Belle Gunness the Midwest Murderess
The first female serial killer of the US (and the most prolific)
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth in 1859, Norway. She was the youngest of eight children and while not much was known of her life in Norway, we know that she was a very hard-worker from a young age. She worked on neighboring farms by milking and herding cattle to save up enough money to immigrate to the US in 1881 at age 21. She ended up in Chicago and joined an older sister that had already come to America several years prior.
She changed her name to Belle Peterson after she arrived in the US and worked several jobs as a servant, house cleaning and similar until getting a job in a butcher shop cutting and processing meat. It was there that she met her first husband Mads Sorenson and they were married in 1884. Not long into the marriage the couple’s first home burned to the ground and paid out a generous sum of money. Belle and her husband soon bought a candy store with the insurance money and they ran it together until business started to slow. Soon the candy shop burned down to the ground as well and the couple was paid another insurance payout. The couple bought a new home with this money in Austin, Illinois.
It was thought that Belle may have been infertile so the couple took in foster children on a regular basis during this time. They received two different insurance payouts for two babies in 1896 and 1898, each of whom supposedly died of “colitis” at only several months old. It is suspected that the babies could have died from some type of poisoning. Belle soon began to ask Mads to increase his insurance policy since she claimed “the amounts were too small on his current policy”. According to Belle, on July 30th, 1890 Mads had come home complaining of a headache and after giving him some quinine powder for his pain, she says that she checked on him a little while later and he was dead. Now this may have been true, but it was highly coincidental that the day that Mads died also just happened to be the day that his two insurance policies overlapped and the next day the old policy would have expired. Mads Sorenson’s family members also suspected something strange was going on by this time too and wanted the death investigated. It appears that his death was never investigated and it was simply ruled as a cerebral hemorrhage.
By this time, Belle was raising three foster children that her and Mads had adopted. Their names were Jennie, Myrtle and Lucy. Belle soon left Illinois with all three girls and the $5000 insurance payout in her pocket and headed to La Porte, Indiana. She likely chose the town because it had a high population of Norwegian immigrants. She soon found a large pig farm for sale on the outside of town which had farming acreage, a large 2-story farmhouse and barn.
In April 1902, Belle married Peter Gunness who was from La Porte. Peter was a widow with two young daughters. In less than 8 months after marrying Belle, both of his daughters were dead and soon after so was Peter. Belle told the authorities that she had heard a loud noise and came in to find Peter slumped over on the floor with a large bloody gash across his head. Sources differ on the exact story of what happened but it is said that somehow, he had reached for something on a high shelf and had knocked a heavy meat grinder off onto his head. Considering the circumstances surrounding the death and the differing stories of what had happened from Belle’s children, the authorities were originally suspicious but Belle was very smart and she soon talked her way out of being a suspect. She also played a very convincing grieving widow. The authorities soon dropped the investigation because they decided that surely a woman couldn’t possibly have the strength or disposition to murder their husband by smashing in their husband’s skull with a meat grinder. Belle ended up with a $3,000 pay out from Peter’s murder.
Belle wasn’t exactly a small woman; she was very stout and strong. She had broad shoulders and was said to be a decent height for a woman at the time. She had also grown up doing hard farm work and she easily ran her pig farm by herself after Peter’s death. Townspeople often saw her wearing a hat and heavy boots to work on her farm and frequently saw her digging in the hog pen.
It was a couple of years later that Belle began to place marriage ads in Chicago area newspapers. She would write letters to several men at a time like a romantic yet very dangerous pen pal. She would find out if the potential suitor had any money or wealth to speak of and then she would tell them of her large pig farm that could use a strong man around in order to make it even better and more profitable. Belle played up the fact that she was a wealthy widow, she might have figured it would lure in men faster or maybe she might have thought that the men were greedy and would end up getting what they deserved.
Belle’s first suitor was a Wisconsin farmhand, Henry Gurholt. Henry traveled to the farm and was seen in town and on the farm for a couple of months. He also wrote to his family and let them know where he was, he was in good health, that he would be marrying soon and that he liked the farm in La Porte. He also asked them to send him some seed potatoes. The family failed to hear from Henry several months later and reached out to Belle. She told his family that he had gone with horse traders to Chicago and she had not heard back from him even though he had left his trunk and belongings behind at the farm.
The next potential suitor was John Moe from Minnesota. He answered Belle’s ad in 1906 and after writing letters back and forth for several months, Belle finally persuaded him to “withdraw all of his money from his bank and bring all of his money in cash” and come immediately to La Porte so they could marry and be together. She promised him a large farm and a comfortable and happy life in La Porte in return for his money. John Moe came to La Porte with his money in hand. After a couple of days in La Porte, he was also never heard from or seen again.
Belle began putting marriage ads in a Norwegian language newspaper soon as well. She began writing to a man named Andrew Helgelien from Aberdeen, South Dakota. Belle had written several letters that were eventually found by his brother Asle Helgelien. The letters persuaded Andrew to bring all his money in cash, move to La Porte and keep everything a secret until they were married. Andrew eventually came to La Porte to visit Belle for a couple of weeks and to likely check out the farm that Belle had described to him. Andrew did not follow Belle’s detailed instructions of withdrawing his money from his bank and bringing the money in cash with him. Instead, he had to go to the bank in La Porte with Belle in tow to cash a check to withdraw all of his cash from his bank in Aberdeen. Andrew wanted Belle to keep some of the money in the bank for safety but she refused and took all of it with her in cash. After their trip to the bank, Andrew was gone the next day.
During this time, the townspeople were also curious and asking Belle questions about the whereabouts of her oldest adopted daughter Lucy. Lucy had mysteriously disappeared not long after she had told her mother that she planned to marry a local boy in town soon. Belle told the townspeople that Lucy had traveled out to the east coast to attend college. Rumors swirled about all of Belle’s potential suitors that came in by train and were never seen again days later. There were also suspicions about the absence of any letters being sent from the east coast from her daughter Lucy.
Andrew’s brother Asle, wrote several letters to Belle asking about his brother since he had not heard from him in weeks. She told him that he had left and she had not heard anything else from him.
Belle probably knew that her time was coming to a close in La Porte. She had likely received letters from several inquiring family members asking about their loved ones who were last heard from after they traveled to La Porte to be with Belle at her farm. Ray Lamphere was a La Porte local with a bad reputation of an alcoholic, liar and thief. He was also a hired farm hand and off and on-again lover of Belle’s for several years. He was also a confidante and close friend of Belle’s but exactly how much did Ray actually know?
Belle and Ray were said to have had an argument and fight stemming from his jealousy of her visiting suitors and especially his jealousy of Andrew’s visit. Belle fired Ray in February of 1908 for trespassing and she soon hired Joe Maxson as a new farmhand. Belle told several people and authorities that Ray had threatened her life and she had seen him outside her home at night. Several months later in April 1908, Belle decided to go to her attorney and make out a will. In the will, Belle left everything to her oldest daughter Lucy. The next morning, Joe Maxson woke up in his sleeping area in the barn to the smell of smoke. He said that he tried banging on windows and the doors to wake up Belle and the two children but he was unable to see any movement inside and he never received a response. He hurried off to town and got the fire department to put out the raging fire. By that afternoon, the bodies of three children and a woman were found. The shocking thing was that the woman’s body was missing its head.
As the gruesome news made its way around, Asle Helgelien came to La Porte to look for his missing brother Andrew. After speaking with the farmhand Joe Maxson, Asle decided to start digging in an area where he said that Belle often buried garbage. Not long after beginning to dig in the area, he found a cloth sack containing the decomposing remains that he was able to identify as his brother Andrew.
La Porte County Sheriff Albert Smutzer and a crew of men started to search the property and found that there were several depressed areas of ground throughout the pig pen and property around the farm. They discovered at least 13 more bodies or rather body parts and partial remains that had been buried in shallow graves underneath the pig pen, near the outhouse and near a lake. The majority of the bodies were decapitated, the arms were removed from the shoulders, and legs were severed at the knees. The bone ends of the remains had been crushed with a hammer and then put inside a burlap sack, covered in Quicklime and buried in shallow graves. Some of the sacks contained only a head, two hands and two feet, others contained a torso, hands and arms. It was said that so many body parts were found and in such varying degrees of decomposition that the police simply stopped counting. It was because of this that the numbers vary in the records anywhere from 11 to possibly over 45 bodies.
The stories in the newspaper accounts quickly changed from a courageous Belle who died in the raging fire trying to save her children to reporting the detailed grisly finds buried underneath the pig pen. Suspicion had been focused quickly on Ray for arson, since Belle had been unusually vocal in telling everyone that Ray had supposedly threatened her life and in some reports were even said to have threatened her and her children’s lives with a house fire. Ray was arrested for suspicion of arson in connection with the fire and also murder. He gave the authorities several different stories and confessions but one story did sound believable. The first confession he told authorities that Belle was writing letters to the men who answered her ads in order to rob and then murder them. He said that Gunness had asked him to burn down the farmhouse with her children inside and that the woman’s body that was believed to be Belle’s was actually a female murder victim. Ray Lamphere gave another signed confession after pressure from authorities stating that he had killed Belle and the children with an ax, poured kerosene over the bodies and set fire to them and the house. In this confession he also takes credit for taking part in some of the murders and burying some bodies in the garden. He was put on trial in November of 1908 and found guilty of arson but not murder. He was sentenced to twenty years, but died in December of 1909 from consumption.
During the trial one man came forward and was believed to be Belle’s only potential suitor to escape her home. He says that he had written to Belle for a while but once he traveled to La Porte and met her in person, he expected that she had a “severe” temperament and was not as “young or beautiful as she had claimed to be”. He said that she made him a nice meal and made him feel right at home and they talked about him paying off the rest of her farm mortgage if they married. He said that he awoke in the middle of the night sick and in a cold sweat to find her standing over him with a lit candle and a sinister look in her eyes. He said that he yelled and she ran out of the room, he then dressed quickly, left and ran down the road to La Porte to catch the first train back home. There were also witnesses from the bank and around La Porte that said they had seen many more men withdrawing money at the bank with Belle.
The biggest mystery of this case was regarding the body of the woman. The headless female’s body was about five inches shorter (even with taking into account the missing head) and estimated to be about fifty pounds lighter than Belle. The shopkeepers in La Porte that made Belle’s dresses had her measurements and Belle was about 5ft 8 inches tall and weighed around 180-200 pounds. They examined the body and claimed that it could not be Belle’s remains. Several friends and former acquaintances of Belle’s also agreed that the remains were definitely someone else. There was also the matter of the dental bridgework that was found in the burned remains. The bridgework consisted of porcelain teeth and gold crown work. The dentist that did the dental work identified them as work done for Belle and so the final coroner’s inquest decided that the body was Belle Gunness. Joe Maxson and another witness claimed that they saw the man who found the bridgework take them out of his own pocket. There was also the fact that some of the body’s skin was still intact from the fire but the skull was somehow completely missing. There was also strychnine poison reportedly found in the remains.
On Lamphere’s deathbed he confessed to a Reverend Schell and a fellow convict that he had never murdered anyone, that Belle killed solely for profit and that she was not dead. He also said that he had helped her bury some of her victims and sometimes she would simply chop the remains up and feed them to her hogs. 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 strong woman, Belle would then carry the body to the basement, place it on a table, and dissect it. She then bundled the remains and usually buried these in the hog pen and the grounds near the outhouse and garden. Belle had become an expert at dissection, thanks to her former job at the butcher shop in Chicago. To save time, she sometimes poisoned her victims' coffee or food with strychnine. She varied her disposal methods, sometimes dumping the corpse into the hog-scalding vat and sometimes 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. Ray Lamphere 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 pretense 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 (some reports say she may have poisoned the children) 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 herself. She then torched the house and fled. Lamphere admitted helping Belle because she was supposed to leave La Porte with him. However, Belle had betrayed Ray in the end by cutting across open fields and then disappearing into the woods.
Lamphere said that Belle was a rich woman, that she had murdered over 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 murderer 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 very wealthy woman. Sheriff Smutzer, for more than twenty years, received an average of two reports a month. She became part of American criminal folklore, and was known as a female Bluebeard.
The bodies of Belle's three children found in the burned remains were all positively identified. 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 her husband August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Belle claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. There were also reports that said the woman had a trunk with children’s pictures in it that were identified as Belle Gunness’ foster children. Esther Carlson died while awaiting trial.
So, did Belle Gunness die in the house fire or escape? I think she definitely escaped the house fire and that she did kill her children by poison. I think the headless female’s body was an unidentified woman who she had hired as a housekeeper but had planned all along to murder her and make it look like she died in the fire. Belle Gunness was a serial-killer but she was also intelligent and a strong independent woman as well. The men and authorities of La Porte underestimated what Belle was capable of simply because she was a female and no one thought that a female was even capable of doing what she did at that time.
I do agree with the number of victims that Ray Lamphere gave in his last confession and believe that there were probably well over 42 victims at least if not more. If she had fed a good deal of the remains to the hogs then there would be nothing left and no way to possibly tell at that time. There were multiple reports that said the cops eventually stopped trying to count the number of bodies after finding more and more body parts in different stages of decomposition, broken bones and bone fragments, etc. I believe that Belle was the first known female serial killer of her day and of the US. Belle Gunness killed many victims and got away with not only the murders but the money too.