Although it was five days after Halloween, the scene in Forest Home Cemetery on Nov. 5 could not have been more ghoulish. That’s when a team of anthropology graduate students from the University of Indianapolis unearthed what for nearly a century has been disputed to be the remains of notorious serial killer Belle Gunness. Under the direction of forensic anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki, the four students will have the DNA of the remains analyzed to determine whether they really are those of Gunness. The results may hush nearly a century of rumors that have centered on whether Gunness staged her own death in 1908 to elude capture.
“From what I’ve heard, I don’t believe that the remains are those of Belle Gunness,” said Jim Peters, general manager of Forest Home Cemetery.
Peters was present during the approximately seven-hour exhumation during which the full skeletal remains were removed from the grave. The plan is to compare DNA samples from the skeleton with traces of saliva that Gunness may have left on several envelopes she sent to a one-time suitor and have been collected by historians.
The testing may take months, according to Andrea Simmons, a graduate student heading up the effort, but Simmons is hoping to have the results this spring-in time for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the killings. Simmons is still looking for a lab that specializes in “dried antique saliva.”
In the late 1800s, the Norwegian-born Gunness was suspected of torching buildings in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s far west side and then collecting the insurance proceeds. She also was named a suspect in the deaths of her first husband, Mads Sorenson, and two of the couple’s children. In 1902, she purchased a farm in LaPorte, Ind., and for the next six years, after being widowed a second time, Gunness placed personals ads in Chicago-area newspapers, advertising for wealthy male companions.
According to Rich Vitton of the Historical Society of Forest Park, the men “mysteriously disappeared” while her bank accounts grew fat. Authorities attempted to link Gunness to the disappearances, but never got the chance to formally charge her: On April 28, 1908, a fire broke out in her home, trapping Gunness and three of her children inside.
Even as police arrested farmhand Ray Lamphere for arson and discovered the bodies of more than 40 men and children buried all over the property, some believed Gunness had not perished in the fire. In addition to the discrepancy in sizes between the accused killer and the remains, the skull was missing, which hampered a positive identification.
These details provide the basis for a number of rumors that persist 99 years after the fact.
Nancy Greco is a Forest Park resident and actress who played the role of Gunness in the annual Oak Park River Forest Historical Society cemetery tour. Even years after the small part, Greco said she is remembered by area residents for her portrayal of the female killer.
“I would always conclude my monologue by pointing out that Belle might not be buried there, because the grave was tiny,” Greco said. “And if it isn’t Belle in there, I don’t know if they will ever find out who it really is.”
There has been a lot of speculation that Gunness fled to California, and the 1931 Los Angeles arrest of one Esther Carlson for poisoning a wealthy man only fueled the speculation. Although Carlson died in prison while awaiting trial, over the years, many have come to believe that Gunness and Carlson were one and the same because of an unverified physical resemblance between the two and several similarities in the pair’s alleged methods.
Simmons, whose master’s thesis led to the exhumation, is not convinced the two women are the same.
“There’s an awful lot of folklore and misinformation about this case,” she said. “For example, I’d like to see more research done on Esther, because Esther supposedly had lived in Hartford, Conn., while Belle was still in LaPorte.
“But Belle’s identity is only one unanswered question in this case,” Simmons continued. “Did she commit suicide? Did she fake her own death, substitute another corpse for hers, torch the house, and then flee? Or was she murdered in the manner in which she killed? And what about the actual number of people she did kill? They found men, several teens, even an infant on her property. There were bodies without heads, heads without bodies. We also have men who deposited money into her bank accounts who disappeared, but whose remains were not found on her farm. The property was never properly searched, the pond wasn’t dragged, the methods used to excavate the bodies were primitive. Just trying to get a solid grasp of who she killed and what happened to all of them bothers me more.”
Simmons blamed a lack of sophisticated investigative techniques and tools for hampering the case.
“At the time, the coroner didn’t have the tools to accurately analyze Belle’s height, so he wound up guesstimating 5’3″,” Simmons said. “But everyone, including her dressmaker, knew that she was 5’8″ and 230 pounds. Our preliminary calculations show that the remains actually are between 5’6″ and 5’9″.”
Because obtaining the DNA sample from the envelopes to compare with that from the skeleton may be a challenge, Simmons does have another source of DNA: Suzanne McKay, the great-granddaughter of Gunness’ sister, Nellie Larson, authorized Simmons to remove a bone from Larson’s grave for testing purposes.
According to Peters, the caretaker of the local cemetery, should the analysis prove that the remains are not those of Belle Gunness, the team of graduate students will head to southern California to exhume the remains of Esther Carlson. According to Peters, if the correct remains are ever identified, “the family does not want the remains re-interred in the family lot” alongside Gunness’ first husband and two of her children.
“Overall, it’s been quite fun to look at it with fresh eyes as an adult,” Simmons said. “Belle has been written about countless times over the last 99 years, but no one has produced anything new. My goal is to do just that.”
And pending the results of the marvels of modern science, she very well may have succeeded.