On the morning of April 27, 1908, the farmhand on a lonely property outside La Porte, Indiana, woke to the smell of smoke. He tried to rouse the lady of the house, the towering Belle Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness, and he called the names of her three children—but they didn’t answer, and the farmhand barely escaped alive. The house burned to the foundation, and in the rubble, firemen found the corpses of Belle, her two daughters, and her son. The discovery raised two chilling questions: Who started the fire, and who cut off Belle’s head?
As investigators searched the property, they uncovered something astonishing: The remains of a dozen or more men and children who had been murdered with poison or cleaver were buried beneath the hog pen. It turned out Belle Gunness was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. And when the investigation revealed that the body found in the fire might not have been hers, the people of La Porte were forced to confront the terrifying realization that Belle might have gotten out alive.
Nominated for an Edgar Award for best factual crime story, The Truth about Belle Gunness is based on extensive interviews with witnesses and residents of La Porte who knew Belle and her family. Perfect for fans of In Cold Blood or The Devil in the White City, it is a “magnificent [and] brilliantly written” exploration of a highly unusual murderer (The New York Times).
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The Truth about Belle Gunness
By Lillian de la Torre
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1955 Lillian de la Torre
All rights reserved.
On the night of Monday, April 27, 1908, at the lonely Gunness farm near La Porte, Indiana, five people went early to bed. They were Mrs. Belle Gunness, forty-eight, twice-widowed owner of the farm; three children: Myrtle, eleven; Lucy, nine; and Philip, five; and the new farm hand, Joe Maxson.
Joe Maxson woke in the pale light before dawn. He smelled smoke. He was still groggy with sleep. He said to himself, Ah! Hot cakes for breakfast!
Since Joe slept over the kitchen, in a frame addition built onto the solid brick house, perhaps his confusion was natural. It did not last long. The second sniff told him that there was more fire than the old kitchen stove would hold.
He flung back the covers and rushed to the window. Flames were bursting out below.
In the main part of the house a woman and three children lay in oblivious silence. Amid thickening smoke Joe hurled himself at the connecting door.
It was locked.
"Fire! Fire!" shouted Joe.
He kicked the door and beat upon it. There was no answer. The crackling of the fire began to rise to a roar. The door would not give. It was bolted top and bottom. Smoke was blurring his vision. It was time to get out.
His head in a whirl, in his long underwear as he was, Joe wrenched on his gum boots, grabbed his clothes from the hooks, snatched up his telescope valise and other oddments at random, and plunged down the kitchen stairs.
Half a mile away, a young odd-job carpenter named Ray Lamphere sped through the fields on his way to work. He did not look back.
Over by the Pêre Marquette tracks, Mike Clifford was creakily getting up for the long day's chores. He looked out of the window and saw flames reddening the sky.
"Ma!" he called.
Ma came, and looked, and shook her son awake. In three minutes young William was into his clothes, onto his bicycle and up to Belle's gate.
As he was unfastening the wires, Joe Maxson came in sight around the house. Young Clifford was too excited to notice the gum boots.
"Fire!" he hollered at Joe.
"Fire!" shouted Joe, disappearing around the corner of the house. He did another lap, still yelling.
Young Clifford clattered up the steps onto the porch to bang on the triple-locked front door and holler again, "Fire!"
"Fire!" echoed Joe, reappearing.
This time he carried an ax. With some difficulty he broke in a panel of the door. Flames were seething inside.
Up came Mike Clifford afoot, with his brother-in-law, William Humphrey. By this time the roof was ablaze.
"Where do they sleep?" shouted Humphrey.
Maxson pointed. Humphrey found a couple of bricks, and heaved one accurately through each window. Flames spurted out, but nothing else happened.
"Is there a ladder around here?"
There was one in the woodshed. They set it against the windows, first one, then the other. Humphrey swarmed up and looked inside. He saw nobody. Flames were jetting from the burning floor. He came down.
"Go fetch Mr. Hutson," he said. Mike Clifford went.
"Are you going to let your neighbors all burn up while you sleep?" shouted Mike, banging fit to break Hutson's door in.
Mr. Hutson did not even stop to tie his shoestrings before he rushed out.
The Hutsons were the new neighbors across the way. There were three little daughters just about the age of Belle's two. When Evaline and Ruth Hutson had been badly scalded one day, Mrs. Gunness had brought them gifts, perfume, writing paper, a doll.
"Make a fire in the stove, quickly, girls," said kind Mrs. Hutson. "We'll make coffee. They'll be frightened. We'll give them a good hot breakfast."
Farther off lived the Laphams. Frances Lapham was seventeen. She and Jennie Olson Gunness, just her age, had been close friends before Jennie went away. When the Laphams had smallpox, Belle had kept them supplied with fresh milk from her own cows, eggs new-laid by her own hens, and homemade sausage from her own hogs at butchering time.
"You get dressed as fast as you can," said Mrs. Lapham, "and run out there. Those poor souls must be out in the shed, freezing."
The Siegels, nearby, felt the liveliest sympathy. They had been burned out themselves only two weeks before, and Belle had given them furniture to help them start over.
Across the road, Mrs. Swan Nicholson opened her eyes on the red glow of sunrise — only it was on the wrong side.
"Mrs. Gunness' house is burning!"
"Come on!" cried the boy, John.
"You stay away," said Swan. "She's mad at us. You could get the blame for starting it."
The quarrel, over straying stock, had been picked and fomented by Belle herself.
Meanwhile, Joe Maxson had got some of the smoke out of his head. His pants were on, his gum boots were off, and he was just tying his shoes when Mr. Hutson arrived with his laces dragging.
Young Clifford and Humphrey were milling aimlessly, not certain what to do next. The light of the fire was red on their faces, on the walls of the outbuildings, on the tips of the cedar trees. The house was a solid blaze. Beams parted with a noise like the crack of bullets, and fell with a hissing roar, cascading burning furniture from the upper floor.
"You better notify the Sheriff," said Mr. Hutson.
Instantly Maxson went to the barn. The four horses were in their stalls, uneasy. Joe led out the trembling buggy horse. It took three of them to put the nervous animal between the shafts and get him harnessed. Joe slapped the reins, and the horse started for town at a good jump.
The Sheriff was not at the jail.
"Ask at his house," said Deputy William Anstiss.
It was five A.M. by the courthouse clock when Joe knocked at Sheriff Smutzer's door. Smutzer came yawning.
Smutzer, said the La Porte Herald admiringly, was a hustler. He hustled, and beat Joe's buggy back to the fire.
He chugged out in his snappy red Ford runabout, with Anstiss by his side. Al Smutzer had a round, rosy, genial face, a generous mustache, and curly dark-brown hair parted in the middle in a double bartender's lick. He liked to wear a dark turtle-neck sweater and a peaked leather cap, and carry a Western-style cowboy revolver on his hip. Anstiss was tall and grim. He preferred a business suit buttoned up high and a curly-brim derby hat.
In such array the law arrived at the burning house. Smutzer promptly took charge.
There were two questions to which the Sheriff had to find answers: What had become of Belle and the children?
What had started the fire?
The answers to both questions lay buried in the ruins, under piles of smoking ashes and steaming fallen bricks.
Smutzer called out the volunteer fire company. They went to work throwing water by the pailful over the glowing embers and pulling down the tottering fragments of brick wall. As soon as they were able to approach the ruins without getting burned, they perceived near the cellar door signs of a blaze so concentrated that it must have been man-made.
Who could have wanted to burn down Belle's house?
The same name came to every mind: Ray Lamphere. Ray Lamphere had been pretty loud and loose in his threats against Belle Gunness. Deputies Leroy Marr and William Anstiss were sent off with their orders: Find Ray Lamphere!
The question remained: What had become of Belle and the children? There was an optimistic rumor going around that they had escaped; Belle had taken the family to South Bend. To settle that, men with shovels were put to work delving into the ashes and debris. If Belle and the children had been in that blazing house, they were still there.
A small crowd of the curious watched in the rain. N. E. Koch, the town photographer, was there with his big camera. Young Jerry Siegel played hookey to watch.
Huddled in raincoats, a blond, heavy-set man and a brown-haired girl sat perched on the wall. He was Wirt Worden, a prominent lawyer of La Porte, and the girl was his secretary, Bessie Folant. He watched all day in the rain, because Ray Lamphere was his client. What the diggers found might mean life or death to Ray. Worden did not think they would find what they were looking for.
At half past four in the afternoon, after digging all day, the diggers still had found nothing. The spectators began drifting off. Worden and Miss Folant stuck it out. The puzzled diggers had reached the last corner of the ruins when a shovel struck something soft.
In another moment the shovel had uncovered a little head, burned and blackened. It was one of the little girls. Beside her lay the other; and soon they uncovered the form of a woman with the smallest child against her breast. As they lifted the charred forms, tongues of flame licked up from fragments of fabric beneath.
The four bodies lay parallel to the road, stacked together like cordwood, their feet neatly pointed toward town. A bicycle wheel would have ringed all four heads — if the woman had had a head. But the woman had no head.
Now the charge was not only arson, but murder.
Where was Ray Lamphere?CHAPTER 2
The Victim and the Suspect
La Porte, Indiana, lies on the main line of the New York Central some sixty miles east of Chicago. Seven sparkling lakes dot its wooded countryside, and lush farmlands stretch between. In 1908, La Porte was a pleasant little city of some ten thousand neighborly souls. It was a comfortable town, with broad maple-lined streets, velvety green lawns, and spacious old houses with cupolas and turrets and fringes of scroll-saw fretwork. La Porte boosters pointed with pride to a church on every corner, a small factory or two, and a handsome red sandstone courthouse planted solidly in the center of town. They boasted of two live-wire newspapers, the Herald and the Argus.
FIRE! screamed the newspapers on April 28, 1908. The kindhearted people of La Porte felt a thrill of pity and horror as they scanned the big black headlines and looked at the published picture of the victims. Mr. N. E. Koch, the town photographer, had photographed Mrs. Gunness and her brood a few years before, and both papers now gave the picture front-page space.
It showed a woman of generous motherly curves, stiffly showing off three pretty children clad in starched white dresses and new shoes with patent-leather tips. Baby Philip, on her lap, was fat and blond and beaming. Lucy had fly-away light hair and a snubby little face, while Myrtle, the oldest, looked straight out with trusting dark eyes in a tender, sensitive, narrow visage.
Mother Gunness' broad form was stiffly laced into an hourglass corset. She wore her best tucked shirtwaist, her silk skirt with rows of ruching, and a knot of black velvet ribbon stuck into the loose bun on the top of her head.
If Belle put on a Sunday-best smile to match her finery, it slipped. She looked out of the picture with mouth compressed and brows drawn down over deep-set eyes. There was sadness on that face, and something like a haunted fear.
It soon appeared that Bella Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness had cause for sadness, for in recent years fatalities and ill luck had followed her. Her sister in nearby Chicago, came down to La Porte and told Belle's story.
Bella Poulsdatter (which is the same as Paulson) was born in 1859 on the shore of Lake Selbe, near Trondhjem, in Norway. Her father was a stonemason, and her brother in Norway still followed the same trade. The girls emigrated. First went Belle's older sister, now Mrs. John Larson. Then in 1883, at the age of twenty-four, Belle followed to America at her brother-in-law's expense.
A year later, the tall Norwegian girl married a Norwegian man, a handsome, broad-shouldered blond fellow named Mads Sorenson. There were no children. Belle had to feed her child hunger by borrowing, fostering, and adopting other people's children. She and her sister fell out when Belle wanted to adopt a little niece, and the child would have none of her. After that the two sisters saw very little of each other.
Mads Sorenson was a department-store guard in Chicago. He made a comfortable home for Belle and her little adopted family. But fatalities dogged her. Three times her home burned and her belongings were destroyed. After seventeen years of marriage, Mads died suddenly. If it had not been for the various insurance payments, Belle and the children would have been in straits.
In 1900, when Mads died, Belle moved to La Porte with her three little foster daughters, Jennie, Myrtle, and Lucy. She put some of Mad's insurance money into the purchase of the old Mattie Altic place, about a mile north of La Porte on the McClung Road.
The old square red-brick house had been fine in its day, but its day was waning. Mattie was a madam, and the place was a sporting house with a lurid reputation, and when the madam died things were allowed to go to seed. Still, the grove of cedars before the house was fine and shady, and the high ground where the house stood sloped to pleasant lush meadows and thickets and orchards. Belle began to turn the place into a comfortable home.
La Porte had not had time to get acquainted with the new neighbor when Belle slipped out of town. When she came back, she had a new husband, Peter Gunness, a fine-looking blond Viking of a man, with clear blue eyes and a pointed yellow beard and mustache. He brought with him his baby by a previous marriage.
Moving had not changed the luck that followed Belle. First Peter's baby died suddenly. Then, before the year was out, Peter died too, in a nocturnal mishap obscurely involving a kettle of brine and the big auger out of the sausage-grinder.
Undaunted, the hardy Norse widow set about managing and improving the place as best she could alone. Baby Philip arrived, but he hardly interrupted the routine.
"What, go to bed?" scoffed Belle when a neighbor discovered her at the washtub the day after the baby's arrival. "What for? A woman don't go to bed for that in the old country!"
Gradually the run-down house was brought back to order and respectability. Mattie Altic's showy marquetry parlor floor and her heavy dark walnut furnishings were polished until they shone. Simple ruffled curtains of white were put up to brighten the tall, narrow, tree-darkened windows. Outbuildings were shored up and fencing was erected.
The handsome front fence was put up in the fall of 1905 by a young hardware clerk, Charles F. Pahrman. Pahrman was professionally puzzled by the square of Kokomo link fence that penned hogs at the back, on the rise that sloped to the swamp. It was six feet high and topped with barbed wire.
"Why six feet?" he wondered. "I never saw a hog could jump six feet."
It was none of his business, however. He fenced the front, and went in for his money. He found Mrs. Gunness in her corset cover and skirt. She coolly finished dressing, then paid him off. He admired the house, and she obligingly showed him through.
The double door of carved wood panels led from the wide front porch directly into the large living room. Behind that was the dining room, with its upright piano and large center table.
Mattie Altic had furnished six of the rooms as bedrooms, the two off the living room and dining room and the four that opened off a central hall upstairs. The bedsteads were handsome, with old-fashioned carved walnut headboards, or newfangled brass tubing and knobs. Each had its puffy quilt, patchwork or flowered. Every bedroom had its marble-topped walnut stand with basin and pitcher, and its kerosene lamp.
There was nothing remarkable about the basement. Mrs. Gunness took her visitor down by a trap door at the back. Down there she had her tubs and wringer, and some battered furniture, a long bench, a table, and some rickety chairs.
The kitchen was at the back, under the hired man's room in the frame addition. It was provided with a pump, a wood-burning stove with its warming oven on top, a center table covered with oilcloth, and a large wall cupboard holding china dishes, kettles, and a flour bin.
"I do my own baking," said Mrs. Gunness.
Young Pahrman was not invited to sample her fare, but he heard from those who had that she could put out a good chicken dinner, and her cakes were delectable.
Now the Gunness house and the people in it had been swept away in a blaze of flame, and only a burning curiosity remained. People looked at the picture in the paper and sharpened their memories of the family in the picture.
Everybody had admired the way Mrs. Gunness was bringing up her children. They were growing up bright and well behaved. If they got obstreperous, a single glance from Belle's piercing blue eyes was enough to quell them. Mrs. Gunness sent them to the Quaker school and to Sunday school, and bought them a pony and cart to take them there from the lonely McClung Road. When Christmastime came, she made the holidays happy for them in the Norwegian manner. The house would be redolent of good things, lutfisk and sweet Norwegian puddings, and the big tree between the dining-room windows would sparkle with bright ornaments that had come all the way from Norway. It seemed that for all of them, the Gunness farm was a happy place.
When it came to remembering Mrs. Gunness, people remembered her very variously. Some remembered a homely old farm wife who couldn't speak English plain, talking along in a high singsong voice: "Ja, Yennie, Laphams got quar-teened from smallpicks." Some pictured a figure of fun, 280 pounds of flesh that billowed and jiggled as she walked along, driving the cows barefooted or going to town in shawl and old black fascinator, or sloshing in manure at country sales in a man's fur coat and gum boots. Those were the ones who saw her unlaced.
Excerpted from The Truth about Belle Gunness by Lillian de la Torre. Copyright © 1955 Lillian de la Torre. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- The Woman in the Fire
- Book I: The Investigation
- 1. The Fire
- 2. The Victim and the Suspect
- 3. The Evidence in the Hog Lot
- 4. The Evidence in the Ashes
- 5. Mrs. Gunness Very Numerous
- Book II: The Trial
- 6. The Maypole: The Trial Begins
- 7. Bombardment: The Prosecution Opens
- 8. The Great Jupiter: The Prosecution Continues
- 9. Another Sharp Peal of Thunder: The Prosecution Rests
- 10. The Bobtail Flush: The Defense
- 11. The Trumpet Call: The Trial Ends
- Book III: Afterward
- 12. Over the Road to the Pen
- 13. The Truth about the Gunness Case
- About the Author