Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Digging Up A Serial Killer's Century-old Secrets

Date:
January 11, 2008
Source:
University of Indianapolis
Summary:
Growing up in La Porte, Ind., Andrea Simmons couldn't help hearing tales of the city's most notorious former resident, a so-called "black widow" and "Lady Bluebeard" who amassed a fortune during a devious campaign of arson and murder at the turn of the 20th century. Now, Simmons is a graduate student at the University of Indianapolis, where her master's thesis in human biology might answer a question that has intrigued true-crime aficionados for a century: Did Belle Gunness -- perhaps the world's most prolific female serial killer -- actually die in a 1908 house fire, or did she fake her death to evade the law and kill again?

In the University of Indianapolis Archeology and Forensics Laboratory, graduate student Andrea Simmons examines x-rays of a skull found on the property of Belle Gunness, a notorious serial killer of the 1900s.
Credit: Scott Hall, University of Indianapolis

Growing up in La Porte, Ind., Andrea Simmons couldn’t help hearing tales of the city’s most notorious former resident, a so-called “black widow” and “Lady Bluebeard” who amassed a fortune during a devious campaign of arson and murder at the turn of the 20th century.

Related Articles


Now, Simmons is a graduate student at the University of Indianapolis, where her master’s thesis in human biology might answer a question that has intrigued true-crime aficionados for a century: Did Belle Gunness – perhaps the world’s most prolific female serial killer – actually die in a 1908 house fire, or did she fake her death to evade the law and kill again?

With guidance from Professor Stephen Nawrocki, a forensic anthropologist known for his work on high-profile criminal cases, Simmons led a team of UIndy students in November to the Illinois cemetery where the body identified as Gunness was buried. With permission from descendants, they exhumed the remains, which they are now analyzing and hope to compare with DNA samples from Gunness’ letters.

“We’re the first ones to actually reopen the grave and gather forensic evidence,” said Simmons, 47, an attorney of 20-plus years who returned to college with an eye toward working on international genocide investigations. “We have family members still alive who want answers.”

Working with DNA is a complicated and expensive process that will require lab work both on and off campus. If progress is made quickly, Simmons may have some answers in time for the 100th anniversary of the fire, April 28.

Already, however, the researchers have made a shocking discovery: The casket they exhumed contained not just an adult woman’s body, but also the partial remains of two children.

To Nawrocki, this surprise further confirmed that the initial investigations of the fire and Gunness’ crimes were botched from the start.

“It makes me doubt every conclusion these people came to,” he says. “Instead of answering questions, it just opened up more.”

Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant, is thought to have killed her first two husbands, several of her children or stepchildren, and a series of suitors she lured to her La Porte farm with classified ads promising marriage to a wealthy widow. The mysterious disappearances at her farm generated suspicion, but only after the fire gutted her house did investigators begin finding human remains around the property.

The case immediately became an international sensation, with intense media attention and a circus-like atmosphere. Even by the standards of the day, investigators clearly mishandled and misinterpreted evidence. Unearthed bones were put on public display at the farm, and other items toured the nation with the Ringling Brothers show.

Newspaper stories, pulp books and decades of speculation have further clouded the facts. For example, many sources cite Gunness’ death toll at 40 or more. Simmons’ research, which has included poring over court records, museum files and contemporaneous media accounts, places the total around 25.

“They never even made a good attempt to count the bodies,” says Simmons, a former prosecutor and Army JAG who lives with her family in Zionsville, Ind.

Rumors about Gunness’ escape are well grounded, however. The body found in the gutted house was smaller than her sturdy 5-foot-8-inch, 230-pound frame, and it was inexplicably missing its head. She reportedly made out a will and bought a quantity of kerosene just before the fire. The blaze was blamed on her handyman, who confessed on his prison deathbed that he had been involved in the crimes and removed and disposed of a human head on the property shortly before the fire.

One theory suggests Gunness fled to California, assumed a new identity and later was charged with similar crimes. If the body exhumed in Illinois turns out not to be Gunness, Simmons’ investigation may take her to the West Coast to seek samples from that murderer’s grave, or from the grave of Gunness’ sister, who suspiciously moved there from the Midwest after Gunness’ death or disappearance.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Indianapolis. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Indianapolis. "Digging Up A Serial Killer's Century-old Secrets." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 January 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080109105956.htm>.
University of Indianapolis. (2008, January 11). Digging Up A Serial Killer's Century-old Secrets. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080109105956.htm
University of Indianapolis. "Digging Up A Serial Killer's Century-old Secrets." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080109105956.htm (accessed December 19, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Fossils & Ruins News

Friday, December 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researchers Bring Player Pianos Back to Life

Researchers Bring Player Pianos Back to Life

AP (Dec. 17, 2014) Stanford University wants to unlock the secrets of the player piano. Researchers are restoring and studying self-playing pianos and the music rolls that recorded major composers performing their own work. (Dec. 17) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Domestication Might've Been Bad For Horses

Domestication Might've Been Bad For Horses

Newsy (Dec. 16, 2014) A group of scientists looked at the genetics behind the domestication of the horse and showed how human manipulation changed horses' DNA. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet Manuscripts to Go on Sale

Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet Manuscripts to Go on Sale

AFP (Dec. 16, 2014) A collection of rare manuscripts by composers Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet are due to go on sale at auction on December 17. Duration: 00:57 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Old Ship Records to Shed Light on Arctic Ice Loss

Old Ship Records to Shed Light on Arctic Ice Loss

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Dec. 15, 2014) Researchers are looking to the past to gain a clearer picture of what the future holds for ice in the Arctic. A project to analyse and digitize ship logs dating back to the 1850's aims to lengthen the timeline of recorded ice data. Ben Gruber reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins