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LET those who look longingly through the pages of the matrimonial journals beware! There is a tale told (and substantiated) about a female Bluebeard—a woman of mysterious powers and a peculiar attractiveness who lured and then disposed of an unknown number of unsuspecting men with the aid of such publications.

Someone should have tried warning her prospective husbands and victims, but there was no one capable of undertaking that duty—at first. For the people of LaPorte, Indiana, were only mildly curious about their new neighbor, the Widow Sorenson. The farm she purchased lay less than a mile out of town and consisted of a full forty-eight acres. They heard rumors that she was well-fixed financially with eight thousand dollars in life insurance and a few thousand more received from the sale of her home in Illinois.

The portly widow arrived with her two children and Jennie Olson in the summer of 1901 and amazed the truckers with her ability to juggle heavy boxes and crates. The Widow Sorenson was no petite creature and, from all outward appearances, far from delicate. She was five feet seven inches tall and weighed two hundred pounds, most of which was pure brawn.

It was not long before the community learned that this woman wanted to be left alone—and was capable of taking care of herself. An experienced farmer, she could pitch hay, milk cows, and do her own butchering of hogs and calves. Meat from the Sorenson farm was sold in La Porte.

Hardly more than a year elapsed when a strange set of events began to occur. In April of 1902 she married Peter Gunness, a stranger to the community. All might have been well had the groom not come to an untimely end. After only seven months of wedded bliss, Mr. Gunness left this World for the next. The death blow was dealt by a sausage grinder that accidentally fell from a shelf, Mrs. Gunness explained to the coroner. But the widow was well provided for with a four thousand dollar policy and the people of La Porte ceased to think about the matter. The widow, now known as Belle Gunness, continued to live modestly despite this new wealth. A son was born to her in 1903. A hired man was engaged to look after her place, but she herself was still active in the butchering of pigs and the caring of the garden. The farm help changed from time to time, but none of the men exerted any deep influence over Belle's life. A photograph of her at this time shows a squat. powerfully built woman with an exceedingly dull face.

Although it was not known until later—Belle Gunness made frequent use of matrimonial journals. She advertised in them regularly listing her desire for a good husband; she was not too coy regarding her own personality and qualifications. What Belle wanted, it seemed, was a man of Scandinavian birth, preferably Norwegian, who was kind and honest and who would help a lovable and hardworking widow to lift the mortgage on her little farm. "Triflers," Belle's advertisement said coldly, "need not apply."

In 1906, a Mr. John Moo arrived in answer to Belle's ad from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. With him was the tidy sum of one thousand dollars to be used to pay off the mortgage on his intended farm. For almost a week he was seen about the house. Then one day he wasn't there. John Moo has never been seen since.

George Anderson was the next to arrive, and like both Peter Gunness and John Moo was a Norwegian by birth. Demonstrating a certain well-placed wariness of the "kind and honest" widow, Anderson did not bring much money with him to Belle's place. Attracted by Belle's description of herself in one of the marriage papers, Anderson made the trip to La Porte with the intention of matrimony. After the usual amenities, George was seriously considering returning home to get what might be termed the entrance fee and then marrying the woman, but something occurred to make him throw aside these plans. During his stay at the farm he awoke in the night and broke out in a cold sweat at finding himself meeting the gaze of Belle who had been peering intently into his face, a lighted candle in her hand. What she intended to do, if anything, George never found out. With a yell he leaped out of bed, into his clothes, and out the door as fast as he could go. At the railroad depot, the frightened Mr. Anderson hopped the first train for his home town.

In the next few months Ray Lamphere was hired to help out on the farm. It was about this time that young Jennie Olson took a trip to California, as Belle explained to the neighbors. Jennie was never seen after that midsummer of 1906.

The Gunness farm began to assume an aura of mystery. Hack drivers in La Porte told of delivering trunks at night. The neighbors noted Belle kept the shutters on her house tightly drawn both day and night. Farmers going by late at night often saw Belle herself on the prowl, around her barn or in a small yard some fifty by seventy-five feet which she had recently enclosed with an eight-foot fence of stout and fine wire mesh.

The cellar of the house was always kept locked except during the hog butchering season. At these times a stray neighbor or two had happened to call when Belle was in the cellar, her sleeves rolled up, wielding a knife and cleaver with unusual skill. All around the room lay implements of the butchering profession.

The stream of suitors continued in 1907 and 1908. Ole Budsberg arrived with $2,000 in his pocket and Andrew K. Helgelein with $3,000 and neither has ever been seen since. Belle's smooth plans seemed to be clicking in good order, that is, until she and Lamphere had a disagreement. He, like many another poor man, had fallen in love with her. Jealousy had made him pack up his belongings and leave. In La Porte he told friends that Belle owed him back wages. He intimated that he knew enough about Belle to make her pay him not only his wages but to keep his mouth shut, too.

Lamphere's talking must have frightened Belle. She had him arrested on complaint that he was insane and a menace to the public. Found sane by the court, he was promptly released. And then trouble came from another quarter. A letter arrived from Mr. Asle Helgelein wanting to know what had become of his brother, Andrew.

Belle Gunness was worried. She told an attorney in La Porte that she was mortally in fear of Roy Lamphere, the ex-hired man. She said he had threatened to kill her and promised to burn her house down. With these threats hanging over her she wanted to make out her will. There was nothing out of order about the will. It left her estate to her three children. In case the children did not survive her, the estate was to go to a Norwegian orphanage in Chicago.

On the day following the signing of the will, farmers on the McClung Road saw the Gunness home in flames. It burned to the ground. Only the hired man, Joe Maxon, escaped, and he said he barely made it. Noise of the flames licking at his room had awakened him, he said, and he jumped out his second-story window in his underwear. He vowed that just before jumping he had shouted loudly to wake Mrs. Gunness and the children but had received no reply. They had been in the house when he went to bed.

When the embers had cooled slightly, searchers found four bodies. Three were readily identified as those of Belle's daughters, and of Philip Gunness, her son. The other corpse was the headless body of a woman. All four were found on a mattress in the cellar. On top of them were the charred remains of Belle's fine upright piano.

The first move made by the sheriff was to arrest Roy Lamphere. A neighbor's boy claimed he had seen Lamphere running from the Gunness place just before the flames were noticed. Lamphere was indicted for murder; and a charge of arson was left hanging over him, just in case the other charge wasn't sufficient. The victim named in the murder charge was Mrs. Gunness. But soon people began to wonder whether the headless body belonged to Mrs. Gunness.

Those who had seen her, talked with her, and did business with her, were quick to state that the body was too small to be that of Belle Gunness. Physicians measured the charred remains of the headless woman. Making proper allowances for the missing head and neck, they concluded that the corpse was that of a woman five feet three inches tall weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds. Belle, as those who knew her agreed, had not been a hair under fire feet seven and weighed at least 180 pounds if not more.

Clerks in the town who had sold Mrs. Gunness various articles of wearing apparel were interviewed, and they were able to furnish valuable information as to her clothing sizes. These figures were compared with measurements made by the examining physicians. The two sets of figures indicated that the body found in the cellar must be that of someone other than Belle.

While the baffled authorities busied themselves in the hunt for the head or the skull of the corpse, Asle Helgelein appeared on the scene. He was the brother of Andrew and had come in search of him. He told the sheriff of his fears that Andrew had somehow been done in by this woman he had come to marry.

A very thorough inspection of the grounds followed. The diggers went to work in the high-fenced yard. Under the soft earth they came upon rubbish of every sort. Among the disorder of old cans and bottles lay an innocent looking sack. Andrew's remains were found inside, hacked up but still in a recognizable condition. Before sundown that same day, four more bodies were unearthed. One of these was identified as Jennie Olson, the girl who had gone to California. After the third day of digging in the yard, a total of ten bodies were found. So many bodies and unrelated parts of skeletons were found that it was hard to estimate just how many people had met their end at the Gunness farm.

A rumor grew and spread in La Porte.

Dr. Ira P. Norton, a La Porte dentist, recalled that he had done some dental work for the "late" Mrs. Gunness, work which he could easily identify if found. The problem at this point of the investigation was how to sift the ashes and debris of a large house and find a few small teeth. Louis Schultz, a public-spirited citizen of the town, heard of the quandary and went to the officers with a suggestion. He offered to put all his talents, acquired in the Yukon as a cold miner, at their disposal. With some lumber he could build a regular gold-mine sluice box right on Belle's place. The Schultz offer was readily accepted. The sluice was built in Belle's front yard; water was piped from the barn, and Louis went to work on the strangest mining job of his career.

Thousands gathered to cheer him on as he shoveled tons of debris and washed it down over the riffles. Newspaper photographers flocked to the scene. Bets were made on the outcome. Chicago bookies formed pools on the day and hour Louis would strike "pay dirt." On May 19, after four days of hard work, Louis came upon the piece of dental bridgework he had been looking for. Dr. Norton examined it carefully and positively identified the piece as the work he had done for Mrs. Gunness.

Ray Lamphere, the ex-farm hand, went on trial in La Porte for the murder. Acquitted on that charge, he was tried for arson and convicted. Obviously the jury did not believe Mrs. Gunness was dead. Confined in a prison in Michigan City, Lamphere told what he knew to his cellmate, Myers. In 1909 when Lamphere died, Myers repeated the story to prison officials.

Highlights of the account were that despite the evidence of the dental work, the body was that of a woman Belle had lured from Illinois on the promise of housework, then killed and beheaded to prevent proper identification. The head had been destroyed in quicklime. Lamphere claimed that Belle had killed the four children one after another, then piled the bodies on the mattress after dressing the woman's corpse in some of her own clothes.

Lamphere was sure that Belle had done away with at least forty-two men getting large amounts of cash varying from $1,000 to $32,000 from each. Usually she first drugged their coffee, then bashed in their heads While they were in a stupor. She then dissected the bodies on the big table in the cellar, tied the parts into neat bundles, and buried them in the locked yard. Occasionally she put the bodies into the hog-scalding vat and added generous amounts of quick-lime.

Lamphere admitted to Myers that he had helped Belle bury several bodies, but denied be ever had a part in the actual killing. Although Lamphere was convinced Belle did not die in the fire, the police have not ever caught up with her. Many people around La Porte believe she is still roving in a distant part of the world.

The legend of this Female Bluebeard still lives on and has become a permanent part of the folklore of that region of Indiana. A song is still sung about her which begins like this:

"Belle Gunness lived in Indi-an;
She always, always had a man;
Ten at least went in her door-
And were never, never seen no more."

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