Other murders may have received more publicity like the sensational double slaying of the Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall and his choir-singer mistress, Mrs. Eleanor Mills, whose corpses were found, amid a scattering of love letters, in a New Jersey orchard. But none provoked greater horror.
There seemed to be a monster on the loose. Nowadays, we know what to call such creatures—but back then, the phrase serial killer was still fifty years in the future. To the terrified citizens of the time, the unknown maniac—roaming from city to city, selecting his victims at random—seemed like something from a horror story, say, by Edgar Allan Poe.
The victims in that story are a pair of Parisian women, a widowed mother and her grown daughter, who are hideously murdered in their apartment. Auguste Dupin the fictional forerunner of Sherlock Holmes , the culprit is ultimately identified. He—or, rather, it— turns out to be an ape: more specifically, a large, tawny Ourang-Outang that has escaped from its owner, a French seaman who has brought the creature back from Borneo as a pet.
It was as if the homicidal simian dreamed up by Poe had come terrifyingly to life. Perhaps it was for this reason that an unknown reporter, writing about the killer in a West Coast tabloid, tagged him with an epithet that would send tremors of apprehension from one end of the American continent to the other: the Gorilla Man. Eventually the Gorilla Man would be captured. But not before he had completed an odyssey that carried him across the country and up into Canada.
Along the way, he left a trail of corpses: twenty-two victims, all but one of them female, ranging in age from eight months to sixty-six years. By contrast, the true-life Gorilla Man did away with nearly two dozen— setting a ghastly record that would not be broken until the advent of beings like Ted Bundy, Ottis Toole, and Henry Lee Lucas. But sometimes it can be a good deal more gruesome—and much, much scarier. It was not claimed that Durrant was insane, yet that there was something morally defective in his make-up is apparent.
Bestial the Savage Trail of a True American Monster
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.
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. 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 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.
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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 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, , 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 P.
When her niece failed to return home that evening, Mrs. Noble contacted the police.
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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. She never made it to the gathering. Escorting her to the darkened building, he unlocked the front door with his personal key and led her to the seclusion of the library.
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Later that evening, at around P. 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, , 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.
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Others ran into the street, crying for the police. 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. The little room was covered with blood. This time suspicion fell immediately on Theo Durrant.
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. That same morning—Easter Sunday, April 14, —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.
Bestial- The Savage Trail of a True American Monster
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. 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. At P. 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. One pretty, blonde-haired fan—dubbed The Sweet-Pea Girl by the press—presented him daily with a bouquet of the flowers. 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, , 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. It lasted only nine days, the time between his first and final atrocities. The early home life of many serial killers is often one in which a stable, nurturing atmosphere is sorely lacking.
His only known baby picture—according to one observer, a writer named Douthwaite—showed a loose-mouthed degenerate infant with the abstracted vacancy of expression which is one of the hallmarks of degeneracy. At the time it was written, Nelson had already grown up to be a monster—a killer so terrifying that, to his Jazz Age contemporaries, he seemed like a creature of myth.
Still, there is no doubt that, from a very early age, little Earle had a deeply unsettling effect upon people. He was the sort of youngster that parents warn their own children to stay away from. Not that his peers required such admonitions. They could sense his abnormality all by themselves. He was only nine and a half months old when his young mother, Frances, died of syphilis. His father, James, followed her to the grave seven months later, a victim of the same disease. Jennie Nelson, a widow in her mid-forties.
There were two other youngsters in the household—Mrs. Little is known about Mrs. She appears to have been a hard-pressed, unimaginative woman who sought solace from the burdens of her life in a particularly zealous brand of Protestantism. San Francisco, the s. 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 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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