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Belle Gunness

Early 1900s serial killer may have escaped by faking her own death in 1908 fire

On April 28, 1908, a LaPorte, Indiana farmhouse owned by widow Belle Gunness burned to the ground. Local police quickly suspected arson. According to the first news reports, the widow Gunness perished in the fire along with her three children. Police arrested Ray Lamphere, who had worked for Mrs. Gunness as a handyman, charging him with arson and murder. Lamphere admitted helping to set the fire, but insisted the widow Gunness was alive and plotted the fire herself.

Naturally, no one gave much credence to his story, but some facts about the case did seem suspicous. Just a day before the fire, it turned out, Mrs. Gunness had visited an attorney to draft her will and had reportedly told the attorney she feared for her life. Workers digging in the rubble of the farmhouse found the charred bodies of a woman and three children, but strangely, the woman's body was missing its head.

And then they found more bodies. A lot of bodies. Human remains were found buried in several places around the farm. Some of the corpses had been dismembered, the parts doused in lye, stuffed into canvas sacks and buried. Now authorities were asking two questions: Was Belle Gunness a murderer, and did she fake her own death?

As her past came under closer scrutiny, previous deaths it became increasingly evident that Belle Gunness had started killing long before. A Norwegian immigrant who originally lived in Chicago, she is believed to have killed her first husband, Mads Albert Sorenson, for his life insurance money. In 1902 she married a second time, to Peter Gunness. Less than a year later, he was dead also after a heavy object mysteriously fell from a shelf and onto his head.

Now twice widowed, Belle Gunness found new victims through personal ads in in Norwegian-language newspapers seeking a prospective husband. In her correspondence with men who answered the ads, she quizzed them about their finances and, when satisfied on that account, invited them to visit her farm. Those who made the journey were never seen again.

Among her victims was Andrew Helgelein, whose concerned brother came to the Gunness farm as soon as he heard about the bodies. Helgelein's body was one of only a handful that were ever identified.

When Lamphere went to trial six months later, his attorney brought to the stand several witnesses who said they saw Belle Gunness alive after the fire. Another witness, Joe Maxson, testified that Mrs. Gunness tried to drug him the night before the fire. He said he believed she intended for him to die in the fire so he could not be a witness.

Barely a year into his sentence, Lamphere died in prison of tuburculosis. He revealed no new information publicly before his death, but afterwards a minister claimed Lamphere had confessed to him that he'd personally killed Mrs. Gunness and her children. The alleged confession was met with skepticism and for years afterwards rumors persisted that Belle Gunness was still alive.