Monday With Mildred: “The Truth About Belle Gunness”

Book cover for The Truth About Belle Gunness: The True Story of Notorious Serial Killer Hell's Belle.

The Truth About Belle Gunness: The True Story of Notorious Serial Killer Hell’s Belle

After finally discovering this book was first released in 1955 my first thought was author Lillian de la Torre was ahead of the game because I had understood the term “serial killer” came into the vernacular in the 1970s. A little googling informed me that, while the term’s history is a little muddled, it’s actually not unreasonable to see it that early. It also reinforced my grudging respect for the author, who penned a true crime novel decades before they became so ubiquitous and used a somewhat unfamiliar term in her title. She was also close to the modern format but not quite.

Belle Gunnes was a Norwegian immigrant who became famous at the beginning of the last century for killing a bunch of people, mostly Norwegian farmers, and planting their remains on her farm in La Porte, Indiana. Side note: that’s about twenty miles from Crown Point, Indiana, which became famous about twenty years later for Dillinger’s famous jail escape using a carved bar of soap. Must be something in the water up there. Unlike Dillinger, Gunness’ fame has faded to almost nothing today. I had heard of her, because I’m a fan of books about early policing but that was about it. There is, supposedly, a movie being made up in La Porte right now that I would be interested in seeing if it ever came out. Belle’s last days were very productive. First, she seems to have run a “short count” style scam on the bank teller when she dragged in one of her last victims. Then she went to her lawyer and changed her will, telling him she was, “afraid Ray [Lamphere, a disgruntled ex-handyman] was going to burn the house down.” The NEXT MORNING the town was horrified to find Belle’s house had, indeed, burned to a crisp and her body was found with her three small children. They were found together in the cellar, lying side by side as if they had calmly walked down two flights of steps and composed themselves to be found after the fire. Workers pulled the burned piano off of them, that seems to have landed on them from the first floor after they had fallen so neatly from the second floor. Most people assumed the dead woman was Belle, though her head was never found. The fire was ruled an arson, and Ray was dragged into court to face charges. The whole story is a treasure trove of confidence scams, murder, arson and some very obvious aiding and abetting by the town’s sheriff.

When I began reading Torre’s book I thought it had been originally published in 2017, which made the work feel a little “off” to me. She didn’t quite follow the model that has become standard since Bundy’s friend Ann Rule began cranking out true crimes a few decades ago. And she kept mentioning living eye witnesses to the events of 1908. Maybe there was a treasure trove of journals she was referring to? There’s not a lick of indexing or footnoting or even mention of interviews she might have done, just the names of people who knew of the events. Most of the book is a rather folksy account that seems to come from competing yellow journalism articles, stories told by witnesses and simply interested parties who happened to live in the area, a bit of court transcripts, and tales told by collaborators in her crimes.

Looking at the whole thing from a modern perspective, it’s terribly easy to see that this was a horribly inept handling of the investigation, and it makes me itch to grab a shovel and a ground penetrating radar and head to the Gunness farm to look for more bodies. Some people have tried to get at the truth, but like the Ripper case, too much time and obfuscation has undoubtedly muddied the waters too much to get at it. In 2008 a team led by Indiana graduate student Stephen Nawrocki exhumed Belle’s grave and found a couple of children had been buried with her, though it wasn’t in the records. The children in the fire had their own graves, so what gives? DNA testing from letters with Belle’s spit on them were inconclusive, despite samples having been donated from a surviving great niece. D’oh! Digging up the children’s graves didn’t help any. A woman named Esther Carlson in LA died twenty years after the fire while awaiting trial for killing at least one Norwegian man in a manner similar to Belle’s MO. She looked a lot like Belle. Still had her head attached.

I would definitely consider whether or not, as a reader, I could handle seeing multiple references to one of the major co-stars of the story, Elizabeth Smith. She was a poor African-American woman who lived in a hovel outside town and entertained gentlemen callers, as they called it then, one of them being Ray Lamphere. Indiana being an incredibly racist state then, even more so than now, the people in La Porte, newspaper reporters, and legal authorities had no qualms in referring to Smith as “Nigger Liz”. I’m sorry to have typed that and have you see it. The author of the book, in the 1950s, used the reference repeatedly, so please decide for yourself if you can manage reading it.

The whole story is fascinating and utterly frustrating because it’s never been really looked at beyond a few authors and college students digging into it. If you’re in the mood for a not terribly deep but somewhat entertaining look at a woman who should be a lot more famous, and feel like booing and hissing at the remarkably inept police work, then by all means try this book out. There were no photos in my kindle copy, and an irritating number of typographical errors, but I was still enthralled for a couple of hours, and will undoubtedly read more about her. Maybe next time I’m near La Porte I’ll stop at the museum.


CFR: In Addition: Hell’s bells Mildred, I really want to read this now!!!! – CFR

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