of the bell-tower above and were lost to his eyes.

    Pastor Jack had acquainted himself with every facet of his church, saving the tower for last. He knew Emmanuel Baptist's secrets—its hidden rooms, long passages, and sturdy doors that opened only with the turn of special keys. The pastor had heard the tower had been constructed from the timbers of the Ghost Fleet, an armada of almost a thousand abandoned ships that had clogged the harbor for years. Gold-fevered crews and captains had deserted these vessels during the Gold Rush.

    On lower Market Street, in the financial district, and in the marina, building foundations rested on the masts, spars, and copper-sheathed hulls of these long-buried ships. Some sixty to seventy vessels, out of the ghostly thousand, still lay below. Ships with names like the Niantic, Roma, Apollo, and Othello made up the city's bones—a lost, windless armada that offered one reason why the city shook so easily. But the Haunted Street residents knew that no ships lay beneath the site of the gray church. They knew that underneath, where a cathedral's spiral staircase, tunnel, and Romanesque crypt might sprawl and connect, a furnace roared, the rocky earth of a former graveyard moldered, and murder's ground lay unconsecrated. Upon this the church had built its foundation.

    Pastor Jack, erect, prideful, and athletic, strode across the topmost platform of his tower, which swayed violently with each gust of wind. He fixed his candle on a lofty iron bracket. A glow like sunset touched him and cast his shadow brokenly across dust-laden planks.

    A mournful wind howled, and far below he heard the tower door slam shut. The tower often acted as the church chimney to vent the opal gas that fed the blazing Sun Burners over the congregation. The eyes of bats or birds glittered in the gloom above. Gibson saw where two candles had burned on the railing and he touched the still tacky wax puddled there. Then he edged along the windows, where the wind whispered.

    Finally, the clergyman pried open a little slatted window at the side and peered out like an owl. A deeper and more compelling fog rode in on the back of the late west wind, and drizzle drifted softly among the seven hills. A dreary expanse stretched northward, but in places the fog parted and the reverend could glimpse a turreted castle perched on the southeast corner of Mason and California. The Hopkins's Nob Hill mansion towered, visible as far away as San Mateo some twenty-five miles to the south. And he could see the eighty-five-foot Nob Hill tower of millionaire stock speculator Jim Hagin, which allowed the master to observe vessels gliding in and out of the Golden Gate. On the flat land, he saw Mission Dolores's own bell-tower standing proudly.

    Somewhere beneath the Chronicle's monstrous Market Street clock tower the bells of another church tolled, a church that Pastor Isaac Smith Kalloch had built into the mightiest Baptist church in the land. Isaac was a powerful force in the Baptist community and a leader of the Haunted Church on Bartlett Street. The tragedy of that pink-bearded giant, shot in the back as he stumbled for the safety of his church, was irrevocably linked to Emmanuel Baptist Church and to the city's fierce newspaper publishers.

    For years, the regional press had cried out news of the Haunted Church's spectres and phenomenal bad luck with its men of God. Suicides, seducers, and murderers seemed irresistibly drawn to a pulpit sandwiched between hissing banks of Sun Burners heating the church from above and a roaring black furnace below.

    Now, as chimes of other temples reached the pastor's ears, words and rumors rode the wind and he shivered. Below he heard the energetic pumping of a hand-organ as someone ground out the "Star Spangled Banner." The smells of neighborhood dinners cooking reached his nostrils. Bartlett to the north spread out beneath his feet and Pastor Jack could see his own house several blocks away on Valencia, the sexton's house behind his, and the church organist's home on Capp Street.

    Theo Durrant occupied Jack's mind. Everyone knew Theo as the "goodest man in town." But Pastor Jack did not like him. "Perhaps what we hate is not goodness, perhaps what we hate, what we see through, is a sham," the pastor told himself. Theo, apparently, had no flaws or vices. He was popular, good to his mother, and worked so hard around the church that he was invaluable, practically a fixture.

    But when medical student Harry Partridge found a chink in Theo's armor of purity, the pastor's heart had leaped. "While Theo and I smoked a cigarette in front of Cooper College," Partridge said, "two young women from Emmanuel Baptist Church passed across the street."

    "Do you think they saw me?" Theo asked with concern.

    "Saw what?" asked Partridge.

    "Saw me smoking a cigarette. I wouldn't have that known about me for a great deal."

    Partridge recalled vividly that two years earlier Theo had confided that at age twenty-two, he was still a virgin. But by the end of 1894, he boasted that he possessed a hypnotic power over women.

    A few of Partridge and Theo's fellow Cooper Medical College students thought Theo actually perverted of mind. "Why?" asked Pastor Jack.

    "Because he reads books that tell of the abnormal passions of some men."

    "But the book in question" said the pastor, "Psychopathia Sexualis, is a German text assigned to medical students such as Theo. Many, yourself included, avidly read it on their own."

    But the druggist in the Mission where Pastor Jack shopped went so far as to suspect that Theo had lost his mind. "And what makes you think this?" asked the pastor.

    "I suspect Theo is going nutty because all he talks about is women."

    The pastor had to confess to himself that he found Theo unreadable. Evil he knew, he could put his finger on, but pure goodness—if indeed Theo were such—lay somewhere outside his ken. As the cleric meditated in the belfry, the air brooded, drifting clouds ruffled their feathers, and sharp leaves rustled against the roofline. A moan rose from the north and a warm breath of wind touched the pastor's cheek. Out went his candle, and he patted himself down for a second match. Rain began to pelt the tower and slowly a slanting veil cleaved against the spire like a curtain. Trees along Bartlett bent in mocking worship.

    At the little embrasure Pastor Jack placed the tips of his fingers together in something resembling prayer and, satisfied, descended the shivering tower. He lost his balance several times as the bell-tower lurched in the angry gusts. The tower seemed so uncanny that he wouldn't have been surprised to pass the vengeful, voiceless apparition of the Chronicle's Charles de Young on the rickety stairs. Charles had died in silence, and it had been the pastor of this very church, Pastor Milton Kalloch, Pastor Isaac Kalloch's son, who had slain him in cold blood.

    He thought he heard singing as he reached the third floor—blasphemous words. "The rim of my hat goes flippity-flap, and so does the sole of my shoe," rang among the seats. "If you want to get rich, you son-of-a-bitch, just paddle your own canoe." It was the song Pastor Milton Kalloch sang when he was in his cups, which was often, but his voice was in no way as melodious and rich as the golden voice of Kalloch's own father, Pastor Isaac, in his time the most famous Baptist minister in all of the United States. Oh, assuredly, many ghosts haunted this church with the swaying tower and the endless rickety steps, this temple of many locks and as many different keys.

    In the shadows of the church's angular end pointing east, its apse, Pastor Jack saw his friend Elmer A. Wolfe across the nave. He raised his left arm to hail him, then quickly dropped it to his hip. He had mistaken Theo Durrant for Wolfe. Now that Theo had cultivated his almost negligible moustache into new growth, he uncannily resembled Wolfe, a rough-tempered rancher and member of the congregation. Though their long coats and slouch hats made the two men indistinguishable from a distance, at close range several differences were immediately apparent.

    Theo's snub nose, square jaw, and long face were framed by tawny yellow hair worn in an unfashionably long style. He wore his hat creased in the middle, while Wolfe's hat was smaller and rounded, and his coat longer. Theo weighed less than Wolfe, a trim 102, often less. Short, five-foot, eight-inches tall, but muscular, lithe, and athletic, Theo was an excellent swimmer. His large head, scholarly bearing, and alertness gave Theo the appearance of a clerk, or perhaps an engineer, an assumption closer to the truth. The dapper twenty-four year old wore a size nine shoe and for a small man had unusually large hands.

    "Nobody who looks at Theo Durrant's hands can doubt his strength" a reporter wrote of him some months later, in April 1895. "They are large and strong. The bones and muscles of them are as big as if he worked hard all his life. They are not the hands of a delicate student."

    If his hands were noticeable, then Theo's eyes were captivating. The devouring intensity of his gaze was enhanced by the little tricks weather plays upon such pale lenses as his, deepening to blue in sunlight and altering to a greenish-slate, the color of the surrounding bay, under a ceiling of fog like today's.

    His voice, low and pleasant, was almost as musical as the pastor's higher pitch. Theo not only blew bugle for his national guard unit, but sang and entertained his militia friends at the Armory on guitar and mandolin.

    As the church Christmas party drew near, Pastor Jack had put all unsavory thoughts of Theo from his mind; he was pleasantly cordial, but kept a polite distance from the eager young man. Then on December 14, word flashed around the church and town that someone had stabbed poor, crippled Eugene Ware to death. Ware had been a drug clerk at the St. Nicholas Pharmacy at Larkin and Market Streets near the Armory. The powerful killer had throttled Ware with his right hand, pinioning him while he knifed him with his left.

    Four of the cuts were in a circle smaller than the palm of a man's hand, and all had pierced the clerk's heart. The murderer had then flung his victim's twisted body, slashed and hacked eighteen times, down. a long flight of stairs to the drugstore's basement.

    Pastor Jack noted a connection between Ware and Theo to an Examiner reporter. Young William Hearst's Examiner men were all over any lurid story in their battle with competitors Mike and Charles de Young's Chronicle. "Hadn't the drug clerk served in the Signal Corps with Theo?" the pastor suggested.


    "Surely. The two knew each other and visited together at the pharmacy. Of course no one has witnessed this, but wait, there is more. Another member of the Emmanuel Baptist Church lived, albeit briefly, at a Mission and Seventh Street lodging house at the same time as Ware. Minnie Williams, a girlfriend of Theo's, not only knew Ware, but both were connected with another woman Theo dated." The pastor referred to the beautiful, though sickly, Blanche Lamont, a member of the congregation since October.

    The reverend found it difficult to explain his dislike of Theo. Members of the flock found it equally difficult to believe anything bad of him. Who, throughout the entire city, was as beloved by all, as fine a son and hard a worker, as pious, virtuous, and completely good as Theo Durrant?

* * *

At the end of 1894, just days before Christmas, Pastor Jack had problems of every shape and size to contend with, not least among them the animosity he felt toward Theo. The rumors regarding the Haunted Church refused to die. It was raining still as he left the church by the rear. He slogged through the rocky, patchily grassed area of the south side. Behind he tracked the foul-smelling seepage that collected there and that no one could do anything about.

Table of Contents

ONE Pastor Gibson1
TWO Theo Durrant15
THREE Three Damned Priests33
FOUR Blanche39
FIVE The Gate49
SIX The Church Organist57
SEVEN Shadow of the Ripper67
EIGHT Aunt Tryphena75
NINE Mike de Young81
TEN Minnie Williams87
ELEVEN Will Hearst and the Towers of Pastor Gibson97
TWELVE Minnie103
THIRTEEN The Choking Stick117
FOURTEEN Two Knives, Two Men141
FIFTEEN The Bell-Tower147
SIXTEEN The Inquest181
SEVENTEEN Sob Sister185
EIGHTEEN The Accomplice195
TWENTY How the Final Site for the Haunted Church Was Chosen207
TWENTY-ONE Media Circus213
TWENTY-TWO Pastor Jack221
TWENTY-THREE The Artist of the Free Lunch229
TWENTY-FOUR Second Story Man241
TWENTY-FIVE Where Did He Live?255
TWENTY-SIX Pastor Jack259
TWENTY-SEVEN The Black Angel273
TWENTY-NINE Battle of the Century303
THIRTY Two Birthdays and a Celebration307
THIRTY-TWO Mrs. Leake's Tale321
THIRTY-THREE How He Traveled337
THIRTY-FOUR The Timeclock343
THIRTY-FIVE The Last of William Randolph Hearst349
THIRTY-SIX The Many Faces of Pastor Gibson353
THIRTY-SEVEN A Play, and the Jury Visits the Church363
THIRTY-EIGHT Jack the Ripper Comes to America371
THIRTY-NINE Eyewitnesses375
FORTY A Pastor Becomes a Murderer387
FORTY-ONE The Prisoner's Story395
FORTY-TWO Magical Gas405
FORTY-THREE Closing413
FORTY-FOUR Verdict429
FORTY-FIVE The Metamorphosis of Mike de Young431
FORTY-SIX The Glowing Scroll437
FORTY-SEVEN The Shape of the Crime459
FORTY-EIGHT Theo's Journal467
FORTY-NINE Charlie Floyd and Theo's Journal477
FIFTY The Lost Volume485
FIFTY-ONE The Case of the First Confession491
FIFTY-TWO The Destruction of the Haunted Church499
EPILOGUE The Second Confession: London505
APPENDIX A Known Descriptions of the Ripper and His
APPENDIX B Jack the Ripper in Print541

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