Who was the headless woman?
In 1908, locals in La Porte, Indiana, USA, couldn’t help but feel for poor Belle Gunness.
Belle, 48, was a doting mum to adopted teenager, Jennie, Myrtle, 11, Lucy, 9, and her own baby Phillip, 5. Yet when it came to men, she seemed cursed.
She was married to Mads Sorenson when three of their houses and their shop burned down. And in July 1900, Mads dropped dead. At least, like their properties, he’d been insured. So Belle had moved to La Porte.
In April 1902, she married widow Peter Gunness, who had a baby boy. Within a year, his son died of a virus and Peter was killed by a meat grinder falling on his head. Belle hadn’t been short of suitors since. They’d arrive, talk of marriage – then vanish. Even Belle’s farmhands often left.
Jennie left too, in 1906 – off to college.
In 1907, Belle hired Ray Lamphere, 30. Belle was smitten. True love at last? No – soon Belle had replaced her fiance with a new man!
Swede Andrew Helgelein boasted of their wedding plans. But suddenly he left too.
Furious, Ray kept threatening to ‘get her.’
On 27 April, Belle drew up a new will. That night, the farmhouse burnt down. Four charred bodies were found. Police arrested Ray on suspicion of murder.
He insisted he’d been framed – by Belle! Ray said she’d faked her own death.
Curiously the woman’s body was 5st slimmer than Belle. And missing its head….
Then, Asle Helgelein appeared, worried since his brother Andrew – ‘the big Swede’ – had vanished. It turned out Andrew had answered Belle’s ad appealing for a husband. She’d told him to bring his life savings. Was Belle a deadly gold digger?
In Belle’s burnt-down farm, police found her exes’ wallets and watches. Then, five rotting bodies, buried by her pig pen! One was Asle’s brother. Another was Jennie. Investigations showed her first husband had shown signs of poisoning.
Dozens of men described how they’d answered Belle’s ad. ‘Every applicant must make a satisfactory deposit of cash,’ she’d written.
Now, 13 more bodies were dug up. But what’d made Belle so evil?
Turns out that at 17, she’d fallen pregnant. But her lover beat her so badly, she’d miscarried. Belle had become unrecognisable. Angry. A month later, her ex died. Her first poisoning? Maybe.
Now, some said they’d glimpsed the ‘black widow’ in woods wearing a black veil. However, dentures were found in the ashes, plus real teeth with gold crowns. Belle’s.
She was pronounced dead. But not everyone was convinced.
Why weren’t they melted?
Police charged Ray Lamphere with arson and four murders. In November 1908, Ray was found guilty of arson but not murder.
‘She’s out there,’ he said. ‘I know where Belle is….’ But in 1909, Ray died of tuberculosis.
Over the next few decades, there were dozens of sightings of Belle the Black Widow. Did she die in the fire? Or escape – perhaps to kill again?
Even now, her death remains a mystery.
By Rachel Tompkins