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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

7 Lesser Known Loons From Past and Present (2nd Edition)


Her name was Belle Gunness. In life, 48 year-old Belle Gunness had stood just under five and a half feet tall but had weighed a massive 280 pounds. Belle had three children, aged one, five and nine. They lived in a small brick farmhouse just outside the quiet town of La Porte, Indiana.

In 1908, the 28th of April, a mysterious fire ravaged the farmhouse. The fire, at first, seemed to be no more than a horrible tragedy that claimed the lives of Belle and her three children. Then questions began to pop up, from further investigation of the brick house ruins and other details.

The body that was found in the remains of Belle Gunnan's home was no more than 150 pounds. Had the blaze somehow burned away most of the flesh from Belle's portly body? No one could really say for sure since the head of the corpse was missing. Maybe a part of the house came down and cut off her noggin. Maybe somebody took her head to use in a truly disgusting game of rugby.

Gunness was no stranger to mystery or to controversy. Several years before, her husband, Peter Gunness, had been killed (according to Belle) when a meat grinder had toppled off the shelf in the kitchen and had struck him in the head. Yeah, that sounds like an accident that happens every day. When a coroner looked at the body, he allegedly muttered "this is a case of murder." To make matter worse, one of Belle's children even told a classmate that her mother had hit him over the head with a cleaver. The authorities investigated but Belle was so convincing, and so formidable, at the inquest that no charges were ever filed. And after her husband's death, Belle was never considered a proper widow. I would have thought she would have been quite a catch.

It was common knowledge in town that she had taken her handyman, Ray Lamphere, to her bed on lonely winter nights. Who was on top? I wonder if Ray, during his "busy" time with Belle, had the good sense to make sure the meat grinder was far away from the bed.
It's not that surprising to find that Sheriff Smutzer, at the time, began having doubts about the "accidental" fire at the Gunness house. He thought about Lamphere's involvement with Gunness and began to wonder if the case was clearly arson and murder.

Smutzer sent two of his deputies digging in the debris of the house for Belle's head. When drinking, the slow-witted handyman, Lamphere, often boasted of sleeping with his employer, which came as a surprise to those who only saw Belle as the burly woman who liked to dress in men's overalls and do her own hog butchering. Mmmm. Ya know, I can see where she would attract all kind of guys.

There was another side to the woman though, which Ray Lamphere saw. There were rare occassions in which Belle was seen wearing a corset and fine clothing, with her hair done up like a beauty queen. She was unrecognizable from the ogre-ish farm woman she usually allowed herself to be seen as.

Lamphere also witnessed numerous strangers going for carriage rides with Belle on those occassions. Ray Lamphere had endured these attentive strangers but had never lost him temper over any of them. I'm guessing he had either low self esteem, was a moron or was a player, himself and didn't care. Personally, I lean towards him being a moron.

But the handman's attitude changed when Lamphere was introduced to a new gentleman from South Dakota. His name was Andrew Hegelian, Belle's new husband-to-be. Lamphere became enraged and protested. Belle promptly fired him. Lamphere soon began drinking heavily and began showing up at Belle's house. She had him arrested for trespassing and then mentioned to the sheriff that "I'm afraid that he'll set fire to the place."

This immediately came back to mind for Sheriff Smutzer and he had Lamphere locked up and charged with the murder of Belle and her children. The handyman claimed to be innocent but his cries fell on deaf ears until Asle Hegelian showed up in town from South Dakota, searching for his missing brother, Andrew. He told Sheriff Smutzer that Andrew had answered a matrimonial ad that had been placed by Belle Gunness in a Norwegian language newspaper. In her reply, Belle offered true love and a life of wedded bliss, but also mentioned a quick $1,000 that she needed to pay off a mortgage. She ended her letter with "my heart beats in wild rapture for you --- come prepared to stay forever." And apparently, he did. He withdrew his life savings from the bank and was never heard from again.

By the time that Asle arrived in La Porte, he was sure that his brother had met with foul play. He became even more convinced when he went out to the ruins of Belle's home and watched as the men digging for her head turned up eight men's watches, assorted bones and human teeth instead. He searched through the property on his own and shouted to the men to start digging in the rubbish hole that was located in Belle's hog pen. As they began turning the earth, they found four bodies -- all of them skillfully sliced apart and wrapped in oilcloth. One of the bodies belonged to Andrew Hegelian. Uh oh. Guess he wasn't good enough for the meat grinder.

The town was shocked and more men came out to the farm to join in the search. On the following day, three more bodies were discovered and in all, 14 of Belle's victims were pieced together, with a quantity of teeth, bones and watches left over. The gruesome finds made headlines in newspapers all over the Midwest and relatives began to appear from all over the region to claim bodies. All of them told of lonesome brothers, uncles and cousins answering Belle's matrimonial ads and traveling hopefully to La Porte with their life savings stuffed in their pockets. Sheriff Smutzer estimated that Belle had made about $30,000 from her victims. She had drugged them and then had cut up the bodies as she did her hogs. Pork Chops, anyone?

Even with this mystery cleared up, the unanswered question of the body in the burned house remained. Was it Belle's or had someone else been placed there to die? Belle's head never appeared but the sheriff thought that her teeth might. A neighbor who had once been a prospector offered to sluice the debris for any of Belle's teeth.

The ex-prospector found many additional male teeth in the ruins but only one of which could be linked to Belle. This convinced some of the locals that the 150 pound body had been Belle's but others scoffed, saying that any woman who would leave her children to die in a fire so that she could escape would certainly not balk at knocking out one of her own teeth in the interests of eluding arrest.

The lingering controversy spilled over into the courtroom for despite the grisly discoveries on Belle's property, the sheriff doggedly persisted in bringing Ray Lamphere to trial for her murder. Both sides fought hard and the jury eventually brought in a rather curious verdict. Lamphere was acquitted of the murder but was convicted of setting fire to the house. He received a sentence of 2 to 21 years in the state penitentiary. He eventually died in prison , having contracted tuberculosis in jail while awaiting trial, but he confessed his role in Belle's crimes to his cellmate before he succumbed to the disease. He told him that he was aware of Belle's murderous activities and had even buried bodies for her when she was finished cutting them up. He said that the headless woman that was found in the fire was that a female derelict that Belle had found in Chicago. She had poisoned the woman with strychnine and then had placed her in bed with the children. She had removed one of her own teeth and then had set the house on fire. After that, she had vanished with the money that the men had unwittingly brought to her. Lamphere was supposed to hear from Belle after she got away to safety -- but he never had. Unbelievably, the moronic handyman died in his prison cell, still in love with a human monster.

So what really happened to Belle Gunness? Nobody knows for sure. In April of 1908 she disappeared and was never heard from again. If you have any suggestions or ideas, let me know. What I can't comprehend are all those men being that desperate for love. Also, why is it that they would come to the "Gunness House of Man & Hog Butchering" and were unable to smell something funny in the air? Like dead humans. I guess it's true what some Asian people say about us Caucasians.... we all smell like pork.

And on this charming note, I'd just like to declare to all the man-butcherers, gullible losers and everyone else out there in this wacky world....

Happy Valentine's Day!


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