Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Doctors Testify

Coroner Charles Mack, the prosecution's first witness, was brought to the stand to convince the jury that the headless cadaver found in the rubble was certainly that of Belle Gunness. He also reviewed the conditions of the other charred skeletons and reviewed the condition of several organs taken from the fire victims. Although professorial and concise, defense lawyer Worden punctured holes in his credibility.

Worden: Are you positive that this bone I show you is a cervical vertebrae?

Dr. Mack: I am not.

Worden: Well, doctor, are you certain that this bone I present is a jawbone?

Dr. Mack: It is.

Worden: Is it the bone of a human being?

Dr. Mack: I do not know.

Worden: Would you state, Dr. Mack, from present observation, that this bone is

from the upper or lower maxilalry?

Dr. Mack: I could not positively state that it is a bone at all!

The prosecution regrouped and reworked its strategy. Smith knew that he needed to disprove two things conjectured by the defense in its opening oratory: 1) that the Gunness children did not die by the hands of their foster mother who poisoned them with strychnine prior to her absconding to parts unknown; and 2) Belle had not murdered a woman and left her body in her place, hoping to fool the law.

A couple of doctors who had examined the three dead children related the conditions of the deceased. They stated that they believed the youngsters had died of asphyxia from smokefire (not poison). But, when Worden cross-examined Dr. H.H. Long, who viewed the remains of child Lucy, he blew holes into the diagnoses:

Worden: On the body of this child Lucy, Dr. Long, did you observe any ecchymotic spots?

Dr. Long: No, sir, none.

Worden: Such spots invariably appear when death is due to suffocation, do they not, doctor?

Dr. Long: Yes, sir, that is correct.

It became obvious — Worden had done his homework.

A Dr. J.L. Long, a cold tactician and master of the post mortem, under Smith's steady direction, demonstrated how smothering by fire makes the human hand clench into a fist, in the exact same manner as were the hands of the flame-charred Gunness family, including the hand of the headless woman. He backed his testimony with facts and the jury was captive.

But, the fighting defender was not to be outdone. He called Dr. Gray to testify, prompting the following transcript:

Worden: Are you familiar, doctor, with the post-mortem condition of a body when death has been caused by strychnine?

Dr. Gray: I have seen several.

Worden: Would strychnine leave the hand clenched as this hand was (referring to the dead woman's hand)?

Dr. Gray: Yes.

Worden: It is the usual symptom, is it not?

Dr. Gray: Yes.

Worden: Isn't it a fact that when you made your examination and wrote a verdict, you stated it was impossible to determine the cause of death?

Dr. Gray: Yes, sir.

Worden: Did you make a chemical analysis of the stomach, Dr. Gray?

Dr. Gray: No. sir.

Worden: Taking the body in the condition in which you found it, if you had found strychnine and arsenic in the stomach in sufficient quantities to produce death, what would you say was the cause of death?

This last question was hypothetical and didn't need to be answered, nor did Worden wait for a comment. He had made his point. And to hammer it home, he managed to dredge from a subsequent witness, Dr. J. William Meyer, a comment that horrified the prosecution team that had hoped to use him to their benefit instead. In reference to the headless corpse, the alleged Belle Gunness, this dialogue occurred:

Worden: Could you form any fixed idea of the cause of death?

Dr. Meyer: No.

Worden: What is your opinion, doctor?

Dr. Meyer: Contraction of the heart, like some case of poisoning. From what I have heard of the stomach, the contraction will probably have been due to strychnine.