This cabinet card came to me as a gift from a friend. She knew my love of researching old photos and suspected I would be especially interested in this one. You see, part of the writing on the reverse reads “murdered by Durant (sic), for which he was hanged.” My friend was correct; I was captivated!
On April 3, 1895, twenty-one-year-old Blanche Lamont was murdered in the Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco, California. Her naked body was found eleven days later in the church belfry, during a police search of the structure after the butchered body of Minnie Williams was discovered in the church library. Blanche and Minnie were the victims of a friend and fellow churchgoer, Theodore Durrant, who the press dubbed as the “Demon of the Belfry.” And as the writing on the reverse of the cabinet card noted, Durrant was hanged at San Quentin prison for Blanche’s murder on January 7, 1898.
The homicides of these two young women have been written about and discussed at length by many. They are the subject of books and podcasts. One needs only to do a quick google search to be rewarded with a flood of information about these horrific crimes. So much has been said about Blanch Lamont’s death, that I’d like to instead focus on her life.
Up until the age of thirteen, Blanche enjoyed the status of the middle child, born between siblings Grace and Maud. It was then that Blanche’s mother, Julia, almost forty years old, gave birth to a son, Roger, and three years later, a daughter, Antoinette. I wonder how the teenagers felt about having their home invaded by these tiny newcomers. I suspect that even if they were happy about the additional siblings, the changes in the household were a big adjustment.
Sometime during the 1880s, the family moved from Rockford, Illinois to Dillon, Montana where Blanche’s father, David, was employed as a bank clerk and later a postmaster. Tragically, David died of an intestinal ailment in 1892, when the youngest Lamont child was just two years old. Blanche’s mother took in boarders and her sister, Grace, took over her father’s position as postmaster to keep the household finances afloat. I’m sure Blanche and Maud took on extra responsibilities as well.
As a teen, Blanche was a member of the Tennis Club. She attended various parties and dances, such as the Leap Year Hop, which she helped organize in January of 1892. Blanche played the piano and the violin. She enjoyed reading. In fact, it is said that it was Durrant’s promise of a book, The Newcomes by Thackery, that lured Blanche to her death.
Those who knew Blanche well characterized her as diligent, apt, and intelligent, and it’s clear to me that she had ambition. At the age of sixteen, she took college preparatory courses at the Rockford Female Seminary in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois.
In 1893, Blanche taught classes in a one-room schoolhouse in Hecla, a small mining community near Glendale, Montana, and the following spring she secured a teaching contract with a school near Dillon for the fall term.
The teaching job never materialized, as that summer Blanche came down with a case of brain fever, which was a term used for several serious illnesses, including meningitis, encephalitis, and scarlet fever. I can’t help but wonder what Blanche’s life would have looked like if it weren’t for that illness.
In September 1894, although still quite frail, Blanche joined her sister, Maud, who was living in San Francisco, California with the girls’ maternal Aunt, Tryphenia Noble. Blanche wanted to experience the big city life and further her education, and the family thought the California climate would be good for her health.
Described as a slender, graceful young woman with a sunny disposition, who was beautiful in mind and person, Blanche’s California school classmates referred to her as a “Juno beauty.” In 1890s periodicals this term was used to describe a young woman “with a figure which a sculptor might call divine. Her face would be a fortune in any country,” and another as “that tall, “Juno-like” beauty, with raven tresses and dazzling eyes. She had skin like purest snow, and she moved with the graceful dignity of a Queen.”
During her time in California, when Blanche wasn’t at school, she immersed herself in social activities, including attending the Emmanuel Baptist Church and the Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society. Her love of music was evident by the fact that she was a member of two orchestras, the Emmanuel Baptist and Grace Methodist Episcopal. Blanche also attended a Thursday night reading group. Contrary to her Uncle Noble’s statement to newspaper reporters that his niece “had no male friends,” or her Aunt Tryphenia’s statement that Blanche “disliked the society of men and rarely spoke to one,” it seems there wasn’t a shortage of young men keen to escort Blanche home from these activities.
In a letter to her sister Grace, Blanche wrote of a young man, a dental student, who was teaching her to ride a bicycle. This was most likely Tom Vogel, a fellow member of Emmanuel Baptist Church. Albert Cowan played in the Grace Methodist orchestra and was known to walk Blanche home from practice and performances. There was even a young man from Dillon, Harry Poindexter, studying at Stanford, who called on Blanche a few times.
Unfortunately for Blanche, another one of her “suitors” was Theodore Durrant, her killer. Although their friendship had gone cold after Blanche turned down his marriage proposal in late 1894, those who witnessed them riding the streetcar on April 3rd, the day Blanche was murdered, said the two were enjoying each others’ company, laughing and talking intimately.
Was Blanche hoping to find “Mr. Right” during her stay in California? If so, the attention from so many young men must have been exhilarating. However, if walking down the aisle was not on Blanche’s mind, it’s possible that furthering her studies and obtaining a teaching position was a means of escaping her home life while remaining single. For women who didn’t care to marry, teaching was a “way out”, as it was seen as a part of the domestic sphere of caring for children and therefore a respectable job for women. Unfortunately, we’ll never know Blanche’s dreams for her future.
Although newspaper articles painted Blanche in a singular light, as being solely focused on attending school and as a “home-keeping and religious” girl, there was clearly so much more to this young woman. When I think of Blanche, my mind zeroes in on the brochure from May Duncan’s School of Delsarte and Dancing found tucked in her school books. Her Aunt, nor her sister, Maud, knew anything about this brochure or why she was in possession of it. I like to imagine that if Blanche had lived, she would have taken that class, become a famous dancer, and traveled the world. And her stage name…The Juno Beauty.
Report of Trial of William Henry Theodore Durrant, by Edgar D. Peixotto, Esq. (1899)
Did Victorians Really Get Brain Fever, by Erin Blakemore
Sympathy for the Devil, by Virginia A. McConnell
Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA (Hecla school house photo)
San Francisco Call (CA), Sep. 12, 1895, Page 8 (source of Blanche’s age)
Helena Independent (MT), Jan. 10, 1892 (Leap year hop)
Helena Independent (MT), Aug. 15, 1890, and Aug. 16, 1891 (tennis club)
San Francisco Chronicle (CA), April 10, 1895 (violin)
The San Francisco Call (CA), April 10, 1895 (piano)
Anaconda Standard (MT), April 15, 1895 (teaching at Hecla)
San Francisco Examiner (CA), April 14, 1895, Page 20 (Blanche’s brain fever)
Helena Independent (MT), April 20, 1895 (“diligent, apt, and intelligent”)
The Madisonian (Virginia City, MT) April 20, 1895 (“sunny disposition” and “beautiful in mind and person”)
San Francisco Examiner (CA), April 13, 1895 (slender, graceful)
Anaconda Standard (MT), April 15, 1895 (learning to ride a bicycle)
San Francisco Examiner (CA), April 10, 1895 (no male friends)
Anaconda Standard (MT), April 14, 1895 (disliked the society of men)
San Francisco Examiner (CA), May 3, 1895 (Harry Poindexter)
San Francisco Examiner (CA), Sept. 12, 1895 (Maud Lamont’s testimony about George King, Tom Vogel, Albert Cowan escorting Blanche)
Fort Wayne Weekly Gazette (IN), Sept. 5, 1895 (home-keeping and religious)
Note that the author of the writing on the reverse of the cabinet card mistakenly identified Blanche as Edith Lamont. The noted cousin, Lulu M. Eddy, was the daughter of Julia (nee Carmichael) Lamont’s sister, Hannah (nee Carmichael.) I wonder if this might have been who Blanche lived with during her school year at the Rockford Seminary, as the Eddy family lived in Rockford, Illinois.