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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BELLE OF BEDLAM

I wonder what was going through the mind of lawyer M.E. Leliter, on the afternoon 27 April, 1908, when he was told Mrs. Belle Gunness was in the anteroom of his Main Street office. I doubt he was pleased to see her. But you never think the worse, do you?  Belle was a genial and pleasant, 48 year old church-going woman, but substantial. And at 6 feet, even taller than "M.E.".  Community gossips said that Belle had been seen carrying two 100 pound hogs, one under each arm.. Still, "M.E." thought he could detect the aura of hidden pain behind Belle's sharp blue Nordic eyes.
In Chicago, the stout young Belle (above) had buried two of her children -  not an unusual tragedy in the nineteenth century.  But then,  in 1900,  her husband Anton Sorenson, had died of heart disease. With the proceeds from Anton’s two life insurance policies,  Belle and her three daughters had purchesed a farm on the northeast outskirts of La Porte Indiana, out on McClung Road past Pine and Fish Trap lakes. 
It was there a year later she had married widower Peter Gunness.  on 1 April, 1902.  But tragedy seemed to have followed Belle.  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 sausage grinder, and killed. Well, life on a farm was hard, and dangerous.  And "M.E". forced a smile as he stepped out to greet the lumbering,  280 pound now middle aged woman.  But this day Belle was not interested in pleasantries. Someone, Belle announced,  wanted to murder her.
Her tale had a tinge of unreality to "M.E,"'s ears.  He was one of the most prominent of the 14,000 citizens of La Porte,  Indiana. Fifteen passenger trains a day passed through on their way to Chicago, 60 miles to the northwest.  Perched atop the prairie, the town was surrounded by farms, including the one owned by "M.E.", and, of course,  Belle's. But it was also home to the Meinaid Rumely Factory, whose 2,000 employees assembled steam powered thrashers,  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 (above), with oak paneled court rooms and stained glass windows. The disturbed Belle and her accusations seemed more fitting to the lurid crime ridden alleys of Chicago than the small, quiet, proper, Victorian, La Porte, Indiana.
The potential assassin was Ray Lamphere (above), who until recently had been Belle’s hired hand. Six weeks ago, Belle said,  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, explained the angry Belle,  the police had refused to grant her a protection order, and had dismissed her allegation that Ray was insane. Now, out of an excess 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 appointment 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 28 April, 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... when told of the bodies, and of the charges Belle had made against him the day before,  Ray was heard to ruefully say, “After all,  she wanted me killed because I knew too much..”  Was this the foundation for an insanity plea, or even self defense - from a woman?  But it did cause the police to think.
And then there was the mystery of the woman’s body. When doctors examined the corpse they described it as belonging to a woman weighing no more than 150 pounds.  Neighbors who had sewn clothing for Belle were adamant that the corpse could not be Belle'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. A lot of watches, rings and wallets.
While the police were still mulling over this perplexing development, a man named Ray Helgelien arrived in town,  looking for his brother.  Andrew Helgelien (above) had responded to a notice in a South Dakota lonely hearts column. “Wanted — a woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in the same”.  The lady needed help paying off the farm's mortgage, and offered matrimony and love in return. After exchanging several letters, Andrew had left home with $300 cash in his pocket.  Ray had not heard from his brother for several weeks, and finally opened the last last letter, post marked from La Porte. It read,  “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew. I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.”  Having seen newspaper stories about the grisly finds in the La Porte burned out farm house, Ray suspected that Andrew may have done just  that.   Had Belle placed that notice?  The local post office confirmed that Belle had mailed and received 8 to 10 letters a day, for years. The searchers spread out across the farm and started digging.
First they found and disinterred the body of daughter Jennie,  who was supposed to have been away at school in Los Angeles.   Then, under the pig pen the searchers found the bodies of ten to fourteen men and women, many of whom had been last seen visiting Belle’s farm, or working  there as maids and cooks.
Included among these remains was a body identified as being that of Andrew (above). In his corpse, as is in many of the others, the medical examiner found cyanide. The police were now more than willing to think the worst. 
How many victims had been fed to Belle’s hogs, or buried in undiscovered graves elsewhere 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, and one of the most hard working serial murderess in American history.
The jury at Ray Lamphere’s trail found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of arson. The jury also issued a statement asserting that Belle’s body had been found in the ashes. That did not match what the medical examiner had to say about the body. And Ray insisted to the day he died that Belle had escaped.
For the next decade, sightings of Belle (above) were reported from all over America and Scandinavia. But the most intriguing story was that of Esther Carlson, who in 1931 was arrested in Los Angeles,  the location of Jennie's supposed finishing school.  Esther was charged with the murder of a Norwegian immigrant, which matched Belle's preferred victims.  Like Belle, Esther's motive was alleged to be theft of the victim's money.  Also like Belle, Esther's weapon of choice had been cyanide. But nothing was ever proved, and Esther died in jail  while awaiting trial.
But two expatriates from La Porte identified photos of Esther Carlson (above) as Belle Gunness. The ages were a close, Belle would have been 71 years old in 1931, and if Belle had lost weight,... Could they have been the same person?  Did Belle slaughter every human being close to her,  pin it on a simpleton fall guy, and escape to California, where she went on making a living by killing?   If that seems far fetched a tale, remember that it is the nature of most people, that when they hear of a tragedy,  their first thought is sympathy,  and almost never of evil - even though sometimes that is exactly what a tragedy is.
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