In the pre-dawn morning on April 28, 1908, a La Porte, Indiana
farmhouse burns slowly to the ground. The flames consume it so slowly, in fact, that a hired hand
named Joe Maxson smells smoke and is able to escape down the servant's staircase without much trouble. Of the five people that live in the house -- Belle Gunness, her three children Myrtle, Phillip, and Lucy, and himself -- he will be the only one to survive
. Maxson doesn't realize this, of course, and runs to every door and window in the house, yelling in to try to wake them, try and save them from the flames. Neighbors hear the commotion and see the flame, and soon more than a few families surround the now blackened house. For all of their work, climbing ladders to the second story, throwing bricks through the windows, they receive no response.
Belle Gunness was a lady fair
In Indiana state
She weighed about three hundred pounds
And that is quite some weight
Later, the horse-drawn pumper wagon
and its cadre
of firemen arrive, along with Sheriff
Smutzer, in time to see the flames consume the last portion of available fuel. Besides the house, all the outbuilding
s and trees that touched them are gone, ashes on the ground. Upon immediate excavation four bodies are found, the three children and an adult woman, she with her head missing. Smutzer suspects foul play
, and all of La Porte knows who he suspects in particular. A farmhand and ex-lover named Ray Lamphere
, who had been fired from his work on Belle's homestead
, is well known to seriously yearn for revenge. The Sheriff has him in custody before noon.
That she was stronger than a man
Her neighbors all did own;
She butchered hogs right easily,
And did it all alone.
Lamphere is adamant in proclaiming his innocence, and the press
already covering the event is interested in a story. They, as well as the townspeople, wonder what happened to all of the men who visited the Gunness farm and disappeared in strange circumstances. Even the man who Gunness had given Lamphere's room, that Andrew Helgelein
who had bought her a wedding ring
from Obbereich's Department Store
, had disappeared weeks before the harvest. Stranger still, the press found out that Gunness had drawn up a will on April 27, the day before the fire, mentioning to her lawyer that Lamphere was "... out to get me, and I fear one of these nights he will burn my house to the ground."
Every person in La Porte seems to know there is more to the story than an irrational arsonist
But hogs were just a sideline,
She indulged in now and then;
Her favorite occupation
Was a-butchering of men.
While looking for Belle's missing head in the ashes and basement, some altogether more sinister
items appear, namely a human rib cage
and arm, both recently buried. As the investigation goes on, more parts appear, whole bodies rent apart and buried in produce sacks. They are mostly males, but one of the two females turn out to be Belle's adopted daughter Jennie, who Gunness had always said was at a private school in California. There is argument about the precise number because of bone fragment
s found scattered in the hog pen
, but between twelve and sixteen bodies are found.
To keep her cleaver busy
Belle would run an ad,
And men would come a-scurrying
With all the cash they had.
had been this: She would place personal ads in various Norwegian
language newspapers, and wait for wealthy suitor
s to reply. Mail correspondence would be done, and she would pledge her undying love and wish to marry, if only the man would come to her homestead and family. Gunness would encourage him to bring as much money as he could for the proceedings, to turn all of his property and possessions into hard cash for their new life. Each suitor who arrived was summarily killed, and either fed to the hogs
or buried in the basement with a few pounds of lye
. And each time it happened she would lament to anybody who saw her with the man that he had taken advantage of her love and left her without warning.
Now some say Belle killed only ten,
And some say forty-two;
It was hard to tell exactly
But there were quite a few.
Even before she moved to La Porte, Gunness's (all fully
insured) children and husbands had a history of bad luck
. Having immigrated from Norway
in 1881, it could be said that she'd found a new twist on the American dream
. She may have made more than $100,000 when all was said and done.
The bones were dug up in her yard,
Some parts never came to light,
And Belle, herself, could not be found
To set the tally right.
Curiously, the adult body found with the children, besides missing a head, turns out to be eighty pounds lighter than Belle's 280 pound girth
. Six days after discovery of the bodies, a train conductor in Decatur gives the first report of a still-living (and train traveling) Belle Gunness. As late as 1935 occasional sighting
will be reported all over the country, a legend that is perhaps true.
And where Belle is now no one knows,
But my advice is fair;
If a widow advertises
For a man with cash, beware!
No head ever turns up, but Gunness's dental bridge
is eventually found in the ashes. Upon this incomplete evidence
, and with reference to all of the other missing information, Ray Lamphere is saved from the gallows
. Instead he is convicted only of arson
, but dies in prison after one and a half years of his twenty year sentence. He might be considered Belle Gunness's final victim.
Doggerel (in italics) taken from An Underground Education by Richard Zacks, as collected by Max Egly.