I wonder what was going through the mind of lawyer M.E. Leliter, on the afternoon of April 27, 1908, when he was told Mrs. Belle Gunness was waiting in the anteroom of his Main Street office. I doubt he was pleased to see her. But you never think the worse, do you? When someone who makes you feel uneasy appears at your door you never think of evil. You always think of normal everyday humanity. Belle was a genial and pleasant church going woman. And if M.E. had always felt uneasy around her, he must have ascribed his nervousness to all the tragedy in her life. M.E. always thought he could detect the aura of hidden pain behind her sharp Nodic blue eyes.
In Chicago, Illinois, Belle had buried two of her children, not an unusual tragedy in the nintinth century. But then in 1900 her husband, Anton Sorenson, had died of heart disease. With the procedes from Anton’s two life insurance policies, Belle, with her three surviving children, had purchesed a farm on the northeast outskirts of La Portte Indiana, out on McClung Road past Pine and Fish Trap lakes. It was there she had married widower Peter Gunness on April 1st, of 1902. And, tragically, that very summer, Peter’s young daughter had died after a short illness, and then in December, Peter himself had been struck on the head by a falling saugase grinder and killed. Her life been so tragic that M.E. forced a smile as he stepped out to greet the lumbering, six foot tall, 280 pound woman. (Community gossips said that Belle could carry 100 pound hogs, one under each arm.) But Belle was not interested in pleasantries. Someone, Belle announced, was trying to kill her.
Her tale had a ting of unrealty to M.E. He was one of the most promiment of the 14,000 citizens of La Porte, just across the Indiana line. Fifteen passanger trains a day passed through town on their way between Philadelphia and Chicago, 60 miles to the northwest. Perched atop the prairie, the town was surrouned by farms, including one owned by M.E.. But it was also home to the Meinaid Rumely Factory, whose 2,000 employees assembled steam powered threashers and were rushing to manufacture one of the world’s first internal combustion farm tractors, the “Kerosene Annie”.
As befitted a prosperous middle class community, just down the street from M.E.’s office stood the new red sandstone Romanesque Court House, with oak paneled court rooms and stained glass windows. The disturbed Belle and her accusations seemed more fitting in the lurid crime ridden alleys of Chicago than small, quiet, proper, Victorian, La Porte.
The potential assassian was Ray Lamphere, who until recently had been Belle’s hired hand. Six weeks ago she had fired Ray, and he had threatened her and her two youngest daughters. “I'm afraid he's going to kill me and burn the house,” Belle told M.E. Thank goodness Belle’s eldest daughter, Jennie, was safely away at a finishing school in Los Angeles. Yes, Belle had spoken with the police. Twice she had charged Ray with trespassing. But they refused to grant her a protection order, and had dismissed her allegation that Ray was insane. Now, out of an excesss of caution, Belle wanted to amend her will. She wanted to be certain that her estate would to go to her children. And, if for some reason, they were deceased, then Belle wanted all her property to go to a Norwegian orphanage back in Chicago. M.E. took down the information, and made an oppointment for Belle to return in a few days to sign the completed document.
Then shocking news came with the morning light. There had been a terrible fire at the Gunness farm in the early morning hours of April 28, 1908. Despite the noble efforts of Belle’s new hired hand, and two passing men, no one had made it out of the house alive. Eventually the beams and the furniture had crashed into the basement. By noon the heat had retreated enough for workers to shift the ashes. There they found the pitiful bodies of Belle’s three children, Myrtle and Lucy Sorensen, and Philip Gunness, aged 5, as well as the blackened, headless corpse of a woman presumed to be Belle. And when the cops arrested Ray Lamphere he blurted out, “Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?” It seemed an open and shut case. Except…
First there was the woman’s body; when doctors examined the corpse they described the woman as weighing no more than 150 pounds. Neighbors who had sewn clothing for Belle were adament that the corpse could not be her’s. So back to the ashes went the searchers. And what they found raised even more questions; they found men’s pocket watches, rings and wallets. And then a man arrived in town looking for his middle aged brother, who was last seen in La Porte, having responded to a notice in a South Dakota lonely hearts column. Finally asked, her mailman informed the sheriff that Belle had mailed and received 8 to 10 letters a day. The searchers spread out across the farm.
They found and disinterred the body of daughter Jennie, who was supposed to have been away at school. The found beneath the pig pen the bodies of ten to fourteen men and women, many of whom had been last seen visiting Belle’s farm. Cyanide was found in some of the victims’ bodies. But how many more victims had been fed to Belle’s hogs, or buried in undiscovered graves on the farm? When finally added up the list of known and suspected victims reached forty. Belle Gunness could well have been the most prolific serial killer in American history, certainly the most hard working serial murderess.
The jury at Ray Lamphere’s trail found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of arson. They also issued a statement asserting that Belle’s body had been found in the ashes. But Ray insisted to the day he died that Belle had escaped. And for the next decade sightings of Belle were reported from about Midwest. And most intriguing, there was Esther Carlson, arrested in Los Angeles in 1931, for the murder of a Norwegian immigrant. The motive was alledged to be theft of his money. It was alleged that her weapon of choice had been poison. But nothing was ever proved. Esther died while awaiting trial. But two expatriates from La Porte identified photos of Esther Carlson as Belle Gunness. And if that seems pretty far fetched, a tale for those obsessed with conspiracy theories, remember that it is the nature of most people, especially those in a small town, that when they hear of a tragedy their first thought is never of a conspiracy of evil - even if sometimes that is exactly what it is.