Monday, April 15, 2013

Maud Allen and Controversy

Throughout her career Maud Allan was no great stranger to controversy. The sensuousness of her dancing and the flimsy costumes she wore, whilst making her immensely popular in most quarters, frequently led to outrage in others. Nor was her private life exempt from such tribulations, she was no stranger to the justice system and was involved in a number of court cases, some of which had a major effect on her life. The first of these cases did not actually involve Maud directly but nevertheless was the one which had by far the most profound effect.

The Trial of William Henry Theodore Durrant
Theodore Durrant was Maud Allan's brother with whom she was very close. His sensational trial for murder was the reason why Maud changed her surname from Durrant to Allan - ie. to escape the notoriety that became associated with the former (although this was done as a career necessity and not from shame - throughout her life Maud never wavered in her conviction of her brothers innocence). The events surrounding the case unfolded as follows:
On April 3rd, 1895, Blanche Lamont, an attractive young woman of approximately twenty years of age, disappeared and was never seen alive again. She was a quiet girl who lived alone with her aunt, and prior to her disappearance had devoted herself to church work at the Emanuel Baptist church on Bartlett Street in San Francisco. Nine days after Blanche's disappearance another young woman, Minnie Williams, left her home to attend a meeting of the Young Peoples Society and failed to return. The following morning her strangled and mutilated body, stripped almost naked, was discovered in the library of the Emanuel church. The following day the police conducted an extensive search of the premises eventually reaching the belfry where the body of the missing Blanche Lamont was finally discovered. The body was totally naked, and red fingermarks around her throat testified to her also having been strangled. Her clothes were recovered at the scene, together with her school books which showed that she had never made it home on the day she went missing.

Theodore Durrant, the church librarian and an officer of the Sunday school, was known to have been friendly with the murder victims and witnesses placed both girls in his company when they were last seen alive. Consequently, the police promptly arrested him on suspicion of murder. He seemed an unlikely murderer. A prominent young man in the city, medical student, devout Christian and president of the Young Peoples Society. The evidence against him was largely circumstantial but compelling. On the day that Blanche disappeared he was seen approaching the church in the company of a young woman resembling Blanche Lamont. Another witness placed him inside the church later that same day descending from the church tower (where Blanche's body was subsequently found) looking pale and sick. More damningly, Adolph Oppenheim, proprietor of a pawn shop, identified Durrant as the man who had attempted to pawn certain rings missing from the dead girl's hands. Worse, the rings were subsequently returned to Blanche's aunt in a package which also contained a paper on which was found Durrant's name and address. No motive was ever put forward for Blanche's murder, although in Minnie's case she had professed knowledge that Blanche had been murdered following her disappearance, thus raising the possibility that she may have been murdered to keep her quiet. In fact Durrant was never charged with Minnie's murder, the authorities proceeded with the case for murder against Blanche alone as being the strongest.

Theodore DurrantAccording to Theodore's own testimony, he left his home on the morning in question to visit that of church organist George King. On the way he met Blanche Lamont and, at her suggestion, accompanied her to her school before continuing on himself to Cooper College. He remained at the college all day apart from two half hour intervals, leaving after the last lecture at around four-fifteen. He named two students with whom he had conversed after noon and produced the notes he had taken in the afternoon lecture. On leaving the college he went to the church in order to repair the vibrator on the electrical apparatus connected to one of the sunburners. It was for this reason that he had been on the upper floor of the church on the day of Blanche's disappearance, and the odor of gas from the sunburner that had made him nauseous. He denied being with Blanche at or near the church on that day, or of having any involvement in her murder or the attempted pawning of her rings.

Durrant's attorneys, led by Eugene Duprey, attempted to place suspicion on Reverend J. G. Gibson, pastor of the church, as an alternate suspect in the case, since a chisel linked to evidence found in the church was itself found in his toolbox, and the lettering on the paper which enclosed Blanche's returned rings matched his handwriting. The defence also raised serious questions as to the eye-witness identifications that were the crux of the evidence against Durrant - including that of an elderly woman with notoriously poor eyesight. But it was all to to no avail. On November 1st, 1895, after a trial lasting over three months, during which time the jury were taken to view the scene of the tragedy, Theodore Durrant was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Durrant was scheduled to be hanged on February 21st 1896, but the persistent efforts of his attorneys postponed his execution for almost two years, and included a sensational late bid for his freedom when a confession was brought forward from seaman John Rosenberg that he was in fact guilty of the crime. Rosenberg's confession was, however, discredited since the ship which brought him to San Francisco, according to records, did not arrive until sometime after the murder. Theodore Durrant was hanged in San Quentin prison at 10:30 on the morning of January 7th, 1898. He maintained his innocence to the very end and his jailers, without exception, praised his poise and calmness when he went to the gallows.

Whilst the evidence against Durrant does seem to have been fairly convincing, it was by nature entirely circumstantial, and to modern eyes seems a little thin to take a man's life. At her brothers behest Maud had remained in Europe throughout the duration of the trial. It's outcome was to cost her not only a beloved brother, but also her best friend.
The next case was a civil hearing that Maud herself instituted against a fellow dancer attempting to steal the credit for her signature dance.

Miss Maud Allan and Palace Theatre Ltd v Birmingham Hippodrome Ltd and Miss Maud Dennis
In the Spring of 1908 Maud Allan was visiting Birmingham, with a view to planning a performance in that city, when she noticed an advertisement for the Hippodrome theatre which she very much took objection to. The theatre was planning to produce a review featuring South American dancer Maud Dennis and had advertised that lady's performance in words that claimed she was the creator of the "Salome dance" that was "the rage of London." Miss Allan, who was the true creator of that dance, and the Palace Theatre in London, where she was performing, immediately instituted legal proceedings and on May 18th obtained an injunction preventing the defendants from continuing those claims in their advertising. Later that year the Hippodrome company settled with the defendants by paying £130 and consenting to the injunction being made perpetual. The case then continued against Miss Dennis alone, being heard by Mr. Justice Hamilton in the King's Bench Division in March 1909. Miss Dennis failed to attend or send representation and consequently her defence was struck out. Miss Allan's counsel then informed the judge that Miss Allan and the Palace Theatre were willing to forego their claim for damages and asked instead that the injunction against Miss Dennis be made perpetual. Accordingly, Justice Hamilton entered judgement against Miss Dennis for a perpetual injunction with costs.

In the third case Maud was named as the Defendant. This case had little consequence on her life, being nothing more than a nuisance and inconvenience for Maud. But occurring, as it did, at the height of her career and popularity ensured it would receive embarassing media coverage.

Miss Julia Surmont v Miss Maud Allan
In Kansas City on April 1st 1910, Maud Allan was sued for assault by Julia Surmont, a maid whom she had engaged in London. Miss Surmont alleged that Miss Allan had slapped her soundly several times about the face and was seeking 1000 dollars in damages for injured feelings, as well 225 dollars in unpaid earnings. The claim for damages was subsequently withdrawn when Miss Allan agreed to pay the latter amount if full.

The fourth court case saw Maud again as the Plaintiff this time at odds with a British Member of Parliament - himself no stranger to controversy having once had to be forcibly removed from the House of Commons where he was disrupting proceedings.

Miss Maud Allan v Noel Pemberton Billing (MP)
In London in May 1918 Maud filed a suit for criminal libel against Noel Pemberton Billing, Member of Parliament for East Hertfordshire and editor of the periodical "Vigilante". Her complaint arose from an objectionable headline in "Vigilante" which maligned her character in reference to a private performance of "Salome". The article in question read as follows:
The Cult of the Clitoris
To be a member of Maud Allan's private performance in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000.

Not only did the article dare to publicly suggest that Miss Allan was a lesbian, sufficient in itself to warrant a prosecution for criminal libel at the time, it also aligned her with persons said to be involved in promoting propaganda sympathetic to the German cause in the ongoing war (the 47,000 alluded to a supposed list of such individuals).
The case was conducted in a blaze of publicity as a result of two sensational turns of events. Firstly, Maud was forced to admit on the stand that she was the sister of Theodore Durrant, a convicted murderer, a fact which until then she had largely succeeded in keeping hidden. Then, in a bizarre turn, Pemberton, who defended himself, was permitted to introduce into evidence all manner of self-serving and irrelevant matter - including serious imputations against many of the leading social and political figures of the time, including even the judge who was hearing the case, Mr Justice Darling, himself.

These stemmed primarily from the alleged existence of a 'Black Book', supposedly compiled by the German Secret Service, wherein were contained the names of 47,000 persons who were addicted to high vices and therefore susceptible to blackmail. Despite no copy of this book ever being introduced into evidence, Pemberton and several of his witnesses were permitted to ascribe unthinkable vices to numerous leading figures present and past, named in open court, without any shred of actual evidence in support of such claims or any opportunity for those thus impugned to defend their good names. Amongst those named were former British Premiere Herbert Asquith, Viscount Haldane, and Justice Darling himself.

That the case was grossly mismanaged by Justice Darling is beyond dispute. Whether he should even have continued to hear the case when he himself was impugned by the so called 'evidence' for the defence is a serious question in itself. Worse, the defendant was allowed to derail the proceedings to the extent that the action brought by Miss Allan, and which ought to have been the sole concern, was effectively relegated to the background and almost completely forgotten in the wash of sensationalism and irrelevancy that overwhelmed it. The extent to which Billing was permitted to suborn the proceedings can be no better demonstrated than by the following extract from the court transcript:

Judge to Billing (referring to a book Billing has introduced into evidence): "You ask if one of the photographs here is her brother. Are you bound to ask this question"
Billing: "I deeply regret I shall have to call evidence, to prove the exact influence that the case in that book has to bear generally. I shall have to prove the matters referred to in that book and that cases are hereditary, that in some case the victims give expression to their vice at great personal risk culminating in some instances in their execution for murder."
 (for Miss Allan) objected to the question, which he said was very cruel.
Judge to Counsel: "It is not a question whether it is cruel or not. Have you any legal objection to it"
Counsel: "Anything that happened to a brother can have no bearing on this case"
Judge: "But Mr. Billing says he is going to show this is hereditary. He said he is going to show this is the kind of thing that would be done by a family that had such hereditary instincts. I cannot exclude the question, though Mr. Billing must understand it may, because of their secrets, have terrible consequences for the witness and if the verdict of the Jury is against him some of those consequences may fall upon her".
Billing to Miss Allan: "I regret having to put it to you Miss Allan: You are the sister of William Henry Theodore Durrant"
Miss Allan
Billing: "Was your brother executed in San Francisco for murdering two young girls"
Miss Allan: "Yes."
Billing: "What was the crime?"
Miss Allan: "You have said what the crime was."
Judge Darling: "For the murder of two young girls?"
Miss Allan: "Yes."
Billing: "Were these bodies found in the belfry of a church?"
Miss Allan: "I do not know.

To permit into evidence that the morality of one family member could be ascribed to all others by dint of 'hereditary instinct' is, by modern day thinking at least, thoroughly outrageous. Even as a point of law, Counsel's objection to this evidence was well founded and should have been upheld at the outset. To allow the evidence on Billing's claim that he would 'show' that such matters as it referred to were hereditary were improper - grounds for evidence should be established before it is admitted, even more so when the Judge by his own words acknowledges that the evidence is prejudicial to either party far beyond its evidentiary value. At the very least proceedings should have been adjourned for Billings to establish justification for his 'evidence' before the judge in camera. Although civil courts are not as tightly bound by rules of evidence as criminal ones, to entrust Billings to establish justification for his evidence after its admission was ludicrous, since it would then be too late if it was found to be improper. In fact, at no point did Billing even attempt to 'show' (ie. produce evidence) that such moral turpitude was hereditary, he merely claimed it as a fact on his own unsubstantiated cognizance, and a weak and ineffective Judge permitted him to do that.

As for the supposed 'black book', Billings was forced to admit that he had never seen it himself and his proof of its existence rested entirely on the testimony of two witnesses of highly questionable character. The first, Harold Spencer, was a young itinerant American with a history of mental illness. The other, Mrs. Villiers-Stewart, was a self-confessed bigamist who claimed she was shown the book by two British officers. The latter could not be called upon for corroboration as they subsequently died in the war - murdered, she claimed, by their own men because of their knowledge of the books contents.

The allegations that were allowed to be made in open court were so wild, and the so called 'evidence' so bizarre and insubstantial, that there is little wonder that the Newspapers at the time branded Justice Darling "a weak Judge", and trumpeted that "the Judge has completely lost his head." The Times observed that "the real objection against him is that his conduct was inconsistent. He sometimes relaxed the rules of evidence, and sometimes enforced them strictly. He permitted names to be mentioned without admitting the right of reply."

When the jury acquitted Pemberton of the specific charge against him, of maligning Miss Allan, he hailed the result as a judicial vindication of his moral stance against the degeneracy of those against whom his vitriol had been directed. That the jury acquitted him at all was probably due less to any understanding of the case than to Billing's consistently playing upon patriotic fears that certain high powered individuals were sapping England's resolve to prosecute the war. Even at that late stage in the hostilities there was little sign of Germany's imminent collapse and it appeared the Allies might even lose. Although Billing withdrew any imputations against Miss Allan and the judge in his final address stated that "Miss Allan leaves this court without a stain upon her reputation." it was never-the-less a humiliating defeat for her.

Maud was understandably bitter over the outcome. Spending more than four hours in the witness box, cruelly tortured by Billings interrogation over painful matters that held no relevance to the case, she felt more the accused than the victim of an unjustified personal attack. In all, Miss Allan had good reason to be distrustful of the judicial systems on both sides of the Atlantic, on one side it had unfairly (in her mind at least) taken away her beloved brother, on the other it had pandered to an enemy who had unjustly sullied her reputation.

Thank you for this article courtesy of Don Gillian.

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