Belle Gunness stood six foot tall and had a hard look to her strong face. She was a giant of a woman, with a bloodthirst so strong it led her to kill upwards of 25 people. Even her own children weren’t safe from her murderous rages. But where did it all start? Where did one of America’s most prolific serial killers develop the pathology that would end so many lives? The answer to that is as nebulas as her true victim count but a good place to start is far from her killing fields in Indiana and Illinois. One must look to the cold of Norway, to a small town outside of Trøndelag.
That’s where Belle was born, her birth name possibly being Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, a name she would later change when she arrived in America. It is also where a possible origin to her psychosis happened. There are stories that a young Belle had become pregnant and while at a dance in the town some drunk rich man assaulted her and caused her to miscarriage. Because of the man’s wealth, nothing was done and Belle slipped into a dark depression. There are conflicting accounts of this so the authenticity of the encounter is questionable but should it be true, one could only imagine what this would have done to Belle’s mind.
She worked for years as a servant until she saved up enough money to immigrate to America in 1881. Three years later she would find her first victim, a man named Mads Sorenson. It isn’t clear how many children Belle had with Sorenson but only two survived infancy, sisters Myrtle and Lucy, though they would never see adulthood.
The two newlyweds opened up a candy shop in Chicago but business was not good and a sudden fire claimed the building. The insurance money went to pay for a new home. Around this time, a young girl named Jennie Olson, came to be fostered by them. Mads must have thought insurance was a great idea because he had two polices on himself. He died on the same day both policies overlapped. A local coroner stated that Mads showed all the signs of strychnine poisoning. However, his family doctor disputed this, he stated Mads died of an enlarged heart. With an enlarged purse, his windowed wife bought a farm in LaPonte Indiana.
From that farm, Belle began to solicit suiters in lonely hearts adds. She would stress that she was well off with many acres of land and would only be interested in someone as equally well off. Many a man was attracted to the prospect of joining fortunes with the widowed Belle. One of which became her second husband Peter Gunness, who she married in 1902.
A few short months after the wedding Peter’s infant daughter died while alone in the house with Belle. In December of that same year, Peter himself met with a tragic accident while on the farm. Belle claimed that a meat processor had fallen on him and caused a fatal injury. His body wasn’t even cold before Belle claimed a hefty life insurance. The only known child to have survived living with Belle Gunness was Peter’s daughter, who was taken away by her uncle after her father’s death.
It was the death of Peter Gunness that could have stopped her killing spree in its tracks. Investigators into his death ruled that he had in fact been murdered and formed what was called a coroner’s jury, or inquest, to investigate Belle further. However, no one wanted to believe the immigrant mother capable of such horrid crimes and it was easy for Belle to talk her way out of suspicion. It wasn’t long after that she gave birth to Peter’s son Philip and began saying her foster daughter Jennie Olsen had gone off to finishing school. Parts of Jennie’s body would be found in bags scattered over the farm.
The fire, The Bodies, and Ray Lamphere
After she had talked her way out of killing Peter, Belle Gunness began courting men in a frenzy. Joe Moe, Olaf Lindbloom, Henry Gurholdt, George Anderson, and dozens more responded to her adds and letters. Anderson was the only one to escape her murderous net. He went to visit her and while sleeping in the guest bedroom, woke to find Belle looming over him with a look of a panther ready for the kill. He ran from the house, never to return. During this time Belle ordered large trunks and spent long nights digging in the hog pens. It would have continued on like this indefinitely if it wasn’t for Ray Lamphere.
Ray was a monkey wrench to Belle Gunness. She had hired him way back when she first bought the farm and the man had fallen hopelessly in love with her. He even became a helper of sorts to her killings but he began to grow jealous of all the men who came courting the killer he was in love with. Ray started to make scenes around town, dropped cryptic hints of foul play over a pint of beer here and there, overall he became more trouble than he was worth for Belle.
She fired him and tried to have him committed. The courts found him sane however and this scared Belle. On top of Ray not being able to keep his mouth shut, Asle Helgelien, the brother to one of her victims was searching tirelessly for his missing family. Belle could see the writing on the wall, it was only a matter of time before people found the bodies.
On April 28, 1908, flames consumed the Gunness farmhouse. A hired farmhand tried to save the family but found the children already dead in their beds and a headless woman’s body in the hall. Ray Lamphere was arrested for the arson and “murder” of the Gunness family. However, the case fell apart when they began to search the charred ruins. Many bones were uncovered in those large trunks buried in the hog pen, other body parts were in sacks all over the property. The actual number is impossible to tell because of the sheer number of bones and poor recovery techniques.
Ray Lamphere confessed that he did, in fact, help Hell’s Belle (a name the papers coined for her) dispose of her victims. All rich men who she drugged and dissected in the basement, later to be fed to the hogs, or poisoned with strychnine after a nice meal. As for the headless body found, he claimed that the body was another woman Belle had hired just days before. Measurements of the corpse found that it couldn’t have been Belle. The body measured only 5’8 and only 180 pounds, much smaller than the giant frame of Belle.
There was some back and forth over this. A dental bridge with golden teeth had been found near the body and had been positively identified by Belle’s own dentist as belonging to the killer. However, the head had never been found and the teeth were clean of fire damage.
It has long been suspected that Belle Gunness killed her children and burned her farm down so she could fake her own death and escape. She was never found and prosecuted for her crimes, she disappeared in a puff of smoke. She has supposedly been sighted anywhere from New York to Mississippi. Belle Gunness became a figure in American legend. Her crimes captivate to this day.
A popular folk song was written about the killer
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