Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

New Chapter - The Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness

Among those deaths in which the mental state would likely play a key role in determining its manner is the apparent demise of Belle Sorensen Gunness, a Norwegian-American farmer.  Her fate was the central factor of a sensational trial during the early 1900s, and while some were satisfied that she was murdered, others believed she had killed herself, while still others thought shed faked her death and escaped with a lot of money.  Who she was in life provides the best measure to resolve the ambiguity surrounding just how and when she died.

Mistress of Murder Hill
Mistress of Murder Hill
The best source for information about the case is Sylvia Shepherds book, Mistress of Murder Hill, but most books on serial killers also carry an account, as does the LaPorte County Historical Museum in Indiana.

On April 28, 1908, an early morning fire raged through Belles home.  All efforts to rescue the inhabitants were stymied and once the house burned down, four bodies were found in the ashes: an adult female and three children, two girls and a boy.

At first, people believed that the adult was Belle, although the figure appeared to be much too small...and she was missing her head.

Ray Lamphere
Ray Lamphere
The prime suspect in this apparent arson was a former hired hand named Ray Lamphere, who had worked for Belle about a year and who continued to have issues with her.   He was even seen near her farm that morning, and he admitted he saw the fire, but said he had not felt compelled to warn anyone.  Lamphere was arrested and detained. 

Andrew Helgelein
Andrew Helgelein
Early in May, investigators began to search the property for the possible remains of Andrew Helgelein, who had been missing for three months.   Belle had written many manipulative letters imploring him to sell everything and come to her, and when he went to visit, his family had not seen him again.  The authorities began to dig in a soft spot in the yard and before long they turned up a gunny sack containing his dismembered body.  His legs had been expertly sawed off above the knees, his arms disarticulated, his head removed, and all of his parts shoved into the hole with his torso.  Grasped in his hand was some curly brown hair. 

Another soft spot nearby was examined, and that one yielded the skeletal remains of a young girl.  Looking further, diggers found the decayed remains of a man and two children.  This discovery prompted more exploration and before it was all over some twelve to thirteen sets of remains had been removed from the ground, with the suspicion that there might yet be more.  (The exact number is a matter of debate, since some accounts indicate that little was done to ensure that discovered parts actually belonged to specific victims.)  The majority of the remains were male, but one set was of an adult woman who was never identified.

Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness' history was re-examined and reporters wrote about the sudden inexplicable death in 1900 of her first husband, Mads Sorensen, who had been well-insured for $8,500.  Two of her adopted children had died a few years earlier from conditions that might well have been due to poison, and several of her insured establishments had burned down.  Belle traded her home in Austin, Illinois, for a farm in LaPorte, Indiana, and soon married Peter Gunness, who died eight months later when, as Belle reported, a meat grinder and jar of scalding water fell on his head (although no burns were present on the body and the blow to his head did not quite fit the supposed weapon).

Belle then placed matrimonial ads in various papers to lure men without family ties and with moneymany of whom disappeared.   That is, until they were found buried on her farm.

Lamphere seemed surprised about the bodies and mentioned that Belle had asked him to purchase poison and chloroform for her, but later reports indicate that he certainly knew what Belle was doing and might even have assisted her.  The real mystery was whether he had actually murdered her.  He denied it, but his conflicting accounts over the next year and a half made him a less than reliable source of information.

Strangely, the debates over Belles fate aligned according to political affiliations, with Republicans believing that Belle was dead and Democrats insisting that she had faked her death and gotten away.  The corpse in the burned building, they said, was likely a woman she had hired as a housekeeper.  In the ruins were found a partially burned book about anatomy and one on hypnosis.  When poison was found in the bodies, the Democrats considered this proof for their sidebut that, too, was contested.  The toxicologist who tested the remains had received three stomachs mixed together in one jar, after arsenic had been applied as part of a preservative process during autopsy.

A key discovery, three weeks after the fire, was the upper and lower dental bridge, identified as Belles, allegedly found in the ashes.  It had some teeth attached.  Although the coroner now declared Belle to be dead, even then there was debate, since the bridge showed none of the effects from the fire that other metals had.  Some people believed it had been planted there to close the case.  Then a jawbone was found, but so was a skull in a vault that was missing its jawbone.  The Democrats accused the Republicans of false evidence.

On May 23, 1908, Lamphere was indicted on four counts of murder and one count of arson.   He went to trial on November 9after the elections.  The law partnership of H. W. Worden and Lemuel Darrow took on his defense. 

Prosecutor Ralph Smith had intended to charge Lamphere with the murder of Andrew Helgelein but then changed his mind.  Instead, he decided to use the legal forum to get closure about Belles fate.  If the jury convicted Lamphere of her murder, then she would be definitively identified and declared dead.  In support, the prosecution had the coroners declaration of Belles demise and a documented history of trouble between Belle and Lamphere.  They also had Lampheres statement that he had seen the fire, and they had what they believed were Belles bridgework, jawbone and a set of rings identified as hers.  For motive, they said that Lamphere and Belle had a falling out over money that she was supposed to pay him for assisting her with the murder and disposal of Helgelein.  In addition, he was jealous of Belles attention to Helgelein.

The defense stood by the idea that Belle was alive.  They even prepared a subpoena for her.  They had witnesses that could counter anything that the prosecution offered as proof, as well as experts that could demonstrate their own theories.

Smith put more than three dozen witnesses on the stand to prove his case.    From those who had discovered the fire and seen the bodies to those who had helped excavate the grounds to those who knew Belle, he indicated that while she was indeed a dastardly sort of criminal, in this case she was nevertheless a victim. 

The real drama of the trial came from the defense.  Worden was a strong opponent and used witnesses effectively to open up holes in the prosecutions case.  They included key items such as the fact that the coroner had not made a complete examination of the burned bodies, the witness who had supposedly found the dental bridge in the ashes could not be located, the bridgework could not have gone through a fire so hot as to incinerate a complete head, and several witnesses claimed to have seen Belle near the farm in July (three months after the fire).  In addition, the female corpse was much smaller than Belle had been (even accounting for shrinkage from the heat), and a motive for Belle committing suicide was never substantiated.  Also, the funds she reportedly got from her victims were nowhere to be found.

Worden supplied a motive for Belle to suddenly clear out.  He believed that she had been under pressure because she had heard from Helgeleins brother that he was coming to make inquiries about Andrew.  On the afternoon before the murder, Belle bought a large quantity of kerosene, and the container for it was found in the basement, not where she usually kept it.  Also, the same method she used to kill Helgelein (strychnine) had been in evidence in at least three of the bodies burned in the fire.

Lamphere had claimed throughout his imprisonment that Belle was not only still alive, but that she had burned down the house, faked her death, and left.  He'd even driven her to the railroad station.  The defense showed that not only did she have a clear motive, but she also had a criminal pattern and a character sufficiently devious to do this deed.   On the evening before the fire, the current handyman said that everything had seemed routine.  There was no indication that Belle was morose or suicidal.

On November 26, on Thanksgiving evening, the jury brought back a verdict of guilty of arson.  They did not think the prosecution had clearly proven a case of murder.

Lamphere was fined $5,000 and given a term of 2 to 21 years in prison.  There he revealed more conflicting stories, from actually being involved with the fire to knowing about many more of Belles victims and her enormous enrichment from their goods.  Yet he also made a statement that he felt certain the body in the fire was hers.

Just over a year after he was sentenced, Lamphere died in prison of tuberculosis.

Belle was allegedly sighted numerous times around the country by people who knew her, but always managed to slip away.  Then in 1931 in Los Angeles, an elderly woman named Esther Carlson was charged with killing a man for money.  Before her trial commenced, she died, and two people who had known Belle recognized her from a photo in the newspaper.  Some accounts indicate that the police found a trunk in a room where the deceased woman had been staying and it contained photos of three children who resembled Belles.   Yet no one proved that Esther Carlson was Belle.

Nothing about Belles actual death was conclusively resolved.   She may have been murdered, she may have killed herself, or she may have died much later of natural causes. 

This is a good case for a psychological autopsy, because the person that Belle was is the best indicator, as the defense team pointed out, of what she might have done.

Since Lamphere had an alibi witness for the time when some neighbors had already spotted the fire burning, it seems unlikely that he started it.  Yet it seems equally unlikely that, given his troubles with Belle and her complaints to authorities about him, she would have asked for his help in her escape.  Still, since they were lovers at one point, she may have intimated certain things to him that led him to draw such conclusions about her escape plan.  Lamphere himself was probably destined to become one of her victims, and the only thing that saved him was his decision not to insure himself.

In addition, the pastor to whom Lamphere had supposedly told the truth revealed that he had in fact gotten at least four different versions, and nothing he offered could be viewed as clearly what happened.

But what kind of person was Belle?  Therein lies the best means, at least, of deciding whether or not she may have committed suicide.

From the letters she wrote to the men who became her victims, she was clearly manipulative and clever.  Though she intended only to kill them and take their money, she managed to pen lengthy and flowery expression of eternal love and devotion.  She was also strong enough to kill and dismember them, and she did not hesitate to kill children, either, if it benefited her.  Its likely that she killed her first two by poison and that she killed two husbandsone of them by a blow to the head.  She also killed a girl in her care, and then told people the girl had gone to school in California.

So Belle was a gifted liar.

Even so, many people described her as kindly and a good mother.   That meant she managed to put on a believable façade.    

Since she clearly had collected a great deal of money by luring and killing menand some of these transactions were recorded by banks in the area---then the fact that the money was gone is good support for Belles escape.  So is the fact that a woman estimated to have weighed perhaps 200 pounds could not have been the corpse of some seventy pounds found headless in the cellar of the burned house.  No one ever explained the presence or made the identity of the woman seen with Belle the night before the fire.

In those days, people did not know much about the condition now called psychopathy, and in particular did not associate it with womenespecially mothers.  But there were some examples of female criminals, and as Belles portrait unfolds, she clearly does fit the profile of a female psychopath: deceptive, charming, manipulative, self-centered, having shallow affect, going through serial relationships, unable to bond deeply with others, and lacking in empathy or remorse.  She was also quite likely to repeat her crimes.

She does not seem the suicidal type, and there is no evidence from any witness to support this as her end.

While she may have been murdered, Sylvia Shepherd doubts that Belles survival instincts would have been so dim that night as to allow Lamphere to sneak around her home and chloroform them all before setting the fire.  They were found together in a pile, so someone arranged them that way.  Lamphere never offered an account in his diverse ramblings that fit those facts.

Even if Esther Carlson was not Belle Gunness, it seems most likely that Belle did plot the deaths of the unknown woman and her own children to escape detection by Helgeleins brother.  She then went off somewhere to start a new lifewhich probably involved killing again for money.

Given the psychological clues, coupled with significant issues with the physical evidence offered at trial, the most likely scenario for the death of Belle Gunness is that she eventually died somewhere other than in the LaPorte, Indiana fire.

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