Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

Incessant Politics

This is no place to argue the viability of the old idiom, "Every crime has its scapegoat," except to say that in the case of the Belle Gunness murders there certainly was one. And the goat had a name: Ray Lamphere.

The state believed in his guilt and wanted to prosecute. Because the jealous lover had so many times tried to intimidate, even threaten, the widow, prosecutor Ralph N. Smith believed he had it in him to murder. (And, besides, a political party always fairs better at election time when they've caged the wolf that attacked the sheep herd.) But — a technicality existed. Even though the bodies of the Gunness children were found and identified, until that headless woman found with them was proven to be Belle herself, the defense would have in its kit-bag of tricks the more enduring loophole. It was Belle who Ray wanted dead, not her children — and given the state of affairs at the Gunness farm, who was to say that Belle didn't commit the murders of her own doves before she flew the coop?

In an effort to nevertheless have Lanphere indicted for murder when the grand jury reconvened in May, Smith put pressure on the Gunness farm diggers to find Belle's skull. Sheriff Smutzer, a staunch Republican and of the Smith regime, sent his county police in all directions to find evidence — any evidence — that might implicate their current guest at the county jail. But the investigators found nothing and the only material turning up under ash and brick at the fire site were more watches, scraps of a burned anatomy guide, silverware and everything useless to an ambitious lawyer and sheriff seeking justice (and votes, according to some towns folk). However, Mrs. Gunness' dentist, Ira Norton, volunteered helpful information.

Louis Schultz (r) panning for Belle's teeth
Louis Schultz (r) panning for Belle's

"If you can find her false teeth, I can identify them," he exclaimed. "Last fall I made her a set of six porcelain teeth backed with gold. If Mrs. Gunness is dead in the fire, those teeth are still in the ashes."

An ancient LaPortian who had once prospected for gold in Colorado was called upon as advisor. Louis Schultz told Smith that if he could have a sluice box, the type they were now using to find nuggets in the Klondike, Smith would have his gold teeth within a week. Schultz provided the promise, Smith the sluice box.

In the meantime, the citizens of La Porte were dividing between pro-Lamphere and con-Lamphere: "She's dead!" cried the bankers, who disbelieved anyone would leave town with $720 still in their savings. "She's alive!" argued the local doctor who examined the headless corpse and found a much more diminutive body than the hefty Belle Gunness.

Nowhere were the factions more evident than in the two opposing papers in town. The Republican-held Herald supported Smith while the Argus, under the editorship of crusading Democrat Harry N. Darling, derided the notion that Lamphere was anything but a patsy. The Herald saw Belle Gunness dead, the Argus envisioned her alive and well and on the lam to the devil knows where.

Holding half interest in the Argus was Town Mayor Lemuel Darrow, a Democrat. Because of his political affiliation, the city workers under his patronage naturally, at least vocally, enlisted the pro-Lamphere leanings. For the same reason, the city police refused to cooperate with Sheriff Smutzer's troops in helping to prosecute Lamphere. Instead, Darrow hired the private Clark Detective Agency from Chicago and set its agent, one C.C. Fish, out in hot pursuit of fugitive Belle. Simultaneously, Darrow's law partner, Wirt Worden, offered his services au gratis to defend the Republican's pawn.

On Tuesday, May 12, Schultz, the prospector, found Belle's dentures. Dr. Norton agreed, "They're hers!" and the coroner expediently pronounced Belle dead of "felonious homicide." On May 22, the grand jury indicted Ray Lamphere of arson and the murder of the Gunness family.

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