Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Trial Stage is Set

(Left) Attorney Wirt Worden and defendant Ray Lamphere
(Left) Attorney Wirt Worden and
defendant Ray Lamphere

On November 9, 1908, after a long, hot summer — unbearably long and hellishly hot for Ray Lamphere who waited in his musty cell in the courthouse — the prosecution (Ralph N. Smith) and defense (Wirt Worden) came together under presiding Judge J.C. Richter to form a jury. Ahead of them was a trial (reporters were terming it "The Trial of the Century") that would decide the fate of the alleged arsonist and killer Lamphere. The scene was the La Porte County Courthouse, "a square building (with) round arched windows and a peaked belfry," as described by de la Torre, where Lamphere's trial would proceed in an upper courtroom.

Ray Lamphere had pleaded not guilty, and the tone was set for a good fight. Challengers Smith and Worden, friends outside of court, were braced for action. They respected each other's intellect, each other's reputation. Smith, lanky, hollow-eyed and severe, was a hard practicalist. Worden, squarely built and didactic, more emotional. When they faced off in court, brilliant things would happen.

First in order was the selection of a jury, conducted with careful diligence by both parties. By the end of the week, both attorneys felt confident that they had carved out an equal representation of open-minded and fair men from La Porte County.

Lamphere trial jurors
Lamphere trial jurors

"Speaking in similes, the Lamphere trial has been likened to a May day celebration," wrote the allegorical hands of Harry Darling, the Argus' editor. "In the spotlight is the May pole, and, stretching from the top, are twelve long ribbons, each juror holding a ribbon. The entire case of the prosecution hangs on conclusive proof that the Gunness woman is dead. Otherwise, the May pole falls in a crash, and the state's argument is broken and shattered. Unless this spider web of evidence circumstantial is spun around the prisoner, the ribbons will be handed back, as they were received, white and spotless."

The actual trial opened on the morning of Friday, November 13, a portentous day indeed. The courtroom was jammed with both men and women, most of them having known Belle Guinness personally, many of them acquaintances of the defendant, Ray Lamphere. It was up to Chief Prosecutor Smith to prove that the headless figure found in the fire was Belle and, to quote Lillian de la Torre in The Truth About Belle Gunness, "that she died by fire, and that it was Ray Lamphere that, out of revenge, had set the fire." It would then be up to the defense — in other words up to Wirt Worden — to cast as many doubts as possible upon the prosecution's view.

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