DNA testing may prove whether Belle Gunness, whose Indiana farm held at least 11 dismembered bodies, staged her death in 1908.
CHICAGO — For 100 years, people have doubted whether a zinc-lined casket in a Forest Park cemetery really entombed the body of one of America’s worst female serial killers.
It definitely doesn’t today.
The headless skeleton that long occupied the deteriorating coffin now rests in an Indianapolis laboratory, where researchers hope to solve once and for all a lingering mystery.
Did Belle Gunness, a La Porte, Ind., murderess known for killing Norwegian bachelors, stage her death in 1908 by soaking her farmhouse with kerosene and burning it to the ground?
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Suspicion that Gunness escaped the small, lakefront town started to fester soon after the townspeople discovered at least 11 dismembered bodies buried on her farm.
Since then, the legend has grown that the woman buried in Gunness’s grave was much too small to be her.
A group of University of Indianapolis students worked first with shovels, then with chopsticks and paintbrushes, to exhume the body.
Experts want to compare DNA in the bones to saliva on the envelopes of love letters the killer sent a victim. The century-old envelope flaps remain sealed because the recipient used a letter opener.
Andrea Simmons, a Zionsville, Ind., attorney who went back to school to study forensic anthropology, saw her master’s thesis as an opportunity to find the truth about the “Lady Bluebeard” who historians believe murdered at least 25 to 30 people.
“I can do a lot more than just tell the story yet again,” Simmons said. “No one had taken a scientific look.”
Simmons, 47, is hoping to have the results by April 28, the 100th anniversary of the house fire that led to the discovery of several bodies, identified then as Gunness and her young children.
With her professor, a board-certified forensic anthropologist, Simmons and her team exhumed Gunness’ supposed skeleton in November. She was buried next to her first husband, with whom she had lived in Chicago.
Suzanne McKay, the great-granddaughter of Gunness’ sister and the descendant who permitted the exhumation, was there.
McKay, 63, has been researching her ancestor for more than a decade and said she would be quite surprised if the DNA came back as a match. “I would be so shocked that I wouldn’t believe them,” said McKay, of Portland.
Soon after unearthing the bones, the team set about trying to answer the first question: Was the woman really smaller than Gunness, as the story goes?
The team’s measurements determined the bones belonged to a woman who would have stood between 5-foot-6 and 5-9 — a range that includes Gunness’s 5-foot-8 height.
Century-old Chicago Tribune articles recount the story of how a community discovered a killer living nearby.
On April 28, 1908, a fire ravaged a hilltop home overlooking the apple orchard and rye field of a 42-acre farm.
From the ruins on McClung Road, authorities removed four charred bodies believed to be Gunness, a wealthy widow from Norway, and her three children, ages 5, 9 and 11.
The woman’s body was headless, however, making identification difficult.
Authorities learned that the bodies contained lethal levels of strychnine.
Despite the fact that Gunness made out her will and purchased five gallons of kerosene the day before the blaze, her former handyman was arrested and charged with murder and arson.
Townspeople thought Gunness was an innocent victim until a man showed up looking for his brother, Andrew Helgelien. Helgelien, like many others, had come to La Porte to marry Gunness, according to the La Porte County Historical Society.
After the fire, Helgelien’s brother insisted officials search the farm.
“If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure any of these bodies would have been found,” Simmons said.
Authorities unearthed at least 11 dismembered bodies, including three adolescents, an infant and a woman, Simmons said. One child was Gunness’ teenage adopted daughter.
She had lured at least 12 men with lovelorn advertisements in a Norwegian newspaper and sexually suggestive correspondence, Simmons said. A woman of means, she instructed the suitors to bring money to contribute to the union.
Most were dead within hours of their arrival, their home-cooked Norwegian meals poisoned with strychnine.
Gunness then butchered them the same way she did the hogs.
Sorted by type — head, torso or limb — the body parts were enclosed in gunny sacks and buried in the hog pen.
Although the men reported missing who had visited Gunness outnumbered the bodies recovered, authorities never searched the property thoroughly, Simmons said. There could be many uncounted victims.
“Belle Gunness was sort of the ultimate evil woman,” she said. “She was completely comfortable killing men, women and children.”
The list of potential victims continued to grow.
Gunness’ first husband and two of their children previously had died unexpectedly after suffering from symptoms of poisoning. She collected life insurance on all three.
A week after Gunness remarried, her new husband’s baby from a previous union was dead, Simmons said. Months later, her husband died when a sausage grinder allegedly fell on his head.
As news of Gunness’ horrors spread, tens of thousands of people flocked to “murder farm,” where authorities put the parts of Gunness’ victims on display.
“We are fascinated and appalled at the same time by serial killers,” said Stephen Nawrocki, a University of Indianapolis professor of biology and anthropology who is overseeing the project.
In November 1908, Ray Lamphere, Gunness’ former handyman, was convicted of setting the house fire, but not of murder.
In prison, he made a deathbed confession to a minister, claiming he helped Gunness bury some of her victims — others were thrown in a lake — and escape after the farmhouse fire, Simmons said.
Lamphere and Gunness traveled to Chicago a few days before the fire to find a body double. They brought back a “housekeeper,” and Gunness killed and decapitated her, Lamphere allegedly said.