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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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!

A Long Sleep


Canadian science writer Grant Allen’s 1889 essay “Seven-Year Sleepers” contains an eye-opening passage:

A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum, to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, ‘Helix desertorum, March 25, 1846.’ Being a snail of a retiring and contented disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. [A.N.] Waterhouse; and a woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. [S.P.] Woodward’s ‘Manual of the Mollusca,’ to witness if I lie.

This appears to be true: Samuel Peckworth Woodward’s 1851 Manual of the Mollusca contains the portrait above, marked “From a living specimen in the British Museum, March, 1850,” and James Hamilton’s 1854 Excelsior describes the snail’s return to life: “The specimen was immediately detached, and immersed in tepid water. After the lapse of a period not exceeding ten minutes, the animal began to move, put forth its horns, and cautiously emerged from its shell. In a few minutes more it was walking along the surface of the basin in which it was placed. The last time it had exercised its locomotive faculty was in the sandy plains of Egypt, not far from the banks of the Nile.”

Hamilton says it spent the rest of its existence in a glass enclosure, feasting on cabbage and taking an eight-month nap in 1851. It died finally in March 1852. “Such was the end of the Egyptian snail, and it was with some feeling of regret that its death was recorded.”

(Via Metafilter.)

Starting Over


In February 1965, Omaha TV announcer John “Fritz” Johnson was attending an archery tournament in Chicago when a young woman approached him and asked, “Pardon me, but aren’t you my uncle, Larry Bader, who disappeared seven years ago?”

Amazingly, he was. Lawrence Joseph Bader had been a cookware salesman in Akron until March 15, 1957, when he’d gone fishing on Lake Erie and disappeared. Four days later he resurfaced in Omaha as flamboyant bachelor Fritz Johnson, who became a bartender, a radio announcer, and eventually a TV sports director.

Bader had been $20,000 in debt when he disappeared, but Johnson insisted that he had no memory of his former life, and a team of psychiatrists backed him up. “It was like a physical shock,” he said. “Up until that moment, I had no doubt that I was not Larry Bader. But when I heard that, it was like a door had been slammed and somebody had hit me right in the face.”

After his disappearance, Bader had been declared dead, and his wife had collected $39,500 in life insurance. Now she would have to pay that back, and both her new engagement and Johnson’s second marriage would have to be canceled. “I just wish it wasn’t true,” she told Life in March 1965. “We had become adjusted, we had adapted to and accepted his ‘death.’ It was just … well … wrong that this had to happen.”

He died the following year, so it’s still unclear whether his experience was amnesia or a hoax. “I’m very sorry,” he said, “but my doctors have warned me not to try to figure it out by myself. They say it might hurt me.”

Match Making


Coleridge is said to have described the happiest possible marriage as “the union of a deaf man to a blind woman.”

The eccentric Lord Berners’ requisites for a happy marriage: “A short memory, a long purse, infinite credulity, no sense of humor, a combative nature, the man should be a man and the woman a woman or vice versa.”

“In the old days I demanded or perhaps pleaded for three things in a wife. She should have enough money to buy her own clothes, she should be able to make incomparable Béarnaise sauce, and she should be double-jointed. In the event I got none of these things.” — Ian Fleming, quoted in Ben MacIntyre’s For Your Eyes Only

Boswell: “Pray, Sir, do you not suppose that there are fifty women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular?”

Johnson: “Ay, Sir, fifty thousand.”

Boswell: “Then, Sir, you are not of opinion with some who imagine that certain men and certain women are made for each other; and that they cannot be happy if they miss their counterparts.”

Johnson: “To be sure not, Sir. I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of the characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.”

Wheels Within Wheels

In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the two preceding ones:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657, 46368, …

This produces two notable secondary patterns: Summing the squares of each pair of adjacent entries yields an even-numbered term in the sequence:

12 + 12 = 2
12 + 22 = 5
22 + 32 = 13
32 + 52 = 34
52 + 82 = 89
82 + 132 = 233
132 + 212 = 610

And the odd-numbered terms between these are the differences of squares of terms taken two by two, two places apart:

22 – 12 = 3
32 – 12 = 8
52 – 22 = 21
82 – 32 = 55
132 – 52 = 144
212 – 82 = 377
342 – 132 = 987

… and so on.

A Garden Sermon

Image: Philip Halling

The Oxford Companion to the Garden notes a curiosity at Packwood House, a Tudor manor house near Lapworth, Warwickshire:

At some time, possibly in the early 18th century, a mount was made beyond the garden walls to the south on the axis of a gateway in the garden walls and the garden door of the house. Long known as the Sermon on the Mount it is crowned with a single yew with, clustering about it on the slopes, further yews representing the twelve apostles and the four evangelists.

The yews are more than 350 years old, but it’s not clear who devised this setting. A drawing of the garden from the 1700s has survived, but there’s no trace of the mount. The earliest known written description of it appears in Reginald Blomfield and F. Inigo Thomas’ The Formal Garden in England (1892). “Blomfield was told that it represented the Sermon on the Mount by the gardener who was clipping the yews when he visited.”

Prime Magic

berloquin prime puzzle

In his 1976 book 100 Numerical Games, French puzzle maven Pierre Berloquin asks whether it’s possible to construct a magic square using the first nine prime numbers (here counting 1 as prime):

1 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19

Is it?

Click for Answer

Many in One

At the site where apartheid police officers arrested Nelson Mandela in 1962, sculptor Marco Cianfanelli has erected 50 laser-cut steel columns. They range in height from 21 to 31 feet and appear randomly placed, but the approach to the site leads visitors down a path at the correct angle, and at a distance of 115 feet their meaning becomes clear.

“The fifty columns represent the fifty years since his capture, but they also suggest the idea of many making the whole, of solidarity,” Cianfanelli said in a statement at the sculpture’s dedication in 2012. “It points to an irony as the political act of Mandela’s incarceration cemented his status as an icon of struggle, which helped ferment the groundswell of resistance, solidarity, and uprising, bringing about political change and democracy.”

06/14/2017 UPDATE: I’m told there’s also a scale model of the sculpture at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which may be more accessible. (Thanks, Martin.)

06/14/2017 UPDATE: There’s a similar installation on the wall of 105 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in Paris (below), by artist Jean-Pierre Yvaral, depicting Vincent de Paul, who established a mission here to care for the needy. (Thanks, Nick.)

Image: David Partridge

06/19/2017 UPDATE: And Daniël Hoek noted that a portrait of Steve Jobs is hidden in fence pickets in Lower Manhattan, near Silicon Alley:

manhattan jobs portrait

A Stormy Mistress


Each Ascension Day between 1311 and 1798, the doge of Venice was rowed into the Adriatic aboard a palatial barge to perform the “Marriage of the Sea,” a ceremony that symbolically wedded Venice to the sea. The ship, known as the Bucentaur, led a solemn procession of boats out of the city, where the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the water with the words Desponsamus te, mare (“We wed thee, sea”) to indicate that the city and the sea were indissolubly one.

After the Treaty of Versailles, Polish general Jozef Haller marked his country’s renewed access to the Baltic Sea by throwing a ring into the water with the words “In the name of the Holy Republic of Poland, I, General Jozef Haller, am taking control of this ancient Slavic Baltic Sea shore”:


His act was repeated in 1945 in several ceremonies by members of the First Polish Army, who threw rings, dipped flags, and swore an oath pledging their nation’s devotion to the Baltic. The text of the oath was later printed in the Polish Army newspaper Zwyciezymy: “I swear to you, Polish Sea, that I, a soldier of the Homeland, faithful son of the Polish nation, will not abandon you. I swear to you that I will always follow this road, the road which has been paved by the State National Council, the road which has led me to the sea. I will guard you, I will not hesitate to shed my blood for the Fatherland, neither will I hesitate to give my life so that you do not return to Germany. You will remain Polish forever.”