Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Fire!

Farmhand Joe Maxson's first thought when he awoke that morning of April 28, 1908, was that Belle Gunness was cooking breakfast. That hickory smell that sometimes blended with the cedar wood in the house to give the air a strange, almost pungent aroma. But, the more he lay there, slowly, steadily awakening to his own senses, the quicker he realized that his initial perception had been wrong. What he smelled was charred wood, the sickening breath-consuming, smoky odor of savage fire. He leaped out of bed.

Joe Maxon
Joe Maxon

Something caught his attention outside his window — something drifting by. While his feet maneuvered into a pair of slippers at his bedside, his eyes followed to where a gray cloud of smoke bellowed up from below his windowsill and, caught in a morning breeze, pirouetted like an amoebic ballerina, to dance like the devil before it whooshed out of site. Only to be followed by another signal of smoke; this time blacker and, carrying with it, a stench of hellfire.

Throwing up the window, he popped his head out. From below, from what was the kitchen window of the house, smoke issued in puffing rhythm, accompanied by an intermittent snap of a flame that seemed to be teasing what was left of the white lace curtains. My God, he thought, the house is afire and the inhabitants are asleep!

Grabbing a robe from the bedpost to cover his woolen drawers, he simultaneously reached with his free hand for the bedroom doorknob. It was already hot. One hand couldn't budge it, so he tried both hands — to yank the door inward — but it wouldn't yield. The wooden frame had blistered to wedge the door. He banged with his fists upon the thickness of the door — not because he himself was trapped, for he knew he could escape easily enough through the window if need be — but to rouse the sleeping landlady and her children.

Phillip Gunness, victim
Phillip Gunness, victim

"Mrs. Gunness!" he cried, "wake up, fire! Mrs. Gunness! The house is burning! Myrtle! Lucy! Phillip! Fire!" He listened a moment, hoping to hear through the keyhole the family scampering through the hall, alerted to reality. "Mrs. Gunness!" he tried again. "Children!" But, no sound answered him, not even a whimper. His own room was filing with hacking fumes — and he was afraid that, at any moment, the tin of kerosene he had bought yesterday for Widow Gunness, and which she had him put in the kitchen, might explode. He dashed through the smoke, raced down the servants' stairs that led to the kitchen and, groping, somehow found the screen door to the yard beyond.

Myrtle (left) and Lucy Gunness, victims
Myrtle (left) and Lucy Gunness, victims

A golden morning sun was tipping the eastern horizon of Indiana cornfields, unaffected by the unfolding tragedy.

Flailing arms, yelling in panic at the top of his lungs, he circled the house, but found every window lapped by flame, impenetrable. Somewhere inside, he knew, was the senseless Gunness family — trapped by the carnage: Belle, 48, and her three children, Myrtle (11-years-old), Lucy (nine) and Philip (five). Were they already dead, licked by flame? Or were they yet untouched by the fire, but slowly, methodically, lapsing into a coma under asphyxiation of smoke?

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