Jan. 11, 2008 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.
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