Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Narrow Escapes

As the trial drew near, La Porte evermore became a center of busy activity such as it had never been before. On May 29, an auction took place on the Gunness property to sell off those effects which survived the fire, including Belle's Collie dog which had been outside during the blaze. "Souvenir buyers bid up everything to many times its value," author Lillian de la Torre attests. "A shovel worth 60 cents brought $2.10 — who knows it might have buried Andrew (Helgelein)... A single entrepreneur bought the dog, the pony and cart, even the barn cat and her kittens. Then this backwoods Barnum hired Belle's last farmhand, Joe Maxson, and C.C. Fish, Lamphere's private eye, and set out to tour the sticks. (Maxson) was always sure to be asked: 'Is Belle Gunness alive?' and he always answered loudly: 'Yes!'"

Maxson had been convinced from the start that he had escaped the fire by sheer luck. He told no one of his suspicions, except his sister who, later, retold his story. Evidently, her brother had awoken in the middle of the night to find Widow Gunness standing over his bed, watching him. Alarmed, he sat up. "I just wanted to see if you were asleep," is all Belle said before quietly slipping from his room. As she did so, he thought he saw a hammer hidden in the folds of her skirt.

Stories of narrow escape were coming in from across the land by men who had answered Belle Gunness' ad in The Skandinaven. They weren't made up, for the men knew too many details about Belle and her farm; some of them even had letters Belle had written in reply. Carl Peterson from Michigan came forth with a letter delivered him from the woman, which read, in part, "...I have decided that every applicant must make a satisfactory deposit of cash or security... Now, if you think you are able some way to put up $1,000 cash, we can talk matters over personally. If you cannot, is it worthwhile to consider?..."

Not having such an amount on hand at the time saved Mr. Peterson's life.

George Anderson had seen Belle's ad in Missouri. After two-way communication, he decided to visit Belle and, not being one to light the flint before it's out of the drawer, check on the farm and the sincerity of the ad's author. He had only $300 cash in his pockets, but Belle urged him to go home, sell his large farm in Tarkio, and come back with the rest. He had suspicions. When he awoke in the dead of night to find her hovering over his pillow, that was enough. He lit out and took the next train home.

But, unfortunately, there were many more men who did not have the luck of Peterson nor the common sense of Anderson. Families from Minnesota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kansas and other states wrote pleas to Sheriff Smutzer and Mayor Darrow to please find their missing son, brother, father who they knew had gone off to meet a mail-order bride in La Porte, Indiana.

George Barry (Indiana) left home in July 1905 to "work for a Mrs. Gunness." He had $1,500 cash on him. He was never seen again. Herman Konitzer (Indiana) took $5,000 from the bank and went to La Porte to "marry a wealthy widow." He vanished. Abraham Phillips (West Virginia), a retired railway watchman, left to court a rich widow in Indiana, taking $500 in cash and a diamond ring. His family never heard from him since, but a railroad watch was found in the Gunness debris. Emil Tell (Kansas), $5,000 in his billfold, boarded a train to La Porte to meet a widow there. Gone.

The list continues, men all telling relatives before they left they were La Porte-bound: Olaf Jensen (recent immigrant from Norway); Christian Hinckley (Chetek, Wisconsin); Charles Nieburg (Philadelphia); Tonnes Lien (Rushford, Minnesota); E.J. Thiefland (Minneapolis); John E. Bunter (McKeesport, Pennsylvania). Incredibly, the roll call goes on and on...

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