Each discovery only begs more questions, but as a team of anthropologists from the University of Indianapolis labors to solve a 100-year-old murder mystery, the time for Belle Gunness to reveal herself has arrived.
Following the excavation of Gunness' unmarked grave in Forest Home Cemetery in November, Andrea Simmons and other researchers from the university returned to Forest Park last week looking for her children. Gunness, one of the Midwest's most notorious serial killers, is believed to have set fire to her La Porte, Ind., home killing herself and her three young children a century ago as public suspicion mounted that Gunness might have been a murderer.
Investigators at Gunness' farmhouse would eventually discover dozens of bodies buried on the property.
The decapitated remains of Gunness and her three children were found in the basement of the home, but poor forensics at the time helped fuel rumors that Gunness staged her death and escaped to California. Simmons, who grew up in La Porte and took on the mystery for her thesis project, is hopeful she can finally solve the mystery.
"I think if we have to, we're going to call it one way or the other," Simmons said. "I think we have to. If we can't do it, who else can?"
The May 13 excavation of three graves belonging to Phillip, Lucy and Myrtle, ages 5, 9 and 11, was prompted by the discovery of the partial remains of two children mixed in with the bones believed to be Gunness'. The children's remains were much better preserved than those of the adult female, according to Simmons, and could yield interesting clues. Researchers too, found several bones from an adult skeleton in Myrtle's casket and simple comparisons to the skeleton exhumed in November should determine whether they match.
The thrust of Simmons' research is to determine whether Gunness is actually buried in Forest Park, but it's possible that handfuls of unanswered questions surrounding the murderess' exploits will be resolved.
"We don't believe Belle Gunness ever gave birth to her own kids," Simmons said. "If we ever find Belle that's one question I'd like to answer."
An estranged relative of the female serial killer is believed to have said Gunness was unable to have children of her own, according to Simmons. The children she raised - and murdered at the farm - would have either been adopted or belonged to the many suitors lured by Gunness through a series of personal ads placed in area newspapers. Genetic information from the skeletons could reveal whether Gunness was capable of passing along the family bloodline.
Also, in reconstructing the skulls of the deceased youths Simmons may be able to account for their demise.
"There was some conflicting testimony at the time about whether the children had been bludgeoned," Simmons said.
For Simmons, one of the most startling aspects of her research has been learning of the emotional baggage still carried by the families of Gunness' victims. During a memorial service held in La Porte last month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire, four of Gunness' victims were given a proper burial. Fifty-five people turned out for the service and many wept over the century-old killings.
"It's definitely teaching me that those scars don't heal," Simmons said. "I've never had an experience where I can see first hand how lasting those scars are."
The effort to identify Gunness is in something of a holding pattern as Simmons waits to hear back from police crime labs in Indiana that are attempting to extract genetic material from dried saliva that Gunness may have licked and compare that to DNA samples from the skeletons. Should that prove unsuccessful, the materials will likely be sent to Texas where a more sophisticated lab has expressed an interest in the case.
Simmons said she expects to spend the next six months poring over the children's remains before they are returned to Forest Park. If the adult skeleton is identified as Gunness, it too will be returned. However, should the remains be identified as someone other than Gunness, Simmons said she has received permission from the murderess' next of kin to retain possession for research purposes.