Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Too Late

Maxson spotted two neighbors racing toward him on respective bicycles, young Mike Clifford and his brother-in-law William Humphrey. Both men had spotted the flames in the pre-dawnlight. They immediately shot to work, helping the farmhand waken the household by throwing house bricks, used for patchwork and laying in a pile near the storm shelter, through every window. Maxson and Clifford were shoulder-ramming the locked front door, hoping to force it. Only the crackle of the flames continued to respond from within.

The Gunness farmhouse ruins (foreground) after the fire
The Gunness farmhouse ruins
(foreground) after the fire

"Why the hell can't they hear us?" Humphrey shouted. He had found a scaling ladder near the barn and setting it against the exterior walls. Climbing, he peered in several windows but saw no signs of life.

Soon came the Hutsons, and the Laphams, and the Nicholsons — all neighbors from up and down old McClung Road, a cloud of red clay hanging over the entrance to the Gunness farm where their buggies and wagons had crossed in a dither, one after another. They yelped and hallooed and howled, but no one could stir the Gunnesses. And they tried to yelp and halloo and howl some more until it soon became apparent that the louder they became the more impossible it was that any living soul could remain in the fireball that had been the Gunness abode.

By the time Sheriff Smutzer arrived, leading a brigade of volunteer firemen and their clanging hose cart from nearby La Porte, it was much too late. The farmhouse, the outbuildings and the elm trees whose branches had tipped the window casements were all gone.

Poor Belle Gunness, a fitting end unfortunately, for a woman whose entire life had been pocked by misfortune.