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.

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 July 31, 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 July 31, 2014).

Share This




More Fossils & Ruins News

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Where Did The World Trade Center Shipwreck Come From?

Where Did The World Trade Center Shipwreck Come From?

Newsy (July 31, 2014) Scientists say a ship remnant discovered underneath Ground Zero dates back to the 18th century. Why it sank is still uncertain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre

Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre

AP (July 29, 2014) Food scraps and other items left on the grounds by picnickers brings unwelcome visitors to the grounds of the world famous and popular Louvre Museum in Paris. (July 29) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
London's Famed 'Gherkin' Goes on Sale for 650 Mln

London's Famed 'Gherkin' Goes on Sale for 650 Mln

AFP (July 29, 2014) London's "Gherkin" office tower, one of the landmarks on the British capital's skyline, went on sale for about 650 million ($1.1 billion, 820 million euros) on Tuesday after being placed into receivership. Duration: 00:36 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Asteroid's Timing Was 'Colossal Bad Luck' For The Dinosaurs

Asteroid's Timing Was 'Colossal Bad Luck' For The Dinosaurs

Newsy (July 28, 2014) The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs struck at the worst time for them. A new study says that if it hit earlier or later, they might've survived. Video provided by Newsy
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:
from the past week

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