Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness


A week later, Helgelein was gone, too. Belle wept to her neighbors, "When am I ever going to learn? What do I do wrong that these men take such advantage of me?" Stuck again without masculine help, Lamphere refused to come back, damn the crop.

To help with the spring harvest, Belle hired a local man of good reputation, a man who was known for his truthfulness and get-it-done attitude, Joe Maxson. There never was an insinuation of any relationship between him and Widow Gunness. Away from work, which he kept up long after sunset, Maxson remained to himself in the cozy room Belle had given him over the kitchen, reading the newspaper and playing soft refrains on his fiddle. Often, the Gunness children were lulled off to sleep by the soft murmur of his stringed lullabies.

The only time he stuck his nose into others' business was to warn his employer, as directed, when former farmhand and jealous lover Lamphere was trespassing again. Constant threats to the woman's being, even after Andrew Helgelein disappeared, had forced Belle to have him arrested time and again, but Lamphere would continue to harass by distance. Maxson would often see Lamphere peering from behind the elms that lined the perimeter of her yard, Knowing he was spotted, the latter darted off like a frightened salamander.

On April 27, 1908, Belle visited an attorney, M.E. Leliere, for the sole purpose of writing her last will and testament. She seemed distracted and told the lawyer that she feared what Lamphere might do to her. "That man," she told him, "is out to get me, and I fear one of these nights he will burn my house to the ground."

In the will, she left her property to her children or, in the event of their deaths, to the Norwegian Orphan's Home. When Leliere suggested that that wasn't the official name of the orphanage — that he needed a day or two to get its real name before he could authorize the will — Belle flustered. She insisted that such business could be completed after the fact and that they should both sign the will now. "There's no time to wait!" she maintained. With a sigh, Leliere consented, placing his name at the bottom of the document beside hers.

That night the Gunness farm burned.