While touring the La Porte County Historical Society Museum in La Porte, Indiana we came across a gruesome display about a female serial killer that included the skull of one of her many victims, and the mystery author and historian in me found the story fascinating. Not only by the cruelty that such a normal appearing woman was capable of, but because she may have gotten away with her crimes!
Belle Gunness, a solidly built woman six feet tall and 200 pounds, was born in Norway in 1859, and immigrated to America in 1881. Settling in Chicago, she married a fellow Norwegian named Mads Albert Sorenson, who owned a small store with living quarters on the second floor. Shortly thereafter, their store and home were destroyed in a mysterious fire and they collected a settlement from their insurance company. It would not be the last such check Belle would cash.
Not much time passed before Sorenson died of apparent heart failure. Was it only a coincidence that his death occurred on the only day that his two life insurance policies overlapped? Sorenson’s family demanded an investigation into his death, since he had shown no sign of illness, but nothing ever came of it.
More deaths would follow. Records show that the couple had two children, both of whom died as infants. And in both deaths, their grieving mother collected money from insurance policies on their lives.
Belle moved to Indiana and bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte. In a matter of weeks the boat and carriage house on the property burned to the ground. Fortunately for Belle, she had had the foresight to make sure they were well insured.
In April, 1902, Belle married a widower named Peter Gunness, and he and his infant daughter moved into Belle’s house on her farm. Soon after they married, Belle’s infant stepdaughter died while in her care.
Peter Gunness did not have long to mourn his daughter’s death. In December 1902, he died in a freak accident. Belle told authorities that he was reaching for his slippers next to the kitchen stove when he overturned a pot of boiling brine and was scalded. Flailing about in pain, the unfortunate man somehow managed to knock a heavy sausage-grinding machine off of a high shelf and it crashed into his head, killing him.
Eyebrows were raised, and many people who had known Gunness, a hog farmer and butcher, refused to believe that he could be so clumsy. After examining the body, the coroner agreed and declared that Gunness had been murdered and an inquest was held. A pregnant Belle played the part of the grieving widow well on the witness stand, and the case was dropped with no charges filed. Once again, the insurance company paid off on his policy, the equivalent of $32,000 in today’s dollars.
After that, perhaps believing herself too sly to ever be caught, Belle picked up the pace, placing advertisements in newspaper lovelorn columns, seeking men to join her on her farm to share a life of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, the men who responded, and there were many of them, seemed to drop off the face of the earth soon after arriving in La Porte. But not before turning all of their money over to Belle.
Nobody knows for sure how many men Belle lured to her farm and then murdered. Some estimates say as many as thirty, or even more. Some say many, many more. At least one researcher says that a total of one hundred men and children died at her hands.
Belle seemed to have a method that worked well for her. She would drug their food, then bash her victims’ heads in with a shovel or hammer, load them onto a wooden cart (which is now on display at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum), and roll them outside to be buried, or, some speculate, to the hog pen to be consumed.
While Belle apparently wasn’t good wife material, she seemed to love children and there are photos of her with her own and several whom she adopted or fostered. Unfortunately, they all had a habit of disappearing or dying.
One such unfortunate child was Jennie Olsen, who came to live with Belle and her first husband in Chicago. In late 1906, Belle told curious neighbors who asked where she was that sixteen year old Jennie had gone away to college in Los Angeles. But in fact, her body would later be found, buried on Belle’s farm.
There is reason to believe that Belle had an accomplice in some of her crimes, a handyman who worked on the farm, named Ray Lamphere. While there is no proof that Lamphere actually participated in any of the murders, there is some evidence that he at least helped her dispose of the bodies. Theirs was a stormy relationship, and while Lamphere was in love with Belle, she treated him with scorn and ridicule. At one point she even had him arrested for harassment, and authorities ordered him to stay away from her property. But he still returned again and again, trying to reconcile.
And Lamphere wasn’t Belle’s only problem. One of the men who had courted her by mail and then come to La Porte and subsequently disappeared was a gentleman by the name of Andrew Helgelien, from Aberdeen, South Dakota. His brother, Asle Helgelien, became concerned when he did not return home or communicate in any way and began making inquiries.
In April, 1908, Belle went to a bank and withdrew most of her considerable money, and then to an attorney’s office, where she drew up a will leaving her property to her children. In both places, she told people that she was afraid Ray Lamphere would kill her and burn her house down with her in it.
Just as she had predicted, early in the morning of April 28, 1908, a fire suddenly engulfed the farmhouse where Belle and her children lived. By the time volunteer firefighters arrived, it was too late. All that remained was a smoking ruin. Investigators found four bodies inside the house, three of them children and one the body of a woman who was missing her head, which was never found.
Based upon Belle’s earlier complaints about Ray Lamphere, he was arrested and charged with arson and murder. Lamphere was brought to trial and found guilty of arson, but acquitted of murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909.
Following up on Asle Helgelien’s reports about his missing brother, a search was made of Belle’s farm and what they began finding made even the hardiest law officers shudder. They discovered skeletons and assorted bones in shallow graves scattered around the property and in the hog pen. These included those of two unidentified children, as well as Andrew Helgelien and Jennie Olsen.
The story quickly became a national sensation and was picked up by newspapers around the world. Morbid curiosity seekers came from everywhere to gawk at the scene and watch as police and volunteers continued to uncover the remains of Belle’s many victims.
But what of Belle Gunness herself? Did she die in the fire along with her children, the victim of Ray Lamphere’s jealous rage? Many people did not think so. After seeing the headless body of the woman found in the ashes of the fire, a neighboring farmer declared that that it was not Belle. Other neighbors who knew her, and friends from her Chicago days, all viewed the body and each and every one of them declared it was not that of Belle Gunness.
When doctors measured the remains, even making allowances for the woman’s missing neck and head, they all agreed that the victim stood no more than 5’3″ tall in life and weighed around 150 pounds. This was much smaller than Belle. An examination of the stomach contents revealed traces of a lethal dose of strychnine. Was this unknown woman the last victim of Belle Gunness, murdered to throw authorities off the track and make them think she had died in the fire with her children?
Over the years there were several reported sightings of Belle in different places around the country, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Were these real or just the products of overactive imaginations? Nobody knows for sure.
Today a memorial in La Porte’s Pine Lake Cemetery honors the unknown victims of the murderess. Several of her victims are buried at nearby Patton Cemetery, including Andrew Helgelien, Peter Gunness, and Jennie Olsen.
Nobody knows for sure how many victims the lethal lady had. Her story is the stuff of movies and lurid fiction come to life. It’s hard to believe that such a monster could live in such a pleasant place as La Porte County and get away with her crimes for so long. I guess we never really know who our neighbors might be, do we?
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Thought For The Day – Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young. – Arthur Wing Pinero