Ramblings and Ruminations: Cracker tin filled with human remains unearthed in 1908

By Kathi Kresol
Organizer of Haunted Rockford Tours and Paranormal events through Rockford Public Library

When one thinks of the library, they often call to mind long stacks of colorful bindings where tall, thin, darkly-dressed women glide through putting away books and shushing patrons. That has not been my experience over the last 15 years of library work. (For those of you who have met me in person, you know I am neither tall nor thin, and I am usually the one being shushed!)

I am very fortunate to wear many hats at the library, and one reputation I have inadvertently earned is the collector of the odd and unusual. The goddesses who work the Local History room come across some of these stories while researching things for people and always share them with me. I have tucked them away in a file, but have decided this would be a good place to share these tales of the weird and peculiar.

This story came from a Register Gazette article that appeared Aug. 22, 1908. The headline reads: Mystery at Winnebago. It seems that on this Tuesday morning, Sexton Joseph Dunkley and his assistant, James Bouton, were hard at work preparing a place to lay the newly-departed Mrs. Bradshaw. They were both surprised and a little startled when they stuck the shovel in the dirt and heard a metallic clunking sound. They were only about a foot down, so they continued to dig and unearthed the remains of what proved to be a corroded cracker tin.

One can only imagine the thoughts that were running through their minds as they pulled the tarnished box from the dirt. The article described the box “badly decayed only one side being in any state of preservation.”

Their greatest fears were realized when they opened the box and there, looking back at them, were the empty eye sockets of not one but three skulls!

The box also contained the “major portions of the larger bones of the human body, all of which were the bones of adult persons.” As if that weren’t enough, there was also a black string necktie, which it mentions is the “only clothing found.”

There was no more mentioned in this article — nothing to tell us what was done with the bones, where it was thought they might be from, or who they might have been. The last line only yielded another mystery. It mentioned “The Reflector suggests it is not likely to prove another Gunness affair.”

Gunness” was stated in such a manner as to imply it was a name the reader should know. This intrigued me enough that I again turned to my Local History sages, where they declared that the name Gunness refers to a woman of the time period who is suspected of being a female serial killer!

Apparently, this Belle Gunness (who was later found to really be Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth), was believed to have killed more than 40 men, women and children (including her own!) for money. Belle was at first believed to have been killed herself by a handy man who worked for her. The bodies of her two children and a decapitated woman’s corpse were found in the ashes of their LaPorte, Ind., home in February 1908. The handyman was found guilty of the arson, but not the murder, since he claimed the body was not Belle Guinness’ but a woman whom she had poisoned and put there as a “body double,” even though the woman was shorter and much thinner.

I will definitely be writing an article in the future to fill you in on all the sordid details! This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I find history so fascinating!

Kathi Kresol is the organizer of the Haunted Rockford Tours and Paranormal events through the Rockford Public Library.  She is also a team member of the Forest City Paranormal Society.  You may contact her at kkresol@rockfordpubliclibrary.org or (815) 987-6682 for info about events or investigations.

From the Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2012, issue

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