Personal — comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.Several middle-aged men of means responded to Gunness' ads. One of these was John Moe, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off her mortgage, or so he told neighbors, whom Gunness introduced him to as her cousin. He disappeared from her farm within a week of his arrival. Next came George Anderson from Tarkio, Missouri who, like Peter Gunness and John Moe, was an immigrant from Norway.
During dinner with Anderson, she raised the issue of her mortgage. Anderson agreed that he would pay this off if they decided to wed. Late that night, Anderson awoke to see her standing over him, holding a guttering candle in her hand and with a strange, sinister expression on her face. Without uttering a word, she ran from the room. Anderson fled from the house, soon taking a train to Missouri.
The suitors kept coming, but none, except for Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. By this time, she had begun ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to her from La Porte and later remarked how the heavyset woman would lift these enormous trunks "like boxes of marshmallows", tossing them onto her wide shoulders and carrying them into the house. She kept the shutters of her house closed day and night; farmers traveling past the dwelling at night saw her digging in the hog pen.
Ole B. Budsberg, an elderly widower from Iola, Wisconsin, appeared next. He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6, 1907, when he mortgaged his Wisconsin land there, signing over a deed and obtaining several thousand dollars in cash. Ole B. Budsberg's sons, Oscar and Mathew Budsberg, had no idea that their father had gone off to visit Gunness. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to her; she promptly responded, saying she had never seen their father.
Several other middle-aged men appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm throughout 1907. Then, in December 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to her and was warmly received. The pair exchanged many letters, until a letter that overwhelmed Helgelien, written in Gunness' own careful handwriting and dated January 13, 1908. This letter was later found at the Helgelien farm. It read:
To the Dearest Friend in the World: No woman in the world is happier than I am. I know that you are now to come to me and be my own. I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want. It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know. Think how we will enjoy each other's company. You, the sweetest man in the whole world. We will be all alone with each other. Can you conceive of anything nicer? I think of you constantly. When I hear your name mentioned, and this is when one of the dear children speaks of you, or I hear myself humming it with the words of an old love song, it is beautiful music to my ears. My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.In response to her letter, Helgelien flew to her side in January 1908. He had with him a check for $2,900, his savings, which he had drawn from his local bank. A few days after Helgelien arrived, he and Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank in La Porte and deposited the check. Helgelien vanished a few days later, but Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank to make a $500 deposit and another deposit of $700 in the State Bank. At this time, she started to have problems with Ray Lamphere.
In March 1908, Gunness sent several letters to a farmer and horse dealer in Topeka, Kansas named Lon Townsend, inviting him to visit her; he decided to put off the visit until spring, and thus did not see her before a fire at her farm. Gunness was also in correspondence with a man from Arkansas and sent him a letter dated May 4, 1908. He would have visited her, but did not because of the fire at her farm. Gunness allegedly promised marriage to a suitor Bert Albert, which did not go through because of his lack of wealth.
The hired hand Ray Lamphere was deeply in love with Gunness; he performed any chore for her, no matter how gruesome. He became jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and began making scenes. She fired him on February 3, 1908. Shortly after dispensing with Lamphere, she presented herself at the La Porte courthouse. She declared that her former employee was not in his right mind and was a menace to the public. She somehow convinced local authorities to hold a sanity hearing. Lamphere was pronounced sane and released. Gunness was back a few days later to complain to the sheriff that Lamphere had visited her farm and argued with her. She contended that he posed a threat to her family and had Lamphere arrested for trespassing.
Lamphere returned again and again to see her, but she drove him away. Lamphere made thinly disguised threats; on one occasion, he confided to farmer William Slater, "Helgelien won't bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps." Helgelien had long since disappeared from the precincts of La Porte, or so it was believed. However, his brother, Asle Helgelien, was disturbed when Andrew failed to return home and he wrote to Belle in Indiana, asking her about his sibling's whereabouts. Gunness wrote back, telling Asle Helgelien that his brother was not at her farm and probably went to Norway to visit relatives. Asle Helgelien wrote back saying that he did not believe his brother would do that; moreover, he believed that his brother was still in the La Porte area, the last place he was seen or heard from. Gunness brazened it out; she told him that if he wanted to come and look for his brother, she would help conduct a search, but she cautioned him that searching for missing persons was an expensive proposition. If she were to be involved in such a manhunt, she stated, Asle Helgelien should be prepared to pay her for her efforts. Asle Helgelien did come to La Porte, but not until May.
Lamphere represented an unresolved danger to her; now Asle Helgelien was making inquiries that could very well send her to the gallows. She told a lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, that she feared for her life and that of her children. Ray Lamphere, she said, had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. She wanted to make out a will, in case Lamphere went through with his threats. Leliter complied and drew up her will. She left her entire estate to her children and then departed Leliter's offices. She went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property and paid this off. She did not go to the police to tell them about Lamphere's allegedly life-threatening conduct. The reason for this, most later concluded, was that there had been no threats; she was merely setting the stage for her own arson.
Lamphere suspected of arson and murder
Joe Maxson, who had been hired to replace Lamphere in February 1908, awoke in the early hours of April 28, 1908, smelling smoke in his room, which was on the second floor of the Gunness house. He opened the hall door to a sheet of flames. Maxson screamed Gunness' name and those of her children but got no response. He slammed the door and then, in his underwear, leapt from the second-story window of his room, barely surviving the fire that was closing in about him. He raced to town to get help, but by the time the old-fashioned hook and ladder arrived at the farm at early dawn the farmhouse was a gutted heap of smoking ruins. Four bodies were found inside the house. One of the bodies was that of a woman who could not immediately be identified as Gunness, since she had no head. The head was never found. The bodies of her children were found still in their beds. County Sheriff Smutzer had somehow heard about Lamphere’s alleged threats; he took one look at the carnage and quickly sought out the ex-handyman. Leliter came forward to recount his tale about Gunness' will and how she feared Lamphere would kill her and her family and burn her house down.
Lamphere did not help his cause much. At the moment Sheriff Smutzer confronted him and before a word was uttered by the lawman, Lamphere exclaimed, "Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?" He was then told about the fire, but he denied having anything to do with it, claiming that he was not near the farm when the blaze occurred. A youth, John Solyem, was brought forward. He said that he had been watching the Gunness place and that he saw Lamphere running down the road from the Gunness house just before the structure erupted in flames. Lamphere snorted to the boy: "You wouldn't look me in the eye and say that!"
"Yes, I will", replied Solyem. "You found me hiding behind the bushes and you told me you'd kill me if I didn't get out of there." Lamphere was arrested and charged with murder and arson. Then scores of investigators, sheriff's deputies, coroner's men and many volunteers began to search the ruins for evidence.
The body of the headless woman was of deep concern to La Porte residents. C. Christofferson, a neighboring farmer, took one look at the charred remains of this body and said that it was not the remains of Belle Gunness. So did another farmer, L. Nicholson, and so did Mrs. Austin Cutler, an old friend of Gunness. More of Gunness' old friends, Mrs. May Olander and Mr. Sigward Olsen, arrived from Chicago. They examined the remains of the headless woman and said it was not Gunness.
Doctors then measured the remains, and, making allowances for the missing neck and head, stated the corpse was that of a woman who stood five feet three inches tall and weighed no more than 150 pounds. Friends and neighbors, as well as the La Porte clothiers who made her dresses and other garments, swore that Gunness was taller than 5'8" and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds. Detailed measurements of the body were compared with those on file with several La Porte stores where she purchased her apparel.
When the two sets of measurements were compared, the authorities concluded that the headless woman could not possibly have been Belle Gunness, even when the ravages of the fire on the body were taken into account. (The flesh was badly burned but intact). Moreover, Dr. J. Meyers examined the internal organs of the dead woman. He sent stomach contents of the victims to a pathologist in Chicago, who reported months later that the organs contained lethal doses of strychnine.
Gunness' dentist, Dr. Ira P. Norton, said that if the teeth/dental work of the headless corpse had been located he could definitely ascertain if it was she. Thus Louis "Klondike" Schultz, a former miner, was hired to build a sluice and begin sifting the debris (as more bodies were unearthed, the sluice was used to isolate human remains on a larger scale). On May 19, 1908, a piece of bridgework was found consisting of two human canine teeth, their roots still attached, porcelain teeth and gold crown work in between. Norton identified them as work done for Gunness. As a result, Coroner Charles Mack officially concluded that the adult female body discovered in the ruins was Belle Gunness.
Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte and told Sheriff Smutzer that he believed his brother had met with foul play at Gunness' hands. Then, Joe Maxson came forward with information that could not be ignored: He told the Sheriff that Gunness had ordered him to bring loads of dirt by wheelbarrow to a large area surrounded by a high wire fence where the hogs were fed. Maxson said that there were many deep depressions in the ground that had been covered by dirt. These filled-in holes, Gunness had told Maxson, contained rubbish. She wanted the ground made level, so he filled in the depressions.
Smutzer took a dozen men back to the farm and began to dig. On May 3, 1908, the diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson (vanished December 1906). Then they found the small bodies of two unidentified children. Subsequently the body of Andrew Helgelien was unearthed (his overcoat was found to be worn by Lamphere). As days progressed and the gruesome work continued, one body after another was discovered in Gunness' hog pen:
Ole B. Budsberg of Iola, Wisconsin, (vanished May 1907);
Thomas Lindboe, who had left Chicago and had gone to work as a hired man for Gunness three years earlier;
Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin, who had gone to wed her a year earlier, taking $1,500 to her; a watch corresponding to one belonging to Gurholdt was found with a body;
Olaf Svenherud, from Chicago;
John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minnesota; his watch was found in Lamphere's possession;
Olaf Lindbloom, age 35 from Wisconsin.
Reports of other possible victims began to come in:
William Mingay, a coachman of New York City, who had left that city on April 1, 1904;
Herman Konitzer of Chicago who disappeared in January 1906;
Charles Edman of New Carlisle, Indiana;
George Berry of Tuscola, Illinois;
Christie Hilkven of Dovre, Barron County, Wisconsin, who sold his farm and came to La Porte in 1906;
Chares Neiburg, a 28-year-old Scandinavian immigrant who lived in Philadelphia, told friends that he was going to visit Gunness in June 1906 and never came back — he had been working for a saloon keeper and took $500 with him;
John H. McJunkin of Coraopolis (near Pittsburgh) left his wife in December 1906 after corresponding with a La Porte woman;
Olaf Jensen, a Norwegian immigrant of Carroll, Indiana, wrote his relatives in 1906 he was going to marry a wealthy widow at La Porte;
Henry Bizge of La Porte who disappeared June 1906 and his hired man named Edward Canary of Pink Lake Ill who also vanished 1906;
Bert Chase of Mishawaka, Indiana sold his butcher shop and told friends of a wealthy widow and that he was going to look her up; his brother received a telegram supposedly from Aberdeen, South Dakota claiming Bert had been killed in a train wreck; his brother investigated and found the telegram was fictitious;
Tonnes Peterson Lien of Rushford, Minnesota, is alleged to have disappeared April 2, 1907;
A gold ring marked "S.B. May 28, 1907" was found in the ruins;
A hired man named George Bradley of Tuscola, Illinois, is alleged to have gone to La Porte to meet a widow and three children in October 1907;
T.J. Tiefland of Minneapolis is alleged to have come to see Gunness in 1907;
Frank Riedinger a farmer of Waukesha, Wisconsin, came to Indiana in 1907 to marry and never returned;
Emil Tell, a Swede from Kansas City, Missouri, is alleged to have gone in 1907 to La Porte;
Lee Porter of Bartonville, Oklahoma separated from his wife and told his brother he was going to marry a wealthy widow at La Porte;
John E. Hunter left Duquesne, Pennsylvania, on November 25, 1907 after telling his daughters he was going to marry a wealthy widow in Northern Indiana.
Two other Pennsylvanians — George Williams of Wapawallopen and Ludwig Stoll of Mount Yeager — also left their homes to marry in the West.
Abraham Phillips, a railway man of Burlington, West Virginia, left in the winter of 1907 to go to Northern Indiana and marry a rich widow — a railway watch was found in the debris of the house.
Benjamin Carling of Chicago, Illinois, was last seen by his wife in 1907 after telling her that he was going to La Porte to secure an investment with a rich widow; he had with him $1,000 from an insurance company and borrowed money from several investors as well; in June 1908 his widow was able to identify his remains from La Porte's Pauper's cemetery by the contour of his skull and three missing teeth;
Aug. Gunderson of Green Lake, Wisconsin;
Ole Oleson of Battle Creek, Michigan;
Lindner Nikkelsen of Huron, South Dakota;
Andrew Anderson of Lawrence, Kansas;
Johann Sorensen of St. Joseph, Missouri;
A possible victim was a man named Hinkley;
Reported unnamed victims were:
a daughter of Mrs. H. Whitzer of Toledo, Ohio, who had attended Indiana University near La Porte in 1902;
an unknown man and woman are alleged to have disappeared in September 1906, the same night Jennie Olson went missing. Gunness claimed they were a Los Angeles "professor" and his wife who had taken Jennie to California;
a brother of Miss Jennie Graham of Waukesha, Wisconsin, who had left her to marry a rich widow in La Porte but vanished;
a hired man from Ohio age 50 name unknown is alleged to have disappeared and Gunness became the "heir" to his horse and buggy;
an unnamed man from Montana told people at a resort he was going to sell Gunness his horse and buggy, which were found with several other horses and buggies at the farm.
Most of the remains found on the property could not be identified. Because of the crude recovery methods, the exact number of individuals unearthed on the Gunness farm is unknown, but is believed to be approximately twelve. On May 19, 1908 remains of approximately seven unknown victims were buried in two coffins in unmarked graves in the pauper's section of LaPorte's Pine Lake Cemetery. Andrew Helgelien and Jennie Olson are buried in La Porte's Patton Cemetery, near Peter Gunness.
The trial of Ray Lamphere
Ray Lamphere was arrested on May 22, 1908 and tried for murder and arson. He denied the charges of arson and murder that were filed against him. His defense hinged on the assertion that the body was not Gunness'.
Lamphere's lawyer, Wirt Worden, developed evidence that contradicted Norton's identification of the teeth and bridgework. A local jeweler testified that though the gold in the bridgework had emerged from the fire almost undamaged, the fierce heat of the conflagration had melted the gold plating on several watches and items of gold jewelry. Local doctors replicated the conditions of the fire by attaching a similar piece of dental bridgework to a human jawbone and placing it in a blacksmith’s forge. The real teeth crumbled and disintegrated; the porcelain teeth came out pocked and pitted, with the gold parts rather melted (both the artificial elements were damaged to a greater degree than those in the bridgework offered as evidence of Gunness' identity). The hired hand Joe Maxson and another man also testified that they’d seen "Klondike" Schultz take the bridgework out of his pocket and plant it just before it was "discovered". Lamphere was found guilty of arson, but acquitted of murder. On November 26, 1908, he was sentenced to 20 years in the State Prison (in Michigan City). He died of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909.
On January 14, 1910, the Rev. E. A. Schell came forward with a confession that Lamphere was said to have made to him while the clergyman was comforting the dying man. In it, Lamphere revealed Gunness' crimes and swore that she was still alive. Lamphere had stated to the Reverend Schell and to a fellow convict, Harry Meyers, shortly before his death, that he had not murdered anyone, but that he had helped Gunness bury many of her victims. When a victim arrived, she made him comfortable, charming him and cooking a large meal. She then drugged his coffee and when the man was in a stupor, she split his head with a meat chopper. Sometimes she would simply wait for the suitor to go to bed and then enter the bedroom by candlelight and chloroform her sleeping victim. A powerful woman, Gunness would then carry the body to the basement, place it on a table, and dissect it. She then bundled the remains and buried these in the hog pen and the grounds about the house. Belle had become an expert at dissection, thanks to instruction she had received from her second husband, the butcher Peter Gunness. To save time, she sometimes poisoned her victims' coffee with strychnine. She also varied her disposal methods, sometimes dumping the corpse into the hog-scalding vat and covering the remains with quicklime. Lamphere even stated that if Belle was overly tired after murdering one of her victims, she merely chopped up the remains and, in the middle of the night, stepped into her hog pen and fed the remains to the hogs.
The handyman also cleared up the mysterious question of the headless female corpse found in the smoking ruins of Gunness' home. Gunness had lured this woman from Chicago on the pretense of hiring her as a housekeeper only days before she decided to make her permanent escape from La Porte. Gunness, according to Lamphere, had drugged the woman, then bashed in her head and decapitated the body, taking the head, which had weights tied to it, to a swamp where she threw it into deep water. Then she chloroformed her children, smothered them to death, and dragged their small bodies, along with the headless corpse, to the basement.
She dressed the female corpse in her old clothing, and removed her false teeth, placing these beside the headless corpse to assure it being identified as Belle Gunness. She then torched the house and fled. Lamphere had helped her, he admitted, but she had not left by the road where he waited for her after the fire had been set. She had betrayed her one-time partner in crime in the end by cutting across open fields and then disappearing into the woods. Some accounts suggest that Lamphere admitted that he took her to Stillwell (a town about nine miles from La Porte) and saw her off on a train to Chicago.
Lamphere said that Gunness was a rich woman, that she had murdered 42 men by his count, perhaps more, and had taken amounts from them ranging from $1,000 to $32,000. She had allegedly accumulated more than $250,000 through her murder schemes over the years—a huge fortune for those days (about $6.3 million in 2008 dollars). She had a small amount remaining in one of her savings accounts, but local banks later admitted that she had indeed withdrawn most of her funds shortly before the fire. The fact that Gunness withdrew most of her money suggested that she was planning to evade the law.
Aftermath and Belle's fate
Gunness was, for several decades, allegedly seen or sighted in cities and towns throughout the United States. Friends, acquaintances, and amateur detectives apparently spotted her on the streets of Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. As late as 1931, Gunness was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town, where she supposedly owned a great deal of property and lived the life of a doyenne. Smutzer, for more than 20 years, received an average of two reports a month. She became part of American criminal folklore, a female Bluebeard.
The bodies of Gunness' three children were found in the home's wreckage, but the headless adult female corpse found with them was never positively identified. Gunness' true fate is unknown; La Porte residents were divided between believing that she was killed by Lamphere and that she had faked her own death. In 1931, a woman known as "Esther Carlson" was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. Carlson died while awaiting trial.
Burial, exhumation and DNA analysis
The body believed to be that of Belle Gunness was buried next to her first husband at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.
On November 5, 2007, with the permission of descendants of Belle's sister, the headless body was exhumed from Gunness' grave in Forest Home Cemetery by a team of forensic anthropologists and graduate students from the University of Indianapolis in an effort to learn her true identity. It was initially hoped that a sealed envelope flap on a letter found at the victim's farm would contain enough DNA to be compared to that of the body. Unfortunately, there was not enough DNA there, so efforts continue to find a reliable source for comparison purposes, including the disinterment of additional bodies and contact with known living relatives.
Belle Gunness: Black Widow of the Heartland
By Joe Geringer
"Everything that deceives may be said to enchant."
Farmhand Joe Maxson's first thought when he awoke that morning of April 28, 1908, was that Belle Gunness was cooking breakfast. That hickory smell that sometimes blended with the cedar wood in the house to give the air a strange, almost pungent aroma. But, the more he lay there, slowly, steadily awakening to his own senses, the quicker he realized that his initial perception had been wrong. What he smelled was charred wood, the sickening breath-consuming, smoky odor of savage fire. He leaped out of bed.
Something caught his attention outside his window - something drifting by. While his feet maneuvered into a pair of slippers at his bedside, his eyes followed to where a gray cloud of smoke bellowed up from below his windowsill and, caught in a morning breeze, pirouetted like an amoebic ballerina, to dance like the devil before it whooshed out of site. Only to be followed by another signal of smoke. This time blacker and, carrying with it, a stench of hellfire.
Throwing up the window, he popped his head out. From below, from what was the kitchen window of the house, smoke issued in puffing rhythm, accompanied by an intermittent snap of a flame that seemed to be teasing what was left of the white lace curtains. My God, he thought, the house is afire and the inhabitants are asleep!
Grabbing a robe from the bedpost to cover his woolen drawers, he simultaneously reached with his free hand for the bedroom doorknob. It was already hot. One hand couldn't budge it, so he tried both hands - to yank the door inward - but it wouldn't yield. The wooden frame had blistered to wedge the door. He banged with his fists upon the thickness of the door - not because he himself was trapped, for he knew he could escape easily enough through the window if need be - but to rouse the sleeping landlady and her children.
"Mrs. Gunness!" he cried, "wake up, fire! Mrs. Gunness! The house is burning! Myrtle! Lucy! Phillip! Fire!" He listened a moment, hoping to hear through the keyhole the family scampering through the hall, alerted to reality. "Mrs. Gunness!" he tried again. "Children!" But, no sound answered him, not even a whimper. His own room was filing with hacking fumes - and he was afraid that, at any moment, the tin of kerosene he had bought yesterday for Widow Gunness, and which she had him put in the kitchen, might explode. He dashed through the smoke, raced down the servants' stairs that led to the kitchen and, groping, somehow found the screen door to the yard beyond.
A golden morning sun was tipping the eastern horizon of Indiana cornfields, unaffected by the unfolding tragedy.
Flailing arms, yelling in panic at the top of his lungs, he circled the house, but found every window lapped by flame, impenetrable. Somewhere inside, he knew, was the senseless Gunness family - trapped by the carnage: Belle, 48, and her three children, Myrtle (11 years old), Lucy (nine) and Philip (five). Were they already dead, licked by flame? Or were they yet untouched by the fire, but slowly, methodically, lapsing into a coma under asphyxiation of smoke?
Maxson spotted two neighbors racing toward him on respective bicycles, young Mike Clifford and his brother-in-law William Humphrey. Both men had spotted the flames in the pre-dawnlight. They immediately shot to work, helping the farmhand waken the household by throwing house bricks, used for patchwork and laying in a pile near the storm shelter, through every window. Maxson and Clifford were shoulder-ramming the locked front door, hoping to force it. Only the crackle of the flames continued respond from within.
"Why the hell can't they hear us?" Humphrey shouted. He had found a scaling ladder near the barn and setting it against the exterior walls. Climbing, he peered in several windows but saw no signs of life.
Soon came the Hutsons, and the Laphams, and the Nicholsons - all neighbors from up and down old McClung Road, a cloud of red clay hanging over the entrance to the Gunness farm where their buggies and wagons had crossed in a dither, one after another. They yelped and hallooed and howled, but no one could stir the Gunnesses. And they tried to yelp and halloo and howl some more until it soon became apparent that the louder they became the more impossible it was that any living soul could remain in the fireball that had been the Gunness abode.
By the time Sheriff Smutzer arrived, leading a brigade of volunteer firemen and their clanging hose cart from nearby La Porte, it was much too late. The farmhouse, the outbuildings and the elm trees whose branches had tipped the window casements were all gone.
Poor Belle Gunness, unfortunately a fitting end for a woman whose entire life had been pocked by misfortune.
Woman of Black Luck
"Those who do not feel pain seldom think that it is felt."
-- Samuel Johnson
Belle Gunness had been born under an unlucky star, so said the kindly, the sympathetic neighbors of La Porte, Indiana. Since she had come to their town and settled in the old Altie house a mile north of town square, she had suffered one disappointment and heartbreak after another - and they admired her quiet suffering, her ability to go on with head held high. Unfailing.
By 1908, Belle's once-hourglass figure had fattened, but her silken blonde hair, accompanied by a full Nordic smile of white teeth and pair of flashing blue eyes, still turned heads. Weighing in at 280 pounds, she nevertheless was able to tighten her corset to emphasize a 48-inch bust and a pair of curving 54-inch hips in an era when curves, no matter how expansive the girth, epitomized glamour and sex appeal.
"Belle lived at the time of the corn-fed politician and the billowy beauty," says Lillian de la Torre, author of The Truth About Belle Gunness. "In those days, men aspired to the bulk of William Howard Taft, who was about to become President of the United States...Ladies whose facades were not naturally as full and flowing as Belle's stuffed their corset covers with ruffles and wore droop-fronted shirtwaists. Belle Gunness was right in style (with) a waist that would pull into 37 inches. When she donned her ruffled silks and put her diamonds in her ears, men thought her well worth a second glance."
She had been a familiar presence in the hard-working hamlet of La Porte, a weekly frequenter to its wholesale shops, its bank, its grocers, its milliners. Her greetings of good morning had been pleasant to all she passed and her kind stare would be remembered by many. Her Norwegian accent was like a song amid the monotonous plains drawl of the Hoosier frontier. La Porte, with its shingled hoses and its front-porch-sitdown attitude and its slowly growing population of 100,000, was not about to claim, nor want, big city ways. Sixty miles from Chicago, its only connection to the big city was the New York Central Railroad line that traversed it.
"La Porte boosters painted with pride to a church on every corner, a small factory or two, and a handsome red sandstone courthouse," writes de la Torre. "They boasted of two live-wire newspapers, the Herald and the Argus."
Both papers ran the story of the tragedy the following morning, relating how in the debris were found the charred bodies of Mrs. Gunness and her three children, two adopted, one (Phillip) her own. The body believed to be that of Belle Gunness was headless.
Sheriff Smutzer and his deputies, Leroy Marr and William Antiss, immediately smelled murder. So did the courts. So did the clergy. So did the newspapers. So did the townsfolk. So did the neighbors along dusty McClung Road. And it was no secret who the suspect may be. Most everyone who walked the streets of La Porte at least once a day had heard about Ray Lamphere's threats to "get even" with the widow after she fired him as her farmhand.
The deputies had found Lamphere that morning working at his new job, as field hand at the John Wheatbrook farm. He had had no stand-up alibi as to where he had been before sunrise when the fire was ignited. He was pinched and tossed in the courthouse jail awaiting arraignment. He cried innocence and told the reporters he was being framed for something he had nothing to do with. Bad luck was bad luck, and he didn't think it right that the widow's ill-lit star was now shining its spoiled glow on him.
The town began to wonder if maybe Lamphere had a point. In retrospect, yes, everyone who had anything to do with Belle Gunness (the good woman she was!) had, over the years, seemed to either meet foul fate or, even stranger, disappear into a silent chasm of infinity.
Born as Bella Poulsdatter in 1859 in Trondhjeim, Norway, her father was a somewhat successful stonemason whose son, Bella's brother, followed his profession. Sister Anna left for America when Bella was yet quite young and had married a man named John Larson in Chicago. Knowing that her younger sibling was unhappy in a life that was going nowhere, Anna sent for Bella, who joyously sailed to the new world at the age of 24 in 1883. Eventually making her way to the Midwest, she boarded with the Larsons until she could make it on her own. They lived in a highly Nordic community that faithfully clung to each other for contentment in a strange land.
She wasn't in Chicago long when she met department store guard Mads Sorenson, a hard-working conservative who was eager to start a family in the states. Attempts at conceiving a child came to nothing, so Mads and Bella (who Americanized her name to Belle) were in a financial position to adopt children in the neighborhood from parents who could not afford them. Over the next 16 years, the Sorensons fostered three girls, Jennie, Myrtle and Lucy.
Domestic life was happy and troubles were few. Oddly, the family troubles with fires - they had to move three times after a fire consumed their houses (and, miraculously, left them all untouched). As well, according to the La Porte Historical Society, the Sorensons owned a small store in Chicago "that only turned a profit after it burned and they collected the insurance". On the whole, Chicago neighbors recalled Belle as a good wife to Mads and a doting mother who rarely raised her voice except to, here and there, scold her children with a simple, "Ja, ya' all eats the broosel sprouts or dere iss no tappey-oca pooddings for da dessert."
Tragedy struck in early 1900 when Mads died suddenly of undetermined causes. His only symptom had been chest pains the day of his death. Doctors signed the death certificate, heart attack. What monetary problems Widow Sorenson might have had were eradicated when a pair of life insurance policies on Mads brought in nearly $8,000, a huge sum in those days.
New Home and Husband
Packing up her three foster children-and the cash tight in her purse strings - Belle moved to La Porte, Indiana, an area heavy with fellow Norsemen that her late husband had known about and where he had been planning to eventually retire. She plopped the insurance money down on a farm up for sale by the county, a former house of ill repute that had fallen into disrepair since its madame, Mattie Altie, passed away at a crisp old age. It was a square house of red brick, two stories high, and set on the edge of an orchard on one side and a shallow swamp and forest on the other. McClung Road, which paralleled it, rolled over mild hill and dale south to La Porte whose church steeples peeked from over the patch of woodland a mile south.
Belle swept out the ghosts of its painted women and aired out their cheap sour perfume that dallied in the narrow hallways and recesses. To the Christian relief of her neighbors who had always hated such a "business" operating so near where their children were playing, Belle Sorenson turned the abode into a comfortable home for her and her happy brood.
Explains de la Torre, "Mattie Altie's showy marquetry parlor floor and its dark walnut furnishings were polished until they shone. Simple ruffled curtains of white were put up to brighten the tall, narrow, tree-darkened windows...(A) handsome front fence was put up by a young hardware clerk, Charles F. Pahrman (who was puzzled however) by the square of Kokomo link fence that penned hogs in the back on the rise that sloped to the swamp." His customer had ordered that the fence be six feet high and topped by barbed wire, unusual for a hog pen...for what hog could ever jump even half that high?
The house had six bedrooms, a spacious dining room, a long kitchen, and a high-beam cellar. Kerosene lamps throughout kept the place well illumined. Carpenters, like Pahrman, were retained to free the clogged-up drain spouts, straighten the sagging shutters and reinforce the small barn that stood across a patch of a yard.
Not long after she arrived in La Porte, Belle produced out of nowhere a new husband. He was tall, good-looking blonde and bearded Peter Gunness, a farmer by trade. He brought with him a baby boy from a previous marriage who, not long after moving with his father, contacted a virus and died. The Gunness family's grief soon mellowed out under the many hours of hard work required to keep the cornfields thriving. Irrigating, planting, sowing, everyone had his or her responsibility. Her children helped where they could, feeding the hogs, cleaning the corncrib, raking. Peter Gunness and Belle became regulars in town on trade day, selling their cattle for meat and trading manure for tools.
Then, one winter eve just before the close of 1900, daughter Jennie, hearing clatter below, rushed from her upstairs room to find her stepfather Peter writhing in pain on the kitchen floor. Standing over him, weeping, was Belle who screamed that the large iron meat grinder had fallen off the shelf onto his head. He died before sunrise.
Over the next several years, the farm prospered, better than Belle's luck with men. Farmhand after farmhand that she hoped would turn into a husband left her dry, often in the middle of harvest, when muscle was especially needed. Time after time, it appeared that perhaps one of them, such as hefty Peter Carlson, was turning into a suitor; some even talked marriage openly - then disappeared in the dead of night.
Nineteen-year-old Emil Greening, son of a neighbor, often came forward to offer his services between Belle's would-be suitors, but of course he had no attraction to the older woman. His interest lay in Jennie, who had developed into a lean, rosy-cheeked blonde of dimples and giggles. But, his interest in the Gunness place waned after Jennie suddenly decided to go to college in San Francisco, Cal., and left without nary a farewell. Emil was heartbroken.
Then came Ray Lamphere.
Belle had first seen the curly-headed 30-year-old odd-job carpenter about town in the spring of 1907 and, knowing he was looking for work, asked him to hire on as her farmhand. He was glad to have the work, if for nothing else than to support his drinking habit, and took up residence in Belle's spare room on the second floor. According to de la Torre, Lamphere was "not too bright," but was talented with hammer and nail and not afraid of work. It wasn't long after that they were seen together arm in arm about town, he as lean as she was obese. In the gin mills, which he frequented, Lamphere would boast to his pals that she had seduced him because she thought he was "quite a man," then display the watch she gave him, or the vest, or the beaver hat, or the high-top leather boots.
But, something wayward happened to the affair and as the Christmas season of 1907 rolled about, Belle was suddenly traipsing about La Porte with a new man who, like most of her others, seemed to materialize out of the ether. More stunned than anyone was Lamphere when he learned the couple had paused at Obbereich's Department Store to purchase a wedding ring.
No sooner had the fires of jealousy begun to send Lamphere to the saloons to rant and rave to his comrades about the treacheries of femaledom than this latest of suitors vanished. But, the farmhand's relief was short lived, for shortly thereafter yet another gentleman appeared to have captured Belle's devotions. This time, neighbors said, it looked like true love. Described as "a big Swede," Andrew Helgelein beamed when he strolled the country lanes and town byways with his woman. He was a slap-happy, good-natured man who seemed in his usual high spirits when he stopped at the town bank to withdraw all his funds from another bank in his native South Dakota. He announced to the teller that he and Belle were getting married.
That evening, Belle asked Ray Lamphere to vacate his quarters at her residence and find other lodging. She was turning the room over to Helgelein until the wedding day, which wasn't far off. Lamphere, vehement, took it a step further by quitting his position and wishing his employer bad luck. Again he was seen and heard at the bars spouting hellfire to Belle Gunness and "that big Swede".
A week later, Helgelein was gone, too. Belle wept to her neighbors, "When am I ever going to learn? What do I do wrong that these men take such advantage of me?" Stuck again without masculine help, Lamphere refused to come back, damn the crop.
To help with the spring harvest, Belle hired a local man of good reputation, a man who was known for his truthfulness and get-it-done attitude, Joe Maxson. There never was an insinuation of any relationship between he and Widow Gunness. Away from work, which he kept up long after sunset, Maxson remained to himself in the cozy room Belle had given him over the kitchen, reading the newspaper and playing soft refrains on his fiddle. Often, the Gunness children were lulled off to sleep by the soft murmur of his stringed lullabies.
The only time he stuck his nose into others' business was to warn his employer, as directed, when former farmhand and jealous lover Lamphere was trespassing again. Constant threats to the woman's being, even after Andrew Helgelein disappeared, had forced Belle to have him arrested time and again, but Lamphere would continue to harass by distance. Maxson would often see Lamphere peering from behind the elms that lined the perimeter of her yard, Knowing he was spotted, the later darted off like a frightened salamander.
On April 27, 1908, Belle visited an attorney, M.E. Leliere, for the sole purpose of writing her last will and testament. She seemed distracted and told the lawyer that she feared what Lamphere might do to her. "That man," she told him, "is out to get me, and I fear one of these nights he will burn my house to the ground."
In the will, she left her property to her children or, in the event of their deaths, to the Norwegian Orphan's Home. When Leliere suggested that that wasn't the official name of the orphanage - that he needed a day or two to get its real name before he could authorize the will - Belle flustered. She insisted that such business could be completed after the fact and that they should both sign the will now. "There's no time to wait!" she maintained. With a sigh, Leliere consented, placing his name at the bottom of the document beside hers.
That night the Gunness farm burned.
"To greed, all nature is insufficient."
A few days after the fire, Ray Lamphere brooded in the courthouse lock-up, sorry he had ever heard the name Belle Gunness. He realized he was in a precarious position and hoped that he could wiggle out of this situation, somehow. He had no money for a lawyer.
The law alleged he had killed Belle Gunness, but first the law would have to prove it was Belle Gunness who was found dead. And from what he was hearing from friends who visited him in his cell, popular opinion was quickly moving in his favor. Much of the town really didn't believe that the headless woman found under the rubble of the farmhouse was its owner; rumors mentioned a much smaller victim than the corpulent Norse woman. More so, if there was a scoundrel in their midst, it wasn't considered - at least today-Ray Lamphere. The name whispered on everyone's lips with horror these days was none other than Belle Gunness herself.
There was a lot of reticence in La Porte. Suddenly, there were doubts. Why had so many suitors come and gone to fade into thin air, often leaving behind their personal belongings? (She had been seen in the fields afterwards, wearing their long coats to plow, their hats to shield her from rain.) Where was Jennie, the daughter? (The college she was supposed to have attended in San Francisco had no record of her.) Where was she getting her money? (She seemed to be living too well for the meager income her trade would allow.)
Suspect clues were starting to turn up in the rubble. Men's watches, men's coat buttons, men's billfolds, emptied. Then a human rib cage, recently buried. Then a skeletal arm, recently buried. Then a complete skeleton, recently buried. Sheriff Al Smutzer, wanting like hell to keep this scandal to his peace-loving town quiet, hired Joe Maxson and Belle's neighbor Daniel Hutson to quietly dig through the rubble to see what else might turn up - in particularly, Belle Gunness' head-and report directly to him, no one else, if they found something relevant.
But, the diggers couldn't hide themselves, especially since a daily parade of town's folk passed the charred remains of the house; sometimes, they would stop their buggies to gawk and whisper and cross themselves, warding off the demon that brooded in the midst over the silent ruin.
In May, a small little man approached the sheriff in his office and introduced himself as the brother of Andrew Helgelein, that "big Swede" from South Dakota who, like so many others, wooed Belle one day and were gone the next. This fellow, Asle Helgelein, had known that Andrew arrived in La Porte in January, 1908, to withdraw his savings from the Bank of South Dakota "with Belle at his side". Having read in The Skandinaven newspaper about the Belle Gunness fire, and not having heard from his brother since he had left for Indiana, he came to La Porte to investigate.
Andrew, he explained, had first heard of Belle from the mail-order brides column in The Skandinaven, where immigrant brides often advertised for a husband. In his possession were dozens of letters - six months' worth - that Belle had written to Andrew, entreating him to join him as husband in La Porte. (In one of her letters, says the La Porte Historical Society, "she included a four-leaf clover for good measure".) Asle found it strange that after so long a communication, and after entrusting to her his savings - some $1,800 - his brother would run off. It just didn't make sense.
Belle's correspondences were earthy and painted herself as "a good Norwegian woman" desiring a faithful husband, lover and provider for her and her family. As the relationship grew through the written word, however, Belle began to surface more and more with monetary motivation. After Andrew had made up his mind that he was coming to La Porte, Belle exhibited a wiliness borne from experience. She had written:
"...Do not send any cash money through the bank. Banks cannot be trusted nowadays. Change all the cash you have into paper bills, largest denomination you can get, and sew them real good and fast on the inside of your underwear. Be careful and sew it real good, and be sure do not tell anyone of it, not even to your nearest relative. Let this only be a secret between us two and no one else. Probably we will have many other secrets, do you not think?"
Sheriff Smutzer thought that Asle was overreacting; Belle Gunness, he said, was not a gold-digger and surely no murderess. But, Asle Helgelein was unconvinced. The latter knew of the digging taking place on the farm and heard that certain belongings such as watches were churning over across the property. Perhaps he might find an article belonging to his prodigal brother.
Asle introduced himself to Joe Maxson and Daniel Hutson and offered to help them dig. As he explained later, he "had a hunch". He asked farmhand Maxson if Belle had dug any holes on her property - perhaps for trash or cinders - since January, the time his brother had been there. "As a matter of fact, yes," Maxson replied. "There was a large garbage pit behind the house near the hog pen where she had been throwing old boots, ham bones, coffee tins, things like that. She had me cover it over around March. Why?"
Without reply, Asle picked up a shovel and began to dig where Maxson had pointed. On cue, the two others followed, unearthing clumps of earth at a time. Near the top they uncovered boots, pieces of crate, trash of a general variety. But, then, according to Lillian de la Torre, author of The Truth About Belle Gunness, "an unnatural smell began to assail their nostrils...In a little while the spades struck something covered over with some old oilcloth and a gunny sack. The stench was stronger. The diggers lifted off the covering, and saw a human arm.... (They) lifted from the earth, vivid and rotten, the remains of what had once been a man. Asle looked at the pulpy sightless eyes and fixed mirthless grin of a face he knew. 'That's my brother!'"
Andrew Hegelein's body was in pieces -- arms, legs, head, packed hastily in a series of flour and produce sacks. The sheriff was summoned and the digging continued. Before the day was out, they had disinterred four more bodies - two males and two females -- packaged in the same manner as the big Swede. Of the women, one was obviously Jennie, the foster daughter who hadn't gone to California after all. Though badly decomposed, her facial features were recognizable; as well, her long blonde hair that flowed so prettily in the Indiana sun still clung to what was left of her skull.
It is a conjecture of the La Porte County Historical Museum that, "Jennie got suspicious because (her stepmother's) suitors always left the farm during the night."
La Porte shrieked with dismay, and in terror. Belle Gunness, lonely Belle Gunness who everyone felt sorry for - she was a Lady Bluebeard with the greed of Mammon and the heart of Satan. Try as he may, Sheriff Smutzer could no longer conceal the truth from the world, and serene La Porte turned into a media circus overnight. Eastbound trains and westbound trains and special flyers chugged into the depot hourly depositing reporters from as near as Terre Haute, Ind., and as far away as Seattle. They converged on the largest hotel in town, the Teegarden, and quartered its terraced dinette as a virtual newsroom. Between it and the Gunness farm buggies-full of notebook-scratching snoops and busy-fingered photographers rambled night and day. Well into the morning the clitter-clack-clatter-click of their wireless machines clapped out the dirge of Belle Gunness, black widow who (for dramatic effect) might still be alive!
They intercepted the residents of the town for whatever information they could get about the woman of the hour. Many knew her and expressed their shock. Many replied that, now they think about it, yes, she did act awfully suspicious. And as for those bodies found on her premises...wait, there will be more to be turned up.
So Many Dissapeared
The names, the faces...where had they gone, the oh-so-many personalities, these farmhands who worked for Belle and courted her -- otherwise but to their mistress's personal execution chamber?
"Where was Ole Budsberg?" asked the town. He had been another of Belle's potentials. Writes de la Torre, "Mr. Budsberg had drawn $1,800 on April 26, 1907. He was escorted by Mrs. Gunness (and) had not been seen since. His sons had written to ask what had become of him, and the bank cashier called on Mrs. Gunness to inquire. She said Ole Budsberg had gone to Oregon."
Swan Nicholson, a La Porte resident was asking, particularly, about a fellow he had come to know and like. "Where is Olaf Lindbloe? He was fresh from Norway, about thirty years old, and a fine-looking young fellow..." Chris Christofferson, who lived off McClung Road near Belle, replied: "The last I saw of Olaf was in the spring of 1904. He was moving the old privy (on Belle's property) off its hole. Next time I visited the farm, there was Mrs. Gunness...complaining that had left her in the lurch and gone off to St. Louis to see the fair."
Another name that left people guessing was that of Henry Gurholt. The merchants in town recalled his pleasant disposition and his courteous way of handling Belle's affairs on market day. Christofferson remembered the spring-like day that day Gurholt arrived in 1905 - "I helped him carry his trunk upstairs" - and he remembered the week he washed into oblivion - "In August, Belle came to me to help stack oats, because Henry had left her flat in the middle of oat-cutting to go off with a horse trader."
Certain farmhands were on the farm so briefly that the townspeople never had a chance to know their names. For instance, said butcher Emil Palm, "There was a young boy at the farm last summer who came into La Porte several times with Mrs. Gunness, but then stopped coming. One time I asked her what had become of the boy, and she looked up at a piece of meat and remarked what a lovely cut it would make."
There were others, many others. "The next farm hand," de la Torre pens, "disappeared suddenly, too, so suddenly that he left his horse and buggy behind him. What became of all these men?"
Throughout May, the digging continued and some of the above missing persons were, as suspected, discovered under the soil at the Gunness farm. Among them were Budsberg, Gurholt and Emil Palm's anonymous lad. As with the other victims, heads were detached and the bodies were severed at several joints. These latest revelations were found in a pile of soft earth that also contained a woman's shoes, a purse frame and a truss, probably belonging to the unidentified female corpse discovered earlier. And deep down, under the others, was a skeleton of a young boy whose wisdom teeth had just begun to grow before he was killed.
Speculation turned to the deaths of Belle's two husbands, Mads Sorenson in Chicago, who died of unknown causes, and Peter Gunness, crushed accidentally by a tumbled sausage grinder. Of the former, a doctor named J.B. Miller from Chicago now came forth to admit that Mads showed all the signs of strychnine poisoning. However, Miller's superior did not prefer to cause the widow needless pain - for she was a basket case -- and, since he had been treating his patient for a heart disease anyway, indicated the cause of death as "enlargement of the heart" and signed the death certificate.
But, Dr. Miller remained unconvinced these eight years. Mads succumbed on the one day, according to de la Torres, "when two insurance policies, overlapping, made his death worth twice as much as it would have been worth on any other day. Belle had wept her way out of an autopsy."
There had been an inquest a year later when Peter Gunness died. The law questioned the suspicious nature of the death; it bore all marks of mischief. There was, after all, no reasonable explanation as to how that meat grinder could have fallen. Throughout the hearing, Belle wailed and wrung her hands. A martyr evermore. The sheriff wasn't satisfied, nor was the coroner who even went as far as to question young Jennie about her foster parent's relationship with each other, hinting murder. Briefly surfacing were allusions to Peter's child's death while in Belle's care, again tickling foul play. But, in the end, the verdict was accidental death.
"Mrs. Gunness was cool at the funeral...During the preaching she sat moaning with her fingers before her eyes," to quote Lillian de la Torre. Townsman Albert Nicholson, however, could see that she was "peeking alertly between them to check the effect she was making. That made him certain of her guilt.
"Even little Myrtle had known it. Only a week before the fire she had whispered in the ear of a small schoolmate, 'My mamma killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul.' Her chum obeyed her admonition to secrecy until Myrtle was ashes."
But now, in May, 1908, Belle Gunness' secrets were exploding out like pyrotechnics at a Fourth of July celebration. All the world waited and watched, and prayed. They waited to see if the diggers would ever find Belle's head, watched for headlines that read BELLE GUNNESS ESCAPED BLAZE, and prayed to hear that Good doth triumph in the end over Evil with the arrest and punishment of the Black Widow of Indiana.
"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
-- Aldous Huxley
This is no place to argue the viability of the old idiom, "Every crime has its scapegoat," except to say that in the case of the Belle Gunness murders there certainly was one. And the goat had a name: Ray Lamphere.
The state believed in his guilt and wanted to prosecute. Because the jealous lover had so many times tried to intimidate, even threaten, the widow, prosecutor Ralph N. Smith, representing the state of Indiana, believed he had it in him to murder. (And, besides, a political party always fairs better at election time when they've caged the wolf that attacked the sheep herd.) But - a technicality existed. Even though the bodies of the Gunness children were found and identified, until that headless woman found with them was proven to be Belle herself the defense would have in its kit-bag of tricks the more enduring loophole. It was Belle who Ray wanted dead, not her children - and given the state of affairs at the Gunness farm, who was to say that Belle didn't commit the murders of her own doves before she flew the coop?
In an effort to nevertheless have Lanphere indicted for murder when the grand jury reconvened in May, Smith put pressure on the Gunness farm diggers to find Belle's skull. Sheriff Smutzer, a staunch Republican and of the Smith regime, sent his county police in all directions to find evidence - any evidence - that might implicate their current guest at the county jail. But, the investigators found nothing and the only material turning up under ash and brick at the fire site were more watches, scraps of a burned anatomy guide, silverware and everything useless to an ambitious lawyer and sheriff seeking justice (and votes, according to some towns folk). However, Mrs. Gunness' dentist, Ira Norton, volunteered helpful information.
"If you can find her false teeth, I can identify them," he exclaimed. "Last fall I made her a set of six porcelain teeth backed with gold. If Mrs. Gunness is dead in the fire, those teeth are still in the ashes."
An ancient LaPortian who had once prospected for gold in Colorado was called upon as advisor. Louis Schultz told Smith that if he could have a sluice box, the type they were now using to find nuggets in the Klondike, Smith would have his gold teeth within a week. Schultz provided the promise, Smith the sluice box.
In the meantime, the citizens of La Porte were dividing between pro-Lamphere and con-Lamphere: "She's dead!" cried the bankers, who disbelieved anyone would leave town with $720 still in their savings. "She's alive!" argued the local doctor who examined the headless corpse and found a much more diminutive body than the heft y Belle Gunness whom he knew in life.
Nowhere were the factions more evident than in the two opposing papers in town. The Republican-held Herald supported Smith while the Argus, under the editorship of crusading Democrat Harry N. Darling, derided the notion that Lamphere was anything but a patsy. The Herald saw Belle Gunness dead, the Argus envisioned her alive and well and on the lam to the devil knows where.
Holding half interest in the Argus was Town Mayor Lemuel Darrow, a Democrat. Because of his political affiliation, the city workers under his patronage naturally, at least vocally, enlisted the pro-Lamphere leanings. To the point that the city police refused to cooperate with Sheriff Smutzer's troops in helping to prosecute Lamphere. Instead, Darrow hired the private Clark Detective Agency from Chicago and set its agent, one C.C. Fish, out in hot pursuit of fugitive Belle. Simultaneously, Darrow's law partner, Wirt Worden, offered his services au gratis to defend the Republican's pawn.
On Tuesday, May 12, Schultz the prospector found Belle's dentures. Dr. Norton agreed, "They're hers!" and the coroner expediently pronounced Belle dead of "felonious homicide". On May 22, the grand jury indicted Ray Lamphere of arson and the murder of the Gunness family.
As the trial drew near, La Porte evermore became a center of busy activity such as it had never been before. On May 29, an auction took place on the Gunness property to sell off those effects which survived the fire, including Belle's Collie dog which had been outside during the blaze. "Souvenir buyers bid up everything to many times its value," author Lillian de la Torre attests. "A shovel worth 60 cents brought $2.10 - who knows it might have buried Andrew (Helgelein)... A single entrepreneur bought the dog, the pony and cart, even the barn cat and her kittens. Then this backwoods Barnum hired Belle's last farmhand, Joe Maxson, and C.C. Fish, Lamphere's private eye, and set out to tour the sticks. (Maxson) was always sure to be asked: 'Is Belle Gunness alive?' and he always answered loudly: 'Yes!'"
Maxson had been convinced from the start that he had escaped the fire by sheer luck. He told no one of his suspicions, except his sister who, later, retold his story. Evidently, her brother had awoken in the middle of the night to find Widow Gunness standing over his bed, watching him. Alarmed, he sat up. "I just wanted to see if you were asleep," is all Belle said before quietly slipping from his room. As she did so, he thought he saw a hammer hidden in the folds of her skirt.
Stories of narrow escape were coming in from across the land by men who had answered Belle Gunness' ad in The Skandinaven. They weren't crock, for the men knew too many details about Belle and her farm; some of them even had letters Belle had written in reply. Carl Peterson from Michigan came forth with a letter delivered him from the woman, which read, in part, "...I have decided that every applicant must make a satisfactory deposit of cash or security...Now, if you think you are able some way to put up $1,000 cash, we can talk matters over personally. If you cannot, is it worthwhile to consider?..."
Not having such an amount on hand at the time saved Mr. Peterson's life.
George Anderson had seen Belle's ad in Missouri. After two-way communication, he decided to visit Belle and, not being one to light the flint before it's out of the drawer, check on the farm and the sincerity of the ad's author. He had only $300 cash in his pockets, but Belle urged him to go home, sell his large farm in Tarkio, and come back with the rest. He had suspicions. When he awoke in the dead of night to find her hovering over his pillow, that was enough. He lit out and took the next train home.
But, unfortunately, there were many more men who did not have the luck of Peterson nor the common sense of Anderson. Families from Minnesota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kansas and other states wrote pleas to Sheriff Smutzer and Mayor Darrow to please find their missing son, brother, father who they knew had gone off to meet a mail-order bride in La Porte, Indiana.
George Barry (Indiana) left home in July, 1905 to "work for a Mrs. Gunness". He had $1,500 cash on him. He was never seen again. Herman Konitzer (Indiana) took $5,000 from the bank and went to La Porte to "marry a wealthy widow". He vanished. Abraham Phillips (West Virginia), a retired railway watchman, left to court a rich widow in Indiana, taking $500 in cash and a diamond ring. His family never heard from him since, but a railroad watch was found in the Gunness debris. Emil Tell (Kansas), $5,000 in his billfold, boarded a train to La Porte to meet a widow there. Gone.
The list continues, men all telling relatives before they left they were La Porte-bound: Olaf Jensen (recent immigrant from Norway); Christian Hinckley (Chetek, Wisconsin); Charles Nieburg (Philadelphia); Tonnes Lien (Rushford, Minnesota); E.J. Thiefland (Minneapolis); John E. Bunter (McKeesport, Pennsylvania). Nauseatingly, the roll call goes on and on...
Trial Stage is Set
"The judge is condemned when the criminal is acquitted."
-- Publilius Syrus
On November 9, 1908, after a long, hot summer - unbearably long and hellishly hot for Ray Lamphere who waited in his musty cell in the courthouse - the prosecution (Ralph N. Smith) and defense (Wirt Worden) came together under presiding Judge J.C. Richter to form a jury. Ahead of them was a trial (reporters were terming it "The Trial of the Century") that would decide the fate of the alleged arsonist and killer Lamphere. The scene was the La Porte County Courthouse, "a square building (with) round arched windows and a peaked belfry," as described by de la Torre, where Lamphere's trial would proceed in an upper courtroom.
Ray Lamphere had pleaded Not Guilty, and the tone was set for a good fight. Challengers Smith and Worden, friends outside of court, were braced for action. They respected each other's intellect, each other's reputation. Smith, lanky, hollow-eyed and severe, was a hard practicalist. Worden, squarely built and didactic, more emotional. When they faced off in court, brilliant things would happen.
First in order was the selection of a jury, conducted with careful diligence by both parties, both had to be careful, for in such a case as they would be trying the opinions of the populace from whence the talesmen would come were dramatically fashioned and often stubbornly predetermined. By the end of the week, however, both attorneys felt confident that they had carved out an equal representation of open-minded and fair men from among La Porte County.
"Speaking in similes, the Lamphere trial has been likened to a May day celebration," wrote the allegorical hands of Harry Darling, the Argus' editor. "In the spotlight is the May pole, and, stretching from the top, are twelve long ribbons, each juror holding a ribbon. The entire case of the prosecution hangs on conclusive proof that the Gunness woman is dead. Otherwise, the May pole falls in a crash, and the state's argument is broken and shattered. Unless this spider web of evidence circumstantial is spun around the prisoner, the ribbons will be handed back, as they were received, white and spotless."
The actual trial opened on the morning of Friday, November 13, a portentous day indeed. The courtroom was jammed with both men and women, most of them having known the lady called Belle Guinness personally, many of them acquaintances of the defendant, Ray Lamphere. It was up to Chief Prosecutor Smith to prove that the headless figure found in the fire was Belle and, to quote Lillian de la Torre in The Truth About Belle Gunness, "that she died by fire, and that it was Ray Lamphere that, out of revenge, had set the fire." It would then be up to the defense -- in other words up to Wirt Worden -- to cast as many doubts as possible upon the prosecution's view.
Coroner Charles Mack, the prosecution's first witness, was brought to the stand to convince the jury that the headless cadaver found in the rubble was certainly that of Belle Gunness. He also reviewed the conditions of the other charred skeletons and reviewed the condition of several organs taken from the fire victims. Although professorial and concise, defense lawyer Worden punctured holes in his credibility.
Worden: Are you positive that this bone I show you is a cervical vertebrae?
Dr. Mack I am not.
Worden: Well, doctor, are you certain that this bone I present is a jawbone?
Dr. Mack: It is.
Worden: Is it the bone of a human being?
Dr. Mack: I do not know.
Worden: Would you state, Dr. Mack, from present observation, that this bone is
from the upper or lower maxilalry?
Dr. Mack: I could not positively state that it is a bone at all!
The prosecution regrouped and reworked its strategy. Smith knew that he needed to disprove two things conjectured by the defense in its opening oratory: 1) that the Gunness children did not die by the hands of their foster mother who poisoned them with strychnine prior to her absconding to parts unknown; and 2) Belle had not murdered a woman and left her body in her place, hoping to fool the law.
A couple of doctors who had examined the three dead children related the conditions of the deceased. They stated that they believed the youngsters had died of asphyxia from smokefire (not poison). But, when Worden cross-examined Dr. H.H. Long, who viewed the remains of child Lucy, he blew holes into the diagnoses:
Worden: On the body of this child Lucy, Dr. Long, did you observe any ecchymotic spots?
Dr. Long: No, sir, none.
Worden: Such spots invariably appear when death is due to suffocation, do they not, doctor?
Dr. Long: Yes, sir, that is correct.
It became obvious - Worden had done his homework.
A Dr. J.L. Long, a cold tactician and master of the post mortem, under Smith's steady direction, demonstrated how smothering by fire makes the human hand clench into a fist, in the exact same manner as were the hands of the flame-charred Gunness family, including the hand of the headless woman. He backed his testimony with facts and the jury was captive. But, the fighting defender was not to be outdone, prompting the following transcript:
Worden: Are you familiar, doctor, with the post-mortem condition of a body when death has been caused by strychnine?
Dr. Gray: I have seen several.
Worden: Would strychnine leave the hand clenched as this hand was (referring to the dead woman's hand)?
Dr. Gray: Yes.
Worden: It is the usual symptom, is it not?
Dr. Gray: Yes.
Worden: Isn't it a fact that when you made your examination and wrote a verdict, you stated it was impossible to determine the cause of death?
Dr. Gray: Yes, sir.
Worden: Did you make a chemical analysis of the stomach, Dr. Gray?
Dr. Gray: No. sir.
Worden: Taking the body in the condition in which you found it, if you had found strychnine and arsenic in the stomach in sufficient quantities to produce death, what would you say was the cause of death?
This last question was hypothetical and didn't need to be answered, nor did Worden wait for a comment. He had made his point. And to hammer it home, he managed to dredge from a subsequent witness, Dr. J. William Meyer, a comment that horrified the prosecution team that had hoped to use him to their benefit instead. In reference to the headless corpse, the alleged Belle Gunness, this dialogue occurred:
Worden: Could you form any fixed idea of the cause of death?
Dr. Meyer: No.
Worden: What is your opinion, doctor?
Dr. Meyer: Contraction of the heart, like some case of poisoning. From what I have heard of the stomach, the contraction will probably have been due to strychnine.
The trial was definitely leaning in the direction of the defense. Ralph Smith, though, was not totally unarmed against the expectedly clever counsel antagonist. As the first week of the trial drew to a close, he produced a chilling surprise. According to him, backed by Mrs. Gunness' dentist, Ira P. Norton, they had in their possession the widow's teeth - not merely her dentures, but her real teeth that had been rooted in her jaw. Allegedly, these prizes were discovered in the gutted farmhouse. The dentist had at one time given these teeth gold crowns and recognized his own handiwork.
Smith: Could they have been pulled, Dr. Norton?
Dr. Norton: No, sir, not even a dentist could have pulled the natural teeth from Mrs. Gunness' jaw still attached to the crowns, as these are.
What Dr. Norton professed, therefore, was that if those were Mrs. Gunness' teeth, the only way they could have been loosened was by her death in extreme heat, a fire.
During the testimony, Ray Lamphere was seen staring at the grotesque set of teeth lying mute on the evidence table. Between the hideous objects, the stifling heat of the courtroom and a hint of the case turning smack against him, he seemed to be drawing a pale shade of green. His attorney Worden, must have spotted him, too, for he suddenly leaned over to toss him a glance of reassurance.
Despite the week ending on somewhat of a positive note for the prosecution, everyone agreed...the week belonged to Worden, to the defense, to Lamphere. There were many who pointed out that gold crowns on one's tooth were not a rare thing....and in the guts of the farmhouse, and all around it, there were other bones and other teeth found everywhere. Who was to say that the tooth definitely belonged to Belle.
The jury remained quiet on decision, as indeed they should have at this stage of the game, but the citizens of La Porte were charged. The weekend brought more gossip in and about town - at the kitchen tables, in the markets, at the park, in the schools, before and after church services, and at the bars. Citizens replayed the highlights of the trial and bantered, bantered, bantered. Pre-assumptions hadn't really changed. Those who wanted Lamphere to hang were even more adamant now. And those who saw him innocent would equally argue their cause to death.
The second week of the trial opened on November 16, a Monday. The crowd within the hall had grown. States Lillian de la Torre, "The courtroom was jammed to the doors. Standees crowded the aisles and were pressed in thick along the walls...Jacob Tag, bailiff, was detailed to keep order in the crowd. Intent only on listening, they gave him no trouble."
Much of the trial's reconvening concentrated on Ray Lamphere's taunting of Belle Gunness after Andrew Helgelein came to town from South Dakota. Lamphere's explanations for harassing her didn't stand up under fire; he claimed the widow fired him merely to court "the big Swede" and avoid paying him wages owed.
The prosecution even hinted at Lamphere's taking part in the South Dakotan's demise and of his knowing but keeping secret Belle's grisly graveyard company. Men who knew and drank with the defendant were summoned to the witness stand to testify against him, telling of the threats they heard muttered over a round of beers. One townsman, William Slater, quoted Lamphere as uttering a slough of ominous words:
Slater: He told me, "I know something about that old woman, and she has to come my way. She is having me pinched all the time, and damned if I ain't getting tired of it! If she don't leave me alone I'll send her over the road to the penitentiary that quick!"
As States Attorney Smith neared the end of his case presentation, he strove to remind the court, one last time for good measure, that that was indeed Belle Gunness' body left in the cinders, not some poor wretched woman of dubious existence deposited by the hydra. Witnesses were called forth that had been at the scene of the disaster site immediately after the fire subsided. One woman painted a pathetic picture of the Gunness family's final moments - three children and the mother huddled together on the bed, still there, burned to death, when the mattress fell through the upper story into the cellar where she claimed she saw them. (The defense had argued that there had not been any bodies on any bed, but were found separately around the cellar indicating signs that they were already dead before any fire started, thus poisoned in advance by Belle.)
Sheriff Smutzer, too, described how he had seen the Gunnesses petrified in pitiful, frozen writhes of pain across a mattress.
The courtroom gasped.
Smith should have stopped there, for he had the courtroom by the strings, but before adjourning he made the mistake of calling to the stand William Humphrey, one of the first at the fire who had helped Joe Maxson try to rouse the sleeping Gunneses that April 28 morning.
Smith: At what time did you reach the scene of the fire?
Humphrey: At a few minutes after four in the morning.
Smith: What did you see, Mr. Humphrey?
Humphrey: William Clifford and Joe Maxson were just breaking in the front door. I climbed up a ladder and looked in the windows of the two rooms on the west side. I saw mattresses and bed clothing, but no people...Soon, the walls began to fall, and the roof caved in.
Smith: Were you present when the bodies were found?
Humphrey: Yes, sir, it was my shovel that struck one of them. I assisted in taking them out and placing them in the undertaker's wagon.
Smith: You say you looked in the window during the fire, Mr. Humphrey. What exactly did you see?
Humphrey: In the first room there was an iron bed with bare mattresses. In the second room there was an iron bed with mattress and some sort of a small bundle of bed clothing on it.
Smith: Was the room on fire?
Humphrey: The fire was beginning to come through the floor.
"Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat."
-- Elizabeth Bowen
So far it was still opinion. To the left, to the right, opinion. But, one thing was certain: No one lingered too long on McClung Road much after dark. Even those who boasted she was dead and good riddens to her - even they would tap their team horses gently with the whip to quicken their canter when finding themselves alongside the jagged frame of what had once been Gunness' death house...and still might be.
On Friday, November 20, the defense opened its argument. To save Ray Lamphere from the gallows was Worden's aim, and Worden saw himself as the man for the job. There was little chance to discount Lamphere's heckling of Belle - petitions, warrants of arrest and the word of too many upright citizens had already proven to within an inch that Ray had been a nuisance -- but Worden did nor visualize his client in the capacity of murder. Belle Gunness, he must show, was still alive, that she was still out there, despite the teeth that her dentist said couldn't be extracted unless by her death, despite everything else that Ralph Smith, Sheriff Smutzer, and the Republicans claimed.
Again the courtroom was packed, nearly 500 people in a room meant to hold half that amount. Worden knew he would have a difficult time disproving the gold-capped teeth theory, but he believed in his heart - and he knew he must duplicate that belief in the hearts of the jurors -- that if those teeth had actually come from Mrs. Gunness' mouth, then she threw them into the fire after the fact.
If it was not Mrs. Gunness in that fire, found in the cellar among the debris, then whose headless body was it? Obviously the victim had been a female - doctors proved that beyond a reasonable doubt - but the prosecution had seemed to overlook the fact that Lady Greed was not above killing other women, despite her propensity for male cash. There had already been an unidentified woman found in the hog yard, as well as her own stepdaughter Jennie!
To show a real probability of the headless cadaver as being just one more of Belle Gunness' victims, placed in proxy, Worden called to the stand one John Anderson, who lived immediately down the road from Belle, and who had a high reputation in the community. Anderson had seen something suspicious just two days before the farmhouse burned.
Worden: Mr. Anderson, did you see Mrs. Gunness shortly before the fire?
Anderson: Yes, I did, on the Saturday evening before the fire. She was driving by in her buggy, and she stopped to ask how the flowers were getting along.
Worden: Was anybody with her?
Anderson: There was a strange woman with her.
Worden: Describe her, please, Mr. Anderson.
Anderson: She was a large woman, not quite as large as Mrs. Gunness.
Worden: Did you ever see her again?
Anderson: Never. After the fire I told the sheriff about her.
Anderson's testimony shocked the courtroom, greatly surging the defense's staying power in three relevant ways. First, there was allegedly another woman present in Mrs. Gunness' company only 48 hours before the fire. Second, and equally beneficial, by describing the mysterious visitor as "not quite as large as Mrs. Gunness," the description supported earlier testimony from Dr. Gray who, during autopsy, estimated that the victim had weighed, before fire shrinkage, no more than 200 pounds - some 80 pounds less than the Norwegian temptress. Third, the fact that Sheriff Smutzer hadn't mentioned Anderson's statement looked bad for the prosecution.
Prosecutor Smith's cross-examination fell on deaf ears; Anderson was stalwart. Climax was high, and Worden wouldn't let it drop. Next, he summoned McClung Road neighbor Daniel Hutson who knew Mrs. Gunness well; he lived within walking distance and he had spent a season last year working for her five days a week. Says writer Lillian de la Torre, "he had an astounding story to tell and he told it with dramatic gusto".
Worden: Have you seen Mrs. Gunness since the fire?
Hutson: On the road near the hog pen.
Worden: What date did you see her?
Hutson: On the ninth day of July. I was coming from town with a hayrack, and I saw through the trees Mrs. Gunness and a man walking in the orchard. Even at that distance, I could recognize her plainly. I knew her size, I knew her shape, and I knew her lumbering walk. I never saw another woman who walked like her. She had on a light skirt, black waist, a wide-trimmed hat with a black veil that came down to the chin and a white veil over that. There was a man with her. He weighed about 165 pounds. He had a gray mustache and gray hair.
Worden: What did you do?
Hutson: I started up my horses to try to get up the hill to the orchard before she could get away, but when I got within two wagon lengths of the buggy, they ran to it, clambered in, and raced straight for the main road. I tried to follow them, but they got ahead of me, and I did not like to follow them anymore. There was a good chance of me getting a chunk of lead!
Again, a dose of whammy from Worden. Here was not only a reliable townsman vouching in behalf of Belle's longevity, but the fact that she had been accompanied by a man (who looked nothing like Lamphere) might answer many who all along figured Belle to have had an accomplice and had tried to pin that role on young brown-haired Ray Lamphere. The fact that the couple escaped when Hutson neared them was damaging.
Mr. Hutson's two daughters, Evaline and Eldora, followed suit. Both had, on separate occasions in and around July, seen Belle Gunness and the same man either cutting through the backwoods of the farm or travelling in a buggy down McClung Road. Of her experience, the older of the two, Evaline, testified, "She was in a buggy with a man. She had on two veils. The black one was over her face. When she saw me, she turned her face away from me."
Two boys playing near Pine Lake Cemetery also claimed to have seen the woman "the Thursday after Independence Day." Glancing at a pocket calendar, Worden announced that that was July 9, the same day Daniel Hutson had espied her. They saw her face when she lifted a pair of veils to take a sip from a water pump.
The Defense Rests
Now came time to remove all doubt from other haranguing questions, such as "Were Myrtle, Lucy and Philip Gunness burned to death in bed (a sign that Lamphere may have torched the house while the family slept) or were the bodies already dead in the cellar (indicating they were slain, like Jennie before them, at the hands of Belle?)"
In earlier testimony, William Humphrey oathed that he had seen the beds empty when he peered into the windows of the blazing farmhouse. In conflict, Sheriff Smutzer had already been one of those who claimed to have seen the Gunnesses on a mattress. Now, when Worden ressurected the issue and called several eyewitnesses to the stand to verify the defense's viewpoint, a brief uproar occurred when one witness angrily denounced the sheriff as a liar. He claimed that he had heard Smutzer tell a reporter before the trial that he did not see the bodies until they were removed from site. Of course, this spark of controversy delighted Worden.
Another witness, a woman who drove to the farm the morning of the fire, replied, "I was siting right there on top of the wall. I saw them digging. The remains of the piano were on top of the debris above the bodies...I couldn't see anything but a little ashes under the bodies. When that had been shoveled away I could see the floor as plain as I see the floor of this courtroom."
The last witness for the defense came to the stand on Tuesday, November 24. He was Dr. Walter Haines, toxicology professor, who had chemically analyzed Andrew Helgelein's stomach and found doses of the poison, strychnine - more than enough to kill a man. Worden had commissioned him to also analyze the stomachs of the Gunness children and the unidentified woman absent a head. While lethal quantities of strychnine were evident in the jar in which that the stomachs were packaged, the doctor admitted that, because all three stomachs sat in the same solution, it was impossible to separate from what stomach - if not all - the poison came.
But, the defense nevertheless found opportunity to take advantage of Dr. Haines' learned presence. Because States Attorney Smith raised the possibility that the strychnine actually came from embalming fluid, Worden put that inference to task. No, the doctor heartily responded, there is no strychnine, no poison, in such fluid.
The defense rested.
The following day, both the defense and prosecution presented their closing statements. Worden asked for his client's life to be spared in light of what he called "circumstantial evidence," and Smith called for death per evidence sustaining "beyond a reasonable doubt". The jury, sullen faced, retreated to the discussion room.
They would make no decision that night, hopelessly divided. The following morning, Thanksgiving Day, they arose early, but an evening's rest still had not curbed the nagging doubts each of them had. The day waned before they came at last to a compromise.
Outside, La Porte waited in the rain and under the crackle of thunder. Late afternoon, the crowd in the street saw the courtroom lights flicker on and it drew like a tidal wave toward the steps of the public building. Up the stairs rushed the throng to where, at last, in that courtroom where so many had spent the last three weeks, they expected closure to their curiosity, maybe to their nightmares.
After the place quieted, Judge Richter eyed the twelve exasperated faces. "Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"
The foreman stood. "We have, Your Honor, but I wish to make a statement before I deliver our verdict to the court."
Richter shook his head. "I am not at liberty to hear any statement until the verdict has been received and read."
Silence pervaded as the bailiff carried the jury's vote on a small white piece of paper, to the judge. Even the thunder overhead paused. Judge Richter read it aloud: "We find the defendant guilty of arson."
It took Ray Lamphere a moment to realize that his life had been spared, thanks to Worden. Of arson. Of arson. The words resounded in his head over and over. They meant prison, but not the rope. The collar of his shirt seemed looser now.
The jury's foreman now communicated the reasons for their decision. "We hearby state that it was our judgment in the consideration of this case that the adult body found in the ruins of the fire was that of Belle Gunness, and that the case was decided by us on an entirely different proposition."
Worden and Smith, both disappointed that they had not won their stand, were nevertheless professional men who knew that sometimes the best values come in compromise. However, Smith would never stop believing that Lamphere had killed Belle Gunness. And Worden would always believe that Belle Gunness lived on.
Worden was, in essence, the more correct. Ray Lamphere was given "two to twenty years" in the state penitentiary. But, La Porte, which never quite believed that Belle was gone, was sentenced, too - to years of looking over its shoulder every time a cricket stopped chirping behind them in the dark.
"It is certain because it is impossible."
Ray Lamphere was removed to the state penitentiary in Michigan City, not far from La Porte. But, his stay was brief. He contracted disease not long after he arrived and died a little more than a year later, on December 30, 1909. He passed away, jaundiced and weak, obsessed with Belle Gunness. All told, he was another one of her victims.
During his incarceration, he would often mention Belle to his cellmate, Harry Myers, a convicted thief. Lamphere, said Myers, would repeat her name daily, sometimes looking out the barred window of their cell towards the barren stretch of Indiana prairie and mutter, "She's out there, Harry."
When released, Myers told of a strange incident. One evening, while chatting, both men were eyeing some visitors leaving the prison. A woman passed below their window, buxom, blonde and earthy looking. "She's about the size of my old gal," said Lamphere. "People think she's dead. She's not dead. Harry, she had a large scar on her left thigh - but that body that was burned, it had no scar. Besides----"
He paused, measured his words, still staring out the window, watching that woman. "I know where Belle is. And she's not far from here. Believe me."
Wherever she was, Lamphere was but one of many who went to their graves convinced that Belle Gunness lived on. Well into the 1930s, almost a quarter of a century after the trial, she popped up everywhere, from Indiana to the East Coast. Perhaps, says the La Porte Public Library, "she murdered again".
"There were numerous sightings of the murderess across the country," the La Porte County Historical Society tells us. She was a reputed whore in a brothel down South and a madame on the Atlantic Coast. Some believed she escaped to Norway.
Nowhere else is her presence felt stronger than in La Porte. Residents say that old McClung Road reeks with her aura; one expects her to materialize from behind one of the old houses that still face the same cornfields just outside of town. Tongue in cheek, Jim Rogers, who is curator of La Porte's excellent county museum, calls Belle "our entrepreneur," for she has brought interest to the town, visitors who drive by to see where Belle once ambled. At Halloween, say others, a popular figure is Belle. Three-foot tall Belles are everywhere, carrying pumpkins full of candy.
Some of the same families still live in La Porte, although the main-players are gone. A newer house, built in the 1950s, stands on the old foundation of the Gunness farmhouse. The town has grown and appreciates its rich Indiana history, of which Belle Gunness' memory belongs on the dark side of it.
Attorney Wirt Worden remained in town after the trial and continued to practice law. He was another of the many central figures who remained interested in her whereabouts, scoffing the jury's view that "the adult body found in the ruins of the fire was that of Belle Gunness". He passed away in 1943 never doubting, said his wife, Belle's escape.
But, that night, after the trial ended, he walked out over the damp cobbles of his city, inhaled the rain-freshened evening air and looked up at the sky. Under it, he couldn't help but remembering the lines from Hamlet: "O, what a piece of work is Man!" -- and realizing the true faculties of that statement. In that context, he realized that heroes and villains co-exist, sometimes shoulder to shoulder.
"After the ball is over, after the break of morn,
"After the dancers' leaving, after the stars are gone...."
He smiled, hearing a gramophone from inside the parlor of a house at the corner of his block. Human nature, he perceived, never changes. Mankind endures, simply because most of Mankind is as nice as those people in that house, who appreciate the lovely things in life, and are gentle, and kind, and thoughtful. He whistled along to the music as he walked home to bed.
"Many a heart is broken, if you can read them all.
Many a hope that has vanished after the ball...."
I would particularly like to thank the kind people at both the La Porte County Historical Society Museum (especially curator Jim Rogers) and the La Porte County Public Library for their assistance in writing this story. As well, the La Porte Herald-Argus led me in sound direction, tracing down some questions I had.
Following are some of the source materials from which this story garnered information, and are recommended for anyone wishing to know more about Belle Gunness and turn of the century La Porte:
Baumann, Edward and O'Brien, John "Hell's Belle," article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, March 1, 1987.
de la Torre, Lillian The Truth About Belle Gunness New York: Gold Medal Books, 1955.
Langlois, Janet L. Belle Gunness: The Lady Bluebeard Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1985.
La Porte County Historical Society The Gunness Story (pamphlet)
Lindeman, Les "Belle Gunness Legend Lives On," article in the La Porte Herald-Argus, April 28, 1981.