Belle Gunness (1858-?)

belle gunnessBorn Under an Unlucky Star

The people of La Porte, Indiana felt sorry for Belle Gunness who lived on a farm just outside of town; oh the trouble the poor woman had seen! Coming from Chicago a widow with 3 children just after her husband had died so suddenly, she had seen more than her fair share of troubles. Upon purchasing her farm, 2 of the outbuildings had mysteriously burned to the ground. Then shortly after she had arrived she had married Mr. Peter Gunness, who brought with him a baby boy. Only within a few months the poor child had died, and Mr. Gunness soon followed him leaving her a (pregnant) widow again! Belle had tried to find someone to help with the farm, but farm hands would leave without a moment’s notice, usually in the shadow of the night, leaving her once again alone to try to work the farm.

Even placing lonely hearts ads in the Scandinavian newspapers had the same results; the men would show up but leave town in the middle of the night! And now this, all of them, her 3 children and herself, burned beyond recognition in a fire at their home. The neighbors would miss the smiling woman who would come to town, greeting them with her pleasing Norwegian accent.

Burned remains Gunness Home
Burned remains Gunness Home

On the morning of April 28th, 1908 the neighbors came out to view the rubble of the home that Belle had struggled so hard to keep going. Soon the talk was of how Ray Lamphere, a hired hand that had been bothering Mrs. Gunness after she had fired him, had threatened her! Later that very day Lamphere was arrested and taken to jail, charged with arson.

While they were sifting through the rubble in the southwest corner of the basement of the home, almost ready to give up, they found the remains of 2 young girls, a young boy, and a woman whose head was missing!!! Oh poor Mrs. Gunness and her children!! The town was in shock. But not as shocked as when Asle Helgelien arrived to town, looking for his missing brother Andrew!

Left- Belle with Lucy, Myrtle & Phillip; Right with 2 of her children
Left- Belle with Lucy, Myrtle & Phillip; Right with 2 of her children

On Monday May 3rd, the morning after arriving in town 4 days after the fire, Asle Helgelien, Andrew’s brother, and the Sheriff Albert Smutzer drove out to the farm. When they arrived they found Joseph Maxson and another local person digging through the remains of the basement. Upon arrival, Asle started to help them sift thru the remains, hoping to find something, anything of his brother’s.

Having been unsuccessful, Andrew returned again the next day, finding the men still sifting through the basement. He questioned them for awhile and had started back to town, having given up any hopes of finding anything of Andrew’s. Something was still bothering him, he went back to the basement and talked to Joe Maxson. He asked him if Belle had recently dug any holes in the early spring, which Joe replied that indeed he had helped her. He showed Asle where Belle had asked him to dig a garbage pit for her, explaining how he had dumped trash into that hole for her and then buried the garbage.

As they began to dig in the freshly filled hole, they first found the trash you would expect from the farm: cans, old clothing, rotting food, etc. But as they dug, a smell began to emerge that was putrid. Upon further digging they reached about 4 feet down where the rotted remains of gunny sacks were found. Examining the contents of the gunny sack, they found the remains of a sawed off human neck and arm…..

America, the land of dreams

A Young Belle
A Young Belle

Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset was born in a small town on the Norwegian west coast on November 11th, 1858, to Paul Pedersen Storset, a poor tenant farmer and stonemason and Berit Olsdatter. At an early age Brynhild worked at neighbors farms as a milkmaid around her home in Sebu to help her family. She had dreams of one day going to America as her sister Nellie and her husband had done.

When her sister finally sent for her, she set sail for America. In 1881 Brynhild arrived in the US and moved in with her sister and her husband in Chicago. Soon after arriving she changed her name to a more American sounding name, Bella, eventually changing it to Belle.

Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson (husband number 1)

Belle and Mads married around 1884. Having worked as a servant for wealthy families in the Chicago area, Belle was determined to become wealthy as well, and have people wait on her instead! Mads was a very hard worker and when they married he worked at a department store as the stores detective. Shortly after he was hired by the Chicago and NW Railroad, which was a promotion for him, but alas, for poor Belle it wasn’t enough for her.
Being unable to have children of their own, Mads and Belle fostered neighborhood children whose parents were unable to care for them, and fostered three girls, Jennie (Olson), Myrtle and Lucy. They were also parents to 2 children who died in infancy, Caroline in 1896 and Axel in 1898 (cause of both was listed as acute colitis; with symptoms similar to being poisoned. Both were insured).

To help with the family expenses, Belle opened a small confectionary shop in 1896, which was not much of a success; evidently customers were not too pleased with the brusque Norwegian woman! A year later in 1897, as Belle reported to the investigators, a kerosene lantern had exploded and burned the building to the ground, (even though a kerosene lantern was ever found), fortunately for them, they did have insurance on the building, which was reluctantly paid to them.

Using the insurance money from both the death of Caroline and the candy store fire (which were very close together), Belle and Mads purchased a larger home. 2 years later, in 1898, that home burned to the ground; they collected the insurance on that home as well. With the proceeds from the insurance company on their second home, as well as the payout on Axel, who also tragically died around this time, they purchased an even larger home.
In July 1900, again tragedy struck poor Belle, her husband Mads died. The doctor who first examined him after his death was suspicious of strychnine poisoning and wanted to have an autopsy. He was persuaded not to pursue his death after his family doctor told him that he had been treating Mads for an enlarged heart and he probably died of cardiac arrest. Belle appeared to be a genuinely grieving widow (although she did admit, being the loving wife she was, she had given Mads a ‘powder’ to help his cold) and soon the matter was dropped. (Coincidentally, Belle had decided to change insurance companies and as it turns out, Mads died on the one day that BOTH policies were in effect, how fortunate for the poor grieving widow!!)

Before his death, Mads had talked about moving out of Chicago to, La Porte Indiana, a small town about 90 miles north of Chicago. In November 1901, with the insurance money from her husband’s death, Belle purchased a large farm on the outskirts of town. She moved there with Jennie, Myrtle and Lucy. However, tragedy soon struck again when 2 of the outbuildings on the property burned. Fortunately she had thought to have them insured!

Peter Gunness (her 2nd and last husband)

A few months after Belle and her children arrived to La Porte, she married Peter Gunness, also Norwegian. Peter has been described as a tall good looking blonde; bringing with him a young child. Life seemed to be settling into place on the farm outside of La Porte, perhaps happiness had again found Belle. However, happiness wouldn’t last long for her when tragedy stuck the poor woman again! Peter’s child died very soon after moving onto the farm, while alone with Belle; followed by Peter who had an unfortunate accident when a meat auger fell from a shelf and crushed his skull! How his skull had been crushed and his nose broken at the same time did raise some suspicions. However, since the grieving widow did seem sincere in her grief and the neighbors didn’t suspect Belle of any wrong doing (after all, they stated, the couple seemed very happy together). Soon the suspicions were dismissed and the matter dropped. Belle received an insurance payout on her husband.

Belle needed some help on her farm with the chores and the crops she raised, so she began to hire drifters, but they didn’t seem to last long and would move on, usually in the middle of the night! Poor Jennie Olson (one of Belle’s adopted children) made the mistake of questioning why they always seemed to disappear… soon the pretty girl with the long blonde curls was no longer seen on the farm……

Lonely Hearts Ads

Being lonely again and needing help with the farm, Belle starting placing ads in the matrimonial columns in various Scandinavian language newspapers in Chicago and other large 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.

Neighbors reported seeing many men heading to her home, but no one could remember seeing them leave! Belle would explain it away; saying they had left in the middle of the night. She would complain how she just couldn’t find a good man to help her with the farm.

In December 1906, after asking why the men seemed to leave so quickly, 16 year old Jennie Olson disappeared from the farm. Belle told neighbors that she had been sent to a Lutheran College in California and to some a finishing school. She was never seen alive again….

One of the men who answered Belle’s ad was John Moe, a Norwegian, arriving from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He had brought over $1000 to help pay off the mortgage. He soon was never seen again.

George Anderson, also a Norwegian, arrived from Tarkio Missouri. He later told others that one night after discussing with Belle of him paying off the mortgage on the farm after they wed; he was awakened in the middle of the night with a sinister, evil looking Belle standing over his bed, candlestick raised. He departed very quickly, being the only known man to of left the farm on his own accord!

Ole Budsberg    

Ole Budsberg
Ole Budsberg

 

There was Ole Budsberg, an elderly gentleman living in Iola, Wisconsin, who had seen the advertisement from Belle. He thought it looked good and would make a nice investment. He decided to make a nice, quiet investigation and not tell his grown sons, Oscar and Matthew. He headed for La Porte. Mr. Budsberg was last seen alive on April 6, 1907 at the La Porte Savings Bank, where he mortgaged his land in Wisconsin for several thousand dollars and handing over the deed. His sons Oscar and Mathew, upon discovering their father had gone to La Porte, had written to Belle asking of his whereabouts, Belle’s response was that he had never been there.

Throughout 1906 to 1908 many men set out to the farm in La Porte, all of them with high hopes of marrying a rich widow, but were never seen by there families and friends again…

Andrew Helgelien    Andrew Helgelien

Belle began corresponding with Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor, from Aberdeen South Dakota. They exchanged many letters; one letter that was found on Mr. Helgelien’s farm from her 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 are 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.

In January 1908 he arrived with a check for $2900, which he deposited in the Savings bank a few days after he had arrived. He was never heard from again.

Asle Helgelien became worried when he didn’t hear from his brother after several months. Andrew had told his brother about Belle before he had left South Dakota. He became concerned that since he was carrying so much money, that he had met with foul play on his way to Indiana. He contacted Belle who responded by saying that he had indeed been to the farm but had left, stating that he was going back to Norway. She expressed her concern about Andrew being missing and offered to help look for him. Belle suggested that Asle sell all of his belongings and come to La Porte so the two of them could look for Andrew.

Asle became immediately suspicious, knowing his brother would not go back to Norway without telling him. He made plans to head to La Porte and find out what had happened; arriving in town on May 3…4 days after the fire at Belle’s farm.

The whereabouts of the missing men would have remained a mystery if Asle hadn’t go to La Porte, or gone to the farm the next morning. That day, May 4th, Asle and the world began to find out what exactly happened to them all…

The Fire and The Aftermath

Joe Maxson, who had been hired to replace the former farmhand, Ralph Lamphere, was awoken around 4 a.m. on the morning of April 28th to a smoke filled room. He tried to warn Mrs. Gunness and her children. First he tried to go out into the hallway to their rooms, but the flames and smoke were already very bad. He ended up jumping out of the window and ran around outside their rooms, yelling up to them, trying to get some response, but to no avail. He ran to town to alert the sheriff and the fire brigade. But they were unable to put out the fire or save anyone who may have been inside.

After the fire had cooled, the task of going through the ashes began. As the day wore on, and no bodies were found, they were about to give up when in the southwest corner of the basement, the bodies of 3 children and a headless woman were found. Assuming them to be Belle and her children Myrtle 11, Lucy 9 and Phillip 5, and because of Belle’s reports of him threatening them, as well as a young neighbor stating that he had seen Ray Lamphere leaving the house shortly before the fire, he was promptly arrested that same day.

Upon examining the bodies, there was no doubt that the 3 small bodies were definitely Belle’s children, but the body of the woman did not seem to fit Belle’s size and height (Belle was reported to have been over 200 lbs and 6 feet tall; the woman found in the basement was determined to be of much smaller height and weight)

Digging in basement remains, Gunness home
Digging in basement remains, Gunness home

 

Things may have been left at that if Andrew Helgelien’s brother, Asle, had not shown up in town on that evening in May. He was very determined to find something of his brother. Upon questioning Joe Maxson, and beginning to dig in the mound of a recently filled in trash hole, his determination paid off when they began to examine the contents of the rotted gunny sack.

Upon finding the gunny sack, Joe had run to town to bring back the sheriff, informing him of them finding a sawed off arm and neck. Continuing to dig, they would find the remaining body parts, including the head of a man, who Asle identified as his missing brother Andrew.

sluicing thru the ash
sluicing thru the ash

Maxson noticed another soft mound of dirt close by; in it were the remains of young girl, her blonde hair still clinging to the skull. They dug further in the hole, to a depth of a foot and continued to find body parts. First that of a large man, below that, 2 children, ages guessed around 12 years old.

But the horror did not stop there! By May 6th the body count had risen to 13!!! The bodies had been dismembered, wrapped in gunny sacks and doused in lye!!!

Traffic jam on McClung Rd by Gunness Farm
Traffic jam on McClung Rd by Gunness Farm

Mrs. Marie Svenherud of Christinia, Norway, reported that her son, Olaf Svenherud, 23, had left Chicago to marry a rich Norwegian widow in La Porte. She stated that he had become acquainted with her through a matrimonial advertisement in the column of the newspaper. Not hearing from him, she had made inquiry through Acting Consul Faye of Chicago.

Olaf Lindboe of Chicago was looking for his brother Thomas Lindboe. He said that his brother had worked for Mrs. Gunness 3 years previously and hadn’t heard from him since he received a letter saying that Thomas had intended to marry his employer. Olaf wrote to Mrs. Gunness who wrote Olaf back telling him that his brother had gone to St. Louis; Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin, had corresponded with Mrs. Gunness and left a year earlier to marry her. He had taken with him $1500.

GUNNESS GRAVE YARD  

Gunness yard where more bodies are found
Gunness yard where more bodies are found

 

Soon the remains of the following were soon found and identified:
Ole B. Budsberg of Iola, Wisconsin; Thomas Lindboe; Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin, Olaf Svenherud, from Chicago; John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minnesota; Olaf Lindbloom, age 35 from Wisconsin.

The list of possible victims grew larger as more bodies and body parts were found buried on the property. One estimate was that as many as 40 men, women and children were killed and buried on the farm.

Makeshift morgue
Makeshift morgue

As the word spread throughout the newspapers around the country, reports of other possible victims began to come in:

There was a Mr. William Mingay, from New York City, who left on April 1, 1904; Olaf Lindbloom, 35, from Wisconsin; Herman Konitzer of Chicago, disappeared January 1906; Charles Edman from New Carlisle, Indiana, George Berry, Tuscola, Illinois; Christie Hilkven, Dovre, Wisconsin had sold his farm and came to La Porte Indiana… and the list goes on!!!

Spectators at the Gunness Farm
Spectators at the Gunness Farm

On May 19th, 1908, Belle’s dental bridge was found in the basement; the coroner declared Belle dead. (Despite the fact that the body found in the basement was not as large as Belle. Also the dental bridge did not to appear to of been affected by the fire. Gold from the fire had melted on watches and other gold items, however the gold in her dentures was not). Was Belle alive or was she dead?

10 bodies found here
GUNNESS GRAVE YARD

 

Ray Lamphere, Hired Hand

Ray Lamphere
Ray Lamphere

Ray Lamphere began working on the Gunness farm in 1906 as a hired hand. But soon they were seen around town, arm in arm. The neighbors would smile with delight at the sight of them, him tall and slim, her shorter and weighing much more than him! What a sight they must have been!

While Ray lasted longer than most, Belle soon fired him on February 3, 1908. Ray was quite smitten with the woman and could be seen standing along the edges of the farm, watching her; soon he was seen quarreling with the many suitors who came to the farm. Growing tired of this, Belle would have him arrested for trespassing and also began telling rumors of the threats he had made to her. She would tell people how he was scaring her children and herself, and threatening to burn down the house! She also began to question his sanity and requested a sanity hearing. Ray was evaluated and found to be sane.

On April 27th, 1908 Belle went to her attorney and rewrote her will, leaving everything to her children, or to an orphanage in Chicago if they did not survive her; the fire was early the next morning.

Ray Lamphere was arrested that very day, having made the threats to Belle and having an eye witness come forward saying that they had seen him on the night of the fire on the property.

Ray Lamphere’s Trial

The trial opened on the morning of Friday, November 13, 1908. Ray Lamphere was being charged with 4 counts of murder and 1 count of arson. The trial lasted thru the month, and drew crowds and reporters from all over the nation! Back in 1908 it was making the front page of many newspapers, horrifying and shocking people all over the United States.

The jury didn’t take long in deciding Ray’s fate; coming back with their verdict on Thanksgiving Eve, November 26th. Stating that they felt there was insufficient evidence to convict him of murder, they only found him guilty of the 1 count of arson. He was sentenced to jail for 2 to 20 years at the state penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana.

Throughout his time in prison, Ray persistently claimed that Belle was alive and that he had helped her set the fire and drove her to a train station in a neighboring town. He told anyone who would listen that Belle had murdered up 49 victims! His cell mate later stated that Ray had confided in him that he had actually helped Belle with some of the murders!

Before his death 2 years later on December 30, 1909 of tuberculosis, Ray Lamphere, 38, reportedly confessed to the Reverend E. A. Schell. Rev. Schell came forward in January of 1910 with the confession of Ray’s part in the murders on the Gunness farm.

During the confession Ray claimed that Belle had indeed escaped that day and was not the headless woman in the basement. He said the woman was someone that Belle had lured from Chicago under the pretense of hiring her as a housekeeper a few days before the fire. She had planned all along to use the woman as a decoy so she could escape. Belle had reportedly poisoned and then decapitated her; throwing her weighted down head, into a nearby swamp!!! The head has never been found!

Of the men that she had killed, Lamphere said that while he did help her to dispose of the bodies on occasion, he never actually had a hand in killing them. He said that many times she would make a large meal for these men, and charm them. She would then put drugs in their coffee and while in a stupor, she would smash their heads in, dissect them and bury them in the hog pen or around the property!! He said that sometimes when she was tired she would simply feed the body parts to the hogs in the middle of the night!!!

On the night of the fire, Belle had chloroformed her children, smothered them and drug them to the basement, along with the woman from Chicago, dressed in Belle’s clothing. She then set the house on fire and escaped.

Ray claimed that over the years, she had stolen around 250,000 from her victims, in today’s terms that would be over 6 million dollars!!! Was Belle really alive?? Soon after the fire, and continuing over the next 2 decades, Belle sightings began to come in….

What happened to Belle?

Belle sightings came from all over the country. One was from a conductor on a train who was certain that Belle was among his passengers. The conductor said that on April 29th, Belle was on his train, bundled on a stretcher, seeming quite ill.

On April 30th, a neighbor was visiting Belle’s closest friend, Almetta Hay, and was certain he saw Belle sitting down for coffee with her. Years later after Almetta died, the skull of a woman was found among mattresses in her trash filled home (could this have been the skull of the woman found in the fire?); surprisingly, the authorities did not investigate the finding.

Neighbor Daniel Hutson, who knew Belle very well, was sure he saw her on July 1st as he was heading home from town. While he was driving past the farm, he saw a woman and a man walking in the orchard on the property. He was certain that it was Belle, even at the distance he was, because of her size and her shape and the way she walked. He said he had never seen a woman walk in the lumbering way that she did!

In 1917, a childhood neighbor of Belle’s was sure he recognized her as being a patient at a hospital where he was a student nurse. He contacted the police, but by the time they arrived, she was gone.

One of the most interesting sightings occurred in 1931, when a prosecutor from Los Angeles had written to the sheriff of La Porte. The LA police had arrested a woman by the name of Esther Carlson for poisoning 81 year old August Lindstrom for money. Among the woman’s possessions was a photograph of 3 children that resembled Belle’s who had died in the fire.
Unfortunately because of it being during the depression and the department had no money, they could not send anyone to California. Esther Carlson died of tuberculosis before her trial and the possibility of her being Belle went unanswered.

In 1935 a man claimed that the Madame of a whorehouse in Ohio resembled Belle. He had even called her by that name, and according to the man, she was very upset by it; so he let the matter drop.

The question of whether she died that day in the fire or escaped into the night, remains a mystery to this day! What happened to this woman to make her into such a vicious serial killer of not only the men she preyed upon, but her children as well?

Who really was Belle and why did she do these cruel callous murders?
Who was Belle and why did she kill?

From the letters she wrote to the men who became her victims, she was clearly manipulative and clever. Though she intended only to kill them and take their money, she managed to pen lengthy and flowery expression of eternal love and devotion. She was also strong enough to kill and dismember them, and she did not hesitate to kill children, either, if it benefited her. It’s likely that she killed her first two children by poison and that she killed two husbands — one of them by a blow to the head. She also killed poor Jenny, a girl in her care, and then told people the girl had gone to school in California.
It appears that Belle was a gifted liar. Even so, many people described her as kindly and a good mother. That meant she managed to put on a believable facade.

Trying to find out who Belle was and why she so callously was able to commit these crimes against the men that she sent those flowery letters of love to as well as possibly murder her children, the authorities reached out to the community Belle was from in Norway. They were in contact with a Hans Jorgensen who lived in Norway and knew of her background when she lived there. He stated that as a 17-year-old girl, he said, Belle became pregnant with a boy from a farm near where she was employed. Since her family was quite poor, she was trying to earn money to purchase a ticket to go to the United States. The farm was a long way from her family.

Although this boy was a rich man’s son, and she was just a poor farmhand, rumors were that they had been together and she had gotten pregnant. One night they went to a local dance, and afterwards they went for a walk on the beach. The boy was aware of Belle’s condition, and not wishing to be forced into a future with her, he beat her badly, causing her to miscarry and lose the baby. No one knew how far along her pregnancy was at the time, which indicates that she was not showing. Since she had no family in the immediate area, she was forced to deal with her situation by herself. She was terribly frightened by her ordeal, and people who were acquainted with her indicated that, from that day on, her personality changed dramatically.

A month later, the boy died. People believed he’d had stomach cancer, but with the quality of medical care and the state of diagnostics at the time, in light of Belle’s future acts, it might have been poison. In that case, this would have been her first murder, not that of her first husband, and the boy’s brutal treatment of her might have influenced her violent streak. It’s possible that after she experienced his rejection and his unfair behavior, she grew angry enough to set her mind on doing whatever she needed for herself, no matter what the cost to anyone else.

The case remains a cold case here in this small town of La Porte Indiana.

Whatever happened that fateful night in La Porte will probably always be a mystery.

A tawdry rhyme has been said to of been repeated by children in La Porte through the years….

There’s red upon the Hoosier moon
For Belle was strong and full of doom;
And think of those Norsk men
Who’ll never see St. Paul again

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BOOKS
#1 – The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers; A study of the chilling criminal phenomenon, from the “Angels of Death” to the “Zodiac” Killer; Michael Newton
#2 – Female Serial Killers; How and why women become monsters; Peter Vronsky
#3 – Mistresses of Mayhem; The Book of Women Criminals; Francine Hornberger
#4 – Murder Most Rare; The Female Serial Killer; Michael D. Kelleher and C.L. Kelleher
#5 – Strictly Murder; A Writer’s Guide to Criminal Homicide; Martin Roth
#6 – Evil Wives deadly women whose crimes knew no limits;John Marlowe
#7 – Great Lakes Serial Killers; True Accounts of the Great Lakes Most Gruesome Murders; Wayne Louis Kadar

STATISTICS

Name at Birth: Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset
Date/Place of Birth: November 11th, 1858/ Selbu, Norway
Date/Cause of Death: Unknown
Also known as: Belle; Bluebeard of Indiana; Hell’s Belle
Date of Capture/Time Served: Believed to of escaped
Motive: Insurance money
Number of Husbands: 2
Number of Victims: 40+
Time span of killings: July 30, 1900–1908
Country/States: USA: Illinois, Indiana
Classified as: BLACK WIDOW

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