Podcast Episode 158: The Mistress of Murder Farm

belle gunness

Belle Gunness was one of America’s most prolific female serial killers, luring lonely men to her Indiana farm with promises of marriage, only to rob and kill them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of The LaPorte Black Widow and learn about some of her unfortunate victims.

We’ll also break back into Buckingham Palace and puzzle over a bet with the devil.


Lee Sallows offered this clueless crossword in November 2015 — can you solve it?

Souvenir hunters stole a rag doll from the home where Lee surrendered to Grant.

Sources for our feature on Belle Gunness:

Janet L. Langlois, Belle Gunness, 1985.

Richard C. Lindberg, Heartland Serial Killers, 2011.

Ted Hartzell, “Belle Gunness’ Poisonous Pen,” American History 3:2 (June 2008), 46-51.

Amanda L. Farrell, Robert D. Keppel, and Victoria B. Titterington, “Testing Existing Classifications of Serial Murder Considering Gender: An Exploratory Analysis of Solo Female Serial Murderers,” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 10:3 (October 2013), 268-288.

Kristen Kridel, “Children’s Remains Exhumed in 100-Year-Old Murder Mystery,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 2008.

Dan McFeely, “DNA to Help Solve Century-Old Case,” Indianapolis Star, Jan. 6, 2008.

Kristen Kridel, “Bones of Children Exhumed,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 2008.

Ted Hartzell, “Did Belle Gunness Really Die in LaPorte?” South Bend [Ind.] Tribune, Nov. 18, 2007.

Edward Baumann and John O’Brien, “Hell’s Belle,” Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1987.

Associated Press, “Authorities Question Identity of Suspect in Matrimonial Farm,” St. Petersburg [Fla.] Evening Independent, July 18, 1930.

“Hired Hand on Murder Farm,” Bryan [Ohio] Democrat, Jan. 11, 1910.

“The First Photographs of the ‘American Siren’ Affair: Detectives and Others at Work on Mrs. Belle Gunness’s Farm,” The Sketch 62:801 (June 3, 1908), 233.

“Horror and Mystery at Laporte Grow,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1908.

“Police Are Mystified,” Palestine [Texas] Daily Herald, May 6, 1908.

“Federal Authorities Order All Matrimonial Agencies in Chicago Arrested Since Gunness Exposure,” Paducah [Ky.] Evening Sun, May 8, 1908.

“Tale of Horror,” [Orangeburg, S.C.] Times and Democrat, May 8, 1908.

“Lured to Death by Love Letters,” Washington Herald, May 10, 1908.

“Fifteen Victims Die in Big Murder Plot,” Valentine [Neb.] Democrat, May 14, 1908.

“Murderess,” Stark County [Ohio] Democrat, May 22, 1908.

“Mrs. Belle Gunness of LaPorte’s Murder Farm,” Crittenden [Ky.] Record-Press, May 29, 1908.

“The La Porte Murder Farm,” San Juan [Wash.] Islander, July 11, 1908.

“Ray Lamphere Found Guilty Only of Arson,” Pensacola [Fla.] Journal, Nov. 27, 1908.

“Lamphere Found Guilty of Arson,” Spanish Fork [Utah] Press, Dec. 3, 1908.

Listener mail:

“Text of Scotland Yard’s Report on July 9 Intrusion Into Buckingham Palace,” New York Times, July 22, 1982.

Martin Linton and Martin Wainwright, “Whitelaw Launches Palace Inquiry,” Guardian, July 13, 1982.

Wikipedia, “Michael Fagan Incident” (accessed June 16, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Isn’t She Lovely” (accessed June 16, 2017).

Wikipedia, “Body Farm” (accessed June 16, 2017).

Kristina Killgrove, “These 6 ‘Body Farms’ Help Forensic Anthropologists Learn To Solve Crimes,” Forbes, June 10, 2015.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Frank Kroeger.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Double Alphamagic Squares

In 1986 British electronics engineer Lee Sallows invented the alphamagic square:

alphamagic square 1

As in an ordinary magic square, each row, column, and long diagonal produces the same sum. But when the number in each cell is replaced by the length of its English name (25 -> TWENTY-FIVE -> 10), a second magic square is produced:

alphamagic square 2

Now British computer scientist Chris Patuzzo, who found the percentage-reckoned pangram that we covered here in November 2015, has created a double alphamagic square:

double alphamagic square 1

Each row, column, and long diagonal here totals 303370120164. If the number in each cell is replaced by the letter count of its English name (using “and” after “hundred,” e.g. ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT BILLION SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY-EIGHT MILLION THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-EIGHT THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-EIGHT), then we get a new magic square, with a common sum of 345:

double alphamagic square 2

And this is itself an alphamagic square! Replace each number with the length of its name and you get a third magic square, this one with a sum of 60:

double alphamagic square 3

Chris has found 50 distinct doubly alphamagic squares, listed here. I suppose there must be some limit to this — is a triple alphamagic square even possible?

(Thanks, Chris and Lee.)

Self-Descriptive Squares

Lee Sallows has been working on a new experiment in self-reference that he calls self-descriptive squares, arrays of numbers that inventory their own contents. Here’s an example of a 4×4 square:

self-descriptive square 1

The sums of the rows and columns are listed to the right and below the square. These sums also tally the number of times that each row’s rightmost entry, or each column’s lowermost entry, appears in the square. So, for example, the sum of the top row is 3, and that row’s rightmost entry is 1; correspondingly, the number 1 appears three times in the square. Likewise, the sum of the rightmost column is 2, and the lowermost entry in that column, 4, appears twice in the square.

In this example this property extends to the diagonals — and, pleasingly, each sum applies to both ends of its diagonal. The northwest-southeast diagonal totals 2, and both -2 and 4 appear twice in the square. And the southwest-northeast diagonal totals 3, and both 1 and 0 appear three times.

“Easy to understand, but not so easy to produce!” he writes. “I’m still in the throes of figuring out the surprisingly complicated theory of such squares. It turns out there are just two basic squares of 3×3. One of them can be found at the centre of this 5×5 example, which is therefore a concentric self-descriptive square:”

self-descriptive square 2

(Thanks, Lee.)

A Reflexive Rainbow

sallows color table

From Lee Sallows: The international color code is used to mark the values of electronic components such as resistors. It assigns a distinct color to each of the 10 decimal digits, as seen in the center column of the table at right: 0 = BLACK, 1 = BROWN, …, 9 = WHITE.

Lee’s table has an ingenious reflexive property. The letters in the left-hand column are associated with the values -1 to -9, and those in the right-hand column with the values 1 to 9.

Now spelling the name of each color produces a sum that matches the number represented by that color:

sallows color sums

“This is more remarkable that it may seem,” Lee writes, “because the numbers assigned to the letters are now restricted to single-digit values only.”

A Self-Enumerating Crossword

sallows crossword

Here’s a unique crossword puzzle by Lee Sallows. There are no clues — instead, each of the 12 entries must take the form [NUMBER](space)[LETTER](S), like so:


And so on. Can you complete the puzzle so that the finished grid presents an inventory of its own contents?

(A couple observations to get you started: Because the puzzle contains 12 entries, the solution will use only 12 letters. And one useful place to start is the shortest “down” entry, which is too short to be plural — it must be “ONE [LETTER]”.)

A New Pangram

British recreational mathematician Lee Sallows has produced many varieties of the self-enumerating pangram — sentences that inventory their own contents:

This pangram contains four As, one B, two Cs, one D, thirty Es, six Fs, five Gs, seven Hs, eleven Is, one J, one K, two Ls, two Ms, eighteen Ns, fifteen Os, two Ps, one Q, five Rs, twenty-seven Ss, eighteen Ts, two Us, seven Vs, eight Ws, two Xs, three Ys, & one Z.

A few years ago he began to wonder whether it’s possible to produce a sentence that reckons its totals as percentages. This is more difficult, because the percentages won’t always work out to be integers. As he worked on the problem he mentioned it to a few others, among them British computer scientist Chris Patuzzo. And a few days ago, Patuzzo sent him this:

This sentence is dedicated to Lee Sallows and to within one decimal place four point five percent of the letters in this sentence are a’s, zero point one percent are b’s, four point three percent are c’s, zero point nine percent are d’s, twenty point one percent are e’s, one point five percent are f’s, zero point four percent are g’s, one point five percent are h’s, six point eight percent are i’s, zero point one percent are j’s, zero point one percent are k’s, one point one percent are l’s, zero point three percent are m’s, twelve point one percent are n’s, eight point one percent are o’s, seven point three percent are p’s, zero point one percent are q’s, nine point nine percent are r’s, five point six percent are s’s, nine point nine percent are t’s, zero point seven percent are u’s, one point four percent are v’s, zero point seven percent are w’s, zero point five percent are x’s, zero point three percent are y’s and one point six percent are z’s.

Details are here. The next challenge is a version where the percentages are accurate to two decimal places — Patuzzo is working on that now.

(Thanks, Lee.)

Sad Magic

sallows tragic square

The magic square at upper left arranges the numbers 3-11 so that each row, column, and long diagonal totals 21.

Lee Sallows found nine tragic words that vary in length from 3 to 11 letters and arranged them into the same square — and he found a unique shape for each word so that every triplet can be assembled into the same 3×7 shape, shown in the border.


lee sallows triangle theorem

A pretty new theorem by Lee Sallows: Connect each vertex of a triangle to the midpoint of the opposite side, and place a hinge at that point. Now rotate the smaller triangles about these hinges and you’ll produce three congruent triangles.

If the original triangle is isosceles (or equilateral), then the three resulting triangles will be too.

The theorem appears in the December 2014 issue of Mathematics Magazine.

Stamps and Math


Lee Sallows tells me that the postal system of Macau is releasing a new series of stamps based on magic squares. The full set will touch on everything from the Roman SATOR square to Dürer’s Melencolia. Details are here.

Charmingly, the values of the stamps will be 1, 2, …, 9 Macau patacas, so that the sheet of the nine stamps will itself form a classic Lo Shu magic square. Lee’s contribution, above, is a Nasik 2D geomagic square of order 3 — not only are all the rows and columns magic, but so are all six diagonals, including the four “broken” diagonals.

Somewhat related: In 2000 Finland issued seven stamps in classic tangram shapes, featuring images of science and education. (One of the small triangles, barely visible here, is a Sierpinski gasket.) Only three of the seven shapes are denominated postage, but I should think the temptation is overwhelming to arrange all seven on an envelope in the shape of a little man or a fish or something. I wonder what the post office makes of that.