In the early 1900’s, Belle Gunness murdered dozens of men and children for insurance money, and may have faked her own death in a fire. The original article I wrote can be found here.
Though female serial killers are far rarer than their male counterparts, history provides a handful of startling examples that women are capable of the same callous viciousness as men who kill. Perhaps one of the earliest and most horrific examples is that of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant who was suspected in the deaths of more than 40 people.
Belle Gunness’s Early Crimes
Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth in Norway in 1859, Belle came to America in 1881. Three years later she married Mads Sorensen; the pair bought and ran a candy store. The business later burned down, as did the couple’s Austin home; though there were rumors of arson, the insurance company paid the claim. In 1900 Sorensen died, supposedly of a heart condition, though the first doctor to examine him suspected strychnine poisoning. Sorensen’s family accused Belle of murder, and there was an inquest, but evidently nothing came to light to prevent Belle from collecting on the $8,500 life insurance policy.
Belle’s Farm in La Porte, Indiana
With the proceeds from her husband’s death, Belle bought a farm in La Porte, Indiana and moved there with her two daughters (two other children had died in infancy, either from poisoning or acute colitis). Shortly after Belle took up residence, the boat and carriage houses burned to the ground, bringing another insurance payout. In April 1902 Belle married Peter Gunness, whose baby daughter died of unknown causes a week after the wedding. Peter only lasted until December, dying when a piece of machinery supposedly fell from a shelf and smashed his skull. A coroner’s jury was convened, but Belle maintained her innocence, and escaped prosecution. She then cashed in to the tune of $3,000.
Belle Gunness’s Personal Ads
In 1906 Belle began running ads in Midwestern area newspapers, seeking “a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes.” First to reply was John Moo of Minnesota, who arrived with $1,000 and vanished within the week. Bachelor number two was George Anderson, who awoke one night to find Belle looming over his bed with a frightening expression on her face. He grabbed his things and bolted from the house, never to return. He was apparently the only suitor to escape the farm at La Porte.
More men and disappearances followed: Ole Budbsurg, last seen withdrawing a large sum from a La Porte bank in 1907; Andrew Helgelien, who vanished after cashing a check for $2,900; Thomas Lindboe, who Belle had hired as a handyman. But the one man who was always present was farmhand Ray Lamphere, who claimed to love Belle. He became jealous of Belle’s steady stream of suitors, so Belle fired him in early 1908, claiming he had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. In fact, the house did go up in flames that April; the bodies of three children and a headless woman were found in the smoking ruins. Investigators speculated that the woman was not Belle, who was much taller and heavier than the body found. However, a piece of bridgework found later was identified as Belle’s by her dentist, so the corpse was laid to rest under Belle’s name. In the meantime, the sister of Andrew Helgelien had arrived in La Porte, and at her insistence the police dug up the yard around Belle’s home. There they found the remains of more than forty men and children, including Helgelien, Belle’s adopted daughter Jennie Olson, John Moo, and two unidentified children.
Ray Lamphere Confesses
Ray Lamphere was put on trial for murdering Belle and burning her house. He was convicted of the arson charge and sent to prison, where he died of consumption less than a year later. Before his death, he claimed that Belle was still alive, and that the headless woman found after the fire was a housekeeper that Belle had dressed in her clothes; she then planted her own bridgework next to the body to throw off police. Lamphere said that Belle had murdered 42 people, either by poisoning them or hitting them in the head with a cleaver. She then cut up the bodies and buried the pieces, or fed them to her hogs. It was estimated that Belle had netted more than $250,000 from her crimes.
Belle Gunness’s Legacy
There were sightings of Belle for years after her crimes were discovered, and there were even ballads written about her. In 1931 a woman called Esther Carlson was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning a man for money, and though two witnesses claimed the woman was Belle, their story was never proven, and Esther Carlson died awaiting trial.
In late 2007, the headless body was exhumed for DNA testing to see if Lamphere’s tale was true. The Chicago Tribune reported that the bodies of three children were found in the grave with the supposed body of Belle Gunness, but the exhumation yielded too little DNA to definitively identify any of the remains.