Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Groupies

A Good Catch

Henry Theodore Durrant
Henry Theodore Durrant
The year was 1895. It was the trial of William Henry Theodore Durrant, one of America's earliest documented serial killers. The 23-year-old had been a doctor in training at the Cooper Medical College in San Francisco and a superintendent of Sunday school at the Emmanuel Baptist church. Handsome and polite, with the aura of an innocent young man, Durrant was also awkward, and at times rather shy.

Michael Newton, in the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, describes Durrant's first victim as Blanche Lamont, 20, who was last seen with him one day in April, going into the church they both attended. Another young woman the same age, Minnie Williams, was also spotted with him, and unsupported rumors indicate that she may have told friends that she knew something about what had happened to Lamont. The woman ended up inside a church closet, stabbed in the left breast and gagged with a piece of material that was pushed deep into her throat with a long stick. She had been raped as well, possibly both pre — and postmortem.

On Easter Sunday, the church was closed so police could search it. In the belfry where no one ventured, they found Blanche Lamont's nude body. The coroner did not investigate whether she had been raped, as decomposition was pronounced, but the marks of strangulation were clear — indicating that she may have been attacked from behind. After death, she had been propped up on wooden blocks in a manner that suggested medical experience (although the medical college later denied this practice).

Durrant was indicted and quickly dubbed "the Demon of the Belfry." His three-week trial became an international sensation, commanding front-page headlines. What surprised people was the way dozens of women of all ages flocked to the courthouse to catch a glimpse of this good-looking killer. The female reporters (who got most of the real scoops) noted how silly they acted, and expressed some embarrassment for their gender. In fact, women of all ages had crowded the front rows to get a look at the killer, and when the coffins were laid out together, many women got into the long line twice.

Blanche Lamont, victim
Blanche Lamont, victim
As disconcerting as this behavior was at the time, supposedly flagging moral decay in society, it was the early stage of a long-standing trend in American crime to indicate that brutal men inspired not horror but curiosity, devotion, and even romantic love in certain types of women. Yet, one stood out and became herself a minor celebrity.

During the trial, notes Harold Schechter in The Serial Killer Files, blonde Rosalind Bowers attended each morning, carrying a bouquet of sweet pea flowers. She had these sent over to Durrant, and at one point, he wore one in his lapel. She apparently attempted to see him in his cell, but he refused her. Still, she came dutifully to court and it wasn't long before her unusual gesture was noted in the press. Virginia McConnell, in Sympathy for the Devil documents the incident.

Emmanuel Baptist church
Emmanuel Baptist church
Bowers became the "Sweet Pea Girl," and each day people waited to see if she would perform her ritual. One reporter even sat next to her and noted her melodramatic poses and gestures throughout the proceedings. There was little doubt she craved attention. It turned out that Bowers was married, and her husband was outraged to learn of her activities.

Whether her motives were to help Durrant gain the jury's sympathy, to get attention, to connect with him, or something more personal, she certainly managed to bring a new dimension to the trial. Moralists of the day viewed the excessive female attention to a brutal sex crime as an indication that women were not ready for independence and should not even be allowed to hear such details at all.

Book cover: The Serial Killer Files
Book cover: The Serial Killer
Yet despite all this attention to Durrant, coupled with the defense attorney's efforts to throw suspicion for both murders on the church pastor (who behaved ridiculously), it took the all-male jury only five minutes to convict the young med student of both murders, as well as to recommend the death penalty. He was hanged on April 3, 1897, on the second anniversary of Lamont's demise. The entire time, he proclaimed his innocence.

The Sweet Pea Girl disappeared into history, but her peculiar fixation placed her with the group of people (mostly women) who flock to trials and prisons even today to get killers to notice them. Called "prison groupies" or "serial killer groupies," many of them have shown a surprising tenacity to ensure that they become exclusively connected to the killer of their choice. Some have even aligned themselves with more than one notorious character, and many have gotten engaged or married.



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