Belle Sorenson Gunness (born as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth; November 11, 1859 – declared dead April 28, 1908) was a Norwegian-American serial killer.
Standing six feet tall (183 cm) and weighing over 200 pounds (91 kg), she was a physically strong woman. She killed most of her suitors and boyfriends, and her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. She may also have killed both of her husbands and all of their children. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance, cash and other valuables, and eliminating witnesses. Reports estimate that she killed between 25 and 40 people over several decades.
Gunness’ origins are a matter of some debate. Most of her biographers state that she was born on November 11, 1859, near the lake of Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway, and christened Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. Her parents were Paul Pedersen Størset (a stonemason) and Berit Olsdatter. She was the youngest of their eight children. They lived at Størsetgjerdet, a very small cotter’s farm in Innbygda, 60 km southeast of Trondheim, the largest city in central Norway (Trøndelag).
An Irish TV documentary by Anne Berit Vestby aired on September 4, 2006, tells a common, but unverified, story about Gunness’ early life. The story holds that, in 1877, Gunness attended a country dance while pregnant. There she was attacked by a man who kicked her in the abdomen, causing her to miscarry the child. The man, who came from a rich family, was never prosecuted by the Norwegian authorities. According to people who knew her, her personality changed markedly. The man who attacked her died shortly afterwards. His cause of death was said to be stomach cancer. Having grown up in poverty, Gunness took service the next year on a large, wealthy farm and served there for three years in order to pay for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
Following the example of a sister, Nellie Larson, who had emigrated to America earlier, Gunness moved to the United States in 1881 and assumed a more American-style name. Initially, she worked as a servant.
In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, Illinois, where, two years later, they opened a confectionery store. The business was not successful; within a year the shop mysteriously burned down. They collected insurance, which paid for another home.
Though some researchers assert that the Sorenson union produced no offspring, other investigators report that the couple had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy, allegedly of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis — nausea, fever, diarrhea, and lower abdominal pain and cramping — are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. Both Caroline’s and Axel’s lives were reportedly insured, and the insurance company paid out. An article in The New York Times (May 7, 1908) states that two children belonging to Gunness and her husband, Mads Sorensen, were interred in her plot in Forest Home cemetery. On June 13, 1900, Gunness and her family were counted on the United States Census in Chicago. The census recorded her as the mother of four children, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A., 3; and Lucy B., 1. An adopted 10-year-old girl, identified possibly as Morgan Couch but apparently later known as Jennie Olsen, also was counted in the household.
Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, reportedly the only day on which two life insurance policies on him overlapped. The first doctor to see him thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorensons’ family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart, and he concluded that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was considered unnecessary because the death was not thought suspicious. Gunness told the doctor that she had given her late husband medicinal “powders” to help him feel better.
She applied for the insurance money the day after her husband’s funeral. Sorenson’s relatives claimed that Gunness had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance. Surviving records suggest that an inquest was ordered. It is unclear, however, whether that investigation actually occurred or Sorenson’s body was ever exhumed to check for arsenic, as his relatives demanded. The insurance companies awarded her $8,500 (about $240,000 in 2012 dollars), with which she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana.
Suspicions of murder
In 1901, Gunness purchased a house on McClung Road in LaPorte, Indiana. It has been reported that both the boat and carriage houses burned to the ground shortly after she acquired the property.
As she was preparing to move from Chicago to LaPorte, she became re-acquainted with a recent widower, Peter Gunness, also Norwegian-born. They were married in LaPorte on April 1, 1902; just one week after the ceremony, Peter’s infant daughter died (of uncertain causes) while alone in the house with Belle. In December 1902, Peter himself met with a “tragic accident.” According to Belle, he was reaching for his slippers next to the kitchen stove when he was scalded with brine. She later declared that, in fact, part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, causing a fatal head injury. A year later, Peter’s brother, Gust, took Peter’s older daughter, Swanhild, to Wisconsin. She is the only child to have survived living with Belle.
Her husband’s death netted Gunness another $3,000 (some sources say $4,000; value of about $65,200 and $87,500 in 2012, respectively). Local people refused to believe that her husband could be so clumsy; he had run a hog farm on the property and was known to be an experienced butcher; the district coroner reviewed the case and unequivocally announced that he had been murdered. He convened a coroner’s jury to look into the matter.
Gunness successfully convinced the investigators that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. At the time, Gunness did not mention that she was pregnant, despite the possibility that it might have inspired sympathy, and in May 1903 Gunness gave birth to son Phillip. In late 1906 Belle told neighbors that her foster daughter, Jennie Olsen, had gone away to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles (some neighbors were informed that it was a finishing school for young ladies). In fact, Jennie’s body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother’s property.
Between 1903 and 1906 Belle continued to run her farm. In 1907 Gunness employed a single farm hand, Ray Lamphere, to help with chores.
Around the same time, Gunness inserted the following advertisement in the matrimonial columns of all the Chicago daily newspapers and those of other large midwestern cities to attract her victims:
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, to whom Gunness introduced him 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, while sleeping in the guest room, Anderson awoke startled to see Belle standing over him, peering into his eyes and holding a candle in her hand. He later stated that the expression on her face was so sinister and murderous, that he let out a loud yell and she immediately ran from the room without uttering a single word. Left feeling terrified and uncomfortable, Anderson somehow knew of Gunness’s intentions to murder him. He quickly jumped out of bed and threw on his clothes. He fled the house without saying goodbye, and as he ran away, he kept looking over his shoulder the entire time, fearing Gunness would come chasing after him. When he finally made it to La Porte still in one piece, he got on the first train headed to Missouri. He never returned for his belongings, nor did he ever speak to Gunness again.
The suitors kept coming, but none, except for the lucky 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, keeping mostly to herself; farmers traveling past the dwelling at night saw her digging with a shovel 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 of 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 arrived 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 rushed 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 her farm hand, 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 County 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 around 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 Gunness’ 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 her. 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;
- 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; (note name could also have been spelled “George Berry”)
- 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 Valparaiso 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 La Porte’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 2012 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 Gunness’ fate
Gunness was, for several decades, allegedly seen or sighted in cities and towns throughout the United States. A local delivery boy who had brought some groceries to the home of Elizabeth Smith, Gunness’ closest friend in La Porte, three days after the fire at her farm, later said he saw Belle standing in Smith’s kitchen. Terrified, however, he didn’t tell anyone for years, and his story was never verified. 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 February 9, 1931 for his money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs of three unknown children in Carlson possession, but the identification was never proved. Carlson died May 6, 1931 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.