Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Theo Durrant

Durrant on Trial

Theo Durrant's trial was front-page news
Theo Durrant's trial was
front-page news

Theo Durrant's trial began in the fall of 1895 and was front-page news in every big city newspaper in the nation. The mustachioed medical student yielded excellent copy for the penny papers which reported daily on the exploits in the San Francisco courtroom.

Like so many other brutal killers, Durrant drew his share of admirers and was besieged by marriage proposals and love letters. He was gentlemanly and gallant to his female admirers. Every morning during the three-week trial Durrant accepted a bouquet of flowers from a pretty blonde woman. The press dubbed her "The sweet pea girl of San Francisco."

While the prosecutors believed they had an open-and-shut case, the defense tried to shift suspicion from Durrant to the Emanuel Baptist Church pastor, the Rev. John George Gibson, who spent hours alone in the church and had access to all parts of the building.

Theo Durrant, early prison photo
Theo Durrant, early prison

They pointed out that no blood was ever found on Durrant or any of his clothing, and that there was no indication the young man had destroyed any clothes.

Prosecutors proposed that Durrant was naked during the murder of Minnie Williams, lending credence to the belief that Williams had been a willing sexual partner prior to her slaying.

Durrant's soundness of mind was probed by doctors working for the prosecution as well as for the defense.

"It was not claimed that Durrant was insane," wrote Matthew Worth Pinkerton in his contemporary account of the case, Murder in All Ages (1898). "Yet that there was something morally defective in his makeup is apparent."

The psychologists who examined Durrant labeled him a "moral idiot," but could not speculate on what caused Durrant's sudden murderous outbreak. The only clues had to be wrenched from Durrant himself, who in between claims of innocence announced that he was suffering from nightmares and hallucinations. Durrant put these down to stress from his unjust prosecution, but modern neuro-psychological theories have more plausible explanations.

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