Jacob. Letter F, or, Startling Revelations in the Durant [sic]
Case (1895) 151 pp.
A truly remarkable little volume based on the case of William Henry
Theodore (“Theo”) Durrant who, in 1895, was convicted of raping and murdering
two young women in Emanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Mission District.
The case shocked the nation by its brutality and was dubbed “the crime
of the century” by the press. This book, published in May 1895, during
Durrant’s trial, is divided into two parts. The first part (pp. 5-69) is
a summary of the facts of the case (“As it is Said to Have Happened”) extracted
from local newspaper accounts and testimony given at the preliminary hearing;
the second part (pp. 70-151: “As it Could Have Happened”) is pure fiction.
A group of gentlemen at the Pacific Smokers Club gather to debate the evidence
presented in the case until one of them accepts a $20,000 bet to produce
a plausible explanation of the facts that also exonerates Durrant (whom
the book insists on “Durant”) of the crimes. As they leave the club, a
young man approaches them, having overheard their conversation, and produces
a manuscript of his confession. He then disappears. The stranger bears
a remarkable resemblance to Durrant, is acquainted with the pastor of the
church where the murders occurred, and is a career criminal, ladies’ man,
actor, ventriloquist, and secret boyfriend of Minnie Williams, the second
victim. All of these circumstances combine to point the finger of suspicion
at the devout, respectable Theo. Possible? Sure. Plausible? Not.
The author somewhat conceitedly calls himself “the Emil Gaborieau of
America” on the title page. This is a reference to the French novelist
Emile Gaboriau (1835-1873), creator of Monsieur Lecocq, widely regarded
as the very first fictional detective, and stems from this passage in the
text: “If the late Gaborieau … lived and exercised his fertile brains for
twenty years to conceive a plot covering all these points he would make
a miserable failure of it.” Indeed.
San Francisco Murders, p. 107
Annals of Murder, 278