DNA to Decide if Headless Killer Faked Her Death

Belle Gunness, proclaimed as recent history's most prolific female serial killer, sits with her children Lucy, Myrtle and Phillip in this undated photo. She is suspected of having killed more than 40 people in less than a decade. (Image credit: La Porte County Historical Society)

Police found the headless body of Belle "the Black Widow" Gunness, perhaps the most infamous female serial killer in history, in the basement of her burned-out Indiana farmhouse in 1908.

Yet nearly 100 years after the killer's corpse was buried, no one is certain that it belongs to Gunness; many think the Norwegian immigrant faked her own death and fled to California to continue her killing streak for another 23 years.

To put the mystery to rest, University of Indianapolis researchers are comparing DNA from the now-exhumed body to cells stuck to letters that Gunness sent to cash-heavy male suitors — all of whom probably ended up buried behind the house, said Andrea Simmons, a graduate student in human biology leading the forensic investigation.

"Gunness has got to be the most prolific female serial killer in modern history," Simmons told LiveScience. "She clearly killed 25 people, arguably 40, in less than a decade but we're not sure when she died. We're trying to put a lid on this case."

Simmons explained that relatives of those Gunness allegedly killed for their money want to know exactly what happened to the legendary killer. She is said to have relied on poison for most of her crimes, which reportedly include offing both her husbands and all her children.

"People who die at the hands of killers leave behind family who want answers to unsolved crimes," Simmons said. "There aren't many historical cases where we can get answers. This is unique. We now have the ability to solve this with modern forensics."

Escape artist?

Theories of famous people faking their deaths abound in popular culture, for instance tales have long circulated about John Gotti and Elvis, but Simmons said evidence of a possible Gunness con is compelling.

"Days before the fire, she bought five gallons of kerosene and made a lot of noise in town about her farm hand plotting to kill her," Simmons said. Simmons noted that the suspect activities happened shortly after rumors of men showing up at Gunness' door and never being seen again started to circulate around her small town of La Porte, Indiana.

But perhaps the strangest inconsistency in Gunness' story, Simmons explained, is that the body found in the basement had no head and rested next to the charred bodies of two children.

"Without the head, the county coroner was uncomfortable pronouncing her dead," Simmons said.

The convicted farm hand — Ray Lamphere — was locked away in prison for the rest of his life after the fire, but always maintained from his cell that Gunness had cheated authorities. The theory that she fled to California emerged after a woman matching Gunness' description was arrested in 1931 for the alleged poisoning of a Norwegian man.

"She would have been in her early seventies at the time, so it's not impossible," Simmons said. "Before Indiana authorities could get to California and see if they could identify her, she died of tuberculosis in police custody and was buried."

That's where DNA, the blueprint of life unique to each person, comes in handy.

Genetic sleuth

Simmons, a former prosecutor and civil litigator who decided mid-career to pick up a biology education, said her team has collected bone samples from the bodies recovered from the basement of the Gunness farm, and hopes to extract DNA from them. They plan to compare the samples to those extracted from cells stuck in the glue of envelopes Gunness mailed to her prey.

"We have several original envelopes she sent to suitors, so that's our best shot for getting her DNA," Simmons said. She added that she and her colleagues also plan to sample DNA from an unidentified head thought to belong to Gunness' suspected body. The head has been "rolling around in a filing cabinet" at the local county museum for decades, Simmons said.

Although Simmons is concerned that her team might not be able to get DNA from the envelopes and bones, she's hopeful some one will be able to.

"If we can't extract DNA, a commercial lab might be able to," she said, but noted that it's cheaper for her team to extract DNA for commercial sequencing at about $100 per sample than having some one else do it, which costs about $300 to $400 per sample.

Simmons hopes to get clear genetic results back by April, when she will help lead a ceremony to put headstones on the graves of Gunness' alleged victims. If the DNA from the body doesn't match that extracted from Gunness deadly love letters, she said the investigation will likely pick up in California with the other suspected body of the killer.

"At this point, I'm just waiting for the science to tell whether or not the body belongs to Belle [Gunness]," Simmons said. "If she did die in that farmhouse fire, it raises a lot of questions of how it all happened. If not, we can say this serial killer fled in the night, faked her death and probably led a full life."

Dave Mosher, currently the online director at Popular Science, writes about everything in the science and technology realm, including NASA's robotic spaceflight programs and wacky physics mysteries. He has written for several news outlets in addition to Live Science and Space.com, including: Wired.com, National Geographic News, Scientific American, Simons Foundation and Discover Magazine. When not crafting science-y sentences, Dave dabbles in photography, bikes New York City streets, wrestles with his dog and runs science experiments with his nieces and nephews.