A Trail of Lies and Bodies
Belle Gunness was a robust woman – at least 5’8”, perhaps up to 6’ tall, likely weighing more than 200 pounds. Neighbors and even her tailors who viewed the small-framed body from the fire unequivocally stated that it could not be Belle’s. What’s more, Belle was seen with her old farmhand and an unidentified woman during the previous few days. Local police were quickly convinced that the headless female was not Belle.
Curiously, there is some speculation that the local sheriff was paid off to plant the bridgework after the fire – which may explain why it survived the blaze intact, why it was overlooked when the body was first found, and why the coroner came to such a certain conclusion despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Over the subsequent few months, body parts from what appeared to be 40 different people were found strewn all over the property (though mostly in the hog pen), and a more elaborate tale began to emerge.
It was revealed that Belle’s bank accounts were emptied in the days leading up to the fire. And although his story changed over time, Ray reportedly confessed that he helped Belle fake her death and saw her board a train to Chicago.
He reportedly also said that the kids had to die because they were beginning to ask questions, and that he helped Belle identify and hire a housekeeper – the woman who would stand in for her in death. The confessions came in the 13 months after Ray was convicted of arson, but acquitted of murder, partly on the argument that the female body recovered from the fire was not Belle. He died while in prison in December, 1909, apparently not worth enough for Belle to have killed and dismembered him.
Belle’s closest friend in La Porte had been an eccentric local psychic and voodoo woman named Elizabeth Smith, an African-American who may have been born a slave. Her home was a dilapidated shack a mere 15-minute walk from the Gunness farm. When Elizabeth died in 1916, neighbors rummaging through her belongings retrieved a woman’s skull wedged between two mattresses. Although an intriguing find, she certainly seemed the type to have owned such a thing – perhaps for use in her spells – and a connection to the headless female corpse was never made.