Photo by Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images
The scent of smoke wafted through Joe Maxson’s bedroom as dawn broke on April 28, 1908. At first, he thought an early breakfast was cooking below—he lived on the second story, somewhere above the kitchen—but the smoke drifting through his window looked unusually thick. Maxson rose from bed, peered outside, and saw a wall of flames.
His mind immediately turned to the other people living in the house. Three children, as well as the home’s owner—a 48-year-old widow named Belle Gunness—were likely sleeping. Maxson was the family’s hired farmhand and had lived on the small La Porte, Indiana, farm for barely three months. It was his job to protect the property and the people in it. He ran across his bedroom and tried to open the door leading to Gunness’s half of the home.
It was locked.
With smoke choking his throat, Maxson cried out in a desperate attempt to get the family’s attention. “Fire! Fire!” But nobody stirred. The only thing Maxson heard was the ominous creaking of burning timbers.
As a haze filled the bedroom, Maxson scrambled down a set of rear stairs, ran outside, and grabbed an ax. He desperately hacked at the door leading to Mrs. Gunness’s part of the home, but it was no use. Nobody inside was responding. By the time the authorities reached the property, the building was a charred husk.
When the embers finally cooled, firemen sifting through the rubble found evidence that the fire was not accidental. In the basement, they discovered the four burnt bodies of three children and an adult female. The woman’s corpse was headless.
Immediately, neighbors began mourning the tragedy: Belle Gunness, a lonely widow who had spent years fruitlessly looking for love, had died surrounded by her children in a horrendous fire. For all her life, it seemed that tragedy had followed Mrs. Gunness—she had lost two husbands and multiple children to terrible accidents—and now it looked as though fate had come for her, too. Within days, a disgruntled former farmhand named Ray Lamphere was arrested for setting fire to the building.
As the village mourned, a South Dakota man named Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office. He had heard about the blaze and was deeply worried. Months earlier, his brother, Andrew Helgelien, had come to La Porte with the intention of moving in with Mrs. Gunness. He hadn’t heard from his brother since.
The ensuing investigation would turn the town of La Porte, Indiana, into the center of America’s attention.
By all outward appearances, Belle Gunness had a hard lot in life. Born on a farm in Norway, she emigrated to the United States in 1881 when she was 22 and settled in Chicago, where she met her first husband, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson. Two of their children (who may have been adopted) never lived passed infancy. Around 1895, a candy store they owned burned to the ground. In 1900, one of their homes was turned to ash. That same year, Mads mysteriously died.
Using her husband’s life insurance payout, Belle bought a farm with more than 40 acres near La Porte, Indiana, and married a fellow widower named Peter Gunness. Marital bliss, however, was in short supply. Not even one week after the wedding, Peter’s 7-month-old daughter died unexpectedly. And that December, Peter died in a freak accident after a sausage grinder fell from a high shelf and struck his head. The circumstances seemed strange enough that the coroner looked into it, but Belle was cleared.
In the ensuing years, the two-time widow kept few constant companions. She lived alone with her surviving children and a revolving cast of farmhands, who helped her pitch hay, butcher hogs, and manage a menagerie of chickens, horses, cows, and a single Shetland pony. Around 1905, she decided it was time to find love again and began placing classified ads in Scandinavian-language newspapers.
"Personal—comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."
According to her mail carrier, Mrs. Gunness sometimes received as many as eight letters a day from suitors. Her neighbors watched as men came knocking. One of her farmhands, Emil Greening, would tell the New York Tribune that she often kept the identities of the men concealed: “Mrs. Gunness received men visitors all the time. A different man came nearly every week to stay at the house. She introduced them as cousins from Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and from Chicago ... She was always careful to make the children stay away from her 'cousins.'”
Gunness was extremely private and practical in her search for a new partner. As much as she was looking for romance, she was also looking for a man who could help take care of her property and its finances, and she vetted the incoming suitors as if she were an employer looking to fill a job opening. Money was always at the top of her priorities. In one letter to a potential suitor named Carl Peterson, Gunness reportedly wrote, “I have picked out the most respectable and I have decided that yours is such … If you think that you are able in some way to put up $1000 cash, we can talk matters over personally.” From 1905 to 1907, dozens of potential suitors knocked on her door, though none appeared to please her enough to actually tie the knot.
In July 1907, Gunness hired Ray Lamphere to be her new farmhand. A 37-year-old with an unsavory reputation as a drinker, gambler, and all-around loafer, Lamphere defied expectations: He was a competent carpenter and loyal employee. Immediately, Gunness gave Lamphere a room on the second floor of her home, and soon the two began a strictly sexual relationship. Too poor to ever be considered a potential suitor, Lamphere resented the men coming in trying to woo the woman he grew to love.
Mrs. Gunness didn’t care. While she was sleeping with Lamphere and auditioning potential suitors, she was busy exchanging deeply personal love letters with a 40-something South Dakota wheat farmer (and fellow Norwegian immigrant) named Andrew Helgelien. Over about 16 months, Gunness sent him approximately 80 letters.
The long-distance romance burned slowly. Gunness explained that all of her other suitors had been duds, but Helgelien sounded like a true, red-blooded Norwegian. She begged him to come to Indiana. According to Harold Schechter’s book Hell’s Princess, Gunness wrote: “This is a secret between us and no one else. Probably we will have many other secrets between us, not so, dear friend?”
Andrew Helgelien’s arrival in La Porte broke Ray Lamphere’s heart. When the South Dakota farmer came in early January 1908, Gunness kicked Lamphere out of his room and told him to sleep in the barn. “After he came, she had no use for me,” Lamphere later lamented.
Helgelien and Gunness appeared to have fallen in love immediately. Just a few days after meeting, they walked into the First National Bank of La Porte together and attempted to redeem three of the South Dakota man’s Certificates of Deposit. Within days, they pulled out $2839—money to build a new life together.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Gunness and Lamphere got into a fight. Some say it’s because she owed him money. Others say it was because he was jealous of Gunness’s new man. Whatever the reason, Lamphere was fired and replaced with Joe Maxson.
Over the next three months, Lamphere became an endless source of grief for Belle Gunness. She wrote multiple letters to the local sheriff, Albert Smutzer, complaining that Lamphere, playing the part of a creepy ex-lover, was prowling on her property and peeking through the windows. In March, Belle tried to get Lamphere declared insane, which failed. She then had him arrested and fined for trespassing. Days after that, he was arrested again and acquitted, though by this time nearly every La Porte city official was aware that Lamphere seemingly had it out for the poor widow.
He wasn’t the only one.
When Andrew Helgelien left for Indiana, he told his brother, Asle, that “he would be back home in a week surely,” according to the La Porte Argus-Bulletin. Andrew never explained why he was leaving. Nor did he return as promised.
Back in South Dakota, Asle worried endlessly. He checked with family and friends to see if anybody knew of Andrew’s whereabouts, but nobody had the answers. It wasn’t until a farmhand found a stack of letters in Andrew’s cabin from a “Bella Gunness” that Asle realized that his brother had run off to Indiana to bed a rich widow. He pored over the love letters and was immediately suspicious of the woman’s motives.
“Take all your money out of the bank,” one letter advised, “and come as soon as possible.”
“Now see all that you can get cash for, and if you have much left you can easily take it with you, as we will soon sell it here and get a good price on everything,” she wrote in another. “Leave neither money or stock up there but make yourself free from Dakota so you will have nothing more to bother with up there.”
In a third letter, the mysterious woman wrote: “Do not say one word about it to anyone, not even your nearest relative.”
Worried that his brother was being bilked by a con woman in Indiana, Asle wrote to Mrs. Gunness in mid-March and inquired about his brother, more than two months after Andrew had arrived. The widow wrote back promptly.
“You wish to know where your brother keeps himself,” Gunness wrote. “Well this is just what I would like to know but it almost seems impossible for me to give a definite answer.” She claimed that Andrew had left for Chicago. In fact, she had received a letter from him sent from the Windy City telling her not to write back for a while. In it, Andrew said that he had left to search for a family member. She speculated he might go to Norway. “Since then I have neither heard or seen anything of him.”
For Asle, the excuse raised eyebrows. This was very uncharacteristic of his brother. When he asked Gunness to forward the letter his brother had sent from Chicago, the widow remorsefully told him that the letter was missing.
“I got the letter in the morning and read it and laid it in a china closet in the kitchen and went to milk & when I came back the letter was gone,” she wrote, blaming her ex-farmhand for the note’s disappearance. “That Lamphere was here and he had probably taken it.”
Asle remained suspicious of the story. Meanwhile, Gunness continued to voice her suspicions of Lamphere. On April 27, she visited her attorney, Melvin E. Leliter, and asked to have a will drawn up. She seemed extremely anxious.
She told the lawyer what she had been telling everybody in town: Ray Lamphere was causing her more and more trouble, and she was afraid he was going to do something dangerous. “I want to prepare for an eventuality,” she reportedly told her lawyer. “I’m afraid that fool Lamphere is going to kill me and burn my house.” The lawyer signed the will.
After the meeting, Belle Gunness went shopping and came home with cakes, a toy train, and two gallons of kerosene. According to Schechter, she treated her family that evening to a large meal of meat and potatoes and spent the night sitting on the floor, playing with her children and their new toy train.
The following morning, her house burned. Ray Lamphere was arrested almost immediately. And when Asle Helgelien received a newspaper clipping announcing that the house had burned, he rushed to Indiana.
On May 4, Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office in hopes of gaining information on the whereabouts of his brother. Sheriff Smutzer drove Helgelien to the Gunness house and told him to see if he could find any clues in the burnt rubble.
By then nearly a week had passed since the fire, and the skull of Belle Gunness had yet to be found. All of the bodies had been mangled and charred, but it was curious—and frustrating—that the head of the oldest woman had somehow gone missing, especially because the coroner needed it to make a proper identification. The La Porte Argus-Bulletin claimed that a vengeful Ray Lamphere must have disposed of it, writing that he had “decapitated her, and then set fire to the house to cover the evidence of his crime.”
When Helgelien arrived, Joe Maxson and another man were digging through the charred rubble in search of the missing head. Asle grabbed a shovel and joined in hopes of finding some sign of his brother. After two days, he gave up. According to Schechter, he told the men goodbye and started walking down the road—until a creeping sense of doubt compelled him to stop and turn around.
“I was not satisfied,” Helgelien later said, “and I went back to the cellar and asked Maxson whether he knew of any hole or dirt having been dug up there about the place in spring.”
In fact, Maxson had. There was a fenced-in hog lot about 50 feet from the house. Earlier that spring, there were a couple of soft depressions in the ground—buried rubbish, Mrs. Gunness had explained—and Maxson was ordered to level the divots with dirt. Helgelien asked the men to dig up the trenches: Perhaps there was something buried in the trash that would indicate his brother’s whereabouts.
The men slogged over to the pig pen and thrust their shovels into the muck. They didn’t have to dig deep before they penetrated a putrid layer of trash. As they dug further, somebody gasped—poking from the ooze was a gunny-sack.
Inside were two hands, two feet, and one head. Asle recognized the withered, rotten face: It was his brother.
When the men looked back up from the gruesome hole, they peered across the pig pen and realized that there were dozens of slumped depressions in Belle Gunness’s yard.
The earth was filled with burlap bags of torsos and hands, arms hacked from the shoulders down, masses of human bone wrapped in loose flesh that dripped like jelly. On the first day of digging, five bodies were found. On the second, the count totaled nine. Then 11. After a while, the police stopped counting.
“The bones had been crushed on the ends, as though they had been … struck with hammers after they were dismembered,” reported The Chicago Inter Ocean. “Quicklime had been scattered over the faces and stuffed in the ears.”
Body after body after body was found in shallow, trash-covered graves—some under the pig pen, others near a lake, a few by the outhouse. Each body was butchered into six parts: The legs chopped at the knee, the arms hacked at the shoulder, and the head decapitated. Most of the remains could not be identified.
Just days earlier, newspapers and neighbors had been singing Belle Gunness’s praises. Here was a heroic woman who died in a desperate attempt to save her children from an awful fire. But as this mass grave of burlap-wrapped bodies came to light, the people of La Porte realized that Mrs. Gunness was not the woman they believed her to be.
Most of the skulls were scarred with giant gashes and showed signs of blunt trauma. Some of the bodies—those still intact, at least—contained traces of strychnine, commonly used as a rat poison. Many of the remains had been quartered like a hog, doused in quicklime to speed up decomposition, and buried under piles of men’s shoes. It was clear that this was not some crude family cemetery, but a mass grave. And for people familiar with Mrs. Gunness’s matrimonial advertisements, there was no question to whom these bones belonged.
As the police soon pieced together, Belle Gunness had lived a double life as a serial killer. She lured bachelors with her classified newspaper ads. When she believed the right man had replied, she’d convince him to come to La Porte and would seduce him into surrendering his life savings. After the man withdrew the cash, she killed him.
The yellow press pounced on the story. Just a week after calling her a heroic mother, reporters nicknamed Gunness the “Indiana Ogress" or “Female Bluebeard,” and even compared her to Lady Macbeth. Reporters described her home as a “horror farm” and a “death garden.” These details attracted gawkers, who came in droves to La Porte—some estimates say 20,000 people gathered at the farm one weekend—to watch body parts yanked from the dirt. Vendors reportedly sold ice cream, popcorn, cake, and something called “Gunness Stew.”
“As a result of the nationwide coverage of the case, police officials in La Porte were flooded with inquiries from people who feared that their long-missing loved ones had ended up in the muck of Belle Gunness’s hog lot,” Schechter writes in Hell’s Princess.
Stories poured in about missing men believed to have heeded Mrs. Gunness’s siren call: There was Christie Hilkven of Wisconsin, who sold his farm in 1906 to live with a widow in La Porte. There was Olaf Jensen, who wrote his relatives that he was off to get married in Indiana. There was Bert Chase … and T.J. Tiefland … and Charles Neiburg. The names went on.
It didn’t take long for it to dawn on investigators that the identity of the headless woman in Gunness’s basement was a matter of public safety. If the body didn’t belonged to Belle Gunness, then it meant a serial killer was on the loose.
Sightings of Belle Gunness were reported across the country. She was lurking in the woods of La Porte, shopping the streets of Chicago, riding a train bound for Rochester, New York. But on May 19, a pair of dental bridges were discovered in the rubble of the Gunness home. A La Porte dentist identified the bridges as belonging to Gunness, and authorities quickly claimed that they had secured proof that the headless corpse belonged to the murderous widow.
Many people, however, were skeptical. According to hearsay, neighbors who had seen the charred corpse believed it was too short and skinny to belong to their neighbor, a tall woman who weighed upwards of 250 pounds. Reporters wondered if the serial killer could have lit the house on fire, torn the bridges from her mouth to throw off the police, and fled the blaze. Rumors swirled that, days earlier, Gunness had hired a housekeeper and that the remains might have belonged to that woman instead.
Despite any lingering doubts, the police continued to pursue arson and murder charges against Ray Lamphere. There was solid evidence that Lamphere had been near the Gunness home the morning of the fire. (He had admitted to seeing the smoking building; he even claimed that he had refused to report it to the police because he feared he’d be blamed him for causing it.) At best, Lamphere was negligent in failing to report an emergency. At worst, he had started it.
The prosecution acknowledged they were in a tricky position. After all, they were fighting on behalf of Belle Gunness, a woman, they admitted, who had “engaged in the wholesale slaughter of humanity.” But it didn’t matter: It was still a crime to burn down another person’s house, prosecutors said, even if that person is later found to be a serial killer.
The lawyers even insinuated that Lamphere knew about the Gunness murders. According to the Chicago Inter Ocean, Lamphere denied this. “I have led a pretty loose life, maybe, and possibly I drank too much at times,” he reportedly said. “But there are others who have done as bad as me who are walking the streets of La Porte today. I know nothing about the ‘house of crime,’ as they call it. Sure, I worked for Mrs. Gunness for a time, but I didn’t see her kill anybody, and I didn’t know she had killed anybody.”
The ensuing court case became a media circus. As Lamphere pled for his innocence, his lawyers argued that Gunness had started the fire and had framed her old farmhand. For weeks leading up to the event, she had diligently worked to hurt Lamphere’s reputation and credibility, constantly bad-mouthing him around the town’s authorities.
It’s a plausible theory. Gunness had duped authorities before. As investigators later learned, her first husband had died on the one—and only—day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped. In fact, she had collected insurance on all of her deceased family members, as well as on two properties that had mysteriously burned down. She was a master at framing herself as a victim of tragedy, when in fact she was tragedy’s greatest beneficiary.
“My sister was insane on the subject of money,” her sister, Nellie Larson, would later tell the Chicago Examiner. “She never seemed to care for a man for his own self, only for the money or luxury he was able to give her.” Indeed, the insurance payouts and matrimonial schemes earned her more than $1 million in today’s money. It also led to the deaths of at least 20 people.
But for whatever reason, the jury still believed there was convincing evidence that Lamphere had started the fire. Lamphere’s only saving grace came when a chemist found traces of strychnine in the bodies of the burnt children, evidence that Gunness’s kids had not died from arson, but from the same poison preferred by their mother (though the testifying doctor refused to declare strychnine the cause of death). That evidence helped acquit Lamphere of any charges of murder, but it failed to protect him from the charge of arson—a crime that carried up to a 21-year sentence.
After just one year in prison, Lamphere died of tuberculosis. Before his death, he purportedly confessed to a pastor, saying he had witnessed the murder of Andrew Helgelien and had demanded hush money from Gunness. She fired him instead. And when Lamphere returned to the house to take back his personal belongings, Gunness charged him with trespassing and began defaming him in public. Today, many believe that Gunness was probably responsible for the fire: With her old farmhand turned against her and Asle Helgelien breathing down her neck, Gunness knew her ruse was up—so she destroyed everything.
But that’s just one of many theories.
For now, the lingering question of whether Gunness got away—whether the headless body belonged to a rumored housekeeper or to the Female Bluebeard herself—remains unanswered. In 2008, forensic anthropologists exhumed the murderer’s suspected body and attempted to analyze the DNA, comparing it to DNA samples Gunness had left on a postage stamp and envelope. The sample, however, was too degraded to provide conclusive results.
Little has been resolved since. At the time of Ray Lamphere’s trial, the Cleveland Plain Dealer prophesied that “The La Porte case may always remain one of the most puzzling things in the annals of crime.” It appears it will forever be that way.