Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness, Part I

Mistress of Murder Hill
Mistress of Murder Hill

Among those deaths in which the mental state would likely play a key role in determining its manner is the apparent demise of Belle Sorensen Gunness, a Norwegian-American farmer. Her fate was the central factor of a sensational trial during the early 1900s, and while some were satisfied that she was murdered, others believed she had killed herself, while still others thought she'd faked her death and escaped with a lot of money. Who she was in life provides the best measure to resolve the ambiguity surrounding just how and when she died.

The best source for information about the case is Sylvia Shepherd's book, Mistress of Murder Hill, but most books on serial killers also carry an account, as does the LaPorte County Historical Museum in Indiana.

On April 28, 1908, an early morning fire raged through Belle's home. All efforts to rescue the inhabitants were stymied and once the house burned down, four bodies were found in the ashes: an adult female and three children, two girls and a boy.

At first, people believed that the adult was Belle, although the figure appeared to be much too small... and she was missing her head.

Andrew Helgelein
Andrew Helgelein

The prime suspect in this apparent arson was a former hired hand named Ray Lamphere, who had worked for Belle about a year and who continued to have issues with her. He was even seen near her farm that morning, and he admitted he saw the fire, but said he had not felt compelled to warn anyone. Lamphere was arrested and detained.

Early in May, investigators began to search the property for the possible remains of Andrew Helgelein, who had been missing for three months. Belle had written many manipulative letters imploring him to sell everything and come to her, and when he went to visit, his family had not seen him again. The authorities began to dig in a soft spot in the yard and before long they turned up a gunnysack containing his dismembered body. His legs had been expertly sawed off above the knees, his arms disarticulated, his head removed, and all of his parts shoved into the hole with his torso. Grasped in his hand was some curly brown hair.

Another soft spot nearby was examined, and that one yielded the skeletal remains of a young girl. Looking further, diggers found the decayed remains of a man and two children. This discovery prompted more exploration and before it was all over some 12-13 sets of remains had been removed from the ground, with the suspicion that there might yet be more. (The exact number is a matter of debate, since some accounts indicate that little was done to ensure that discovered parts actually belonged to specific victims.) The majority of the remains were male, but one set was of an adult woman who was never identified.

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