Life After Death
Even before it became known that Belle may have faked her own death, supposed Belle sightings began to spring up. Just days after the fire, at least one Indiana train worker claimed to have seen Belle boarding a train bound for Chicago. By that time, her photo was plastered all over the local papers, but given the coroner’s assertion, the sighting was eventually dismissed.
A local delivery boy who had brought some groceries to Elizabeth’s home three days after the fire later said he saw Belle standing in her kitchen. Terrified, however, he didn’t tell anyone for years, and of course, his story would never be verified.
In the two decades that followed, many other purported sightings were investigated and also dismissed.
Then in 1930, the sheriff of Hinds County, Mississippi, received a tip that a 70-yr old widow living on an estate in Harrison County, some 150 miles away, was none other than Belle Gunness. The tip reportedly came from a man who had worked on the Gunness farm back in La Porte more than 20 years earlier, but the sheriff did not get the tipster’s name. Why the tip was turned in to the Hinds County sheriff – and not the sheriff of Harrison County, where the woman lived – is also peculiarly unclear.
Nevertheless, the woman in question reportedly made occasional visits to Illinois and Indiana, and her husband had died the previous year – of natural causes, it was believed. Moreover, she had lived on the estate for only the previous 13 years, and her history prior to 1917 was apparently a matter of some debate. Unfortunately, as she was of some prominence in the community, she was never arrested or interrogated.
However compelling, even this sighting was put aside when the curious case of Esther Carlson came to light the following year.
In 1931, in Los Angeles, a heavyset woman in her 70’s going by the name of Esther Carlson, was arrested for the fatal poisoning of an 81-year old man named August Lindstrom, who she apparently murdered for his money.
Suspicions immediately arose that this could be Belle, but Esther contracted tuberculosis and quickly died in prison while awaiting trial. Her true identity was still in doubt, and the story of her life prior to that year remained completely unsubstantiated.
Esther’s modus operandi certainly fit. Additionally, she was of Scandinavian descent, and her possessions reportedly included old photographs of what looked strikingly like the Gunness children.
Authorities in Indiana were contacted, and they arranged for two former La Porte residents who had known Belle to view the body – one via photograph and one actually at the morgue. Both, separately, came away convinced they had just seen the body of the murderess Belle Gunness.
The man who viewed the body in the Los Angeles morgue had interacted with Belle “hundreds of times” back in La Porte. He said that this body had Belle’s fingers, eyes, hairlines, and a characteristic “twist” on her lips, all of which he asserted were unique to Belle.
At first blush, the man who viewed the photo was said to have remarked, “That sure looks like Belle Gunness, except that Belle had a wart on her face, and this lady doesn’t.” However, he too ultimately asserted that the person in the photo could only be Belle. Later, knowing that commercial photographs of the time were often retouched, police obtained a negative of the picture. The woman did, indeed, have a distinctive wart on her face.