Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness, Part III

Prosecutor Ralph Smith had intended to charge Lamphere with the murder of Andrew Helgelein but then changed his mind. Instead, he decided to use the legal forum to get closure about Belle's fate. If the jury convicted Lamphere of her murder, then she would be definitively identified and declared dead. In support, the prosecution had the coroner's declaration of Belle's demise and a documented history of trouble between Belle and Lamphere. They also had Lamphere's statement that he had seen the fire, and they had what they believed were Belle's bridgework, jawbone and a set of rings identified as hers. For motive, they said that Lamphere and Belle had a falling out over money that she was supposed to pay him for assisting her with the murder and disposal of Helgelein. In addition, he was jealous of Belle's attention to Helgelein.

The defense stood by the idea that Belle was alive. They even prepared a subpoena for her. They had witnesses that could counter anything that the prosecution offered as proof, as well as experts that could demonstrate their own theories.

Smith put more than three-dozen witnesses on the stand to prove his case. From those who had discovered the fire and seen the bodies to those who had helped excavate the grounds to those who knew Belle, he indicated that while she was indeed a dastardly sort of criminal, in this case she was nevertheless a victim.

The real drama of the trial came from the defense. Worden was a strong opponent and used witnesses effectively to open up holes in the prosecution's case. They included key items such as the fact that the coroner had not made a complete examination of the burned bodies, the witness who had supposedly found the dental bridge in the ashes could not be located, the bridgework could not have gone through a fire so hot as to incinerate a complete head, and several witnesses claimed to have seen Belle near the farm in July (three months after the fire). In addition, the female corpse was much smaller than Belle had been (even accounting for shrinkage from the heat), and a motive for Belle committing suicide was never substantiated. Also, the funds she reportedly got from her victims were nowhere to be found.

Worden supplied a motive for Belle to suddenly clear out. He believed that she had been under pressure because she had heard from Helgelein's brother that he was coming to make inquiries about Andrew. On the afternoon before the murder, Belle bought a large quantity of kerosene, and the container for it was found in the basement, not where she usually kept it. Also, the same method she used to kill Helgelein (strychnine) had been in evidence in at least three of the bodies burned in the fire.

Lamphere had claimed throughout his imprisonment that Belle was not only still alive, but that she had burned down the house, faked her death, and left. He'd even driven her to the railroad station. The defense showed that not only did she have a clear motive, but she also had a criminal pattern and a character sufficiently devious to do this deed. On the evening before the fire, the current handyman said that everything had seemed routine. There was no indication that Belle was morose or suicidal.