When the Altic Farm House, on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana burnt down in 1908, locals thought it a tragedy that claimed the lives of three children and their heroic mother, who had died trying to protect them from the flames. During the excavation of the debris, the story flipped on its head as far more than the 4 bodies expected were eventually found. Butchered and cast into pits they were victims of Belle Gunness, a woman the newspapers would come to call the La Porte Ghoul, The Indiana Ogress, The Human Vampire, Hell’s Princess & Lady Bluebeard.
Schechter, Harold. (2018) Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men. Little A, New York.
Billings, John. (1896) Report on Vital and Social Statistics in The United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.
‘Crime Reigns for Month’, (1902, December 22), The South Bend Tribune, Indiana. p.1.
‘Mystery in Sudden Death’ (1902, December 24), The Weekly Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana. p.10.
‘Killed by Sausage Grinder’ (1902, December 20), Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois. p.7.
‘Family May Have Met Death In Fire’ (1908, April 28) The South Bend Tribune, South Bend, Indiana. P.1.
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Lady Bluebeard: Belle Gunness & The Murder Farm
When the Altic Farm House, on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana burnt down in 1908, locals thought it a tragedy that claimed the lives of three children and their heroic mother, who had died trying to protect them from the flames. During the excavation of the debris, the story flipped on its head as far more than the 4 bodies expected were eventually found. Butchered and cast into pits they were victims of Belle Gunness, a woman the newspapers would come to call the La Porte Ghoul, The Indiana Ogress, The Human Vampire, Hell’s Princess & Lady Bluebeard. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
La Porte, the turn of the 20th Century
In 1880, Chicago was one of Americas most modern cities. It had not been entirely by design, rather, it had been rebuilt from the ashes after the great fire of Chicago ravaged the streets, destroying over 17,000 of the earlier buildings, killing 300 and making homeless over 100,000, roughly one third of residents, overnight. In the years before the fire, Chicago had undergone rapid expansion, fuelled by industrialisation and after the flames were put out, the city was keen to return to progress. The first building begun rebuilding on the same day the last fire petered out and now, with a renewed vigour, the residents invested heavily in both its regeneration and modernisation, creating new building and fire safety standards that made Chicago one of the most fire-proof cities in the world, with one of the best trained, staffed and equipped firefighting forces in the country. As an industrial hub, Chicago had long drawn foreign immigrants to it’s centre with the promise of steady work and allowance for big dreams. People had come from al corners of America, and as such, all corners of the globe, there were large communities of German, Polish, Scottish, Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants that were all well established. By 1890, it was estimated that 90% of the Chicago populace were born of foreign parentage. Aside from the larger communities, a significant percentage of these were Norwegians. In 1850, Norwegians were the third largest group of immigrants in the city, behind the German and Irish communities. A decade later, this had grown to 1,500 and by 1870 it had grown to more than 8,000 Norwegian Chicagoans. As the worlds fair descended onto the city in 1893, the population of Norwegians had grown to more than 20,000, the third largest Norwegian population in the entire world, behind only Oslo and Bergen. Supporting this population, there were Norwegian language newspapers, churches and schools. They lived in small congregations, with majority Norwegian communities and maintained a healthy reputation amongst many, who commended the cleanliness of the streets in such areas and the impossibly low figure of crime and arrests, where Norwegians counted for only 1% for the entire city.
One such Norwegian immigrant living in Chicago at the turn of the Century was Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. Born on November 11th, 1859, she was a large, stocky women, standing 5’10” tall and casting an imposing figure at over 200lbs. She was the daughter of farmer Paul Pederson and mother Berit. One of six children, she had grown up on a small piece of leased land used for farming in Selbu, Norway, striving to survive on the poverty line. The family bred a few cattle and grew simple crops to provide for themselves, as well as collecting poor relief from the state. Brynhild was often seen out collecting firewood, as they were too poor to buy it from the local traders. In 1874, aged 14, Brynhild was hired out by her parents to a neighbour where she worked his farm as a dairymaid, who described her as a “Diligent human being that in all ways behaved well.” The local pastor too, only had good things to say for Brynhild, stating she had been good in “religious knowledge and diligence.” By the age of 17, she fell victim to local rumour, when stories circulated she had become pregnant after sleeping with a local landowner, the story followed that the landowner had beaten her in order to force her to miscarry the child in order to avoid marriage to someone of such low birth. Though this story remains rumour and there exists no documentation, those that were apparently close to Brynhild during these days in Norway told of how it changed her fundamentally in her outlook on life, turning her angry and bitter. Many of the earliest stories concerning the young dairymaid are difficult to untangle fact from rumour and the reality is probably much more mundane. Her early years in Norway are coloured in grim tales of poverty and scathing judgements on her personal life, speaking of her as a “liar” with “unpretty tricks” and a “scum on society”, however, the basic truth behind it all was that she lived an unglamorous life steeped in poverty, scraping by within a large, unspectacular family on a sorry plot of rented farm land. Her future were set to change, however, when in 1881 she left Norway, bound for America. She travelled via Trondheim, sailing across the North Sea for 4 days, before arriving in Hull, England, where she transferred to Liverpool, boarded a steamer and launched towards a new life, across the Atlantic. Her trip had been paid for by her older sister, Nellie, who had moved to Chicago ten years prior, and she now travelled to join her, living with Nellie and her husband, John Larson. Upon arrival and like many Norwegian immigrants before her, including her sister, Brynhild changed her name to something she deemed more American, opting for the new name Bella Peterson. She took a job in several domestic occupations, working as a servant, maid and housekeeper. It was tiresome and unenjoyable work for Bella, but it sure beat her life back in Norway, and so she slowly settled into her new life in America, putting her difficult upbringing, surrounded by poverty behind, replacing it instead with the promise of all the glamour on offer in the modern capitalist metropolis of the rebuilt Chicago. Here she was free to dream of a bigger and better life, one of all the money and plush comforts denied to her in her younger days.
Bella Peterson and the first marriage
Bella settled easily into her life in America. Her sister Nellie spoke of how she instantly took to the American Dream and found little trouble adapting to her new life, despite the differences in culture and living. In March of 1884, she met and married Mads Ditlav Anton Sorenson. He was five years her senior and worked as a night watchman in the Mandel Brothers department store on State and Madison. The couples early married life appears to have coasted by, making little waves. Bella was obsessed with children, however, it seemed their first attempts at creating a family of their own ended in failure. This caused what was to be a severe rift between Bella and her sister, when, unable to conceive, she asked her sister Nellie to allow her to adopt their youngest child. Nellie flatly refused and the pair broke apart, rarely speaking ever again. Instead, in 1891, Bella and Mads adopted an 8 month old infant girl named Jennie from their neighbours, the Olsen family. Mrs Olsen was terminally ill and following her death, Jennies father offered her for adoption, though several years later, after he remarried, he attempted to regain custody of the child, by this time, Bella was not interested in giving her over so easily. She fought Mr Olsen in court and won custody.
In 1894, Bella and Mads bought a small newsagents and candy store on Grand Avenue and Edward Street, a major street and a good location in the city of Chicago. The store sold newspapers, stationary, tobacco and cigars as well as candy and simple groceries. Though it seemed to have a lot going for it in terms of location, the business struggled and within a year it appeared to be faltering, on the brink of folding. Perhaps fortunately for Bella and Mads, it burnt down shortly after this downturn and whilst the building still stood, it was completely gutted by the fire, which Bella claimed had been caused by an exploding kerosene lamp. The insurance company investigated the fire and whilst they found no evidence of any exploding lamps, they still paid out, which given the circumstances, was something of a win for Bella. The pair sold the shop back to the brother of the original owner and moved out of the city centre into a small, leafy suburb of Austin where they settled into a slower pace fo life and once again attempted to start their family. Between 1896 and 1898, Bella and Mads welcomed four new children to their growing family, Caroline, Myrtle, Axel and Lucy, though documents do not state how many, if any at all were birthed by Bella herself or orphaned to the families care. Regardless, of the four children, only two survived past infancy. Caroline died aged 5 months old of enterocolitis and Axel died aged just 3 months old of hydrocephalus. In the 1890s, infant mortality rates were on the cusp of improving, though still severe, with 150 infants dying within their first year per 1000 children born with rates in large, urban cities higher still.
In 1897, Bella and Mads were visited by a representative of the Yukon Mining and Trading Company, seeking to enlist adventurous prospectors to send out West in order to find fortune for both themselves and the company. Bella was instantly attracted to the idea, and with a little coaxing, she persuaded Mads to sign up for a years service, whereby he would be contracted to prospect for Gold mines from April 1st 1898 to 1899. For his efforts he would be paid a good wage along with 1/4 of all profits made by any mines he discovered during his contract. The company would also pay Bella a sum for the inconvenience of removing the breadwinner for a year and furnish them with shares in the company. On their part, Bella and Mads needed only to invest an upfront sum to cover one years supplies along with a promissory note for $700, using their house as collateral. This wasn’t a small investment by any stretch, equalling around $20,000 by todays rates, however it was merely a drop in the big dreamy ocean that Bella imagined for the wealth that awaited them in their future. The get rich quick scheme, naturally, turned out to be a scam however, a fact the couple only found out when Mads went to meet his transport to take him out West months later and no one showed up. Fortunately, they won the ensuing legal battle to remove themselves from the responsibility of coming good on the overturned promissory note, but the Gold lined future that Bella dared to dream of had fallen into a dark pit of disappointment. Mads returned once again to the department store work with tail firmly between his legs.
The mining venture was to be the beginning of a series of unfortunate events for Bella. On Tuesday, April 10th 1900, their house burnt down once again. This time, it had been caused by a defective heating appliance and though the house was saved, the family lost $650 in household goods, according to Bella. A sum which rather fortunately, was covered by their insurance.
Three months later, things turned even more severe, when on Monday July 30th, Mads returned home from work feeling ill. He had been suffering a cold and when he arrived home, had complained of a “fearful headache”. Bella gave him a dose of quinine powder and put him to bed. She went downstairs to make dinner and when she later returned to check on him, she found him lying fully clothed on the bed, inbreathing and entirely lifeless. Bella summoned the family physician, Doctor J. C. Miller, who arrived and declared Mads dead, with the cause being Cerebral Haemorrhage. When he asked to check the paper that Bella had used to administer the Quinine powder, Bella claims do have tossed it out into the trash and nothing more was mentioned. Rather fortuitously for Bella, the timing of this grim event could literally not have been any better. If there was ever a good day to die, Mads had hit it perfectly. He had previously had a life insurance policy with one company, but had recently switched it over to another. As one policy ended, the second was set to begin, however, Monday the 30th July just so happened to be the exact date of the transition and as such, Bella was able to claim on both policies, making a cool $5,000, $2.000 from the first and $3,000 from the second. In total it was a windfall worth over $150,000 today. In her torment and grief, she quickly made about finding a more upmarket home to live in, that would better fit her moneyed widower status. She wrote a classified ad to be published in the local papers seeking a new property and was duly contacted by the owner of a 48 acre plot, with large 13 room farm house in La Porte county, Indiana. Sad as I’m sure she was, Bella wasted no time in spending her dead husbands life insurance money. She snapped it up and promptly moved to the not-so-humble plot.
Belle Gunness & the LaPorte County Farmhouse
Upon moving to LaPorte, Bella once agin changed her name. To her new neighbours, she introduced herself as Belle, a name which she took on officially from this point in time, only using Bella to sign for official paperwork. The house she had bought was known locally as Altic Place and had been built by one of the founding fathers of LaPorte county, John C. Walker for his daughter. After the civil war, the family saw fit to leave the county owing somewhat to their southern sympathies and the large old place passed through several less than reputable hands, playing host to a gang of criminals for a time and later, a working brothel. By the time Belle moved in, it had passed through several more hands and the history of the place had, for the most part, fallen by the wayside to all but the more elder locals. Belle set about the place, working on the farm land. The neighbours must have found her somewhat curious, the large woman, trapping around her property. It was still a time period when men did the mens work and women were absolutely not to get involved in such mucky tasks. It is possibly through this lens that the following description of Belle was written by one of her new neighbours.
“She was a fat, heavily featured woman with a big head covered with a mop of mud coloured hair, small eyes, huge hands and arms, and a gross body supported by feet grotesquely small.”
Whatever they thought of her, Belle apparently paid it no mind. It was certainly true that Belle was a large woman and though this rather unattractive description of her was fairly accurate, it didn’t seem to effect her relationships very much. By 1902, Belle had met and remarried Peter Gunness. Peter had known Belle back in Chicago in 1893, when he had rented a room for a brief period in Belle and Mads house. He had emmigrated to America from Oslo in 1885, and though he had returned to Norway after lodging with Belle, he had later returned to America, living in Minneapolis where he had married and had two children, Swanhild, born in 1897 and a second daughter born in 1901. Unfortunately, his wife had died during the birth of their second daughter. He didn’t remain a widow for long, as shortly after he remarried Belle on April 1st, 1902 and move with his two children into the Farm House in LaPorte. Tragedy quickly struck the household, when less than a week later, on April 6th, Peters youngest infant daughter, aged just 7 months died of “Edema of the lungs”, whilst under the care of Belle.
Belles fantastic run of bad luck continued into 1902, when, on December 16th, her new husband Peter met with a spectacular accident with a sausage grinder. At 3am in the morning, Jennie, Belles adopted daughter who was, by now, 12 years old, woke the Swan-Nicholson family, their nearest neighbours, by banging on their front door, seemingly in some distress. Mr Swan opened the door to see Jennie standing on the porch, holding a stove poker and clearly out of breath. “Mamma wants you to come up,” she puffed, “Papas burnt himself”. He woke his son and the pair went back with Jennie to the Gunness household. When they arrived, they found a hysterical belle sitting in the kitchen, whilst Peter lay on th parlour floor in his nightshirt, his face covered in blood. Mr Swan sent his son to collect help immediately and he rode off to collect the county coroner, Doctor Bowell. By the time Swan returned with the Doctor, Peter Gunness had been dead for some time.
Doctor Bowell inspected Peters body, lying sprawled out on the floor. His nose was broken and he had a large wound on the back of his head. His first impression was that Peter had been murdered. Confused at the situation, he returned to the kitchen to question Belle and find out what had gone on in the house. Belle explained to the Doctor that Peter had gone to the kitchen to collect his shoes, which he had kept by the stove to keep them warm. As he had bent over to pick them up, the meat grinder which was kept on the top shelf had fallen down onto the back of his head and as he had fallen from the blow, he had overturned a bowl of hot brine which had been resting on the counter, scalding his neck. The whole thing seemed very suspicious to Doctor Bowell. Albert Swan too found it difficult to swallow. As he returned home with is father that night, he voiced his opinions, though Mr Swan quickly shut him down, telling him to “Not say anything of the sort” as it might “be trouble for Mrs Gunness.”
The next day, Doctor Bowell carried out a post mortem examination. He noted that there was no evidence of scalds or burns, but that Peters nose was “lacerated and broken, showing evidence of severe blows.” His head showed the most sever wound, which featured “a laceration through the scalp and external layer of skull about an inch long, situated just above and to the left of the occipital protuberance.”
Doctor Bowell receded the cause of death as shock and pressure, caused by the fracture. Unhappy with the situation as it stood, he called for an inquest, which was to be held at the Gunness house, two days later on Thursday 18th December. The papers, meanwhile were treating the death as suspect, reporting rather vaguely on the affair,
“Mystery in Sudden Death – LaPorte, Ind., Dec. 17. – Coroner Bowell is making an investigation of the death of Peter Gunness, who died early yesterday morning. Gunness’ widow said her husband arose at 11 o’clock Monday night to go outdoors. He went to the side of the kitchen stove to get his shoes. A minute later he was bleeding from a deep wound in the back of his head, which is alleged to have been made by the falling of a sausage grinder. He was able to get back to bed, but offered no explanation of the affair and at 3 o’clock yesterday morning died.”
Another local paper wrote of Peter Gunness’s death as just another crime in a growing list of violent crimes that had swept LaPorte throughout December, calling it a “Carnival of Crime”, with Peters death marked as “Mysterious circumstances.” As much as Belle might testify that Peters death had been an accident, it seemed that not many were buying the original story of a sausage grinder simply falling off a shelf and whilst Belle herself was never implicated in the stories printed, all chalked it up to a mysterious crime. During the inquest, Belle was called as a witness where she laid out her description of the events that night,
“All at once I heard him calling. He was over by the door and calling ‘Mamma’ as fast as he could and so that the children waked up and I was trying to think and said they should keep quiet, that I had to go to Papa, that Papa was burned, I tried to put on my clothes because it was cold, I went down the steps and when I came down he was walking around the room and saying, ‘O Mamma, Mamma, my head,. I don’t know what is the matter with my head.’ He says, ‘It’s like something going on in my head.’ ‘Papa,’ I said, ‘what are you talking about? Let me see what it is, I suppose you rubbed off the skin.’ ‘O my head, my head,’ ‘Well, if you think it is best, I had better send for the doctor,’ I said, and I went upstairs and I got the girl up and she went over to the Nicholsons. And when I came from upstairs he was holding his head and said ‘O Mamma, I guess I am going to die.’ I asked him what was paining him so terrible and took him some water and he said not to touch his head. When Nicholson came to the door I was rubbing his head, and I opened the door, I think, and they come in and he then thought he was gone but I did not think he was gone before you came. I think he was only unconscious.”
Doctor Bowell asked her if she had seen any blood flowing from Peters nose, to which she replied she didn’t. He closed his questioning asking Belle if the two lived happily together. Belle shrugged and said simply, “as far as I know.”
Bowell next called Jennie as a witness, though she gave much the same story as Belle had. In fact, it was so close to Belles story that the doctor thought perhaps Belle had coached the answers to her. There were glaring contradictions in Jennies testimony, since she told the inquest she was asleep for a large portion of the evening, and yet she also claimed to know details which would have happened only if she had been awake and in the same room as Belle and Peter. Bowell next went on the offensive, asking Jennie if she had been left any life insurance. Jennie said she did not know. In a fairly bold move for an inquest, the doctor then asked her if she had received any life insurance from Belles previous husbands death, though Jennie shrugged the questions off once again, claiming she had no idea. Jennie may have legitimately had no idea what the Doctor was probing into with this line of questioning, but it was fairly clear to everyone else present that the doctor had suspicions of Belle and not simply for the death of Peter Gunness. Despite the questioning at the inquest and the apparent path the line of suspicion seemed to be taking, the inquest was closed, with Peters death officials classed as accidental death.
“Killed by Sausage Grinder – Coroner Bowell today announced that his finding in the case of the mysterious death of Peter S. Gunness would be that he came to his death through an accident. He died of a fractured skull. The widow, who was Belle Sorenson of Chicago until last fall said a sausage grinder had fallen on him.”
And so the official story gradually filtered out through the press, though many locals never bough the story and from Peters death onwards, many said they harboured doubts over the cause of the death and rumours persisted for years after. One man who was particularly suspicious was Peters rather, gust, who turned up on the farm to enquire with Belle if Peters life insurance policy had paid out to his daughter, Swanhild, as it was originally planned to. Belle told him that the policy had been changed recently, when Peter invested it entirely into a mining company. It was nothing to be concerned about, she reassured him, the investment was a sensible one that would make Swanhild very rich indeed. When Gust asked to see the shares in the company however, belle was unable to present them. During his stay, Belle asked Gust if he might like to stay on the farm with her and her family. He could take care of Swanhild and help Belle with the farm work. The next morning, Gust was nowhere to be found, nor Swanhild. He had packed his things and left with Swanhild in the dead of night.
By 1904, Belle had begun to struggle with life on the farm alone. Neighbours commented on how she would traps around in the mud, wearing her husbands old shoes and coat, it was not a glamorous life and Belle decided enough was enough. She put an advert in the Skandinaven, a local Norwegian language paper, seeking the help of a farm labourer. Thirty year old Olaf Lindboe was the lucky man to be employed by Belle for the position. He had contacted her by post from Indiana and then moved onto the farm, brining all of his possessions and $600 in life savings. It wasn’t long before Olaf seemed to get the wrong idea about the situation, however. Hired as a work hand for the farm, he soon started writing letters home to Norway explaining to his parents that he had met a woman and would soon be marrying. He also took it upon himself to spout the same around the local area when he was out drinking. It became fairly common knowledge around the LaPorte farmhouse community that Belle and Olaf were engaged to marry. That was until Olaf appeared to up and leave one day soon after. When neighbour Chris Christofferson asked after him, as he had not seen him around the farm for a while, she told him that he had gone off to St Louis to see the worlds fair and buy some land. Strangely, she told neighbour Nicholson that he’d returned to Norway and when Olafs parents wrote to Belle enquiring why they had not heard from their son for a time, she wrote back telling them that Olaf had simply, “Gone West and took up a homestead someplace.”
Still, wherever Olaf had got to, he needed replacing and so it was that Henry Gurholt came to move in and work on the farm in April of 1905. Henry wrote to his family in Norway, telling them how he had moved in with a kind woman on the most beautiful farm in LaPorte and was being treated as if he was one of the family. Things seemed to work out well with Gurholt, but once again, he disappeared in August, without a word. When Belle asked friend Chris Christofferson to help ou tin his place, she told him he had gone off to Chicago. Christofferson thought it better not to question why he had seemingly left all of his belongings behind, including his coat, which Belle was now wearing as she trapped about the farm.
After Henry Gurholts disappearance. Belle once again took to the classifieds, placing an ad for company. This time, however, she sought more than just a farm helper.
“Wanted – A woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in same. Some little cash is required and will be furnished first class security.”
She signed off the ad “B.G.” posted it across the local and national level, and sat back to see if there would be any potential suitors. The postman confirmed later that, in fact, Belle was soon furnished with a whole host of potentials, as he delivered up to 8-10 letters per day to the farm addressed to Belle, originating from all over the US.
One of the suitors who responded to Belles advert was named Andrew Helgelien, a 49 year old Norwegian immigrant farmer from South Dakota. He had struggled with life in the states and often pined for his homeland. His past had been fairly rocky, as he had spent time in prison for robbing a post office in Minnesota and then, in a somewhat drastic measure to conceal evidence, decided to burn it down. Clearly the plan didn’t work. Nowadays, however, he was a new man. He had been released 12 years prior and taken to farm work and living the right way. Belle seemed to take a liking to Andrew, writing to him in in August to boast of the farm she owned, over-inflating the value a touch of course, and asking him to let her know how much he intended to invest himself into the partnership. In the next letter to him, she wrote of how the area was full of millionaires who had previously invested into their land, of how idyllic the climate was and of how she had decided to pick him as her suitor out of over one hundred men. “Come quick,” she wrote, “Take all your money out of the bank and come as soon as possible.”
Whilst belle continued to communicate with Andrew Helgelien, life on the farm became fairly hectic. Emil Greening had moved in and began working on the farm as a laborer, and at the same time, potential suitors were arriving almost weekly to visit Belle and attempt to prove their worth. Many of them were introduced to Andrew as cousins, though none of them stayed for any length of time. Strangely, Emil did take note that not all fo the men left with their belongings and Belle was gaining quite a collection of trunks that they would leave behind in their apparent haste to leave. There was, he said, an entire room in the house dedicated to storing the trunks and left behind clothing.
That Summer, Jennie, who was now 16 years old, was growing into a fine adult and it was time, Belle decided to send her off to college. She told Emil and the neighbours that she had arranged for her to attend college in California, and later that year, in December of 1906, Jennie left to start her college life. She left quite abruptly as it turned out, unable to bid any of her friends farewell.
In June of 1907, almost a year after the initial communications with Andrew Helgelien, Belle had still not quite managed to convince him to move out to the farm. Though they continued to write, and belle continued to woo him with promises of traditional Norwegian feasts and LaPortean riches, he continued to postpone his move. Belle pressed on,
“We shall be so happy when you get here, then I will make a cream pudding and many other good things… How lonesome it must seem for you up there all alone, but you must hurry and come to me as soon as you can… You have been there long enough and worked hard for many a day and now you must take it easier for the rest of your days.”
June also saw Emil Greening quit his position as labourer and move out of the farm house. Belle employed Ray Lamphere in his place, a local whose family had at one time, held great sway in the local area. His father had been the schoolteacher, politician and justice of peace, but had turned to drink and eventually squandered away his position, reputation and money. Ray suffered a fair amount for his fathers misadventures, and though he was a skilled carpenter, he too had later fallen to drink and was fairly keen on going out at night getting hammered, gambling away any money he had and on a good night, spending his winnings on prostitutes. It wasn’t long after he moved in that he begun repeating a similar, albeit more lurid tale as the earlier Olaf. He spread rumour about town that he and Belle had become lovers and of how she would come to his room at night. This strange situation between labourer and farm owner lasted just until January, when at long last, Andrew Helgelien decided he would make his big move to LaPorte. Belle wrote to him explaining that he should keep the move a secret, in fact, she had insisted on this for some time, of how their correspondence and subsequent future relationship was to be a secret for just the two of them alone,
“When we get all settled we will have you dear sister Anna in Lebanon visit us, but my dear, do not say anything about coming here, then the surprise will be so much greater when she finds it out… It is so much pleasure to keep this secret to ourselves and to see how surprised everyone will be when they find out.”
She also insisted that he sell everything he can for cash and to sew it all into his underwear, repeating once again that it would really be best if he did not tell anyone where he was going. Unfortunately, Andrew took this advice to heart, but didn’t really think of a particularly clever cover story, telling his brother Asle that he was going away and that he would be back in one week.
When Andrew showed up at the farm on January 3rd, 1908, Belle quickly relegated Ray Lamphere to the barn in the yard, giving Andrew Helgelien his room and demanding that Ray not speak to Andrew. On the 6th, three days after his arrival, belle and Andrew went to the bank to cas his certificates of deposit from the South Dakota Bank. It took 5 days for the money to reach the bank, but it wasn’t until the 14th that the pair returned to collect them, as Andrew had fallen ill. The deposits totalled $2,839, around $75,000 today, of which Belle insisted they take in cash. Now their happy Homelife and fortuitous future could finally start. Or at least, that was the plan, but that night, Belle sent Ray Lamphere to Chicago to meet Belles cousin, John, a horse trader. If he didn’t show up, for whatever reason, Ray was to stay overnight in Chicago and meet him the next morning. Ray did as he was told and travelled to Chicago, but after John didn’t show, he decided that it was still early enough for him to return home and he really didn’t fancy staying out all night in Chicago. He arrived home at 9pm to find that Andrew Helgelien had, like so many before him, mysteriously left without explanation.
Back in South Dakota, Asle Helgelien, Andrews brother was starting to worry. Andrew had told him he’d be back in a week and now after 10 days he hadn’t returned nor sent any word. Suspicious that something might be wrong, he begun looking around his brothers cabin to see if he could find anything that might explain his absence. He soon came across a bundle of letters written to him over the past 18 months from Belle and he wasn’t overly keen on what he read in them.
Things back in LaPorte were beginning to get a touch stressful for Belle. Ray Lamphere was becoming more and more fo a pain and in February, she let him go, running him out of the farm house one night and when he came back to collect his belongings, she pointed a pistol at him, threatening him until he left. She then wrote a letter to the local law enforcement, Sheriff Smutzer, complaining that Ray was harassing her. She hired Joseph Maxson as Rays replacement, but even with the increased presence of another adult on the farm, Ray continued to bug Belle. In March she had him arrested fro trespassing. In court he pleaded guilty and paid Belle $1 in fines. Belle then filed an affidavit against him, alleging that he was insane, though a medical examination would later clear him. In the affidavit she wrote of how Ray turned up at the farm house almost every night, generally intoxicated and carried out various minor misdemeanours and harassment’s. Though the insanity allegation had not come off, in the interim she could at least continue having him arrested for trespassing, which she did twice more, until he was eventually lodged in the county jail.
In Mid-March, Asle Helgelien confirmed Belles address with the LaPorte postmaster and wrote her a letter concerning his brothers whereabouts. In her reply, Belle wrote to tell him that she wondered just the same,
“You wish to know where your brother keeps himself, well this is just what I would like to know but it almost seems impossible fo rme to give a definite answer.”
She wrote of how Andrew had gone off looking for his estranged, long lost brother, who had become addicted to gambling.
“He was going to make a thorough search for him in Chicago, and New York, he always thought he, the brother, had gone to Norway, and he would go after him. He was to look for his brother the next day and he said I shouldn’t write until I again heard from him. Since then I have neither heard or seen anything of him. Now this os all I can say about the matter. I have waited every day to hear something of him.”
If it sounded fanciful, to most, it was even more so to Asle. He wrote back asking for Belle to send him his brothers letter, so that he could read it in hi sown words, however, she told him that it had been stolen by a man named Lamphere.
Lamphere, as it happened was getting ready to stand trial for the long list of misdemeanours and harassment of Belle over the past months and on April 15th, he took to the dock. When Belle was called as witness, Lampheres attorney, Wirt Worden, wasted no time in taking Belle to task under his cross examination in an effort to undermine her credibility with the jury. Worden began asking her repeatedly about her past husbands deaths and of the question of who had prospered from the life insurance. He pressed Belle so hard, in fact, that the judge, red faced, slammed his gavel down and demanded that the solicitor quit brow-beating the “defenceless woman” at once. Lamphere was eventually found guilty and charged $5 and costs, totally $19.01. One might think that if the fines and jail time were not enough to deter Lamphere, then the sheer Hassle of the legal process might have been, but apparently, it was not, as less than a week later, Belle had him arrested once more for trespassing on her farm, prowling about in the Hog Pen.
That April, Belle received another letter from Asle. He wrote to tell her that he was coming to La Porte in order to see if he could track down his brother. Belle wrote back that she would be happy to assist him in any way she could.
With Lamphere arrested once more, Belle started to tell anyone that would listen that she feared for her life and that she was concerned that Lamphere was going to burn down her farmhouse. She disseminated the rumour throughout the town that he had been threatening her for some time now and she was nervous of what he might do. On Monday 27th April, she visited her solicitor and told him that she would like to ensure her last will and testament was in order, as she was fearful of Ray who had been threatening her life. She wanted to make sure everything was “in good shape, just in case anything happened” she told him. In her new will, she left all of her property to her children Myrtle, Lucy and Phillip. If one or more were deceased, then their share would be split among those left alive. If however, all three were dead, then her entire estate should be left to the Norwegian Childrens Home of Chicago. She left the solicitors, took the will to the bank where she placed it in her safe deposit box and made a cash deposit of $730.
After she left the bank, she went to the grocery store and bought some candy, cake and a toy train, telling the shop clerk that she wanted to give the children a treat. She also bought a large amount of groceries and two gallons of kerosene. After shopping, she went home, had dinner and retired with the children and Maxson to the parlour. By 8:30pm, Maxson went to bed as he felt unusually tired. As night fell on the Gunness farm, a quiet peace fell across the 48 acres.
Belle Gunness and the La Porte Murder Farm
The still night was broken abruptly in the Clifford household as Ella Clifford woke to prepare breakfast before her husband went off to work. It was gone 4am when she looked out of the window in the dusky sunrise when she noticed flames and billowing black smoke pouring from the gunness farm house. Ella immediately alerted her husband to the situation, along with her son and brother in law. All three men rushed over to the farm in time to see Joseph Maxson hacking into the front door with an axe. Maxson had awoke just in time to escape his bedroom minutes before the ceiling had fallen in, now he was trying to hack his way through the front door in order to rescue Belle and the children. The four men grabbed a ladder and propped it up against the side wall to see if they could check in the children bedrooms. Although they managed to catch a glimpse into the room, they could see no bodies. Mr Hutson, another neighbour arrived shortly after, half dressed. His description of the house when he got there, was a bleak picture for anyone left inside, with the entire building ablaze and the East wall ready to drop to the ground. With nothing left for them to try and do, the four men stepped back and watched the house burn ferociously until Maxsen rode off to alert Sheriff Smutzer. The pair returned at 5am, along with t he volunteer fire company, but it was all too late. The farm house had gone up with an intense speed and as the ceilings crashed in on themselves, there was nothing anyone could do but watch as the flames slowly destroyed the entire house and began to burn themselves out.
By daybreak, the main blaze had abated, though the rubble and ash that was left was still giving off a savage heat. The four men, along with a crowd of onlookers worked to pour water over the ashes to try and cool them down enough for them to be inspected. One of the first curiosities to be notes were the signs by the cellar door of a concentrated blaze which led the firemen present to believe that the fire had been man-made and more than likely an arson. The rumours immediately began flying through the crowd. Some whispers spoke of how Belle had started the fire by herself, but many who were aware of belles earlier concerns with Ray Lamphere instantly jumped to the conclusion that Lamphere was the primary suspect. One of the many who speculated on this line of thought was Sheriff Smutzer who had had to witness the ongoing feud between Belle and Lamphere first hand for the past several months. He assigned his two deputies to bring him into the station. By the afternoon the ruins of the house were an ugly scar on the large plot, with just three blackened walls left standing, scratched into the sky. The fire service soon saw fit to bring the walls down so that the search of the wreckage could begin proper, and so by evening, the house was entirely levelled. The same afternoon, an interesting piece showed up on the fire on the front page of the local papers.
“The home of Mrs Belle Gunness, Two miles North of this city, was burned to the ground last night. How the fire started is not known, but it I believed by many to have been of incendiary origin. Mrs Gunness and her three children cannot be found and as it is known that they were inmates of the house it is believed that they lost their lives in the fire. An attempt will be made during the day to clear away some of the remains.
Mrs Gunness is a widow, her husband having died several years ago under rather peculiar circumstances. Mrs Gunness at that time was suspected of having murdered her husband to secure his life insurance. Mr Gunness was struck on the head with a meat grinder and Mrs Gunness stated that the grinder had fallen, killing her husband, but it was rumoured that Mrs Gunness had done the deed herself. There was no legal action taken in the matter. Mrs Gunness has been having considerable trouble with a man by the name of Ray Lamphere, who was recently in her employ and was discharged. He persisted in returning to the place and annoying her. At one time he came after dark and stood outside the window swinging a club and a knife. She had peace bonds made out for him and charged him with insanity. A commission was appointed and Lamphere was adjudged perfectly sane. It is thought he may have gone back to the Gunness place with the idea of revenge and set fire to the house. The police are looking for him.”
The article was made up of no small amount of speculation, but curiously directly brought up Belles dead Husband Peter too. Aside from this wild speculation, the rush to print the story in the earliest afternoon edition led to the press missing out on two of the days larger stories. First of all, the police found Ray Lamphere, in fact, he hadn’t been hiding at all and was certainly not missing, as they picked him up from his usual workplace. Secondly was the discovery of the bodies of four people, in the South East corner of the ruins, bundled together. They were the three children bodies and that of an adult, presumably Belle and her three children. The next day, the press got to include these developments in all their grisly glory and many pieces wrote of how Belle Gunness had heroically attempted to save the children and when all failed, had laid herself over them in a futile attempt to protect them from the flames. Lamphere however, fared much worse and was dubbed “murderer” and “Maniac” in headlines sprawl across many front pages. The bodies were all “Blackened and dismembered” and the press, naturally, too kit upon itself to give the ugly details of each, including the remains of Belle, which “presented the most ghastly appearance.” Her body “An unrecognisable mass, with the bones protruding through the naked flesh.” The most grisly detail however, was the absence of any head on the remains of Belle, the skull presumed to have been “decapitated by the ruthless and torturing flames.” Some papers however, thought the lack of head presented a different scenario, that perhaps Belle had been murdered and the fire was simply cover in order to cover any evidence. Either way, there was one man who was clearly guilty for the crime and his name adorened every story written about the incident, Ray Lamphere. Meanwhile, Jennie, Belles teenage daughter who had been sent off to college in California was reportedly on her way home to help deal with the estate.
At the station, Sheriff Smutzer had not changed his mind after bringing Lamphere in the previous afternoon. When his two deputies caught up with him at work, his first words to them were asking if the three children and the woman had gotten out of the building. This, decided Smutzer was enough to confirm his guilt, though when questioned how he had known about t he fire, he explained that he had seen it whilst he was on his way to work. When the police asked him why he had not thought to alert the police, he shrugged and told them simply, “I didn’t think it was any of my business.” Smutzer had Lamphere removed to the county jail to await arraignment and whilst locked in his cell, they began to question him intensely. Under the pressure, Ray finally caved in and explained to the police why he had chosen not to inform anyone about the blaze. As it happened, he had two reasons, firstly, he admitted that he was concerned that he would be blamed for starting the blaze, but rather more importantly in terms of an alibis, he explained to the police officers that he had spent that night with a woman named Elizabeth Smith. Elizabeth had been the daughter of Virginia slaves and had moved to Indiana after the civil war. In her younger days, she had been quite a looker, but now, well into her seventies, she was well known in the local area and was suspected by many as being a witch. Those less superstitious just found her rough demeanour and ropey visage unpleasant and cast her out of the community. A great many were simply racist, as demonstrated by the fact she was known to the locals as “Nigger Liz”. There were, it seems a great many reasons that Ray Lamphere would have liked this information to be kept a secret and withhold it from the police, but now it served as something of an alibis. Unfortunately for Ray, Elizabeth, nor himself, had much sway over anyone in the community and as such, he was charged with murder and arson the very next day. He pleaded Not Guilty, and was taken back to his cell to await trial, without bail.
That evening the inquest took place and heard witness from the three neighbours who arrived at the property shortly after the blaze started and Joseph Maxson. Maxson testified that by the time he had gone to bed, the wood stove had been put out and that no kerosene lamps were ever left burning over night. The remainder of the inquest was a pretty straightforward affair. Sheriff Smutzer had his man as far as he was concerned and most of the press and legal officials seem to agree. The Post-Mortem report on Belle Gunness’s body confirmed that the head had been removed before death and all agreed that it had somehow managed to burn clean off in the fire. As the week drove to a close, several people descended onto the farm house ruins. Nellie, Belles sister arrived with her two adult children to take care fo the bodies and have them transferred to Chicago for burial. Mrs Olander arrived on Friday. A stranger to belle, she was Jennies blood-sister, and though they had never met after Jennies adoption, she had on occasion kept in contact with her long lost sister. She had not heard from Jennie since she had left for college in California and upon reading of the Gunness house fire in the newspaper, she wondered why Belle had decided not to leave any of her estate to Jennie in her will. Jennie of course, was reportedly still on her way, though reports were that she had gotten married and her honeymoon was holding up her arrival. Finally, Asle Helgelien was also due to arrive that weekend. He too had seen the story of the fire in the newspapers and had decided he needed to get out to La Porte if he had any hope of finding his brother, Andrew. The Gunness farm was about to be at the tip of a probing group that were set to uncover a rather different story surrounding Belle in a very public way.
On Sunday, May 3rd, most of the people on the farm had become disinterested and left. Their had been no new discoveries of Belles skull and no interesting debris found. The only people left sifting through the ashy rubble were Joseph Maxston and neighbour Daniel Huston. Asle Helgelien had arrived in La Porte that morning and visited Sherif Smutzer, who drove him ou two the Gunness farm. Looking over the ruin, he joined the two men in sifting through the remains in the vein hopes that he might find some clue as to his brothers whereabouts. They poured once again through the cellar, but found nothing. Asle eventually made to leave the farm, disheartened and unsure where to turn next. Though as he reached the boundary of the yard, a thought struck him nd he turned back to speak with Maxston once more. He asked him if he wa aware of any plots that had been dug on the ground recently. It wasn’t a particularly happy train of thought for Asle, but one that he needed to ask. Maxstonn thought for a minute before confirming that, yes, there had been. E had dug several pits in the Hog Pen recently for trash to be dumped and covered over. The three men walked over to the Hog Pen and begun digging. The air filled with the foul stench of rot and decay and Maxston explained that Belle had told him she had buried fish and tomato cans out there. Once there spades hit three feet down however, they uncovered far more than fish and tomato cans. The tip of Asles spade hit something soft and the rot in the air grew unbearable. Looking down into the pit, he saw a torn Gunny sack, filled with the petrifying remains of a human. The three men carefully excavated it and laid it out in the barn. The body was dismembered and in poor shape, but it was just recognisable to Asle as his lost brother, Andrew. Maxson left the men on the farm and rode to fetch the Sheriff along with the coroner Charles Mack. When they arrived, upon seeing the body, Smutzer asked Maxson if he knew of any other pits like the ones they had just dug through. With a grimace, he confirmed that yes, he thought it very possible he did. As the group begun digging around the plot, a veritable medley of Torsos, limbs, bones, gunny sacks and rotting items of clothing were soon uncovered. By the end of the afternoon, the men had uncovered what the coroner presumed to be the body of 2 men, 1 woman and 1 adolescent female. All four bodies were butchered and cut up into at least six pieces, though the coroner quickly confirmed that an exact cause of death could not initially be confirmed owing to the condition of the remains, they all appeared to have been brutally butchered before being buried. The three adult bodies were impossible to ID at first, but the adolescent woman had tufts of matted, blonde hair that gave her away to anyone that had known the Gunness family. It was the body of Jennie, Belles eldest daughter whom most believed to have been studying at college in California.
Upon the discovery of the bodies on the ruined farm, the story of Belle Gunness exploded. In international newspapers, headlines wrote of the Gunness Murder Garden, and all talk of Belle as a heroine, dying whilst attempting to save her children from the house fire was quickly swept aside, she was now the arch priestess of murder and mentioned in the same sentences alongside Jack the Ripper. Ray Lamphere was wheeled out of his cell for a press conference in which he was asked if he knew anything about Belle Gunness the murderer. “There were things I noticed,” he told them, “I guess they were more serious than I thought.” By the 6th, the remains of 9 bodies had been uncovered, along with more than a dozen pairs of mens shoes and various miscellaneous other bones. The yard was mapped out and probed concentrating first on softer areas that appeared to have been recently turned over. The press whipped themselves into a frenzy of wild speculation, writing fantastical stories of Belle Gunness the member of an organised crime gang and murde syndicate, shipping bodies across the US in trunks for disposal. Naturally it was all entirely baseless, but many of the stories alluded to one fact that did stick in the minds of many. It was very possible that Belle was still alive. If the head was missing, how did anyone know that the body in the house was that of Belles at all? The rumours spread like wildfire and the Mayor of La Porte, Lemuel Darrow was quick to react, telling the press,
“There is only one solution to the mystery, Mrs Gunness enticed all these people here for the purpose of getting their money and then murdered them. She carried on a correspondence with countrymen of hers when she knew they were single men or widowers with money and after making offers of marriage or other inducements, such as having a suitable farm for sale, she would request a visit. After she got her men to the farm, she would entertain them so hospitably that their visits were prolonged. When the time was opportune, she would administer some kind of poison, probably arsenic or chloroform, and when death resulted, take her time in dismembering them and burying the remains in the yard.”
It was every bit as lurid and exciting as they had hoped, and perhaps even mores than their wild stories of murder syndicates. Rumours and speculation prevailed that Belle may still be alive, much to the chagrin of Sheriff SMutzer, who was still trying to build a case against Ray Lamphere and if Belle was thought to have been alive, it would have crumbled like the blackened walls of the ruined farm. Rumours swelled of sightings throughout the USA, though there was so many in Chicago, that a paper, with tongue rather in cheek, pointed out that it might not be safe for any large Norwegian women to be about in the streets for some time, for fear of wrongful arrest. Psychologists chimed in, talking of her as a mother figure with a mad butcher as a split personality and of how she was an “emotionally dead woman”, whilst estimates were made on the amount of money she had made from the victims, with the conservative known total being around $46,900, $1.2 Million today.
The Post mortem examination on Andrew Helgeliens remains revealed that the mayor had been remarkably close in his estimations when he told the press his story of Belle Gunness. Grains of Strychnine, a poison often used in pest control for its strong effects, were found in the stomachs remains. From the bodies injuries, it appeared that Belles usual MO was to poison her victims food, club their heads and drag them down to the cellar, where she would then proceed to decapitate and dismember them before tossing them into gunny sacks, and burying them in the garden covered in quick lime.
The whole thing was almost too exciting to bear for residents all across the United States, who now flocked into La Porte to get a look at the Murder Farm for themselves. On the following weekend, all of La Porte hotels were fully booked, with many setting up makeshift beds in the hallways for reduced rates. Special trains were put on by the rail company to ship people out to the farm and many papers estimated a crown for the Sunday to be around 10,000 people. They were wrong, however, as the actual total was thought to be between 16,000 and 20,000. Papers spoke of the day as having all the atmosphere of a country fair or political rally, with vendors selling food and drink, picnickers laying out blankets alongside decaying pits of filth and a vendor selling “pink ice cream and cake”. Photocards of the bodies were sold for souvenirs. The newspaper report on the next day naturally sought to moralise the congregation, whilst at the same time printing wild speculation on the identity of the adult female body in the cellar. It was now being widely reported that she had stolen the body from a local cemetery in order to fake her death and whilst it had no basis in fact, it mattered little to an unscrupulous press that routinely faked stories. The same article printed an illustration with Belle Gunness’s head pasted onto a spiders body, sitting on a web that held photos of all her confirmed victims.
Somewhat amazingly, the police set to work the following Monday, 11th May in order to continue their search of the property. Even more amazingly, the entire place had not been stripped clean by looters and scavengers the day before and found 8 mens watches, and remnants of a book on anatomy in the cellar wreckage, but still no skull. The skull of Bella had become rather a sticking point for Sheriff Smutzer as his entire case on Ray Lamphere was pivoting on him murdering Belle. To this end, he employed the services of Louis Schultz, a veteran gold prospector to sift through the wreckage to see if he could find anything of the skull, or as had recently come to light when Smutzer had spoken to Belles dentist, any sign of Belles false teeth. Smutzer, under advisory of the dentist, was led to believe that if Belles head had perished in the flames, it was more than probable that her denture, which had been made of porcelain would have likely survived. If they could find the denture, they could, he decided, prove that the body in the cellar was that of Belle. On the opposing side, Rays attorney Wirt Worden was not shy about his own theories and he issued a statement to the press to counter the stories against Lamphere that were being printed daily.
“There are two reasonable theories as to the cause and origin of the fire, one is that Mrs Gunness – thinking that Lamphere may have discovered things that would incriminate her, and knowing further that Asle Helgelien was coming to make an investigation – sought to cover up all evidence of her crimes and escape with her own life, if possible, and that she, in carrying this out, murdered the three children, placed them on the cellar floor with he adult corpse found, and fired the building and escaped. The other theory is that Mrs Gunness, foreseeing the culminating of events upon the arrival of Helgelien, decided to end her own life and at the same time cover up all evidence of prior crimes and to do so, killed her own children, fired the house, and committed suicide. In either event, Lamphere, as I firmly believe, is innocent of any crime. He is simply a victim of circumstance.”
On Tuesday the 19th May, Louis Schultz came up with the goods. He found Belles denture on the property whilst sifting through the ash and if that wasn’t all, they were still hooked onto two surviving natural teeth. It was, as far as Smutzer was concerned, enough to land Lamphere in jail for good. As Schultz packed up his equipment and the excavations drew to a close, the total body count was sitting at 14 victims, though it was as the press were quick to point out, 14 bodies that were found. “If 14, why not 20 and if 20, why not 40?” Speculated one newspaper.
The Trial of Ray Lamphere
The trial of Ray Lamphere began on Monday November 9th 1908. On the eve of the opening day, Ray had spoken to the press, declaring his innocence firmly,
“They can twist and turn the evidence all they like, but if they prove that I set fire tot the house, they will have to do it by false testimony. I have lived a pretty loose life, maybe, and possibly I drank too much at times. But there are others who have done as bad as me who are walking the streets of La Porte today. I know nothing about the house of crime, as they call it. Sure, I worked for Mrs Gunness for a time, but I didn’t see her kill anybody, and I didn’t know she had killed anybody.”
In the opening statements, the prosecution stated that they had solid evidence that the body in the ruins was that of Belle Gunness, namely her denture and a set of rings found on one of the charred hands, and that they could prove without doubt that Ray Lamphere was the man who had set the house alight. The first witness to be called was the coroner and Wirt Worden wasted no time in going to town on the prosecutors witnesses in his cross examination. By the time the Coroner had left the stand, Worden had had him admit that he had not been present when the bodies were found, that he couldn’t state if the arms were attached or not, that he didn’t weigh the body of the adult woman, that he didn’t know at first that there was even a question as to the identity of the body, that he couldn’t say if there had been vertebrae missing, didn’t examine the spine with any care at all, that he couldn’t tell if the legs had been cut off or burnt off, that he didn’t know if the head had also been burnt off or cut off and that he couldn’t positively state that the jaw bone reportedly found was even that of a human. In fact, he admitted with a distinct lack of patience in his voice, that he was not even sure that it was a bone at all.
The afternoon saw the tree autopsists who conducted post mortems on the bodies take to the stand where more damning evidence for the prosecution name to light. They stated that the height of the adult woman had been around 5’4”, a fun 6” shorter than Belle herself and that the remains weighted a mere 73 Lbs. Even taking into account the shrinkage which would have happened as the flesh cooked in the flames, it was highly doubtful that it could have shed at minimum 150 Lbs.
The second day proved to be a little more promising for the prosecution, when they called Belles dentist to the stand, who confirmed that the denture was that of his own making, for Belle. He also confirmed that the two natural teeth still. Attached to the denture could not have been pulled out with their crowns still attached and confirmed to the court that in his professional opinion, the teeth had been “severed from the mouth of Mrs Gunness through burning.” The final witness called was Sheriff Smutzer and he gave the court a dramatic retelling of the lengthy saga and ugly history of Belle Gunness and Ray Lamphere. It was a damning statement and seriously undermined Lampheres character to the jury. Next came the turn of the defence and Worden in his opening statement told the court that he firmly believed that Belle had plotted the entire house fire, subbed in a body and escaped still alive. His entire case rested on the fact that Ray Lamphere had nothing to do with the fire, he was simply a victim of circumstance. The defence first called neighbour John Anderson who gave testimony that in the days leading up to the fire, he had seen a “large woman” on the farm that he had never seen before, nor since, in the company of Belle. Next came Joseph Maxson who told the court that he had been standing next to Louis Schultz at the time he had professed to find the denture, however, he stated now that he saw Schultz pull them from his vest pocket rather than out of the pile of filtered ash. It was a curious statement and one which could and probably should have been followed up by recalling Schultz, however, the prospector had left town after the first day of the trial and no one was able to track him down.
Finally came the turn of Wordens key witness. Walter Stanley Haines was a leading toxicologist and had received the stomachs of the bodies found in the ruins of the ouse in order to test them for poison. He had, he said found an abundance of arsenic and strychnine in the stomachs, suggesting that Belle had killed all 4 victims. If this was true, it would have made a strong case against the body being Belle, given that her head still needed to be removed by someone. The problem with Haines testimony however, was the discovery of how he had came about his results. It turned out that by the time the stomachs reached him, they were in such a poor state of purification that he had, wait for it… mixed them all together into some unholy mush and then tested them for poison. Given that the remains were all mixed together his testimony was essentially useless as no one could say for certain wether the poison had been inside one, two or all of the stomachs. It was a blow for Worden, but he still believed Lamphere had a strong case and so felt hopeful at the end of the day when the jury were sent out to make their deliberations. The wait was a long one and they were out for a full 5 hours before being sent home for the night at 10:45pm without coming to a verdict. The next morning they returned and it took them once again a full day before they returned to the court to deliver the verdict to the judge. Curiously, Ray Lamphere was found guilty of Arson, but not of Murder. He was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence between 2 and 21 years and given a $5,000 fine. That evening he was interviewed in his cell,
“It could have been worse, I don’t have any particular complaint. The evidence was pretty strong against me, so I’m willing to take my medicine. Sure, I was hoping for an acquittal, but my conscience is clear and that helps some.”
Write Worden, Rays attorney was somewhat less apathetic about the ordeal and he slammed the verdict as ridiculous and vowed to fight an appeal for the case. The problem was, Ray had no money for an appeal and so, the case against him fell quiet and Ray got on with serving his time, with the hope that he would be out in just a couple of years. It wasn’t to be though, and on the night of 3 December, 1909, Ray died in prison aged 38.
Worden lived for another 34 years and for all of them he maintained Lamphere was innocent and Belle had escaped with her life after faking her death in the fire.
Following Rays death in prison, there were several false reports of death bed confessions made by Ray. Some stated that he had told people that he knew Belle to be alive, whilst others told of how he had seen her murder Andrew Helgelien, but none were ever proven to be true. In 2008, the body that was thought to be Belle was exhumed and tested for DNA evidence, though the results were inconclusive. No skull was ever found and though several reports cropped up over the years of various people who were thought to be Belle, no evidence exists to prove she was ever found. In the end, as always, we are left with a mystery. Belle Gunness was undoubtedly a murderer and butcher, but had she died in the fire, or escaped with her life? Had she staged the whole thing to escape the closing web around her as her crimes threatened to catch up with her, or had she committed suicide in the same desperation? Or had, as Sheriff Smutzer decided long ago, she simply been immolated in a fire lit by Ray Lamphere? Whilst much of the evidence seems to point to the body being not that of Belle, how can one explain the teeth still attached the denture, or even the denture at all? One dentist confirmed it should have survived the fire, whilst another was adamant it should not have and regardless, where did the teeth come from, if not from Belle? Or had it all been planted by Smutzer and Schultz? It seems fairly unlikely that the head had simply burnt off, but where then did it end up, as it was never found. One grisly thought is that Belle had taken it with her as she alighted, perhaps stashing in a gunny bag in her luggage until she was far enough away to dump it somewhere it would simply never be found. Upon hearing the story of Belle Gunness, the butcher of men, it’s a theory that isn’t out of place with the grim murders and brutal dismembering she certainly proved she was capable of.