Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

The Defense

"Fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat."

— Elizabeth Bowen

So far it was still opinion. To the left, to the right, opinion. But, one thing was certain: No one lingered too long on McClung Road much after dark. Even those who boasted she was dead and good riddens to her — even they would tap their team horses gently with the whip to quicken their canter when finding themselves alongside the jagged frame of what had once been Gunness' death house... and still might be.

On Friday, November 20, the defense opened its argument. To save Ray Lamphere from the gallows was Worden's aim, and Worden saw himself as the man for the job. There was little chance to discount Lamphere's heckling of Belle — petitions, warrants of arrest and the word of too many upright citizens had already proven to within an inch that Ray had been a nuisance — but Worden did nor visualize his client in the capacity of murder. Belle Gunness, he must show, was still alive, that she was still out there, despite the teeth that her dentist said couldn't be extracted unless by her death, despite everything else that Ralph Smith, Sheriff Smutzer, and the Republicans claimed.

Again the courtroom was packed, nearly 500 people in a room meant to hold half that amount. Worden knew he would have a difficult time disproving the gold-capped teeth theory, but he believed in his heart — and he knew he must duplicate that belief in the hearts of the jurors — that if those teeth had actually come from Mrs. Gunness' mouth, then she threw them into the fire after the fact.

If it was not Mrs. Gunness in that fire, found in the cellar among the debris, then whose headless body was it? Obviously the victim had been a female — doctors proved that beyond a reasonable doubt — but the prosecution had seemed to overlook the fact that Lady Greed was not above killing other women, despite her propensity for male cash. There had already been an unidentified woman found in the hog yard, as well as her own stepdaughter Jennie!

To show a real probability of the headless cadaver as being just one more of Belle Gunness' victims, placed in proxy, Worden called to the stand one John Anderson, who lived immediately down the road from Belle, and who had a high reputation in the community. Anderson had seen something suspicious just two days before the farmhouse burned.

Worden: Mr. Anderson, did you see Mrs. Gunness shortly before the fire?

Anderson: Yes, I did, on the Saturday evening before the fire. She was driving by in her buggy, and she stopped to ask how the flowers were getting along.

Worden: Was anybody with her?

Anderson: There was a strange woman with her.

Worden: Describe her, please, Mr. Anderson.

Anderson: She was a large woman, not quite as large as Mrs. Gunness.

Worden: Did you ever see her again?

Anderson: Never. After the fire I told the sheriff about her.

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