Belle Gunness

Summary

Belle Sorenson Gunness (Selbu, Norway, November 11, 1859 – La Porte, Indiana, April 28, 1908?) was an American serial killer. It is suspected that she killed her husbands and all their children stemming from those marriages. She is known to have killed several boyfriends and two of her daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. All indications are that most of the murders were connected to financial interests, such as insurance benefits for the deaths and government pensions. She is suspected to have killed more than 40 people over the course of decades.

Origins

Belle Gunness’ origin, like much of her life, is surrounded by speculation and lies. Most historians believe that she was born on November 11 near Lake Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway and baptized under the name Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. Her parents were bricklayer Paul Pedersen Størset and Berit Olsdatter. She was the youngest of eight siblings. They lived in Størsetgjerdet, on a small farm in Innbygda, Selbu, near Trondheim, Norway’s largest central city (Trøndelag).

A television documentary made by Anne Berit Vestby tells an unconfirmed story of Gunness’ early life. She says that in 1877 Gunness was attending a local party when she was attacked by a man, who kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. She ended up losing the child, and the man, being from a wealthy family nearby, was never arrested by local authorities. People close to Belle claim that after these incidents her personality changed completely. The man who attacked her died shortly afterwards, and it is said that he died of stomach cancer. Because she was poor, Belle worked for three years on a farm until she got the money for a ship ticket to travel to the United States.

Following in her sister’s footsteps, she moved to the United States in 1881 and changed her name to a more Americanized one. When she got there she worked as a domestic. Years later, her sister, Nellie Larson, declared that Belle was “crazy about money,” and that was her greatest weakness.”

First victim

In 1884 Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, where a few years later the couple opened a bakery. Business was not going well, and within less than a year there was a mysterious fire in the store, and according to Gunness’ version, a streetlight was the cause of the fire. No lantern was ever found in the ruins of the store, but the insurance money was paid. It is believed that it was with this money that the couple bought a house in Austin, although this same house also mysteriously caught fire in 1889, and they received another insurance sum, which was used to buy a new house.

Sorenson, Belle’s husband, died on July 30, 1900. The first doctor to see him thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the family doctor stated that he was treating Sorenson for heart problems, and he declared death caused by heart failure. An autopsy was not performed, as death was not suspicious. Gunness would later confess to the doctor that she had given her husband “medicinal leaves” to make him feel better.

Gunness withdrew her husband’s insurance money on the same day as his burial, with the dead husband’s relatives accusing the widow of having poisoned her husband. Documents suggest that an inquest was opened, although it is unclear how her investigation went, nor whether there was an exhumation of the corpse. In the meantime, the insurance company paid her the money, about $8500, which was a lot of money for the time. With that money she bought a farm in La Porte, Indiana, and moved in with her three daughters.

Although some historians claim that the union produced no offspring, other historians claim that she had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. On June 13, 1900 Belle and her family were counted in the Chicago American sense. The survey recorded that Belle had four children, only two of whom lived with her. Myrtlede, age three, and Lucy, age one. An adopted child, Morgan Colcha, age ten was also counted. Caroline and Axel died in infancy; it was alleged that they had acute colitis, which has symptoms such as nausea, fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, in short, symptoms similar to those of poisoning. Caroline and Axel had life insurance, and both insurances were paid out.

Suspicious deaths

The house on McClung Highway was built in 1846 by John Walker for his daughter Harriet Holcomb. The Holcombs helped the Confederate States during the American Civil War. After the Holcombs’ move, which occurred due to the town’s residents’ support of the enemies of the Confederacy, the family’s property passed through the hands of more than a dozen owners.

In 1892, Mattie Altic, a brothel owner in Chicago, bought the property and turned it into a kind of brothel. Most of her regular customers came from Chicago. When Mattie died, the house was put up for sale again, and four more owners lived in the house, until in 1901 Belle Gunness bought it.

Belle then met Peter Gunness, a Norwegian who lived in La Porte. They married on April 1, 1902 , and just a week after the wedding, Peter’s infant daughter died of uncertain causes inside Gunness’ home. In December 1902, Peter himself died; according to Belle he was working in a shed when a grinding machine fell from a rack onto his head, killing him instantly.

Belle received $3000 from her husband’s life insurance, although some sources suggest $4000. The residents of the neighborhood refused to believe that Peter had died that way, as a pig farm had been built around the property, and Peter was known to be a very good butcher. A local judge hastily announced that Peter had been murdered, and he called in a group of forensic investigators to look into the case. During this period, Jennie Olsen, Peter’s 14-year-old daughter, reportedly confessed to a classmate that her mother had killed her father.

Jennie was later called to testify to the group of investigators, but denied her claim. Gunness convinced the investigators that she had done nothing wrong, at the time she was pregnant, and the jury was apparently moved by her situation, and all charges were dropped.

After the hearings, Belle hired Ray Lamphere to work on the farm, and in 1906 they began a love affair. Later that year, Jennie was no longer seen in the neighborhood, and Gunness told neighbors that he had sent the girl to a Lutheran boarding school in Los Angeles. In fact she had been killed, and her body was discovered buried inside Gunness’ property some time later.

Applicants

Around this time, Gunness placed a newspaper ad seeking a wealthy consort who wanted to unite his fortune with hers. Several middle-aged men answered her, and some traveled to Gunness’ farm. One of them was John Moo, from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He had brought a little over $1000 to pay Gunness’ mortgage, but when she introduced him to the community as her cousin, he left within a week of her arrival. The second person to appear was George Anderson, who, like Peter Gunness and John Moo, was an immigrant from Norway. Anderson was a wealthy farmer from Tarkio (Missouri). He, however, brought no money with him, and there he realized that Gunness was not the same as she had described herself in the letter. At the time she was in her early forties, fat, and somewhat ugly.

He also realized that she had no manners, although she did everything she could to make him feel at home. So he stayed in the house occupying the largest room, and having dinner with her every night. During one dinner, she brought up the issue of the mortgage, and he decided that he would help her pay it if the two of them got married. He really was convinced to go back to Tarkio and take his money to start a new life with her.

Late that night, Anderson awoke to find her standing over him, looking at him funny. She was holding a candle, and the expression on her face was so Machiavellian and sinister that he let out a scream. Without saying anything, Gunness ran out of the room. Anderson grabbed his clothes and didn’t think twice about taking a train to Missouri that very early morning.

The suitors kept coming, but no one except Anderson was able to leave Gunness’ farm. At this time, she began ordering bags and more bags to be delivered to her home. Many people claimed to have seen her carrying these bags on her back, as if they were “full of marshmallows,” and many saw digging inside her property, done largely by Ray Lamphere. The suitors kept coming, all answering his letters. One of these was Ole B. Budsburg, an elderly widower from Iola, Wisconsin. The last time he was seen alive was at the bank in La porte on April 6, 1907, mortgaging his Wisconsin farm and withdrawing thousands of dollars from his bank account. The sons of Ole B. Budsburg, Oscar and Matthew Budsburg, had no idea that their father had gone to visit Belle, and when they found out that he had, they sent a letter to Gunness, who replied on January 13, 1908 saying he had never met a man named Budsburg.

Countless middle-aged men appeared and disappeared on their visits to Gunness by the year 1907. Until in December of that year, Andrew Helgelien, a farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to her and was warmly received. They exchanged several letters, until he went to meet her in January 1908. He had with him a check for $2,900, all his savings, which he had withdrawn from the bank in his town. A short time later, Belle showed up at the bank in La porte and deposited the same amount of money in his savings account. A few days after Helgelien’s arrival, he and Gunness appeared at the bank and cashed the check he had brought. Helgelien disappeared a few days later, and Gunness showed up at the bank to make more deposits on her behalf. At this time, she began to have problems with Ray Lamphere.

Blows

Lamphere was deeply in love with Gunness, and would do anything she asked, no matter how horrible. He began to be jealous of her suitors, and was the author of several skirts and annoyances for her. Gunness fired him on February 3, 1908, and some time after that she reported to the La Porte authorities, stating that her former employee was not in his normal mental faculties and was a danger to the community. Somehow she managed to get them to do a mental sanity examination on him, but Ray was later released. A few days later she went back to the police again and reported that Lamphere had trespassed on her property, and he was finally arrested.

Lamphere went back to see her again, but she kicked him out. From then on he began to make innuendoes around the region. He is said to have once told William Slater, a farmer, about Andrew Helgelien, “Helgelien won’t bother you anymore, because we’ve taken care of him.” Helgelien had long since left La porte, as was believed. However, his brother, Asle Helgelien, became concerned when he no longer returned home, and wrote to Belle Gunness, inquiring about his brother’s whereabouts. Gunness wrote back, saying that he was not in La porte, and had probably gone to visit relatives in Norway. Asle Helgelien wrote back and said that he did not believe his brother would do this, believing that his brother was still in La Porte, the last place he had been seen. Gunness replied by asking if he did not want to come to her to look for his brother, as she would help him.

Lamphere still posed a danger to her, and now with Asle Helgelien asking questions, would soon raise more suspicions. Belle went to see her lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, saying that she was being threatened by Ray Lamphere and that she feared for her life and the lives of her children, Lamphere having threatened to set fire to the house with her inside. Belle wanted to make a will in case Ray carried out his threats. Leliter then drafted her will. She left all her possessions to her children. After finishing the will, she went to the city bank and paid off the mortgage on the house. Despite everything, she did not want to report Lamphere’s threats. It was later concluded that she did this to disguise the fire caused by herself.

Lamphere becomes a suspect

Joe Maxon, who had been hired to replace Lamphere in February 1908, awoke in the early morning hours of April 28 of the same year after smelling smoke coming from the second floor of the house. He opened the door to the living room, which was on fire. Maxon shouted for Gunness and the children, but no one answered. He then jumped out of the window on the second floor of the house and ran into town to get help, but he could not do this in time to save the house, which burned to the ground. Four bodies were found, one of the bodies could not be immediately identified as Gunness’, because his head was missing, which was never found. The bodies of Gunness’ children were found near the headless corpse. The town sheriff had heard of such threats made by Ray Lamphere, and soon called for the arrest of Gunness’ former employee. Attorney Leliter soon showed up and told the sheriff about the threats Gunness had told him about burning down the house with her and her children inside.

Lamphere did not help his defense. According to his account, even before the sheriff spoke about the fire, Ray reportedly asked if Gunness and his children were all right. When told about the fire, he denied any involvement in the case, claiming that he was elsewhere at the time of the fire. But John Solyem, a local teenager, claimed that he was on Gunness’ property (he gave no reason for this) and that he saw Lamphere running from Belle’s house down the road. Lamphere was arrested and charged with murder, and investigations began.

Is Belle Gunness dead?

The recognition of the headless body caused major problems for the people of La porte. Christofferson, a neighbor of the farm, said that the remains found in the fire were not those of Belle Gunness, and so did L. Nicholson, another neighbor, and Austin Cutler, an old friend of Gunness. More acquaintances of Gunness, May Olander and Sigward Olsen, came from Chicago. They examined the body and said it was not the body of Belle Gunness.

The doctors measured the body of the fire, and from records of the local clothing stores discovered that the body had measurements quite different from those recorded by Belle. When these measurements were put side by side, the doctors concluded that the body found was definitely not that of Belle Gunness. Furthermore, Doctor J. Meyers examined the woman’s internal organs and concluded that she had been killed by poisoning.

Macabre Discovery

Gunness’ dentist, Dr. Ira P. Norton, said that if Belle’s dental arches were found, he could identify whether the corpse was indeed hers. Louis “Klondike” Schultz, a miner in the area, was called in to do a more detailed search of the rubble of the fire. On May 19, 1908, two human teeth were found, one porcelain and one gold. Norton identified them as Gunness’, and the sheriff closed the case by concluding that the body in the fires was indeed that of Belle Gunness.

Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte and told the sheriff that he believed his brother had been the victim of some crime at the hands of Belle Gunness. Then Joe Maxon reported that Gunness had ordered him to bring dirt to a fenced off part of the property where the pigs were fed. There were many holes at the site, and Belle reportedly said that this was where she buried garbage. She reportedly wanted him to level the ground and plug the holes.

The sheriff took a group of men to the area and they began digging. On May 3, 1908, the diggers found the body of Jennie Olson (missing in December 1906). Then they found two small bodies of unidentified children. After that the body of Andrew Helgelien was found. Every day more bodies were found; Ole B. Budsburg (Thomas Lindboe of Chicago, Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin, who had gone to marry her a year earlier, taking $1500 for her ; Olaf Svenherud, of Chicago; John Moo of Elbow Lake, Minnesota-his watch was found with Lamphere; Olaf Lindbloom of Iowa. Another possible victim was Jennie Graham’s brother from Waukesha Wis, who had left his sister to marry a wealthy widow in La porte. There were also other bodies that could not be identified. About 40 bodies of men and children were found along the property.

Lamphere is judged

Ray Lamphere was arrested on May 22, 1908 and charged with arson and murder. He pleaded guilty to the arson, but denied killing Gunness and his children. His defense depended on confirmation that that was not Gunness’ body. For this, Lamphere’s lawyer, Wirt Worden, brought evidence that contradicted Dr. Norton, who had identified the teeth found as Belle’s. It was impossible for porcelain and gold pieces to come out of the fire intact. Tests were made to simulate the fire, and the teeth that remained were disintegrated or melted. Joe Moxon and another man later reported that they had seen the hired miner, Louis “Klondike” Schultz, place the teeth at the scene of the fire. Lamphere was found guilty of the fire, but not guilty of murder. On November 26, 1908 he was sentenced to twenty years in prison to be served in the Michigan State Prison. He became ill in prison and died of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909.

On January 14, 1910, Rev. E. A. Schell showed a confession by Lamphere while comforting the man in the last hours of his life. In it Lamphere revealed Gunness’ crimes and swore that she was still alive. He confessed that he had not killed anyone, but had helped Belle bury the bodies.

According to him, when the victim arrived, Belle would do everything she could to make him feel calm and comfortable, and would cook appetizing dishes for dinner. She would then drug the guest’s coffee, and then kill him with the help of some heavy object, such as a meat mincer. Sometimes she would just wait for the victim to sleep and go to his room with a candle and some chloroform. Because she was sturdy and strong, she would carry the body down to the basement, quarter and dissect it, and then bury it in the pig sty and in the foundations of the house. She had learned dissection from her second husband, butcher Peter Gunness. To save time, she sometimes put poison in the victims’ coffee. When she was too tired, she would just cut up the victims and mix the pieces with the pigs’ food.

Lamphere also shed light on the fire and the headless body. According to him, the body found belonged to a chambermaid that Gunness had hired from Chicago, a few days before she decided to run away. Gunness would have drugged the woman and after killing her would have cut her head off, tied her up with weights and dumped her in a swamp. She doped her children with chloroform, choked them to death, and placed them next to the headless body.

She would have dressed the body in her old clothes and left her dentures near him. Lamphere helped her set fire to the house, but she did not return to the place where the two were supposed to meet, and while he waited for her on the road, Gunness fled into the woods. Some people say that he actually took her to Stillwell, Indiana, a town nine miles from La Porte, where she took a train.

Lamphere also said that Gunness was a wealthy woman, and that she had killed 42 men on her own, stealing her victims’ money. She would have accumulated around $250000 dollars from her crimes, which at the time was a very high amount. She had also left a small amount in the local bank, but later the manager of the La porte bank would have claimed that she had withdrawn a large part of her savings before the fire.

Whereabouts of Gunness

For decades, people close to Gunness, friends, and investigators claimed to have seen her around various parts of the US, in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. In 1931, Belle was reported to be living in Mississippi, where she had a farm and lived quietly as a housewife. The sheriff of the city of La porte, for over 20 years, received reports stating various locations of Gunness.

The bodies of Gunness’ children were found in the wreckage, but the decapitated body was never truly identified, and the head was never found. Her fate is uncertain, and local residents sometimes believed the version of her escape, and sometimes thought that Lamphere had killed her. In the same year, 1931, that Belle was said to be in Mississippi, a woman named “Esther Carlson” was arrested in Los Angeles after poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who knew Gunness claimed that they recognized her from photographs, although the claim was never proven. Esther Carlson died awaiting trial.

Exhumation

The body found in the fire was buried next to the grave of Belle’s first husband at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. On November 5, 2007, the decapitated body was exhumed by a group of forensic archaeologists from the University of Indianapolis. One of the researchers stated that Gunness did not die in the fire, and many claim that the decapitated body was placed in the house before it caught fire. DNA tests will be done to confirm that the body was indeed that of Belle Gunness. If negative, investigators will exhume Esther Carlson’s body. Efforts have been made to find close relatives to make DNA comparisons. According to Andrea Simmons of the University of Indianapolis, the first attempts were to get some DNA from the letters Belle sent to her victims, which were soon discarded. The researcher is now trying to get DNA from Gunness’ sister, or her descendants. Suzanne McKay, great-granddaughter of Gunness’ sister supports the project and is writing a book about it. “I wish DNA testing could prove that that woman in the grave is not Belle Gunness,” says McKay, “I’m sure she killed a woman in Chicago and used her body to confuse the authorities and escape.”

Sources

  1. Belle Gunness
  2. Belle Gunness
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  4. Crime Library: Belle Gunness, sitio digital ‘CrimeLibrary’.
  5. Geringer, Joseph. «Belle Gunness, the notorious black widow: Executioner». Crime Library. Archivado desde el original el 9 de mayo de 2008. Consultado el 27 de abril de 2008.
  6. ^ Belle Gunnes, la Vedova Nera, su occhirossi.it. URL consultato il 16 ottobre 2009 (archiviato dall’url originale il 2 dicembre 2009).
  7. ^ a b c d e f Torre, Lillian de la (June 6, 2017). The Truth about Belle Gunness: The True Story of Notorious Serial Killer Hell’s Belle. Open Road Media. ISBN 9781504044578.
  8. ^ “Kirkebøker: SAT, Ministerialprotokoller, klokkerbøker og fødselsregistre – Sør-Trøndelag, 695/L1147: Ministerialbok nr. 695A07, 1860-1877, s. 2”.
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