Belle Gunness with her children Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson, and Phillip Gunness, circa 1900
|Birth name:||Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth|
|Also known as:||Hell's Belle|
|Born:||November 11, 1859
|Died:||April 28, 1908 ?
|Cause of death:||strychnine poisoning, beheading, fire ?|
|Number of victims:||40+|
|Span of killings:||July 30, 1900 – 1908|
|Date apprehended:||never caught|
At 5'8" (173 cm) and over 200 lb (91 kg), she was a physically strong woman. She may have killed both of her husbands and all of her children (on different occasions), but she is known to have killed most of her suitors, boyfriends, and her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance benefits. Reports estimate that she killed more than 40 people over several decades.
Gunness' origins, like much of her life story, are shrouded in a web of differing accounts and deliberate inventions. Most of her biographers state that she was born on November 11, 1859 near the lake of Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway and christened as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. Her parents were Paul Pedersen Størset (a stonemason) and Berit Olsdatter. She was the youngest of their eight children. They lived at Størsetgjerdet, a very small cotter's farm in Innbygda, Selbu, 60 km southeast of Trondheim, the largest city in central Norway (Trøndelag).
A Norwegian TV documentary by Anne Berit Vestby aired on September 4, 2006 tells a common — although unverified — story about Gunness' early life. The story holds that, in 1877, Gunness attended a country dance while pregnant. There she was attacked by a man who kicked her in the abdomen, causing her to lose the child. The man, who came from a rich family, was never prosecuted by the Norwegian authorities. According to people who knew her, her personality changed markedly. The man who attacked her died only shortly after. The cause of death was said to be stomach cancer. Having grown up in poverty, she took service the next year on a big, wealthy farm and served there for three years in order to pay for the trip across the Atlantic.
Following the example of a sister, Nellie Larson, who had immigrated to America some time earlier, Gunness moved to the USA in 1881 and assumed a more American-style name. Initially, she worked as a servant. Her sister allegedly stated years later, "Belle was crazy for money. It was her great weakness."
In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, where, a couple of years later, they opened a confectionary store. The business was not successful; within a year the shop burned down in mysterious circumstances. According to Gunness's story, a kerosene lamp exploded and started the fire. No lamp was ever found in the ruins, but the insurance money was paid. It's likely that this money bankrolled the purchase of the Sorensons’ home in the suburb of Austin, a house that was also destroyed by fire in 1898. They collected insurance once again, which paid for another home.
Though some researchers assert that the Sorenson union produced no offspring, other investigators report the couple had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy - allegedly of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis—nausea, fever, diarrhea, lower abdominal pain and cramping—are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. Both Caroline and Axel were insured and the insurance company paid out. On June 13, 1900 Belle and her family were counted on the U.S. Census in Chicago. The census recorded Belle as the mother of four children, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A. 3 and Lucy B. 1. An adopted ten-year-old girl, identified possibly as Morgan Couch but apparently later known as Jennie Olsen, was also counted in the household.
Sorenson died on July 30, 1900—the only day that two life insurance policies on him overlapped. The first doctor to see him thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorenson's family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart; he decided that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was not considered necessary as the death was not thought to be suspicious Gunness was confident enough to tell the doctor that she had given her late husband medicinal "powders" to help him feel better.
She applied for the insurance money ($8,500) the day after her husband's funeral. Sorenson's relatives claimed that Gunness had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance. Surviving records suggest that an inquest was ordered. It is unclear, however, if that investigation actually took place or whether Sorenson's body was ever exhumed to check for arsenic as his relatives demanded. The insurance companies awarded her $8,500, a large sum in those days (about $217,000 in 2008 dollars). It was with this money that she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana.
The house on McClung Road was built in 1846 by John Walker (one of the original settlers in the area of La Porte) for his daughter Harriet Holcomb. The Holcombs supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. The majority of La Porte's citizens strongly supported the Union; in 1864, the distinctly unpopular Holcombs moved to New York. Over the next 28 years, the farm and house changed hands half a dozen times.
In 1892, Mattie Altic, a brothel-keeper from Chicago, bought the property and transformed it into a well-appointed rural whorehouse. Most of her regular clients from Chicago visited the roomy building at La Porte; a jetty, boathouse and expansive carriage house were added to accommodate their needs. After Altic’s death the house was put on the market again; another four owners lived there and left in quick succession until, in 1901, Gunness purchased it. Both the boat and carriage houses burned to the ground shortly after she acquired the property.
Belle met Peter Gunness, a Norwegian living in La Porte. They were married on April 1, 1902; just one week after the ceremony, Peter's infant daughter died (of uncertain causes) while alone in the house with Belle. In December 1902, Peter himself met with a "tragic accident". According to Belle, he was working in a shed when part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, splitting his skull open and killing him instantly. (Hearing of this second death, Peter's brother Gust came and took Peter's other daughter, Swanhild, to Wisconsin before further accidents could occur.)
Her husband's death netted Gunness another $3,000 (some sources say $4,000). Local people refused to believe that Gunness could be so clumsy. He had run a hog farm on the property and was known to be an experienced butcher; the district coroner reviewed the case and unequivocally announced that he had been murdered. He convened a coroner's jury to look into the matter. Meanwhile, Jennie Olsen, then 14, was overheard confessing to a classmate: "My mamma killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul."
Jennie was brought before the coroner's jury but denied having made the remark. Gunness, meanwhile, convinced the coroner's jury that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. Belle was pregnant (in 1903, a son, Philip, was born) and the jurors apparently were swayed by her hardships. She was released and the matter was dropped.
After the hearing, Gunness generally employed a single hand, Ray Lamphere, to help run the farm; by 1906 he had become her fiance. Later in the same year Jennie dropped out of sight. When neighbors inquired, Gunness told them that she had sent Jennie to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles (some neighbors were informed that it was a finishing school for young ladies). In fact, Jennie had been killed and her body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother's property.
Around the same time, Gunness inserted the following advertisement in the matrimonial columns of all the Chicago daily newspapers and those of other large midwestern 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.”
Several middle-aged men with comfortable bank accounts and property responded to Gunness' ads. They traveled to her farm armed with fat wallets and the deeds to their farms. One of these was John Moe, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He was a husky man of 50 and had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off her mortgage... or so he told neighbors whom Gunness introduced him to as her cousin. He disappeared from her farm within a week of his arrival. Next came George Anderson who, like Peter Gunness and John Moe, was an immigrant from Norway. Anderson, from Tarkio, Missouri, was also a farmer with ready cash and a lovesick heart.
Anderson, however, did not bring all his money with him. He was persuaded to make the long trip to see Gunness in La Porte because her eloquent letters intrigued him. Once there, he found that Gunness (now in her mid-forties, portly and coarse-featured) was not the beauty he had expected. He also realized that she had a severe manner, but she made him feel at home and provided good dinners while he occupied a guest room in the large farmhouse. One night at dinner, she raised the issue of her mortgage. Anderson agreed that he would pay this off if they decided to wed. He was almost convinced to return to Tarkio, retrieve his money, then start a life with her.
Late that night, Anderson awoke to see her standing over him, peering down with a strange look in her eyes. She held a guttering candle in her hand and the expression on her face was so foreboding and sinister that he let out a loud yell. Without uttering a word, she ran from the room. Anderson jumped out of bed, struggled into his clothes and fled from the house, soon taking a train to Missouri.
The suitors kept coming, but none, except for Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. By this time, she had begun ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to her from La Porte and later remarked how the heavyset woman would lift these enormous trunks "like boxes of marshmallows", tossing them onto her wide shoulders and carrying them into the house. She kept the shutters of her house closed day and night; farmers traveling past the dwelling at night saw her digging in the hog pen. Her handyman Lamphere also spent a good deal of time digging there and all about the house and barn.
Meanwhile, suitors continued to arrive, all responding to her advertisements. Ole B. Budsburg, an elderly widower from Iola, Wisconsin, appeared next. He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6, 1907, when he mortgaged his Wisconsin land there, signing over a deed and obtaining several thousand dollars in cash. Ole B. Budsburg's sons, Oscar and Mathew Budsburg, had no idea that their father had gone off to visit Gunness. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to her; she promptly wrote back, saying she had never seen their father.
Several other middle-aged men appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm throughout 1907. Then, in December 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to her and was warmly received. The pair exchanged many letters, until a letter that overwhelmed Helgelien, written in Gunness' own careful handwriting and dated January 13, 1908. This letter was later found at the Helgelien farm. It 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, 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 response to her letter, Helgelien flew to her side in January 1908. He had with him a check for $2,900, his savings, which he had drawn from his local bank. A few days after Helgelien arrived, he and Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank in La Porte and deposited the check for cashing. Helgelien vanished a few days later, but Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank to make a $500 deposit and another deposit of $700 in the State Bank. At this time, she started to have problems with Ray Lamphere.
In March 1908 Gunness sent several letters to a farmer and horse dealer in Topeka, Kansas named Lon Townsend inviting him to visit her. He planned to do so after his spring work was done-and survived.  Gunness was also in correspondence with a Arkansas man and sent him a letter dated May 4, 1908. He would have visited her-but did not because of the fire at her farm.  Allegedely Gunness promised marriage to a suitor Bert Albert-which did not go through because of his lack of wealth
The hired hand Ray Lamphere was deeply in love with Gunness; he performed any chore for her, no matter how gruesome. He became jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and began making scenes. She fired him on February 3, 1908. Shortly after dispensing with Lamphere, she presented herself at the La Porte courthouse. She declared that her former employee was not in his right mind and was a menace to the public. She somehow convinced local authorities to hold a sanity hearing. Lamphere was pronounced sane and released. Gunness was back a few days later to complain to the sheriff that Lamphere had visited her farm and argued with her. She contended that he posed a threat to her family and had Lamphere arrested for trespassing.
Lamphere returned again and again to see her, but she drove him away. Lamphere made thinly disguised threats; on one occasion, he confided to farmer William Slater, "Helgelien won't bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps." Helgelien had long since disappeared from the precincts of La Porte, or so it was believed. However, his brother, Asle Helgelien, was disturbed when Andrew failed to return home and he wrote to Belle in Indiana, asking her about his sibling's whereabouts. Gunness wrote back, telling Asle Helgelien that his brother was not at her farm and probably went to Norway to visit relatives. Asle Helgelien wrote back saying that he did not believe his brother would do that; moreover, he believed that his brother was still in the La Porte area, the last place he was seen or heard from. Gunness brazened it out; she told him that if he wanted to come and look for his brother, she would help conduct a search, but she cautioned him that searching for missing persons was an expensive proposition. If she was to be involved in such a manhunt, she stated, Asle Helgelien should be prepared to pay her for her efforts. Asle Helgelien did come to La Porte, but not until May.
Lamphere represented an unresolved danger to her; now Asle Helgelien was making inquiries that could very well send her to the gallows. She told a lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, that she feared for her life and that of her children. Ray Lamphere, she said, had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. She wanted to make out a will, in case Lamphere went through with his threats. Leliter complied and drew up Belle's will. She left her entire estate to her children and then departed Leliter's offices. She went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property and paid this off. She did not go to the police to tell them about Lamphere's allegedly life-threatening conduct. The reason for this, most later concluded, was that there had been no threats; she was merely setting the stage for her own arson.
Joe Maxon, who had been hired to replace Lamphere in February 1908, awoke in the early hours of April 28, 1908, smelling smoke in his room, which was on the second floor of the Gunness house. He opened the hall door to a sheet of flames. Maxon screamed Gunness' name and those of her children but got no response. He slammed the door and then, in his underwear, leapt from the second-story window of his room, barely surviving the fire that was closing in about him. He raced to town to get help, but by the time the old-fashioned hook and ladder arrived at the farm at early dawn the farmhouse was a gutted heap of smoking ruins. The floors had collapsed and four bodies were found in the cellar. The grand piano was on top of the bodies. One of the bodies was that of a woman who could not immediately be identified as Gunness, since she had no head. The head was never found. The bodies of her children were found next to the corpse. County Sheriff Smutzer had somehow heard about Ray Lamphere’s alleged threats; he took one look at the carnage and quickly sought out the ex-handyman. Lawyer Leliter came forward to recount his tale about Gunness' will and how she feared Lamphere would kill her and her family and burn her house down.
Lamphere did not help his cause much. At the moment Sheriff Smutzer confronted him and before a word was uttered by the lawman, Lamphere blurted: "Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?" He was then told about the fire, but he denied having anything to do with it, claiming that he was not near the farm when the blaze occurred. A youth, John Solyem, was brought forward. He said that he had been watching the Gunness place (he gave no reasons for this) and that he saw Lamphere running down the road from the Gunness house just before the structure erupted in flames. Lamphere snorted to the boy: "You wouldn't look me in the eye and say that!" "Yes, I will", replied Solyem. "You found me hiding behind the bushes and you told me you'd kill me if I didn't get out of there." Lamphere was arrested and charged with murder and arson. Then scores of investigators, sheriff's deputies, coroner's men and many volunteers began to search the ruins for evidence.
The body of the headless woman was of deep concern to La Porte residents. C. Christofferson, a neighbouring farmer, took one look at the charred remains of this body and said that it was not the remains of Belle Gunness. So did another farmer, L. Nicholson, and so did Mrs. Austin Cutler, an old friend of Gunness. More of Gunness' old friends, Mrs. May Olander and Mr. Sigward Olsen, arrived from Chicago. They examined the remains of the headless woman and said it was not Gunness.
Doctors then measured the remains, and, making allowances for the missing neck and head, stated the corpse was that of a woman who stood five feet three inches tall and weighed no more than 150 pounds. Friends and neighbours, as well as the La Porte clothiers who made her dresses and other garments, swore that Gunness was taller than 5'8" and weighed between 180 and 200 pounds. Detailed measurements of the body were compared with those on file with several La Porte stores where she purchased her apparel.
When the two sets of measurements were placed side by side, the authorities determined that the headless woman could not possibly have been Belle Gunness, even when the ravages of the fire on the body were taken into account. (The flesh was badly burned but intact). Moreover, Dr. J. Meyers examined the internal organs of the dead woman. He reported that the woman died of strychnine poisoning.
Gunness' dentist, Dr. Ira P. Norton, said that if the teeth/dental work of the headless corpse had been located he could definitely ascertain if it was her. Thus Louis "Klondike" Schultz, a former miner, was hired to build a sluice and begin sifting the debris (as more bodies were unearthed, the sluice was used to isolate human remains on a larger scale). On May 19, 1908, a piece of bridgework was found consisting of two human teeth, porcelain teeth and gold crown work in between. Dr. Norton identified them as work done for Gunness. A coroner's inquest accordingly found that the adult female body discovered in the ruins was Belle Gunness.
Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte and told Sheriff Smutzer that he believed his brother had met with foul play at Gunness' hands. Then, Joe Maxon came forward with information that could not be ignored—he told the Sheriff that Mrs. Gunness had ordered him to bring loads of dirt by wheelbarrow to a large area surrounded by a high wire fence where the hogs were fed. Maxon said that there were many deep depressions in the ground that had been covered by dirt. These filled-in holes, Gunness had told Maxon, contained rubbish. She wanted the ground made level, so he filled in the depressions.
Smutzer took a dozen men back to the farm and began to dig. On May 3, 1908, the diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson (vanished December 1906). Then they found the small bodies of two unidentified children. Subsequently the body of Andrew Helgelien was unearthed (his overcoat was found to be worn by Lamphere). As days progressed and the gruesome work continued, one body after another was discovered in Belle's hog pen :
Reports of other victims began to come in:
Reported unnamed victims were:
There were many others who could not be identified. There were the remains of more than 40 men and children buried in shallow graves throughout her property. On May 19, 1908 remains of seven unknown victims were buried in La Porte's Potter's Field.Andrew Helgelien and Jennie Olson are buried in La Porte's Patton Cemetery.
Ray Lamphere was arrested on May 22, 1908 and tried for murder and arson. He pleaded guilty to arson, but denied having murdered Gunness and her three children. His defense hinged on the assertion that the body was not Gunness's. Lamphere's lawyer, Wirt Worden, developed evidence which contradicted Dr. Norton's identification of the teeth and bridgework. A local jeweller testified that though the gold in the bridgework had emerged from the fire almost undamaged, the fierce heat of the conflagration had melted the gold plating on several watches and items of gold jewelry. Local doctors replicated the conditions of the fire by attaching a similar piece of dental bridgework to a human jawbone and placing it in a blacksmith’s forge. The real teeth crumbled and disintegrated; the porcelain teeth came out pocked and pitted, with the gold parts rather melted (both the artificial elements were damaged to a greater degree than those in the bridgework offered as evidence of Belle’s identity). The hired hand Joe Moxon and another man also testified that they’d seen ‘Klondike’ Shultz take the bridgework out of his pocket and plant it just before it was ‘discovered’. Lamphere was found guilty of arson, but cleared of murder. On November 26, 1908, he was sentenced to 20 years in the State Prison (in Michigan City). He grew ill in jail and died of consumption on December 30, 1909.
On January 14, 1910, the Rev. E. A. Schell came forward with a confession that Lamphere made to him while the clergyman was comforting the dying man. In it, Lamphere revealed Gunness' crimes and swore that she was still alive. Lamphere had stated to the Reverend Schell and to a fellow convict, Harry Meyers, shortly before his death, that he had not murdered anyone, but that he had helped Gunness bury many of her victims. When a victim arrived, she made him comfortable, charming him and cooking a large meal. She then drugged his coffee and when the man was in a stupor, she split his head with a meat chopper. 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 powerful woman, Gunness would then carry the body to the basement, place it on a table, and dissect it. She then bundled the remains and buried these in the hog pen and the grounds about the house. Belle had become an expert at dissection, thanks to instruction she had received from her second husband, the butcher Peter Gunness. To save time, she sometimes poisoned her victims' coffee with strychnine. She also varied her disposal methods, sometimes dumping the corpse into the hog-scalding vat and 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.
The handyman also cleared up the mysterious question of the headless female corpse found in the smoking ruins of Gunness' home. Gunness had lured this woman from Chicago on the pretense of hiring her as a housekeeper only days before she decided to make her permanent escape from La Porte. Gunness, 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, smothered them to death, 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 Belle Gunness. She then torched the house and fled. Lamphere had helped her, he admitted, but she had not left by the road where he waited for her after the fire had been set. She had betrayed her one-time partner in crime in the end by cutting across open fields and then disappearing into the woods. Some accounts suggest that Lamphere admitted that he took her to Stillwell (a town about nine miles from La Porte) and saw her off on a train to Chicago.
Lamphere said that Gunness was a rich woman, that she had murdered 42 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 murder schemes over the years—a huge fortune for those days (about $6.3 million in 2008 dollars). She had a small amount remaining in one of her savings accounts, but local banks later admitted that she had indeed withdrawn most of her funds shortly before the fire. The fact that Gunness withdrew most of her money suggested that she was planning to evade the law.
Gunness was, for several decades, allegedly seen or sighted in cities and towns throughout the USA. Friends, acquaintances, and amateur detectives apparently spotted her on the streets of Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. As late as 1931, Gunness was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town where she owned a great deal of property and lived the life of a doyenne. Sheriff Smutzer, for more than 20 years, received an average of two reports a month. She became part of American criminal folklore, a female Bluebeard.
The bodies of Gunness's three children were found in the home's wreckage, but the headless adult female corpse found with them was never positively identified. Gunness's true fate is unknown: 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 known as "Esther Carlson" was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. Carlson died while awaiting trial.
On November 5, 2007, the headless body was exhumed from Gunness' grave in Forest Home Cemetery by a team of forensic anthropology graduate students from the University of Indianapolis. At least one modern researcher on the team believes Gunness did not die in the fire. Many contend the remains of the woman found at the scene was a victim beheaded by Gunness and planted at the scene before the farmhouse was set on fire. DNA testing will be conducted  in the next few months to determine if the headless skeleton is indeed Belle Gunness. If the remains prove not to be Gunness, researchers might exhume Carlson's corpse. In April 2008 forensic scientist Andi Simmons revealed that the casket contained the body parts of two children, but not ones who died in the farmhouse fire.
It was initially hoped that a sealed envelope flap on a letter found at the victim's farm would contain enough DNA to be compared to that of the body. Unfortunately, there was not enough DNA there, so efforts continue to find a reliable source for comparison purposes, including the disinternment of additional bodies and contact with known living relatives.
"Belle Gunness- a serial killer from Selbu" (2005) A 50 min documentary directed by Anne Berit vestby was the first film made about Belle Gunness.
The 2004 movie, Method, was inspired by and loosely based on the Belle Gunness murders. A 2009 movie, described as a psychological thriller, about (and also titled) Belle Gunness is in development.
A second 2009 film based upon Belle has been announced in the Hollywood Reporter , to be directed by Edward Bass and produced by First Line Media. The project, titled "Belle," was written by Bass and Eva Mayer, whose family purchased the Guinness property and discovered her love letters.
There was a film released as part of the annual 8 Films to Die For Horrorfest in 2009 called Slaughter that was based on the story of Belle Gunness.