||[May. 15th, 2007|05:09 pm]
The Commonplace Blog
Belle Sorenson Gunness (born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, November 22, 1859 in Selbu, Norway- probably died 1931 Los Angeles), was one of America's most profligate known female serial killers. At 6 ft (1.8 m) tall and over 200 lb (90 kg), she was a powerful Norwegian-American woman. She may have killed both of her husbands and all of her children (on different occasions), but she is known to have killed most of her suitors, boyfriends, and her two daughters Myrtle and Lucy. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance benefits. Reports estimate that she killed more than twenty people over several decades, some claim over one hundred, and possibly got away with it.
Belle Gunness’ origins, like much of her life story, are shrouded in a web of differing accounts and deliberate inventions. Most of her biographers state that she was born on 22nd November, 1859 near the lake of Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway and christened Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset; her parents being Paul Pedersen Storset (a stonemason) and Berit Olsdatter.
Others offer a more colourful version of the facts - attesting that Belle was born ‘Belle Paulson’ in Christiana, Norway, the daughter of a travelling magician who taught her conjuring tricks. According to these writers, the child Brynhild walked a tightrope outside her father’s tent to lure customers into his magic show. The latter years of her life were to be subjected to the same kind of myth-making process - as she took her place as a bogeywoman in the public imagination, blanks and uncertainties in her biography were filled with fictions and fabrications.
A Norwegian TV documentary by Anne Berit Vestby aired on September 4, 2006 reveals that in 1877, Belle (or Brynhild) attended a country dance in a pregnant condition. It is not said by whom. There she was attacked by a man, and a kick to the stomach resulted in the loss of her child. According to people who knew her, her personality now changed markedly. The man who attacked her died only shortly after. The cause of death was said to be stomach cancer. Having grown up in poverty, she took service the next year on a big, wealthy farm and served there for 3 years in order to pay for the trip across the Atlantic.
Following the example of a sister ("Nellie Larson") who’d gone to the New World some time earlier, she emigrated to the US in 1881 and assumed a more American-style name. Initially, she worked as a servant (or even as a farmgirl); but the newly re-labelled ‘Belle’ was both ambitious and avaricious. Her sister allegedly stated (years later): "Belle was crazy for money. It was her great weakness."
In 1884, Belle married Mads ("Max") Albert Sorenson in Chicago, Illinois where, a couple of years later, they opened a confectionary store. The business was not successful; within a year the shop burned down in mysterious circumstances. According to Belle’s story, a kerosene lamp exploded and started the fire. No lamp was ever found in the ruins, but the insurance money was paid. It’s likely that this money bankrolled the purchase of the Sorensons’ home in the suburb of Austin...a house that was also destroyed by fire in 1898. Insurance was collected once again and it funded the acquisition of another dwelling.
Mads died on July 30, 1900 - the only day that two life insurance policies on him overlapped. The first doctor to see Mads' thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorenson's family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart; he decided that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was not considered necessary in the event of an unsuspicious death. Belle was confident enough to tell the doctor that she had given her late husband medicinal "powders" to help him feel better.
She applied for the insurance money ($8,500), the day after her husband's funeral. The swiftness of this act fuelled the suspicions of her in-laws. Sorenson's relatives claimed that Belle had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance. Surviving records suggest that an inquest was ordered. It is unclear, however, if that investigation actually took place or whether Sorenson's body was ever exhumed to check for arsenic as his relatives demanded. The insurance companies awarded her $8,500, a large sum of money in those days. It was with this money that she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana. She moved in with her three daughters.
Though some researchers assert that their union produced no offspring, the records of more consistent investigators show that Bell and Mads had four children - Caroline, Axel, Myrtle and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy - allegedly of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis - nausea, fever, diarrhea, lower abdominal pain and cramping - are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. Both children were insured and the insurance company paid off.
The house on McClung Rd was built in 1846 by a man called John Walker (one of the original settlers in the area of La Porte) for his daughter Harriet Holcomb. True to form, both the boat and carriage houses burned to the ground shortly after she acquired the property. Perhaps Belle defrauded another insurance company to cover her moving expenses.
Belle met a local man - a fellow Norwegian called Peter Gunness. They were married on 1st April, 1902; just one week after the ceremony, Peter's infant daughter died (of uncertain causes) while alone in the house with Belle. In December 1902, Peter Gunness met with a "tragic accident". According to Belle, Peter was working in a shed when part of a sausage grinding machine fell from a high shelf, split his skull open and killed him instantly. Unsurprisingly, Belle still strongly believed in insurance; her husband’s untimely demise racked up another $3,000 (some sources say $4,000). Local people refused to believe that Gunness could be so clumsy. He’d run a hog farm on the property and was known to be an experienced butcher; the district coroner reviewed the case and unequivocally announced: "This was murder!" He convened a coroner's jury to look into the matter. Meanwhile, Jennie Olson, then aged fourteen, was overheard confessing to a classmate: "My momma killed my poppa. She hit him with a cleaver." Jennie was brought before the coroner's jury but denied having made the remark. While she testified, Belle sat nearby at a witness table - silently glowering at her. Then Belle took the stand and tearfully told her tale. She managed to convince the coroner's jury that she was innocent of any wrongdoing; she cast herself in the role of disadvantaged single parent - a woman left alone with the responsibility of raising children without the help of a strong man. Belle was pregnant (in the Spring of 1903, a son - named Philip - was born) and the jurors must have been swayed by her apparent hardships. She was released and the matter was dropped
After the hearing, Belle generally employed a single hand to help run the farm; in 1906 she engaged Ray Lamphere, a sombre little man with a drooping moustache, to perform the chores. Later in the same year, Jennie dropped out of sight. When neighbours inquired about her, Belle told them that she had sent to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles (some neighbours were informed that it was a finishing school for young ladies). In fact, Jennie had been killed and her body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother's property. Around the same time, Belle inserted the following advertisement in the matrimonial columns of all the Chicago daily newspapers and those of other large midwestern 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 with comfortable bank accounts and property responded to Belle's lovelorn column ads. They travelled to her farm armed with fat wallets and the deeds to their farms - all motivated to prove that they were men of substance and worthy of Belle's attentions. One of these was John Moo, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Wisconsin. He was a husky man of fifty and had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off Belle's mortgage... or so he told neighbours who were introduced to him by Belle as her cousin. He disappeared from Belle's farm within a week of his arrival. Next came George Anderson who, like Peter Gunness and John Moo, was a migrant from Norway. Anderson, from Tarkio, Missouri, was also a farmer with ready cash and a lovesick heart.
Anderson, however,did not bring all his money with him. He was persuaded to make the long trip to see Belle in La Porte because her eloquent letters intrigued him. Once there, he found that Belle (now in her mid-forties, portly and coarse-featured) was not the beauty he expected. He also realised that she had a severe manner - but she made him feel at home and provided good dinners while he occupied a guest room in the large farmhouse. One night at dinner Belle raised the issue of her mortgage. Anderson agreed that he would pay this off if they decided to wed. He was almost convinced to return to Tarkio, retrieve his money, then go back to Belle and eternal bliss.
But late that night, Anderson awoke "all in a cold sweat" - he looked up to see Belle standing over him, peering down with a strange look in her eyes. She held a guttering candle in her hand and the expression on her face was so foreboding and sinister that he let out a loud yell. Without uttering a word, Belle ran from the room. Anderson jumped out of bed, struggled into his clothes and fled. He didn’t stop until he reached La Porte. Anderson went straight to the train station and waited for the next train to Missouri.
The suitors kept coming - but none, except for Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. At this time, Belle began ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to Belle from La Porte and later remarked how the heavyset woman would lift these enormous trunks "like boxes of marshmallows" - tossing them onto her wide shoulders and carrying them into the house. She kept the shutters of her house closed day and night; farmers travelling past the dwelling at night saw Belle digging in the hog pen. Her handyman Lamphere also spent a good deal of time digging there and all about the house and barn.
Meanwhile, the suitors kept coming; all responding to Belle's enticing advertisements. Ole B. Budsburg, an elderly widower from Iolo, Wisconsin, next appeared. He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6th, 1907 - when he mortgaged his Wisconsin land there, signing over a deed and obtaining several thousand dollars in cash. His sons, Oscar and Mathew Budsburg, had no idea that their father had gone off to visit the widow Belle. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to Mrs.Gunness - she promptly wrote back, saying she had never seen Mr. Budsburg Sr. Several other middle-aged men appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm throughout 1907. Then, in December 1907, Andrew Hegelein, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to Belle and was warmly received. The pair exchanged many letters, until Belle unleashed her most amorous masterpiece yet - a letter that overwhelmed the simple Hegelein, written in Belle's own careful handwriting and dated January 13th,1908. This letter was later found at the Hegelein 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."
That, of course, is exactly what the hapless Hegelein did. In response to her love-gushing letter, the farmer flew to her side in January 1908. He brought with him a check for $2,900, his savings, which he had drawn from his local bank. A few days after Hegelein arrived, he and Belle appeared at the Savings Bank in La Porte and deposited the check for cashing. Hegelein vanished a few days later but Belle appeared at the Savings Bank to make a $500 deposit and another deposit of $700 in the State Bank. At this time, Belle started to have problems with Ray Lamphere.
The hired hand was deeply in love with Belle. He became jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and began making scenes. Belle fired him on February 3rd, 1908. Perhaps she initially dismissed the dangerous possibility that he might inform the authorities about her activities. Many mass killers with lengthy careers in homicide make the mistake of thinking that they are beyond the reach of justice. Her exact attitude can only be a matter of conjecture - but we do know that, shortly after dispensing with Lamphere, Belle presented herself at the La Porte courthouse. She declared that her former employee was not in his right mind and was a menace to the public. She somehow convinced local authorities to hold a sanity hearing and the grim little Lamphere was examined. He was pronounced sane and sent on his way. Belle was back a few days later to complain to the sheriff that Lamphere had visited her farm and argued with her. She contended that he posed a threat to her family and had Lamphere arrested for trespassing.
The handyman was not deterred. He returned again and again to see Belle. Lamphere made thinly disguised threats; on one occasion, he confided to farmer William Slater: "Hegelein won't bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps." Hegelein had long since disappeared from the precincts of La Porte, or so it was believed. However, his brother, Asle Hegelein, was disturbed when Andrew failed to return home and he wrote to Belle in Indiana, asking her about his sibling's whereabouts. Belle boldly wrote back - telling Asle Hegelein that his brother was not at her farm and probably went to Norway to visit relatives. Asle Hegelein wrote back saying that he did not believe his brother would do that, moreover, he believed that his brother was still in the La Porte area. Belle Gunness brazened it out; she told him that if he wanted to come and look for his brother, she would help conduct a search - but she cautioned him that searching for missing persons was an expensive proposition. If she was to be involved in such a manhunt, Belle stated, Asle Hegelein should be prepared to pay her for her efforts. Asle Hegelein did come to La Porte - but not until May.
Belle was worried about this turn of events. Lamphere represented an unresolved danger to her; now Asle Hegelein was making enquiries that could very well send her to the gallows. Thinking on her feet, Belle told a lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, that she feared for her life and that of her children. Ray Lamphere, she said, had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. She wanted to make out a will, in case Lamphere went through with his threats. Leliter complied and drew up Belle's will. She left her entire estate to her children and then departed Leliter's offices. She went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property and paid this off. Belle did not go to the police to tell them about Lamphere's allegedly life-threatening conduct. The reason for this, most later concluded, was that there had been no threats, Belle was merely setting the stage for her own arson.
Maxon, who had been hired to replace Lamphere in February 1908, awoke in the early hours of April 28, 1908, smelling smoke in his room which was on the second floor of the Gunness house. He opened the hall door to a sheet of flames. Maxon screamed Belle's name and those of her children but got no response. He slammed the door and then, in his underwear, leaped from the second-story window of his room, barely surviving the fire that was closing in about him. He raced to town to get help, but by the time the old-fashioned hook and ladder arrived at the farm at early dawn the farmhouse was a gutted heap of smoking ruins. The floors had collapsed and four bodies were found in the cellar. The grand piano, Belle's pride and joy, was on top of the bodies. One of the bodies was that of a woman who could not immediately be identified as Belle since she had no head. The head was never found. The bodies of her children were found next to the corpse. County Sheriff Smutzer had somehow heard about Ray Lamphere’s alleged threats; he took one look at the carnage and quickly sought out the ex-handyman. Lawyer Leliter came forward to recount his tale about Belle's will and how she feared Lamphere would kill her and her family and burn her house down.
Lamphere did not help his cause much. At the moment Sheriff Smutzer confronted him and before a word was uttered by the lawman, 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. A youth, John Solyem, was brought forward. He said that he had been watching the Gunness place (he gave no reasons for this) and that he saw Lamphere running down the road from the Gunness house just before the structure erupted in flames. Lamphere snorted to the boy: "You wouldn't look me in the eye and say that!" "Yes, I will," replied Solyem bravely. "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 arrested and charged with murder and arson.
The body of the headless woman was of deep concern to La Porte residents. C. Christofferson, a neighbouring 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 Mrs. Gunness. More of Belle's old friends, Mrs. Nellie Olander and Mrs. Sigurd Olson, arrived from Chicago. They had known Mrs. Gunness for years. They examined the remains of the headless woman and said it was not that of Belle.
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 neighbours, as well as the La Porte clothiers who made her dresses and other garments, swore that Belle was more than five feet eight inches tall and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds. Detailed measurements of the body were compared with those on file with several La Porte stores where Belle purchased her apparel.
When the two sets of measurements were placed side by side, the authorities reeled back in bewildered amazement. The headless woman could not possibly have been Belle Gunness, even when the ravages of the fire on the body were taken into account. (The flesh was badly burned but intact.) Moreover, Dr. J. Meyers examined the internal organs of the dead woman. He reported that the woman died of strychnine poisoning.
Belle's 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 (as more bodies were unearthed, the sluice was used to isolate human remains on a larger scale). On 19th May, 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 Belle. A coroner's inquest accordingly found that the adult female body discovered in the ruins was Belle Gunness.
Asle Hegelein arrived in La Porte and told Sheriff Smutzer that he believed his brother had met with foul play at Mrs. Gunness' hands. Smutzer seemed uninterested in searching the blackened grounds of the Gunness farm once again, but Hegelein persisted. Some chroniclers say that the Sheriff brushed aside Hegelein’s assertions and refused him permission to dig on the property (but state that he went and dug in any case). Then Joe Maxon came forward with information that could not be ignored - he told the Sheriff that Mrs. 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. These filled-in holes, Belle had told Maxon, contained rubbish. She wanted the ground made level, so he filled in the depressions.
Smutzer took a dozen men back to farm and began to dig. On 3rd May, 1908, the diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson. Then they found the small bodies of two unidentified children. Subsequently the body of Andrew Hegelein was unearthed. As days progressed and the gruesome work continued, one body after another was discovered in Belle's hog pen: Ole B. Budsburg; Thomas Lindboe of Chicago, who had left Chicago and had gone to work as a hired man for Belle three years earlier; Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin; Olaf Svenherud, from Chicago; John Moo (or Moe) of Elbow Lake, Wisconsin; Olaf Lindbloom from Iowa. There were many others who could not be identified. There were the remains of more than forty men and children buried in shallow graves throughout Belle's property.
Ray Lamphere was arrested on 22nd May, 1908 and tried for murder and arson. He pleaded guilty to arson, but denied having murdered Belle and her three children. His defense hinged on the assertion that the body was not Belle. Lamphere's lawyer, Wirt Worden, cleverly developed evidence which contradicted Dr. Norton's identification of the teeth and bridgework. The hired hand Joe Moxon and another man also testified that they’d seen ‘Klondike’ 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 26th November, 1908, he was sentenced to twenty years in the State Prison (in Michigan City). He grew ill in jail and died of consumption on 30th December, 1909.
On 14th January, 1910, the Rev. E.A. Schell came forward with a confession that Lamphere had made to him while the clergyman was comforting the dying man. Lamphere had stated to the Reverend Schell and to a fellow convict, Harry Meyers, shortly before his death, that he had not murdered anyone, but that he had helped Belle bury many of her victims.
When a victim arrived, Belle made him comfortable, charming him and cooking a large meal. She then drugged his coffee and when the man was in a stupor, she 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, Belle 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. Belle had become an expert at dissection, thanks to instruction she had received from her second husband, the butcher Peter Gunness. To save time, she sometimes poisoned 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, stepped 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 Belle's home. This woman had been lured from Chicago by Belle on the pretence of hiring her as a housekeeper only days before Belle decided to make her permanent escape from La Porte. Belle, according to Lamphere, had drugged the woman, then bashed in her head and decapitated the body, taking the head, which had weights tied to it, to a swamp where she threw it into deep water. 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, he admitted, but Belle had not left by the road where he waited for her after the fire had been set. Belle had betrayed her one-time partner in crime in the end by cutting across open fields and then disappearing into the woods. Some accounts suggest that Lamphere admitted that he took Belle to Stillwell (a town about 9 miles from La Porte) and saw her off on a train to Chicago.
Lamphere said that Belle was a rich woman, that she had murdered forty-two 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 lovelorn murder schemes over the years - a huge fortune for those days. She had also left a small amount in one of her savings accounts; but local banks later admitted that Belle had indeed withdrawn most of her funds shortly before the fire.
Belle Gunness was, for several decades, allegedly seen or sighted in cities and towns throughout the USA. Friends, acquaintances, amateur detectives and overly-imaginative people apparently spotted the murderess on the streets of Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. As late as 1931, Belle was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town where she owned a great deal of property and lived the life of a grande dame. Sheriff Smutzer, for more than twenty years, received an average of two reports a month. She became part of American criminal folklore, a female Bluebeard.
The bodies of Belle's three children were found in the home's wreckage, but the adult female corpse with them was never positively identified- her head was missing. Her true fate is unknown: La Porte residents were divided between believing that she was killed by Lamphere and that she had faked her own death. In 1931 a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested in Los Angeles, California, for poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Belle claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. Esther Carlson died while awaiting trial.
Belle Gunness's notoriety was formidable enough to inspire a folk song in 1938:
In old Indiana, not far from LaPorte,
There once lived a woman, a home lovin' sort.
Belle wanted a husband, she wanted one bad,
She placed in the papers a lonely hearts ad.
Men came to Belle Gunness to share food and bed,
Not knowing that soon they'd be knocked in the head.
But while they were sleeping, she'd lift the door latch.
She'd kill them and plant them in her tater patch.
A 2004 movie, titled Method starring Elizabeth Hurley was based on the Belle Gunness murders.
Rock guitarist John 5 recorded a song on his 2007 album The Devil Knows My Name inspired by the murders. The entire album, excluding the cover of Welcome to the Jungle, is inspired by serial killers.