Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness

The Defense Rests

Now came time to remove all doubt from other haranguing questions, such as "Were Myrtle, Lucy and Philip Gunness burned to death in bed (a sign that Lamphere may have torched the house while the family slept) or were the bodies already dead in the cellar (indicating they were slain, like Jennie before them, at the hands of Belle?)"

In earlier testimony, William Humphrey swore that he had seen the beds empty when he peered into the windows of the blazing farmhouse. In conflict, Sheriff Smutzer had already been one of those who claimed to have seen the Gunnesses on a mattress. Now, when Worden resurrected the issue and called several eyewitnesses to the stand to verify the defense's viewpoint, a brief uproar occurred when one witness angrily denounced the sheriff as a liar. He claimed that he had heard Smutzer tell a reporter before the trial that he did not see the bodies until they were removed from site. Of course, this spark of controversy delighted Worden.

Another witness, a woman who drove to the farm the morning of the fire, replied, "I was siting right there on top of the wall. I saw them digging. The remains of the piano were on top of the debris above the bodies... I couldn't see anything but a little ashes under the bodies. When that had been shoveled away I could see the floor as plain as I see the floor of this courtroom."

The last witness for the defense came to the stand on Tuesday, November 24. He was Dr. Walter Haines, toxicology professor, who had chemically analyzed Andrew Helgelein's stomach and found doses of the poison, strychnine — more than enough to kill a man. Worden had commissioned him to also analyze the stomachs of the Gunness children and the unidentified woman absent a head. While lethal quantities of strychnine were evident in the jar in which that the stomachs were packaged, the doctor admitted that, because all three stomachs sat in the same solution, it was impossible to separate from what stomach — if not all — the poison came.

But, the defense nevertheless found opportunity to take advantage of Dr. Haines' learned presence. Because States Attorney Smith raised the possibility that the strychnine actually came from embalming fluid, Worden put that inference to task. No, the doctor heartily responded, there is no strychnine, no poison, in such fluid.

The defense rested.

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