Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness, Part IV

On November 26, on Thanksgiving evening, the jury brought back a verdict of guilty of arson. They did not think the prosecution had clearly proven a case of murder.

Lamphere was fined $5,000 and given a term of 2 to 21 years in prison. There he revealed more conflicting stories, from actually being involved with the fire to knowing about many more of Belle's victims and her enormous enrichment from their goods. Yet he also made a statement that he felt certain the body in the fire was hers.

Just over a year after he was sentenced, Lamphere died in prison of tuberculosis.

Belle was allegedly sighted numerous times around the country by people who knew her, but always managed to slip away. Then in 1931 in Los Angeles, an elderly woman named Esther Carlson was charged with killing a man for money. Before her trial commenced, she died, and two people who had known Belle recognized her from a photo in the newspaper. Some accounts indicate that the police found a trunk in a room where the deceased woman had been staying and it contained photos of three children who resembled Belle's. Yet no one proved that Esther Carlson was Belle.

Nothing about Belle's actual death was conclusively resolved. She may have been murdered, she may have killed herself, or she may have died much later of natural causes.

This is a good case for a psychological autopsy, because the person that Belle was is the best indicator, as the defense team pointed out, of what she might have done.

Since Lamphere had an alibi witness for the time when some neighbors had already spotted the fire burning, it seems unlikely that he started it. Yet it seems equally unlikely that, given his troubles with Belle and her complaints to authorities about him, she would have asked for his help in her escape. Still, since they were lovers at one point, she may have intimated certain things to him that led him to draw such conclusions about her escape plan. Lamphere himself was probably destined to become one of her victims, and the only thing that saved him was his decision not to insure himself.

In addition, the pastor to whom Lamphere had supposedly told "the truth" revealed that he had in fact gotten at least four different versions, and nothing he offered could be viewed as clearly what happened.

But what kind of person was Belle? Therein lies the best means, at least, of deciding whether or not she may have committed suicide.

From the letters she wrote to the men who became her victims, she was clearly manipulative and clever. Though she intended only to kill them and take their money, she managed to pen lengthy and flowery expression of eternal love and devotion. She was also strong enough to kill and dismember them, and she did not hesitate to kill children, either, if it benefited her. It's likely that she killed her first two by poison and that she killed two husbands — one of them by a blow to the head. She also killed a girl in her care, and then told people the girl had gone to school in California.