Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

...And Turns

The second week of the trial opened on November 16, a Monday. The crowd within the hall had grown. States Lillian de la Torre, "The courtroom was jammed to the doors. Standees crowded the aisles and were pressed in thick along the walls... Jacob Tag, bailiff, was detailed to keep order in the crowd. Intent only on listening, they gave him no trouble."

Much of the trial's reconvening concentrated on Ray Lamphere's taunting of Belle Gunness after Andrew Helgelein came to town from South Dakota. Lamphere's explanations for harassing her didn't stand up under fire; he claimed the widow fired him merely to court "the big Swede" and avoid paying him wages owed.

The prosecution even hinted at Lamphere's taking part in the South Dakotan's demise and of his knowing but keeping secret Belle's grisly graveyard company. Men who knew and drank with the defendant were summoned to the witness stand to testify against him, telling of the threats they heard muttered over a round of beers. One townsman, William Slater, quoted Lamphere as uttering a slough of ominous words:

Slater: He told me, "I know something about that old woman, and she has to come my way. She is having me pinched all the time, and damned if I ain't getting tired of it! If she don't leave me alone I'll send her over the road to the penitentiary that quick!"

As States Attorney Smith neared the end of his case presentation, he strove to remind the court, one last time for good measure, that that was indeed Belle Gunness' body left in the cinders, not some poor wretched woman of dubious existence deposited by the hydra. Witnesses were called forth that had been at the scene of the disaster site immediately after the fire subsided. One woman painted a pathetic picture of the Gunness family's final moments — three children and the mother huddled together on the bed, still there, burned to death, when the mattress fell through the upper story into the cellar where she claimed she saw them. (The defense had argued that there had not been any bodies on any bed, but were found separately around the cellar indicating signs that they were already dead before any fire started, thus poisoned in advance by Belle.)

Sheriff Smutzer, too, described how he had seen the Gunnesses petrified in pitiful, frozen writhes of pain across a mattress.

The courtroom gasped.

Smith should have stopped there, for he had the courtroom by the strings, but before adjourning he made the mistake of calling to the stand William Humphrey, one of the first at the fire who had helped Joe Maxson try to rouse the sleeping Gunneses that April 28 morning.

Smith: At what time did you reach the scene of the fire?

Humphrey: At a few minutes after four in the morning.

Smith: What did you see, Mr. Humphrey?

Humphrey: William Clifford and Joe Maxson were just breaking in the front door. I climbed up a ladder and looked in the windows of the two rooms on the west side. I saw mattresses and bed clothing, but no people... Soon, the walls began to fall, and the roof caved in.

Smith: Were you present when the bodies were found?

Humphrey: Yes, sir, it was my shovel that struck one of them. I assisted in taking them out and placing them in the undertaker's wagon.

Smith: You say you looked in the window during the fire, Mr. Humphrey. What exactly did you see?

Humphrey: In the first room there was an iron bed with bare mattresses. In the second room there was an iron bed with mattress and some sort of a small bundle of bed clothing on it.

Smith: Was the room on fire?

Humphrey: The fire was beginning to come through the floor.

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