Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness


Throughout May, the digging continued and some of the above missing persons were, as suspected, discovered under the soil at the Gunness farm. Among them were Budsberg, Gurholt and Emil Palm's anonymous lad. As with the other victims, heads were detached and the bodies were severed at several joints. These latest revelations were found in a pile of soft earth that also contained a woman's shoes, a purse frame and a truss, probably belonging to the unidentified female corpse discovered earlier. And deep down, under the others, was a skeleton of a young boy whose wisdom teeth had just begun to grow before he was killed.

Speculation turned to the deaths of Belle's two husbands, Mads Sorenson in Chicago, who died of unknown causes, and Peter Gunness, crushed accidentally by a tumbled sausage grinder. Of the former, a doctor named J.B. Miller from Chicago now came forth to admit that Mads showed all the signs of strychnine poisoning. However, Miller's superior did not want to cause the widow needless pain — for she was a basket case — and, since he had been treating his patient for a heart disease anyway, indicated the cause of death as "enlargement of the heart" and signed the death certificate.

But, Dr. Miller remained unconvinced these eight years. Mads succumbed on the one day, according to de la Torres, "when two insurance policies, overlapping, made his death worth twice as much as it would have been worth on any other day. Belle had wept her way out of an autopsy."

There had been an inquest a year later when Peter Gunness died. The law questioned the suspicious nature of the death; it bore all marks of mischief. There was, after all, no reasonable explanation as to how that meat grinder could have fallen. Throughout the hearing, Belle wailed and wrung her hands. A martyr evermore. The sheriff wasn't satisfied, nor was the coroner who even went as far as to question young Jennie about her foster parent's relationship with each other, hinting murder. Briefly surfacing were allusions to the death of Peter's child while in Belle's care, again suggesting foul play. But, in the end, the verdict was accidental death.

"Mrs. Gunness was cool at the funeral...During the preaching she sat moaning with her fingers before her eyes," to quote Lillian de la Torre. Townsman Albert Nicholson, however, could see that she was "peeking alertly between them to check the effect she was making. That made him certain of her guilt.

"Even little Myrtle had known it. Only a week before the fire she had whispered in the ear of a small schoolmate, 'My mamma killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul.' Her chum obeyed her admonition to secrecy until Myrtle was ashes."

But now, in May, 1908, Belle Gunness' secrets were exploding out like pyrotechnics at a Fourth of July celebration. All the world waited and watched, and prayed. They waited to see if the diggers would ever find Belle's head, watched for headlines that read BELLE GUNNESS ESCAPED BLAZE, and prayed to hear that Good doth triumph in the end over Evil with the arrest and punishment of the Black Widow of Indiana.

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