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Belle Sorenson Gunness (born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth) [November 11, 1859; Selbu, Norway to possibly April 28, 1908; La Porte, Indiana] was an American female serial killer.
Gunness is known to have killed most of her suitors, boyfriends and her 2 daughters, Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson; it has not been proven if she killed both of her husbands and her son, Phillip Gunness. It is thought that she killed over 40 people for their life insurance benefits.
Belle Gunness was born as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth in Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway on November 11, 1859. Her father, Paul Pedersen Størset, was a stonemason and her mother, Berit Olsdatter, was a housewife. Gunness, the youngest of 8 children, grew up on a cotter's farm in Innbygda, Selbu.
In 1878, Gunness took a job working for a wealthy farmer in order to raise enough money to move to America. After 3 years of labor, Gunness made her way across the Atlantic.
In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago. A few years later, they opened a confectionary store which was a financial disaster. However a year after it's opening, the shop burnt down under suspicious circumstances. Gunness claimed a kerosene lantern was knocked over accidently but no lantern was recovered in the ruins. Despite this, the insurance was paid in full.
In 1898, the Sorenson's suburban Austin home burnt down and the insurance money was collected to build another home.
Though some researchers claim the Sorenson's were childless, others state that they had four: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle and Lucy. Both Caroline and Axel allegedly died of acute colitis in infancy. The symptoms of acute colitis (fever, nausea, diarrhea, lower abdominal pain and cramping) also happen to be the symptoms of many forms of poisoning.
On June 13, 1900 census records show Gunness as the mother of 4 children, 2 of which were living in the home: Myrtle A., 3 and Lucy B., 1. The records also show that an adopted 10 year old girl identified as Morgan Couch (later known as Jennie Olsen) lived in the home.
Mads Sorenson died on June 30, 1900 – the one and only day 2 life insurance policies on his overlapped.
The first doctor who visited him diagnosed him with strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorenson family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart and declared his death to be from heart failure. After his death, Gunness confided to their doctor that she had been giving him “powders” to help eleviate his discomfort.
Not finding his death suspicious, an autopsy was not performed.
The day following her husband's funeral, Gunness placed a claim on his $8,500 insurance policy ($8,500 = $217,000 in 2008). Relatives of Mads Sorenson claimed that Gunness murdered her husband for his insurance money. Records show an inquest was ordered, however is not known if the inquest took place or if demands for his remains be unearthed (to check for arsenic poisoning) had gone forward.
Gunness used her husband's insurance money to purchase a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana.
Suspicion of MurderEdit
Gunness' new home had an interesting history. In 1846, John Walker built the home for his daughter, Harriet Holcomb. The Holcomb clan were supporters of the Confederacy while the citizens of La Porte were for the Union. Nearly two decades passed before the unpopular clan moved to New York leaving the farm to change hands a dozen times until 1892 when a brothel-keeper moved in.
Mattie Altic a Madam from Chicago bought the property and transformed the farm into a popular, well-appointed whorehouse. Many of her regular customers from Chicago made trips to La Porte; their money helped to add a jetty, boathouse and large carriage house to the property.
After Altic's death, the house changed hands 4 more times until 1901 when Belle Gunness moved in. Shortly after her arrival, the boat and carriage houses burnt down.
While in La Porte, Gunness met a Norwegian named Peter Gunness. On April 1, 1902 the pair married. One week later, Peter's infant daughter died of unknown causes while alone in the house with his new bride. Months later, in December, Peter himself died. According to Gunness, Peter was working in a shed when part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, splitting his head open and killing him instantly.
After hearing of this second “accident,” Peter's brother Gust arrived at the Gunness farm and removed Peter's surviving child, a daughter named Swanhild. Gust took the child to Wisconsin before any more “accidents” could take place.
Gunness netted $3,000 from Peter's insurance policy.
Those who knew Peter Gunness refused to believe he could be so “clumsy.” The man had ran a hog farm from the property, was known to be an experienced butcher; a local coroner reviewed the case and announced that Peter was murdered.
Most disturbing was when Gunness' daughter Jennie Olsen was overheard telling a classmate: “My mamma killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul!”
When brought before the jury, Olsen denied making any such remark.
A pregnant Gunness (she would give birth to a son, Phillip, in 1903) was brought before the jury and was able to sway them with tales of her hardships. Gunness was released and the matter was dropped.
After the hearing, Gunness employed a farm hand named Ray Lamphere to help her run the farm. By 1906 they announced their engagement and in December Jennie Olsen went missing. When neighbor's inquired about her whereabouts, Gunness claimed she was either at a Lutheran College in Los Angeles or that she was at a “finishing school for young ladies.”
Parade of SuitorsEdit
Around this time, Gunness placed the following advertisement in the matrimonial columns of all the Chicago daily newspapers and those of other large mid-eastern cities:
- “Personal - comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.”
Several middle-aged men of means responded to Gunness' ads.
One suitor was a 50-year-old Norweigan named John Moe, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. Introduced as Gunness' cousin, Moe had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off her mortgage - or so he told neighbors. He disappeared from her farm within a week of his arrival.
Next came another Norweigan. George Anderson arrived from Tarkio, Missouri. Unlike Moe, Anderson did not bring all his money with him. Gunness' letters had persuaded him to make the long trip to see her but once there, he found that Gunness (now in her mid-forties, she was portly and coarse-featured) was not the beauty he had expected. During his visit he also realized that she had a severe manner, but she had made him feel at home and provided good dinners while he occupied one of her guest rooms.
One night at dinner, she raised the issue of her mortgage and Anderson agreed that he would pay it off if they decided to wed. At this point he was almost convinced to retrieve his money and start a life with her.
However, late that night, Anderson awoke to see her standing over him with a candle in her hand. He stated that the expression on her face was so sinister that he let out a loud yell and she immediately ran from the room. Anderson jumped out of the bed, threw on some clothes and fled from the house, taking the first train heading to Missouri.
Many more suitors continued to arrive to the Gunness farm, but only Anderson ever left.
Around this time, Gunness began ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to her from La Porte; he later remarked how the widow would lift these trunks without help, tossing them onto her shoulders and carrying them into the house.
It is stated that the shutters of the house was closed day and night and farmers passing by at night often saw Gunness digging in the hog pen. Her fiance, Lamphere, also spent a good deal of time digging in the hog pen, the house and the barn.
Ole B. Budsburg, an elderly widower from Iola, Wisconsin, appeared at the Gunness farm next. He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6, 1907, when he mortgaged his Wisconsin land, signing over a deed and obtaining several thousand dollars in cash. Budsburg's sons, Oscar and Mathew, had no idea that their father had gone off to visit Gunness. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to her; she responded by claiming that she had never seen their father.
Several other middle-aged men appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm throughout 1907. Then, in December 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to her and was warmly received. The pair exchanged many letters, until a letter that overwhelmed Helgelien, written in Gunness' own careful handwriting and dated January 13, 1908. This letter was later found at the Helgelien farm. It read:
- To the Dearest Friend in the World:
- No woman in the world is happier than I am. I know that you are now to come to me and be my own. I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want. It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know. Think how we will enjoy each other's company. You, the sweetest man in the whole world. We will be all alone with each other. Can you conceive of anything nicer? I think of you constantly. When I hear your name mentioned, and this is when one of the dear children speaks of you, or I hear myself humming it with the words of an old love song,it is beautiful music to my ears.
- My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.
In response to her letter, Helgelien flew to her side in January 1908. He had with him a check for $2,900, his entire savings, that was drawn from his local bank. A few days after Helgelien arrived, he and Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank in La Porte and deposited the check for cashing. Helgelien vanished a few days later, but Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank to make a $500 deposit and another deposit of $700 in the State Bank.
In March 1908, Gunness sent several letters to a farmer and horse dealer in Topeka, Kansas named Lon Townsend, inviting him to visit her. Gunness was also in correspondence with a Arkansas man and sent him a letter dated May 4, 1908. He would have visited her but did not because of the fire at her farm. Gunness allegedly promised marriage to a suitor Bert Albert, which did not go through because of his lack of wealth.
Ray LamphereEditAt this time, she started to have problems with Ray Lamphere.
Lamphere was deeply in love with Gunness; he performed any chore for her, no matter how gruesome. He became jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and began making scenes. She fired him on February 3, 1908.
Shortly thereafter, Gunness went to the La Porte courthouse to report that Lamphere was not in his right mind and was becoming a menace to the public. She was able to convince local authorities to hold a sanity hearing where Lamphere was pronounced sane and released. Gunness returned a few days later to complain that Lamphere had visited her farm and argued with her. She claimed that he posed a threat to her family and had him arrested for trespassing.
Lamphere stubbornly returned several more times to see her, but she sent him away each time. He soon began making thinly disguised threats; on one occasion, he told farmer William Slater that "Helgelien won't bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps."
Helgelien had long since disappeared from La Porte, or so everyone had been led to believe. However, his brother, Asle Helgelien, became concerned when Andrew failed to return home and he wrote to Gunness, asking her about his sibling's whereabouts. She wrote back, claiming that Helgelien was not at her farm and probably went to Norway to visit relatives. Asle Helgelien replied that he did not believe his brother would do anything of the sort and that he believed that his kin was still in the La Porte area. Gunness responded again, telling him that if he wanted to come and look for his brother then she would help conduct a search - but she wanted to be paid for her efforts.
Asle Helgelien eventually did come to La Porte but not until May.
Arson at the Gunness FarmhouseEdit
Gunness saw the end coming and began to set the stage for her last act. She told a lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, that she wished to make a will as she feared for her life and that of her children. Ray Lamphere, she claimed, had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. Leliter complied and drew up Gunness's will; she left her entire estate to her children. After the meeting, she went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property and paid it off.
Oddly enough, she did not go to the police to report Lamphere's allegedly life-threatening conduct.
Lamphere Under SuspicionEdit
Joe Maxon, who had been hired to replace Lamphere in February 1908, awoke in the early hours of April 28, 1908 to the smell of smoke in his second-story bedroom. He opened the door to find flames enveloping the hall. Yelling for Gunness and her children, Maxon received no response. Slamming the door closed, an underwear clad Maxon rushed to the window and jumped out, just barely surviving the fire.
Maxon raced to town for help, but by the time it arrived – at dawn - the entire farmhouse was a pile of charred, smoking remains. The floors of the house had collapsed and four bodies (beneath the remains of a grand piano) were discovered in the cellar. One of the bodies was of a woman; the body (the flesh of which was badly burnt but intact) was tentatively thought to be that of Gunness but since she had no head it could not immediately be verified. The head was never found. The bodies of Gunness' children were found next to the corpse.
County Sheriff Smutzer had somehow heard about Ray Lamphere’s alleged threats and, after seeing the carnage, he immediately sought him out. Lawyer Leliter came forward to recount his tale about Gunness' will, how she feared Lamphere would kill her and the children, and burn her house down.
Lamphere did not help matters. The moment Smutzer approached him, and before a word was uttered by the Sheriff, Lamphere blurted: "Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?" He was then told about the fire, but he denied having anything to do with it, claiming that he was not near the farm when the blaze occurred.
However, a youth named John Solyem was brought forward. He claimed that he had been watching the Gunness place (no reason was given for this) and that he saw Lamphere running down the road from the Gunness house just before the structure erupted in flames.
Lamphere sneered: "You wouldn't look me in the eye and say that!"
"Yes, I will", replied Solyem. "You found me hiding behind the bushes and you told me you'd kill me if I didn't get out of there."
Lamphere was immediately arrested and charged with murder and arson.
Who is the Headless Woman?Edit
The body of the headless woman was of deep concern to La Porte residents.
C. Christofferson, a neighboring farmer, took one look at the charred remains of this body and said that it was not the remains of Belle Gunness. So did another farmer, L. Nicholson, and so did Mrs. Austin Cutler, an old friend of Gunness. More of Gunness' old friends, Mrs. May Olander and Mr. Sigward Olsen, arrived from Chicago. They also examined the remains of the headless woman and said it was not Gunness.
Doctors then measured the remains and, making allowances for the missing neck and head, stated the corpse was that of a woman who stood five feet three inches tall and weighed no more than 150 pounds. Friends and neighbors, as well as the La Porte clothiers who made her dresses and other garments, swore that Gunness was taller than 5'8" and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds. Detailed measurements of the body were compared with those on file with several La Porte stores where she purchased her apparel.
When the two sets of measurements were placed side by side and all other information was taken into account, authorities determined that the headless woman could not possibly be Belle Gunness.
Moreover, Dr. J. Meyers examined the internal organs and reported that the woman died of strychnine poisoning. Gunness' dentist, Dr. Ira P. Norton, said that if the teeth/dental work of the headless corpse had been located he could definitely ascertain if it was her. Thus Louis "Klondike" Schultz, a former miner, was hired to build a sluice and begin sifting the debris.
On May 19, 1908, a piece of bridgework was found consisting of two human teeth, porcelain teeth and gold crown work in between. Dr. Norton identified them as work done for Gunness and, this taken into account, a coroner's inquest ruled that the headless corpse was Belle Gunness.
Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte and told Sheriff Smutzer that he believed his brother had met with foul play at Gunness' hands. Then, Joe Maxon came forward with information that could not be ignored: Gunness had ordered him to bring loads of dirt by wheelbarrow to a large area surrounded by a high wire fence where the hogs were fed. Maxon said that there were many deep depressions in the ground that had been covered by dirt. Gunness had told him that the holes contained rubbish; she wanted the dirt to make the ground level, so he filled in the depressions.
Smutzer immediately round up a dozen men and headed back to the farm to began to dig.
On May 3, 1908, the diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson and the small bodies of two unidentified children. The body of Andrew Helgelien was also unearthed; his overcoat was later found to be worn by Lamphere.
As days progressed more and more bodies were discovered in Gunness' hog pen:
- Ole B. Budsburg of Iola, Wisconsin. Disappeared in May of 1907.
- Thomas Lindboe of Chicago. He had gone to work as a hired man for Gunness three years earlier.
- Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin. He had gone to wed Gunness a year earlier, taking $1,500 with him. A watch matching the description of one belonging to Gurholdt was found with a body.
- Olaf Svenherud of Chicago, Illinois.
- John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minnesota. His watch was found to be in Lamphere's possession.
- Olaf Lindbloom, age 35, from Wisconsin.
- William Mingay, a coachman from New York City. Disappeared on April 1, 1904.
- Herman Konitzer of Chicago who disappeared in January 1906.
- Charles Edman of New Carlisle, Indiana.
- George Berry of Tuscola, Illinois.
- Christie Hilkven of Dover, Wis. He sold his farm and moved to La Porte in 1906.
- Chares Neiburg a 28 year old Scandinavian immigrant who was living in Philadelphia. He told friends that he was going to visit Gunness in June 1906 and never came back. He had been working for a saloon keeper and took $500 with him.
- John H. McJunkin of Coraopolis (Pittsburg, Pennsylvania) left his wife in December 1906 after corresponding with a LaPorte woman
- Olaf Jensen a Norwegian immigrant of Carroll, Indiana. He wrote his relatives in 1906 to announce that he was going to marry a wealthy widow at La Porte.
- Henry Bizge of La Porte; disappeared June of 1906.
- Bizge's hired man named Edward Canary of Pink Lake, Illinois; vanished 1906.
- Bert Chase of Mishawauka, Indiana. He sold his butcher shop and told his friends that he was going to look up a wealthy widow in Indiana. His brother received a telegram supposedly from Aberdeen, South Dakota claiming that Bert had been killed in a train wreck. After investigating, his brother discovered that the telegram was fictitious.
- Tonnes Peterson Lien of Rushford, Minnesota. He is alleged to have disappeared on April 2, 1907.
- A gold ring marked "S.B. May 28, 1907" was found in the ruins.
- A hired man named George Bradley of Tuscola, Illinois is alleged to gone to La Porte to meet a widow and three children in October 1907.
- T.J. Tiefland of Minneapolis is alleged to have come to see Gunness in 1907.
- Frank Riedinger a farmer of Waukesha, Wisconsin. He came to Indiana in 1907 to marry and never returned.
- Emil Tell, a Swedish immigrant from Kansas City, Mo. He is alleged to have arrived in LaPorte in 1907.
- Lee Porter of Bartonville, Oklahoma. He separated from his wife and told his brother he was going to marry a wealthy widow in La Porte.
- John E. Hunter left Duquesene, Pennsylvania on November 25, 1907. He told his daughters he was going to marry a wealthy widow in Northern Indiana.
- George Williams of Wapawallopen, Pennsylvania. Left to marry a rich widow in Indiana.
- Ludwig Stoll of Mount Yeager, Pennsylvania. Left to marry in the West.
- Abraham Phillips, a railway man of Burlington, West Virginia. He left in the winter of 1907 to go to Northern Indiana and marry a rich widow; a railway watch was found in the debris of the house.
- Benjamin Carling of Chicago, Illinois. He was last seen by his wife in 1907 after telling her that he was going to LaPorte to secure a investment with a rich widow. He carried $1,000 from an insurance company and borrowed money from several investors as well. In June 1908, his widow identified his remains by the contour of his skull and three missing teeth.
- Aug. Gunderson of Green Lake, Wis
- Ole Oleson of Battle Creek, Michigan.
- Lindner Nikkelsen of Hurron, South Dakota.
- Andrew Anderson of Lawrence, Kansas.
- Johann Sorensen of St. Joseph, Mo.
- Possible victim: a man named Hinkley.
Reported unnamed victims:
- The unnamed daughter of Mrs. H. Whitzer of Toledo, Ohio. She had attended a Indiana University near La Porte in 1902.
- An unknown man and woman. They are alleged to have disappeared the same night Jennie Olsen went missing. Gunness claimed they were a Los Angeles “professor” and his wife who had taken the girl to California.
- Unnamed brother of Miss Jennie Graham of Waukesha, Wisconsin. He had left her to marry a “rich widow in La Porte” but vanished.
- An unnamed 50-year-old hired man from Ohio; alleged to have disappeared and Gunness became the “heir” to his horse and buggy.
- An unnamed man from Montana. He told people at a resort that he was going to sell Gunness his horse and buggy, both of which were found with several other horses and buggies on the Gunness farm.
Lamphere on TrialEdit
Ray Lamphere was arrested on May 22, 1908 and tried for murder and arson. He pleaded guilty to arson, but denied having murdered Gunness and her three children. His defense hinged on the assertion that the body was not Gunness's. Lamphere's lawyer, Wirt Worden, developed evidence which contradicted Dr. Norton's identification of the teeth and bridgework. A local jeweller testified that though the gold in the bridgework had emerged from the fire almost undamaged, the fierce heat of the conflagration had melted the gold plating on several watches and items of gold jewelry.
Local doctors replicated the conditions of the fire by attaching a similar piece of dental bridgework to a human jawbone and placing it in a blacksmith’s forge. The real teeth crumbled and disintegrated; the porcelain teeth came out pocked and pitted, with the gold parts rather melted. Both the artificial elements were damaged to a greater degree than those in the bridgework offered as evidence of Gunness’s identity.
The hired hand Joe Moxon and another man also testified that they’d witnessed Shultz take the bridgework out of his pocket and plant it just before it was ‘discovered’.
Lamphere was found guilty of arson, but cleared of murder. On November 26, 1908, he was sentenced to 20 years in Michigan City's State Prison. He grew ill in jail and died of consumption on December 30, 1909.
Lamphere's Deathbed ConfessionsEdit
On January 14, 1910, the Rev. E. A. Schell came forward with a confession that Lamphere made to him while the clergyman was comforting the dying man. In it, Lamphere revealed Gunness' crimes and swore that she was still alive. Lamphere had stated to the Reverend Schell and to a fellow convict named Harry Meyers, shortly before his death, that he had not murdered anyone, but that he had helped Gunness bury many of her victims.
According to Lamphere, when a victim arrived Gunnes would make him comfortable, charm him and cook a large meal. She would then drug his coffee and when the man was in a stupor, she would split his head with a meat chopper. Sometimes she would simply wait for the suitor to go to bed and then enter the bedroom by candlelight and chloroform her sleeping victim.
A powerful woman, Gunness would then carry the body to the basement, place it on a table, and dissect it. She then bundled the remains and buried these in the hog pen and the grounds about the house. She had become an expert at dissection, thanks to instruction she had received from second husband and possible victim, Peter Gunness. To save time, she would sometimes poison her victims' coffee with strychnine. She also varied her disposal methods, sometimes dumping the corpse into the hog-scalding vat and covering the remains with quicklime. Lamphere even stated that if Belle was overly tired after murdering one of her victims, she merely chopped up the remains and, in the middle of the night, step into her hog pen and fed the remains to the hogs.
The handyman also cleared up the mysterious question of the headless female corpse found in the smoking ruins of Gunness' home. Days before she decided to escape La Porte, Gunness lured a woman from Chicago on the pretense of hiring her as a housekeeper. Gunness, according to Lamphere, had drugged the woman, then bashed in her head and decapitated the body. The head, he claimed, had weights tied to it and was thrown into a swamp. Then she chloroformed her children, smothered them to death, and dragged their small bodies, along with the headless corpse, to the basement.
She dressed the female corpse in her old clothing, and removed her false teeth, placing these beside the headless corpse to assure it being identified as Belle Gunness. She then torched the house and fled.
Lamphere had helped her but in the end she betrayed him; she had not met him by the road where he was waiting and instead cut through open fields and disappeared into the woods. Some accounts suggest that Lamphere admitted that he took her to Stillwell and saw her off on a train to Chicago.
Lamphere claimed that Gunness had murdered 42 men by his count - perhaps more - and had taken amounts from them ranging from $1,000 to $32,000. She had allegedly accumulated more than $250,000 through her murder schemes over the years (about $6.3 million in 2008). She had a small amount remaining in one of her savings accounts, but local banks later admitted that she had withdrawn most of her funds shortly before the fire, strongly suggesting that she was planning to disappear.
Alleged Gunness SightingsEdit
For several decades, alleged sightings of Gunness were reported in cities and towns throughout the Uinted States. Friends, acquaintances, and amateur detectives also alleged spotted her in places such as Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
As late as 1931, Gunness was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town where she owned a great deal of property and lived the life of a doyenne.
For more than 20 years Sheriff Smutzer himself had received an average of two reports a month.
In 1931, a woman known as "Esther Carlson" was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. Carlson died while awaiting trial.
Burial, Exhumation and DNA AnalysisEdit
The body believed to be that of Belle Gunness was buried next to her first husband at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.
On November 5, 2007, the remains were exhumed by a team of forensic anthropology graduate students from the University of Indianapolis. At least one modern researcher on the team believes Gunness did not die in the fire. Many contend the remains of the woman found at the scene was a victim beheaded by Gunness and planted at the scene before the farmhouse was set on fire.
In April 2008 forensic scientist Andi Simmons revealed that the casket contained the body parts of two children, but not of those who died in the farmhouse fire.
It had been hoped that the flap of a sealed envelope would contain enough DNA to be compared to that of the body but there was not.
Efforts continue to find a reliable source for comparison purposes, including exhumation of additional bodies and contact with known living relatives of Belle Gunness.