Belle Gunness with her three children. No one expected the sturdy hog farmer to be a lethal seductress -- and serial killer. (La Porte County Historical Society)

"COME PREPARED TO STAY FOREVER"
Belle Gunness -- "Lady Bluebeard"

 

On April 28, 1908 a mysterious fire raged through the small brick farmhouse of Belle Gunness, a widow who lived outside of the pleasant and unassuming town of La Porte, Indiana. The fire at first seemed to be no more than a horrible tragedy that claimed the lives of Belle and her three lovely children, aged 1, nine and five, but then questions began to emerge from the smoldering ruins. The answers, and the unsolved mysteries, that would emerge from these ruins would make headlines across the Midwest.

In life, 48 year-old Belle Gunness had stood just under five and a half feet tall but had weighed a massive 280 pounds, however the body that was found in the remains of her home was no more than 150. Had the blaze somehow burned away the flesh from Belle's portly body? No one could really say for sure since the head of the corpse was missing. How had this happened? Could a falling section of the house have severed her head -- or had it been cut off by a murderer who had set fire to the house to hide his crime?

Bell Gunness was no stranger to mystery or to controversy. Several years before, her husband, Peter Gunness, had been killed (according to Belle) when a meat grinder had toppled off the shelf in the kitchen and had struck him in the head. But when the coroner looked at the body, he allegedly muttered "this is a case of murder." To make matter worse, one of Belle's children even told a classmate that her mother had hit him over the head with a cleaver. The authorities investigated but Belle was so convincing, and so formidable, at the inquest that no charges were ever filed. And after her husband's death, Belle was never considered a proper widow. It was common knowledge in town that she had taken her handyman, Ray Lamphere, to her bed on lonely winter nights.

It would Lamphere that the sheriff would turn to when he started having his own doubts about an accidental fire at the Gunness home. He considered the case a definite example of murder and arson. He set two of his deputies digging in the debris of the house for Belle's head and sent two others to arrest Lamphere. When drinking, the slow-witted handyman often boasted of sleeping with his employer, which came as a surprise to those who only saw Belle as the burly woman who liked to dress in men's overalls and do her own hog butchering. There was another side to the woman though, which Ray Lamphere saw -- as well as numerous strangers who were often seen going for a carriage ride with Belle on Sunday afternoons.


Ray Lamphere (La Porte County Historical Society)

On those occasions, Belle was seen wearing a corset and her finest clothing, with her hair done in the latest styles of the women's magazines that came from Chicago and New York. Unrecognizable from the rough farm woman, she was usually accompanied by a handsome young man who had arrived with his suitcase at the railroad station a few days before. Ray Lamphere had endured these attentive strangers but had never lost him temper over any of them, until the winter of 1908. At that time, he was introduced to a gentleman from South Dakota, Andrew Hegelian -- Belle's new husband-to-be. Lamphere protested and Belle promptly fired him. Lamphere soon began drinking heavily and began showing up at Belle's house. She had him arrested for trespassing and then mentioned to the sheriff that "I'm afraid that he'll set fire to the place."


Andrew Hegelian, the young man from South Dakota who answered one of Belle's ads.
(La Porte County Historical Society)

This immediately came back to mind for Sheriff Smutzer and he had Lamphere locked up and charged with the murder of Belle and her children. The handyman claimed to be innocent but his cries fell on deaf ears until Asle Hegelian showed up in town from South Dakota, searching for his missing brother, Andrew. He told Sheriff Smutzer that Andrew had answered a matrimonial ad that had been placed by Belle Gunness in a Norwegian language newspaper. In her reply, Belle offered true love and a life of wedded bliss, but also mentioned a quick $1,000 that she needed to pay off a mortgage. She ended her letter with "my heart beats in wild rapture for you --- come prepared to stay forever." And apparently, he did. He withdrew his life savings from the bank and was never heard from again.

By the time that Asle arrived in La Porte, he was sure that his brother had met with foul play. He became even more convinced when he went out to the ruins of Belle's home and watched as the men digging for her head turned up eight men's watches, assorted bones and human teeth instead. He searched through the property on his own and shouted to the men to start digging in the rubbish hole that was located in Belle's hog pen. As they began turning the earth, they found four bodies -- all of them skillfully sliced apart and wrapped in oilcloth. One of the bodies belonged to Andrew Hegelian.

The town was shocked and more men came out to the farm to join in the search. On the following day, three more bodies were discovered and in all, 14 of Belle's victims were pieced together, with a quantity of teeth, bones and watches left over. The gruesome finds made headlines in newspapers all over the Midwest and relatives began to appear from all over the region to claim bodies. All of them told of lonesome brothers, uncles and cousins answering Belle's matrimonial ads and traveling hopefully to La Porte with their life savings stuffed in their pockets. Sheriff Smutzer estimated that Belle had made about $30,000 from her victims. She had drugged them and then had cut up the bodies as she did her hogs.

But even with this mystery cleared up, the unanswered question of the body in the burned house remained. Was it Belle's or had someone else been placed there to die? Belle's head never appeared but the sheriff thought that her teeth might. A neighbor who had once been a prospector offered to sluice the debris for any of Belle's teeth.


Dime novel accounts of Belle's exploits slimmed her down from her real-life 280 pounds to make her look more like the seductress that she really was. (La Porte County Historical Society)

 He found many additional male teeth in the ruins but only one of which could be linked to Belle. This convinced some of the locals that the 150 pound body had been Belle's but others scoffed, saying that any woman who would leave her children to die in a fire so that she could escape would certainly not balk at knocking out one of her own teeth in the interests of eluding arrest.

(Left) Crews of men sifted through the ruins of Belle's house in a search for remains

(Right) The sluicing operation that was started to search for Belle's teeth in what remained of the house

The lingering controversy spilled over into the courtroom for despite the grisly discoveries on Belle's property, the sheriff doggedly persisted in bringing Ray Lamphere to trial for her murder. Both sides fought hard and the jury eventually brought in a rather curious verdict. Lamphere was acquitted of the murder but was convicted of setting fire to the house. He received a sentence of two to 21 years in the state penitentiary. He eventually died in prison , having contracted tuberculosis in jail while awaiting trial, but he confessed his role in Belle's crimes to his cellmate before he succumbed to the disease. He told him that he was aware of Belle's murderous activities and had even buried bodies for her when she was finished cutting them up. He said that the headless woman that was found in the fire was that a female derelict that Belle had found in Chicago. She had poisoned the woman with strychnine and then had placed her in bed with the children. She had removed one of her own teeth and then had set the house on fire. After that, she had vanished with the money that the men had unwittingly brought to her. Lamphere was supposed to hear from Belle after she got away to safety -- but he never had. Unbelievably, the moronic handyman died in his prison cell, still in love with a human monster.

And what happened to Belle Gunness herself? No one knows. She vanished without a trace in April 1908 and was never heard from again.


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Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.