LAPORTE, Ind. – Asle Helgelien didn't believe Belle Gunness' claims that his brother, missing for months after answering the widow's lonely hearts ad, had left her northern Indiana farm for Chicago or maybe their native Norway.
Suspicious after a bank said his brother, Andrew, had cashed a $3,000 check — a large sum in 1908 — the South Dakota farmer came to LaPorte and discovered his brother's remains in a pit of household waste.
A century later, modern forensic scientists hope to solve once and for all what appears to have been a web of multiple murders, deceit, sex and money orchestrated by a woman dubbed Lady Bluebeard, after the fairy tale character who killed multiple wives and left their bodies in his castle.
Many locals believed Gunness staged her death in a farmhouse fire, 100 years ago Monday, before Asle Helgelien's arrival to cover up years spent poisoning and dismembering more than two dozen people.
Forensic anthropologist Andi Simmons grew up in the area east of Chicago hearing tales of the LaPorte black widow.
"There was always a sense of, what if she's still out there? What if she's lurking around," said Simmons, who decided to explore the case as part of her thesis.
Gunness probably killed at least 25 people and possibly as many as 33, Simmons said. The exact number isn't known because authorities never thoroughly searched the farm property after Helgelien found his brother's remains.
"When you look at the numbers, she should be a household name," Simmons said.
The official account was that Gunness died in the fire at age 48, along with three foster children and another woman who has not been identified.
Bruce Johnson, chairman of LaPorte's Gunness 100th Anniversary Committee, said some residents wish the story would fade away. But programs leading up to the anniversary of her death have drawn many who are eager to share their own tales.
John Olsen, 87, of nearby Schererville, said at a recent anniversary program that Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant, had a reputation among Norwegian families as a great foster mother.
He said Gunness took in his aunt, Jennie Olsen, at 7 months old after her mother died. Jennie decided to stay with Gunness when she got older, even after her father remarried.
"Jennie had many opportunities to come and join her siblings ... and went back to Belle because Belle was the only mother she had ever known," Olsen said. "And Belle gave her an excellent home."
However, Jennie Olsen's body was the second discovered when authorities began digging after the 1908 fire, and many believe she had been killed two years earlier because she uncovered her foster mother's secrets.
The woman arrived in Chicago from Norway in 1881 at age 21, and married three years later. After her first husband died, Gunness moved to LaPorte, where she met Peter Gunness. They married in April 1902, but he died later that year when a sausage grinder and jar of hot water fell on him.
In both cases, family members believed the husbands' deaths were suspicious, Johnson said. And in both cases, Gunness collected thousands in insurance money.
After Peter Gunness' death, his widow advertised in Midwestern Norwegian-language newspapers for a potential mate. One read: "A woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in same. Some little cash is required and will be furnished first class security."
Though Gunness was a plain, 5-foot-8 woman who weighed as much as 280 pounds, her letters were eloquent, Johnson said.
"She wrote wonderful letters, very encouraging," he said. "She would tell them about how lovely LaPorte was."
The coroner declared Gunness dead after her dentures were found in the fire debris two weeks later. But many believe she paid someone to plant the dentures — which Simmons said were found intact and not burned.
When authorities determined the fire was arson, suspicion turned to a handyman who had worked for Gunness and had been her lover. He was convicted of arson but acquitted of murder.
For a quarter of a century, Gunness sightings were reported all over the country.
The last came in 1931, when a woman named Esther Carlson died in Los Angeles while awaiting trial on charges she killed her employer. Carlson resembled Gunness, was about the same age, and there was no record of her before 1908, Simmons said.
Simmons' team exhumed a body believed to be Gunness' from a Chicago-area cemetery in November. The casket contained body parts from two children — but they did not belong to the foster children reported to have died in the fire. They could be remains of other victims whose remains had been buried in the basement and were inadvertently scooped up in the ashes, Simmons said.
"Now we don't know whether we're adding two more people to our body count," she said.