The Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunness, Part II
Belle Gunness Belle's history was re-examined and reporters wrote about the sudden inexplicable death in 1900 of her first husband, Mads Sorensen, who had been well insured for $8,500. Two of her adopted children had died a few years earlier from conditions that might well have been due to poison, and several of her insured establishments had burned down. Belle traded her home in Austin, Illinois, for a farm in LaPorte, Indiana, and soon married Peter Gunness, who died eight months later when, as Belle reported, a meat grinder and jar of scalding water fell on his head (although no burns were present on the body and the blow to his head did not quite fit the supposed weapon).
Belle then placed matrimonial ads in various papers to lure men without family ties and with money — many of whom disappeared. That is, until they were found buried on her farm.
Lamphere seemed surprised about the bodies and mentioned that Belle had asked him to purchase poison and chloroform for her, but later reports indicate that he certainly knew what Belle was doing and might even have assisted her. The real mystery was whether he had actually murdered her. He denied it, but his conflicting accounts over the next year and a half made him a less than reliable source of information.
Strangely, the debates over Belle's fate aligned according to political affiliations, with Republicans believing that Belle was dead and Democrats insisting that she had faked her death and gotten away. The corpse in the burned building, they said, was likely a woman she had hired as a housekeeper. In the ruins were found a partially burned book about anatomy and one on hypnosis. When poison was found in the bodies, the Democrats considered this proof for their side — but that, too, was contested. The toxicologist who tested the remains had received three stomachs mixed together in one jar, after arsenic had been applied as part of a preservative process during autopsy.
A key discovery, three weeks after the fire, was the upper and lower dental bridge, identified as Belle's, allegedly found in the ashes. It had some teeth attached. Although the coroner now declared Belle to be dead, even then there was debate, since the bridge showed none of the effects from the fire that other metals had. Some people believed it had been planted there to close the case. Then a jawbone was found, but so was a skull in a vault that was missing its jawbone. The Democrats accused the Republicans of false evidence.
On May 23, 1908, Lamphere was indicted on four counts of murder and one count of arson. He went to trial on November 9 — after the elections. The law partnership of H. W. Worden and Lemuel Darrow took on his defense.