A dark tale from our "Dustbin of Gruesome History" files.
One the night of April 28, 1908, Joe Maxson, a hired hand on a farm outside of La Porte, Indiana, awoke in his upstairs bedroom to the smell of smoke. The house was on fire. He called out to the farm's owner, Belle Gunness, and her three children. Getting no answer, he jumped from a second-story window, narrowly escaping the flames, and ran for help. But it was too late; the house was destroyed. A search through the wreckage resulted in a grisly discovery: four dead bodies in the basement. Three were Gunness's children, aged 5, 9, and 11. The fourth was a woman, assumed to be Gunness herself, but identification was difficult- the body's head was missing. An investigation ensued, and Ray Lamphere, a recently fired employee, was arrested for arson and murder. Before Lamphere's trial was over, he would be little more than a sidebar in what is still one of the most horrible crime stories in American history ...and an unsolved mystery.
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth in Selbu, Norway in 1859. At the age of 22 she emigrated to America and moved in with her older sister in Chicago, where she changed her name to "Belle." In 1884 the 25-year-old married another Norwegian immigrant, Mads Sorenson, and the couple opened a candy shop. A year later the store burned down, the first of what would be several suspicious fires in Belle's life. The couple collected an insurance payout and used the money to buy a house in the Chicago suburbs. Fifteen years later, in 1898, that house burned down, and another insurance payout allowed the couple to buy another house. On July 30, 1900, yet another insurance policy was brought into play, but this time it was life insurance: Mads Sorenson had died. A doctor's autopsy said he was murdered, probably by strychnine poisoning, so an inquest was ordered. The coroner's investigation eventually deemed the death to be "of natural causes," and Belle collected $8,000, becoming, for 1900, a wealthy woman. (The average yearly income in 1900 was less than $500.) She used part of the money to buy a farm in La Porte. But there was a lot more death -and insurance money- to come.
In April 1902, Belle married a local butcher named Peter Gunness and became Belle Gunness. One week later, Peter Gunness's infant daughter died while left alone with Belle... and yet another insurance policy was collected on. Just eight months after that, Peter Gunness was dead: He was found in his shed with his skull crushed. Belle, who was 5'8", weighed well over 200 pounds, and was known to be very strong, told police that a meat grinder had fallen from a high shelf and landed on her husband's head. The coroner said otherwise, ruling the cause of death to be murder. On top of that, a witness claimed to have overheard Belle's 14-year-old daughter, Jennie, saying to a classmate, "My mama killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died."
Belle and Jennie were brought before a coroner's jury and questioned. Jennie denied making the statement; Belle denied killing her husband. The jury found Belle innocent -and she collected another $3,000 in life insurance money. And she was just getting started.
NOT WELL SUITED
Not long after Peter Gunness's death, Belle started putting ads in newspapers around the Midwest. One read:
Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts of 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.
The ads worked, and suitors began to show up at the farm with visions of "joining fortunes" in mind. John Moo arrived from Minnesota in late 1902 with his life savings of $1,000 in hand. He stayed at the farm for about a week ...and disappeared. Over the years several more met the same fate; Henry Gurholdt from Wisconsin, who had brought $1,500; Ole B. Budsburg, also from Wisconsin, who brought the deed to his property, worth thousands, and was last seen at a La Porte bank in April 1907; and Andrew Hegelein, from South Dakota, also last seen in the bank, in January 1908.
Andrew Hegelein turned out the be the last of the disappearing suitors, because a few weeks after his disappearance, his brother, A.K. Hegelein. wrote to Gunness to inquire about him. She replied that he'd gone to Norway. Hegelein didn't believe her -and threatened to come to La Porte to find out what happened to him.
We said at the start of the story that when the Gunness home burnt to the ground, killing the three children and, presumably, Belle Gunness, former employee Ray Lamphere was arrested. The reason: Lamphere had been hired in 1907, and by all accounts, had fallen in love with Gunness. The seemingly constant coming and going of suitors enraged him, and he and Gunness fought about it. In February 1908, around the time of Hegelein's disappearance, Gunness fired Lamphere. Not only that -she went to the local sheriff and told him Lamphere was making threats against her. The day before the house fire, she went to a lawyer and made out a will, telling the lawyer that Lamphere had threatened to kill her and her children...and to burn her house down. Under the circumstances, the sheriff had to arrest Lamphere - but the focus of the investigation would soon turn elsewhere.
THE WOMAN IN THE BASEMENT
Lamphere denied any involvement with either the arson or the murders. Few people believed him ...but there were serious questions about the body of Belle Gunness. Doctors who inspected the remains said they belonged to a woman about 5'3" (they had to account for the missing head, of course) who weighed about 150 pounds. Gunness was much larger than that. And several neighbors who knew Gunness well viewed the remains -and said it wasn't her. Then A.K. Hegelein showed up looking for his brother. He told the police his story and insisted that a search be made of Gunness's property. The search began on May 3. Two days later, five bodies, carefully dismembered and wrapped in oilcloth, were discovered buried around the farm.
BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE!
The first body was determined to be that of Gunness's daughter Jennie, who, according to Belle, had been in school in California since 1906. The second body was Andrew Hegelein. The third was an unidentified man; the fourth and fifth were unidentified eight-year-old girls.
Neighbors told investigators that they had often seen Gunness digging in her hog pen, so they dug up that area -and found body after body after body. Included in the group: suitors John Moo, Ole Budsburg, and Henry Gurholdt. In the end the remains of 25 bodies (some reports say as many as 49) were found, many of them unidentifiable.
Belle Gunness had obviously lured the men to her farm and killed them for their money. People in La Porte began to believe that if she could do that, she could fake her own death, and that the body found after the fire was yet another of her victims. It was beginning to look a lot like A.K. Hegelein's threat to come look for his brother made Gunness panic and come up with her bloody plan. But then a problem arose: On May 16 a part of a jawbone and a section of dentures was found in the ruins of the house. Gunness's dentist, Ira Norton, inspected them -and said the dental work on the teeth belonged to Belle Gunness.
After a long investigation the body of the woman in the fire was officially declared to be that of Belle Gunness, and was buried as such. Ray Lamphere was tried for arson and murder-but because of all the lingering questions surrounding the case, he was convicted only of arson. He received a 20-year prison sentence and died less than a year later of tuberculosis. While in prison he reportedly confessed to a prison minister that he had helped Gunness bury some of her victims -and that the woman in the basement was not her. Gunness had hired a woman from Chicago as a housekeeper just days before the fire, he said, and drugged her, killed her, decapitated her, dressed her in Belle's clothes, and put her in the basement. He helped Gunness start the fire, he said, and was then supposed to escape with her, but she double crossed him and left on her own. However, none of his story could be substantiated.
People reported seeing Belle Gunness at dozens of locations across the U.S. over the following decades. None of these sightings were ever confirmed. Then, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested for the poisoning murder of her husband in Los Angeles ...and she reportedly looked a lot like Belle Gunness. Carlson died awaiting trial, but some La Porte residents made the trip to the Los Angeles morgue and viewed the body. They said that they believed it was Gunness.
In 2008 Andrea Simmons, an attorney and graduate student at the University of Indianapolis in Indiana, led a team of forensic biologists to the grave where Belle Gunness was buried. With permission from Gunness's descendents, they dug up the grave with the intent of extracting DNA from the corpse and comparing to the DNA of living relatives. Results were hoped for by April 28, 2008, the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Gunness farm, but they were, unfortunately, inconclusive. Attempts are ongoing, and someday, possibly soon, the mystery of Belle Gunness, one of the most diabolical serial killers in history, might finally be solved.
__________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.
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