Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness, Part V

So Belle was a gifted liar.

Even so, many people described her as kindly and a good mother. That meant she managed to put on a believable façade.   

Since she clearly had collected a great deal of money by luring and killing men — and some of these transactions were recorded by banks in the area — then the fact that the money was gone is good support for Belle's escape. So is the fact that a woman estimated to have weighed perhaps 200 pounds could not have been the corpse of some seventy pounds found headless in the cellar of the burned house. No one ever explained the presence or made the identity of the woman seen with Belle the night before the fire.

In those days, people did not know much about the condition now called psychopathy, and in particular did not associate it with women — especially mothers. But there were some examples of female criminals, and as Belle's portrait unfolds, she clearly does fit the profile of a female psychopath: deceptive, charming, manipulative, self-centered, having shallow affect, going through serial relationships, unable to bond deeply with others, and lacking in empathy or remorse. She was also quite likely to repeat her crimes.

She does not seem the suicidal type, and there is no evidence from any witness to support this as her end.

While she may have been murdered, Sylvia Shepherd doubts that Belle's survival instincts would have been so dim that night as to allow Lamphere to sneak around her home and chloroform them all before setting the fire. They were found together in a pile, so someone arranged them that way. Lamphere never offered an account in his diverse ramblings that fit those facts.

Even if Esther Carlson was not Belle Gunness, it seems most likely that Belle did plot the deaths of the unknown woman and her own children to escape detection by Helgelein's brother. She then went off somewhere to start a new life — which probably involved killing again for money.

Given the psychological clues, coupled with significant issues with the physical evidence offered at trial, the most likely scenario for the death of Belle Gunness is that she eventually died somewhere other than in the LaPorte, Indiana fire.

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