November 11, 1859
|Died||April 28, 1908 (aged 48) (unverified)|
|Victims||at least 14|
Span of crimes
Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth (November 11, 1859 – possibly April 28, 1908), was a Norwegian-American serial killer who was active in Illinois and Indiana between 1884 and 1908. Gunness is thought to have killed at least fourteen people, most of whom were men she enticed to visit her rural Indiana property on the promise of marriage, while some sources speculate her involvement in as many as forty murders. Gunness seemingly died in a fire in 1908, but it is popularly believed that she faked her death. Her actual fate is unconfirmed.
Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset (Belle Gunness) was born in Selbu, Norway on November 11, 1859 to Paul and Berit Storset; she was the youngest of eight children. She was confirmed at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1874. At age 14, she began working for neighboring farms by milking and herding cattle to save enough money for passage to New York. She moved to the United States in 1881. When she was processed by immigration at Castle Garden, she changed her first name to Belle, then travelled to Chicago to join her sister, Nellie who had immigrated several years earlier.
In Chicago, while living with her sister and brother-in-law, she worked as a domestic servant, then got a job at a butcher's shop cutting up animal carcasses, until her first marriage in 1884.
Deaths associated with Gunness
Mads Sorenson and children
Belle Gunness married Mads Sorenson in 1884. Sorenson and Gunness owned a candy store which burned to the ground. The couple’s home had also burned down, and both instances granted the couple insurance payouts.
Two babies in their home died from inflammation of the large intestine, which can result from poisoning. Belle had insured both of the children and collected a large insurance check after each death. Neighbors gossiped about the babies, since Belle never appeared to be pregnant.
Sorenson had purchased two life insurance policies. On July 30, 1890, both policies were active at the same time, as one would expire that day, and the other began. Sorenson died of cerebral hemorrhage that day. Gunness explained he had come home with a headache and she provided him with quinine powder for the pain; she later checked on him and he was dead. Gunness collected money from both the expiring life insurance policy, and the one that went into effect that day, making a total of $5,000. With the insurance money, she moved to La Porte, Indiana, and bought a pig farm.
Belle married Peter Gunness on April 1, 1902. The following week, while Peter was out of the house, his infant daughter died of unknown cause in Belle's care.
Peter died eight months later due to a skull injury. Belle explained that Peter reached for something on a high shelf and a meat grinder fell on him, smashing his skull. The district coroner convened a coroner's jury, suspecting murder, but nothing came of the case. Belle collected $3000 insurance money for Peter's death.
Gunness began placing marriage ads in Chicago newspapers in 1905. One of her ads was answered by a Wisconsin farmhand, Henry Gurholt. After travelling to La Porte, Gurholt wrote his family, saying that he liked the farm, was in good health, and requesting that they send him seed potatoes. When they failed to hear from him after that, the family contacted Gunness. She told them Gurholt had gone off with horse traders to Chicago. She kept his trunk and fur overcoat.
John Moe of Minnesota answered Gunness's ad in 1906. After they had corresponded for several months, Moe travelled to La Porte and withdrew a large amount of cash. Although no one ever saw Moe again, a carpenter who did occasional work for Gunness observed that Moe's trunk remained in her house, along with more than a dozen others.
Andrew Helgelien and discovery of multiple graves
This section relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (July 2019)
Her criminal activities came to light in April 1908, when the Gunness farmhouse in La Porte, Indiana burned to the ground. In the ruins, authorities found the bodies of a headless adult woman, initially identified as Belle Gunness, and her three children. Further investigation unearthed the partial remains of at least 11 additional people on the Gunness property.
After the fire at the Gunness homestead led to the discovery of bodies believed to be Gunness and her children, La Porte police authorities were contacted by Asle Helgelien, who had found correspondence between his brother, Andrew Helgelien, and Gunness; the letters included petitions for him to relocate to La Porte, to bring money, and to keep the move a secret. A visit by Asle Helgelien to the Gunness farm with a former hired hand led to attention being paid to "soft depressions" in what had been made into a pen for hogs; after briefly digging one of the depressions in the lot, a gunny sack was found that contained "two hands, two feet, and one head", which Helgelien recognized to be those of his brother.
Immediate inspection of the site revealed that there were dozens of such "slumped depressions" in the Gunness yard, and further digging and investigation at the site yielded multiple burlap sacks containing "torsos and hands, arms hacked from the shoulders down, masses of human bone wrapped in loose flesh that dripped like jelly", from trash-covered depressions that proved to be graves. In each case, the body had been butchered in the same manner—the body decapitated, the arms removed at the shoulders, and the legs severed at the knees. Blunt trauma and gashes characterized the skulls that were found that had been separated from the bodies. Lucas Reilly, quoting The Chicago Inter Ocean in Mental Floss, noted that
The bones had been crushed on the ends, as though they had been... struck with hammers after they were dismembered... [and that] Quicklime had been scattered over the faces and stuffed in the ears.
After finding the parts of 5 bodies on the first day, and an additional 6 on the second—some in shallow graves under the original hog pen, others near an outhouse or a lake—"the police stopped counting". With these discoveries, the perceptions of Belle Gunness, as reported in newspaper descriptions of a praiseworthy woman—dying in the fire that consumed her house, "in a desperate attempt to save her children"—were reassessed. Despite the initial success with the identification of Andrew Helgelien, and despite the fact that widening news coverage of the mass murders invited inquiries from families with men that had gone missing, "[m]ost of the remains could not be identified."
Involvement of Ray Lamphere
Ray Lamphere was Gunness' hired hand and on-and-off lover. In November 1908, Lamphere was convicted of arson in connection with the fire. Lamphere later confessed that Gunness had placed advertisements seeking male companionship, only to murder and rob the men who responded and subsequently visited her on the farm. Lamphere stated that Gunness asked him to burn down the farmhouse with her children inside. Lamphere also asserted that the body thought to be Gunness's was in fact a murder victim, chosen and planted to mislead investigators. The brother of one victim had warned Gunness that he might arrive at the farm shortly to investigate his brother's disappearance. According to Lamphere, this impending visit motivated Gunness to destroy her house, fake her own death, and flee. When Lamphere was arrested, he was wearing John Moe's overcoat and Henry Gurholt's watch.
Edward Bechly, a journalist, was given a secret assignment to acquire access to a confession and publish it, thus bringing a second, inconsistent Lamphere account to light. The second account is based on the report that Lamphere contacted a Reverend Edwin Schell and provided him with a verbal confession that Schell transcribed and had Lamphere sign, a document that Schell kept sealed in his personal safe. Bechly attempted to convince Schell to allow him to publish this later confession, but was denied by both Schell and Schell's wife. However, a separate newspaper published a story with speculation regarding the second Lamphere confession. Described as worried as to the peace of the families of the victims, Schell offered the confession to Bechly, which was later published. The Bechly narrative, entitled "Lanphere's Confession" [sic], contains this summary from Bechly:
In the confession, Lanphere [sic] said that he had killed Mrs. Gunness and children with an ax, sprinkled the bodies with kerosene and set fire to them and the house. It gave details of the slaying, and told of his part in the former murders which occurred at the Gunness farm, his task usually being the burying of the bodies in the garden. The essential fact, however, was that the murderess was not alive as a fugitive.
The publication of Lamphere's confession resulted in the subsequent arrest of his accomplice Elisabeth Smith. The inconsistencies between the two confessions, including the matter of the survival of Belle Gunness, remain historical issues that are not fully resolved.
Belle Gunness was pronounced dead, even though the doctor who performed the postmortem testified that the headless body was five inches shorter and about fifty pounds lighter than Gunness. No explanation was provided for what happened to the body's head. Whether Gunness died in the fire or escaped remained uncertain, although the sheriff blamed a Chicago American reporter for inventing the "escaped" story. Reported "sightings" of Gunness in the Chicago area continued long after she was declared dead. At the time, police looked into reports of women suspected to be Belle, none of which led to her apprehension. Recent DNA tests were performed on the headless corpse, but the results were inconclusive.
After Gunness' crimes came to light, the Gunness farm became a tourist attraction.[page needed] Spectators came from across the country to see the mass graves, and concessions and souvenirs were sold.[page needed] Moreover, the crime became an acknowledged part of area history: the La Porte County Historical Society Museum has a permanent "Belle Gunness" exhibit.
- 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.
- Schneider, Howard (May 18, 2018). "'Hell's Princess' Review: A Butcher Named Belle". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
- "Kirkebøker: SAT, Ministerialprotokoller, klokkerbøker og fødselsregistre - Sør-Trøndelag, 695/L1147: Ministerialbok nr. 695A07, 1860-1877, s. 2".
- "Belle Gunness". Biography. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
Quote: 'over 40 victims [were found] on her property'.[better source needed]
- Greig, Charlotte (April 1, 2006). Evil Serial Killers: In the Minds of Monsters [Fully Illustrated]. Arcturus Publishing. ISBN 9781848580381.
- "A nightmare at Murder Farm: The story of one of America's most prolific serial killers". Strange Remains. May 19, 2014. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
- Beauman, Fran (2020). Matrimony, Inc. New York: Pegasus Books. pp. 159–169. ISBN 978-1-64313-578-6. OCLC 1143650024.
- Getlen, Larry (May 5, 2018). "How a farm girl became the 'butcher' of lonely men". New York Post. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
- "The Story of Belle Gunness, One of America's Most Prolific Serial Killers". Cosmopolitan. March 2, 2017. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
- Reilly, Lucas (November 26, 2018). "Corpses in the Pig Pen: The Tale of Indiana's Most Notorious Serial Killer". Mental Floss. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- "The Belle Gunness Episode: Who was the Mistress of Murder Hill?". Stuff You Missed in History Class. iHeartRadio. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
- Chicago Tribune Staff (January 4, 1910). "Minister Guards Lamphere Secret". Chicago Tribune: 7.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch Staff (January 13, 1910). "Confession Clears the Gunness Mystery". St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 1f.
- Chicago Tribune Staff (January 14, 1910). "Gunness Report Lacks Credence". Chicago Tribune: 3.
- Chicago Tribune Staff (January 15, 1910). "Dr. Schell Bares Lamphere Secret". Chicago Tribune: 1f.
- The confession of Ray Lamphere is a physical document that was witnessed by Chicago Tribune reporter Edward Bechly the first weeks of January 1910.
- Bechly, Edward (ca. 1930) Lanphere's Confession [sic], p. 16.[full citation needed][verification needed]
- Chicago Tribune Staff (January 16, 1910). "Negress Denies Gunness Charge". Chicago Tribune: 4.
- Schechter, Harold (2003). The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group. p. nos. unknown. ISBN 0345472004. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- Rose, Phyllis (April 9, 2011). "Day Trip: Step into Historic LaPorte, Indiana; Visit 19th Century Courthouse, Museum, Miniature Horse Farm". Grand Rapids, MI: MLive Media Group. Retrieved July 13, 2019. Cite journal requires
- Cohen, Norman (2008). American Folk Songs: A Regional Encyclopedia. 2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 427. ISBN 978-0313088100. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- Schechter, Harold & Everitt, David (2006). The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. p. 268. ISBN 1416521747. Retrieved July 13, 2019.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "Method (2004)". FilmAffinity. Retrieved September 8, 2021.
- Potempa, Philip (March 3, 2021). "Potempa: Murderess Belle Gunness film starting production in LaPorte". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
- Janet L. Langlois (1985). Belle Gunness, the Lady Bluebeard: Narrative Use of a Deviant Woman. In: Susan J. Kalcik, Rosan A. Jordan (editors) (1985). Women's Folklore, Women's Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812212068. Pages 109–124.
- Anne Berit Vestby (2006). Only Belle: Bare Belle - En seriemorder fra Selbu.
- Lillian de la Torre (1955). The Truth about Belle Gunness (MysteriousPress.com/Open Road)