Picking up where we left off last episode, we continue talking about the crimes of Belle Gunness. Find out what led to the discovery of her “Murder Garden” and what happened in all the aftermath.
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Sometime in 1907, Ray Lamphere was hired to work the Gunness farm. He is allowed to sleep in the spare bedroom in the house. Soon after, rumors began that Ray and Belle were sleeping together. Ray even admitted as much while drinking with friends, boasting about sleeping with his employer. It became apparent to many that Ray was falling for Belle, but Belle would never consider Ray a potential husband as he had no money to offer the marriage. So she kept bringing in more suitors, and Ray remained loyal to her, although he grew increasingly jealous over time.
Belle’s Final Suitor
The last suitor to stay at the Gunness farm was Andrew Hegelian. Andrew was a 40-something Norwegian-American from South Dakota who had been corresponding with Belle for almost 16 months before he finally came to visit her with the possibility of marrying her. Belle sent him 80 letters throughout their correspondence, plying him with promises of a beautiful life if he came to live with her. The last letter she wrote read:
To the Dearest Friend in the World:
No woman in the world is happier than I am. I know that you are now to come to me and be my own. I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want. It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know. Think how we will enjoy each other’s company. You, the sweetest man in the whole world. We will be all alone with each other. Can you conceive of anything nicer? I think of you constantly. When I hear your name mentioned, and this is when one of the dear children speaks of you, or I hear myself humming it with the words of an old love song, it is beautiful music to my ears. My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.
This letter seemed to do the trick as just weeks later, in February 1908, Andrew arrived at the Gunness farm with a check written for $2,900. Belle kicked Ray out of the house to let Andrew have the spare bedroom, which infuriated Ray as he felt “thrown away.” Ray made a scene, and Belle promptly fired him. Not long after, Andrew deposited that check and an additional $1,200 and then, like the others, seemed to disappear within a week of his arrival.
However, Andrew’s brother Asle would soon become a thorn in Belle’s side. Worried at his brother not returning within the promised timeframe, he began trying to figure out where Andrew had gone since he was very secretive about everything. That’s when Asle found the stacks of letters from Belle and realized that Andrew might have been conned.
He wrote Belle asking after his brother but was not satisfied with her response “Oh, he just up and left. Maybe he went to Norway or Chicago? I have no clue.” The families of missing men had written Belle before, but most had been easily persuaded that either the men had left or had never been there. However, Asle was not like the others, and he quickly promised he would come to La Porte to find his brother. Belle wrote that she would gladly help with the search if Asle paid her. Asle was sure now that something awful had happened to his brother.
Digging up the truth
Asle arrives during the investigation of the fire on the Gunness farm. His chances to talk to Belle are long gone, so Asle asks if he can help with the search of the ruins as the investigators were still looking for the head of the female body so they could confirm the identity through dental records. Asle was certain that evidence of his brother would also be found. However, Asle’s efforts were not rewarded looking through the house. Not only that, the head of Belle was not found, although her bridgework was. Asle was about to give up and go home when he asked Joe Maxon, who was helping on-site despite his injuries, if there had been any odd depressions in the earth on the farm lately. Joe pointed to the pig pen and told Asle that Belle had him fill in several depressions in the ground recently; according to her, they were where rubbish had been buried. Asle got the blessing of the investigator and soon began digging up the horrific truth of what had occurred for years on the Gunness farm.
In the freshest depression outside the pig pen, Asle found four dismembered bodies wrapped in oilcloth and dusted with quick lime. The newest body was that of Asle’s brother, Andrew. The mood in the scene changed drastically. Everyone soon thought back to the slew of men who had visited Belle over the years. Looking around the farm, they realize, to their horror, that there we many other depressions in the ground.
The men started excavating the farm and quickly found dismembered bodies all over the farm. Jennie Olsen was one of the first bodies found, explaining why she never returned from university. Other men who had visited Belle were identified as victims in what would be called by the media her “murder garden.” It was noted that the bodies were dismembered similarly to how one would quarter a hog, which Belle could do on her own. The use of quick lime also made identifying and handling the bodies difficult. While some of the bodies were found complete and identified, many more would never be identified or found incomplete due to the way the body parts had been scattered.
The media frenzy begins
Journalists quickly caught wind of this story, and news media from all over the country descended on the La Porte farm. What was initially the sad death of a mother and her children turned into the sensationalized story of the “Ogress of Indiana.” Belle was called Hell’s Belle, Hell’s Princess, The Lucretia Borgia of La Porta, and Lady Bluebeard. In addition to the “murder garden,” the La Porte property was also called a “death farm.”
One newspaper wrote, “The story of La Porte murder farm recalls the notorious doing of the Bender Family… and Henry H. Holmes.” The same paper compared Belle to Kate Bender, “Yet it is doubtful if the bloodthirsty Kate Bender in her palmiest days was ever equal to the awful crimes that are laid at the door of the Gunness woman.” Like the Bender farm, morbid tourists and onlookers gathered at the Gunness farm to watch the bodies being pulled from the farm. Over the weeks, vendors would sell ice cream, popcorn, and “Gunness Stew.”
About 14 intact bodies were found, but many more body parts were found due to Belle’s method of disposal plus the crude methods used to recover the bodies. When considering how many men responded to Belle’s ads, as well as her husbands and children, it is estimated that Belle had murdered nearly 40 people.
THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF RAY LAMPHERE
Despite all this, Ray had been arrested and charged with arson and the murder of Belle and her children. Before the fire, Belle had claimed that Ray was coming around the farm and making threats. She tried to get him legally declared insane, which failed, but also drafted up a will just the day before the fire, telling the lawyer that she feared for her life as she was sure Ray would murder her and her children and burn the farm down.
Ray declared his innocence, although it didn’t help that when Ray was found, he was wearing a coat and watch that belonged to two of the men that had gone missing on the Gunness farm. A boy also reportedly saw Ray running away from the farm just before the alarm was raised about the fire. However, Ray said he had been lurking around the farm and ran because he knew he would get blamed for the fire if seen. When asked who started the fire, Ray claimed that not only had Belle lit the fatal fire, but the female body found in the basement alongside the children’s was not Belle’s but that of a housekeeper Belle had just hired the day of the fire.
While some dismissed Ray’s claims, others felt that his claims were plausible. The coroner had pointed out that the female body found was 5’ 3” and about 125lbs. It was known that Belle was closer to 5’ 9” and well over 200 lbs by that point in her life. However, the local dentist positively identified the bridgework found to be the same bridgework he had made for Belle. Some pointed out that after visiting the lawyer, Belle had reportedly gone to the store to buy a new toy train for her children and two gallons of kerosene. However, the lead investigators felt that the bridgework proved the body’s identity. They proceeded with the trial of Ray Lamphere without ever locating the head, claiming it likely burned to ash in the fire. Others cited that $720 was still in her savings account; why would she skip town and leave that money there if she was so greedy?
May 22, 1908, saw the beginning of the trial. Ray’s defense team set out to prove that the body could not have been Belle’s and that Belle had planted the bridgework to throw off authorities so she could escape. They experimented wherein they took a sample piece of bridgework and burned it at the same heat that would have been needed to reduce a human skull to ash. The experiment showed that the bridgework was severely damaged and partially melted. However, the bridgework pulled from the Gunness rubble was near as damaged.
Ray was convicted by a jury of arson but acquitted on the charges of murder. Ray was sentenced to 21 years. However, he would only serve one year as he died in prison of tuberculosis in 1909. He would not pass without first offering several conflicting confessions about what happened on the Gunness farm to earn its owner the title of Hell’s Belle.
MURDEROUS DESIGNS AND THE LEGACY OF BELLE GUNNESS
Belle had already been murdering and hiding bodies on her farm before she hired Ray; however, after they began a sexual relationship, she had Ray help her dispose of bodies after the fact. In every confession that Ray gave, he said he never participated in the actual murders but was involved in the clean-up afterward.
Ray said that when men arrived, Belle would often cook a feast for them and drug the food or coffee. When they began to succumb to the drugs, Belle would use a meat cleaver across the back of their heads. Other times, she would chloroform them while they slept. No matter the method of murder, Belle would take the bodies to the basement, where she would handle the dismemberment before either burying them or making Ray do it. Ray said that sometimes she would feed them to the hogs if she didn’t want to mess with digging.
The house fire was Belle’s plan to escape, as she knew Asle was on his way, and she might have gone too far and been too bold with her bloody business. Here’s where Ray’s confessions get murky. He claimed in one that he and Belle were in on the plot and were supposed to run away together. She lured the housekeeper there so she would have a stand-in, planted the bridgework, and then smothered her children before placing them in the basement with the housekeeper and setting the house on fire. Belle was supposed to meet Ray, but she escaped alone instead, leaving him to take the blame.
One time it was claimed that Ray had picked Belle up and took her to Stillwell before going back to start the fire where Belle had left the children. Yet another time, Ray claimed that he killed Belle and her children before burning the house.
One of these confessions wherein Belle started the fire was obtained and published by a journalist after Ray’s death. Even though Belle had been declared dead and the case was seemingly closed, this kept the story of the Gunness Murder Farm alive in the consciousness of America. Many sightings of Belle were reported throughout the years, just like with the Benders decades before. Belle would be consistently compared to The Bloody Benders, H. H. Holmes, and Lizzie Borden. It was estimated that through her insurance scams and theft, she had 240k (6.7 million today) that she had grifted over the years.
Belle Gunness Sightings
While most “sightings” of the infamous Belle Gunness were debunked, one remarkable case in Los Angeles made many ask if Belle couldn’t help but go back to her murderous ways. In 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested for poisoning the man she was caring for, Norwegian-American August Lindstrom. Money was the apparent motive, and soon, folks drew connections between Esther and Belle. Esther died of tuberculosis while waiting for trial. However, it was reported that some from La Porte came to see the body. Some were certain that this was indeed Belle Gunness. It is even said that Esther had a picture of children with her, which looked remarkably close to Belle’s, but there is never any conclusive proof that this was indeed Belle. Newspapers ran side-by-side images of Esther and Belle, asking if the public thought the murderess had finally been caught.
In 2008, the headless body was exhumed for DNA testing. The body had been buried next to Belle’s first husband, Mads, as, at the time, they assumed it was the body of Belle. A letter and envelope from Belle were found, and they were hoping to extract a DNA profile to compare to the body found in the ruins of the house. However, the testing was inconclusive.