After the corpses of three children and a headless woman were found burned in a 1908 fire at Gunness’ farmhouse near La Porte, Indiana, bodies started turning up in the woods and around the grounds. And experts still aren’t sure what happened to her.
In 2008, forensic anthropologists dug up four old graves in an attempt to solve a century-old mystery: What ever happened to Belle Gunness? She was the most deadly black widow of them all, even though she was not the kind of woman who springs to mind when you hear the words “femme fatale.”
Belle was about 280 pounds and so muscular some said she really was a man. She had false teeth, and the burden of three children from two late husbands. Unlikely as it all sounds, Gunness still managed to lure men — to her farm, to her arms and to their deaths.
She has been listed among the most prolific murderers in the Guinness Book of World Records. Estimates put the number of her victims around 40, while others speculate as many as 180. There is no way to know for sure.
What is known is that love-blind bachelors had been dancing to the Widow Gunness for years when fire put an end to her spree.
In the early hours of April 28, 1908, her farmhouse near La Porte, Ind., burned to the ground. Searchers later found a burnt piano that had fallen through the floor into the basement. Underneath, were four charred corpses: three children and a headless woman. Everyone immediately assumed they were the remains of the Gunness family. There were also strong suspicions about who set the blaze — Ray Lamphere, a lover scorned.
A half-day before the fire, Gunness had visited a lawyer in La Porte to draft a will. “I want to prepare for an eventuality,” she told him. “I’m afraid that fool Lamphere is going to kill me and burn my house.”
After making a few purchases — toys, cream puffs and a five-gallon can of kerosene — she headed back to the farm. When Lamphere was picked up after the fire, he made some odd comments.
“After all, she wanted me killed because I knew too much,” he told police. They charged him with arson and murder.
That might have been the end of the story, had it not been for a visit to the sheriff from Asle Helgelien of South Dakota. Helgelien had read about the fire and came east in search of his brother, Andrew.
Four months earlier, Andrew answered this ad in a Scandinavian newspaper: “Wanted — a woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in the same.” Gunness sent back racy letters, saying she would be his if he’d help her pay off the farm’s mortgage. “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew. I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.”
With $3,000 in his pocket, Andrew set off for La Porte and was never heard from again. When Asle later contacted his brother’s lonely-hearts bride, she said he had gone to Norway.
Asle told Indiana police that he feared Andrew had been murdered and Gunness had set the fire to cover up her crime. Police thought the charge ridiculous, until human bones and body parts, hacked into pieces, started turning up in the hog pen and around the grounds. The remains of the missing brother were there, as were those of Jennie Olsen, a foster child who, Gunness told neighbors, had gone “to California.”
As the tale of the “Murder Farm” fanned across the country, investigators were joined by thousands of the curious and the hopeful — friends and families of people who had vanished.
There were so many bones that it became clear this unholy business had stretched on for many years, perhaps back to the odd death of Belle’s first husband, Mads Sorenson. She had married him shortly after she moved to America from her home in Norway around 1883. In 1900, Sorenson dropped dead. Poison was the attending physician’s first thought, but Belle shrieked piteously at the idea of an autopsy and he quickly dropped the subject.
Peter Gunness, Belle’s second husband, also died under peculiar circumstances. A week before Christmas, 1902, he was found dead, his skull smashed. The grieving widow said a meat grinder had accidentally tumbled off a high shelf, smack onto his head. After that, Belle stayed pretty much to herself, except for the stream of strange men who checked in and never checked out. The burnt corpse of the adult female bore some resemblance to Indiana’s Lady Bluebeard, but there was a grain of doubt. Lamphere, convicted of arson, later said that he had set the fire, and that she had gotten away. The body that had been found, he said, was that of a woman who had come to the farm as a housekeeper. He also said Belle had stolen about a quarter of a million dollars (more than $6 million today) from her victims.
Belle Gunness sightings continued for decades, the last in 1931, with the death of a woman who had been accused of poisoning an old man for money. Still, people could not let her go. She lived on, in writings by Damon Runyon, plays, books, movies, heavy metal songs, and even a beer that was named for her. Nagging questions about the case lingered into the era of forensic genetics, raising the hope that DNA might give a positive ID of the headless corpse.
But, unlike other cold cases that have revealed their secrets to modern science, technology proved no match for Belle Gunness. The analysis was inconclusive.
Source: NY Daily News