Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Demon in the Belfry

In April 1895, two young women followed a man they trusted into the Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Mission District and did not emerge alive. The bloody, disfigured corpse of 21-year-old Minnie Williams was found in the library the day before Easter Sunday, and soon afterward searchers discovered the naked body of Blanche Lamont, who had been missing since April 3, in the belfry. Clues and witness statements directed the police to Theo Durrant, a young medical student who also happened to be assistant Sunday School superintendent for the church.

Durrant’s murder trial was attended by such eminent spectators as Presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan and Gold Rush millionaire John Mackay. The evidence against him was so overwhelming that the jury brought in a guilty verdict in less than half an hour. While his January 1898 execution brought closure to the families of Minnie Williams and Blanche Lamont, it also left a lot of unanswered questions. Why did he kill two young women whom he’d known well and never born any malice against? And what motivated a man who had been devoted to his parents and sister and active in church affairs to commit murder in the first place? The press hinted that he was a depraved monster disguised as a pious youth, and referred to him as ‘the Demon in the Belfry’. In Sympathy for the Devil, Virginia McConnell questions the justice of these assumptions.

I’ll admit that when I began reading the book, I had doubts about McConnell’s impartiality: in the introduction, she wrote, “His two tragic deeds aside, I would have been proud to call him ‘brother’ or ‘friend’.” But unlike the mindless, adoring women who simpered over Theo Durrant during his courtroom appearances, McConnell has credible reasons for her partiality. Reviewing his family and medical history, she points out that his father was manic-depressive and prone to impulsive actions, and Durrant himself nearly died from meningitis, or ‘brain fever’, a condition that often left survivors with brain damage. She suggests that he may have been in a manic phase when he killed the two women, and the behaviour he exhibited at that time corresponds to the profile: loquaciousness, impulsivity, and unnatural energy levels. When not in the throes of the disorder, Durrant was apparently a mild-mannered, caring individual who placed women on a pedestal.

Sympathy for the Devil is a sympathetic, but not sentimental, treatment of the Emmanuel Baptist murders. It includes rare and unsettling photos, such as a vibrant young Blanche Lamont, the belfry landing where her nude body was found, and the blood-spattered walls of the room where Minnie Williams met her death. Any future books about the case have a very high bar to leap over.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Attorney for the Damned

I have just finished reading Donald McRae's The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow. If a one-word review was sufficient, I'd just say "Wow". Or "Amazing." But it's not, so here goes.

Clarence Darrow had two principle reasons for living: winning and women. We know a lot about his courtroom victories, thanks to a succession of books, articles, and film adaptations. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow delves into more intimate territory, namely his relationship with Mary Field Parton, socialist writer and reporter. She prevented him from committing suicide in 1912, and despite disillusion and heartache, supported him while he built his legacy as America’s greatest defense attorney. Compassionate yet conceited, equal parts earthy and intellectual, few American lawyers have attained the mythical status of Clarence Darrow. He turned seemingly hopeless cases into judicial triumphs, spawning the nickname ‘Attorney for the Damned’.

In 1924 he saved teenaged thrill killers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows by persuading the judge that mental illness was sufficient grounds to commute the death penalty. An ardent civil libertarian, Darrow defended John Scopes, who stood trial in Tennessee in July 1925 for teaching Darwinism in a state-funded school. The following October, he joined the defense team of a black physician, Ossian Sweet, who had moved into an all-white neighbourhood in Detroit and caused a riot that saw one white man killed and another injured. His closing statement in that trial is regarded as a civil rights landmark.

Previous reviewers have complained that this book contains no new information about Darrow’s career or personal life. That may be: I admit that this is the first biography I’ve read of the man whom Variety called "America's greatest one-man stage draw." As an introduction to Darrow’s legacy, I found McRae’s book to be engrossing. It may not be especially critical or insightful about the legal issues of the day, but this is a book aimed at the popular history market and has its limits in that regard.

What appears to be new in McRae’s treatment of Clarence Darrow’s story is his emphasis on the stormy relationship with Mary Field Parton. Although she had the misfortune of falling in love with a man whose moral compass was broken at birth and has been trivialized by some as a peripheral floozy, she was part of Darrow’s life for over thirty years, and shared in both his greatest highs and darkest lows. McRae’s access to her diaries gave him, and therefore the reader, a little more insight into how the ‘attorney for the damned’ affected those close to him.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tenement Nights

On August 3, Bad Seeds in the Big Apple author Pat Downey and I gave a presentation at the Tenement House Museum in New York. The evening's theme was Dead Guys in Suits and the subject matter was- yes, you guessed it- New York gangsters. Thanks to mentions in Time Out New York and other publications, a good-sized and sincerely interested crowd turned up.

At the end of Pat's and my presentation, we gave the attendees a surprise treat. Actor Franklin Abrams and two colleagues performed a scene from an upcoming Monk 1903 webisode: a confrontation between Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach (Abrams) and Ritchie Fitzpatrick (Mike Lubik) over who will assume the throne left vacant by Monk Eastman's prison sentence. Zweifach's granddaughter and other family members were in the crowd, and enjoyed the performance hugely. Just an FYI- Franklin and I are collaborating on a one-man show about Kid Twist, and hope to launch it at the museum in the New Year.

Why all this emphasis on Kid Twist? To begin with, he was a ruthless but fascinating figure whose impact on New York gangster history has been underestimated. Since Monk Eastman was likely not Jewish, Zweifach is therefore the New York City's first Jewish gang lord. When he was murdered at Coney Island in May 1908, he left an estate valued at $50,000 to $100,000 (over a million dollars today), an astronomical sum for a twenty-four-year-old gangster to possess, especially since he did not run women or sell drugs, the two major organized vices of the early twentieth century. We know that he dreamed big- in 1905, when he was barely twenty-one, Zweifach masterminded a scheme to forge $5,000 worth of phoney railroad passes. He was caught for that one, but judging from the unusual size of his estate, he must have gotten away with many more. As I told the crowd at the Tenement House Museum, "Further study into Zweifach's past will yield valuable information about early Jewish crime in America."