What do a candy shop, fraud, and serial killing have in common? Belle Gunness, of course. Our researcher, Alley, joins us this week to tell us the first half of the story about this formidable woman.
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On the evening of April 28, 1908, farmhand Joe Maxon found himself roused from sleep by the smell of smoke. Joe worked for Belle Gunness, a 48-year-old widow who owned and ran a farm in La Porte, Indiana. Joe had only been working for Belle for 2-3 months but was allowed to sleep in a spare bedroom on the second story of the farmhouse. Once he realized the smoke meant fire, he leaped from the bed and tried to leave his bedroom just to be met with huge flames, trapping him in his room. He called for his employer and her three children but heard nothing in response. In desperation, Joe jumped from his second-story bedroom window and ran for help, but unfortunately, by the time help arrived, the house had already been reduced to rubble with no signs that Belle or her children had made it out.
Once authorities could safely enter the ruins, they began the grim task of looking for Belle and her children and determining the cause of the tragic fire. The bodies of three children and a headless woman were found in the basement of the house. Even though identification was difficult due to the conditions of the bodies, Belle and her three children, Myrtle, Lucy, and Philip, were pronounced dead. It also became apparent to the authorities that this fire was likely deliberate, and one man immediately came to mind as a suspect: Ray Lamphere, a former farmhand that Belle had recently fired.
However, as authorities investigated this fire and continued searching for the head of the female body, it became apparent that things on the Gunness farm were not what they seemed, and Belle had dark secrets buried everywhere.
WHO WAS BELLE GUNNESS?
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, in Selbu, Norway on November 11, 1859. She was raised on a farm and was used to farming chores from a young age. Many described her as being a formidable woman, standing at 5’ 9” and at least 200lbs. It was also stated that Belle was very strong; she was once observed lifting a piano independently. She worked for a time as a servant in Norway before moving to the United States in 1881 at 21.
Belle joined her sister and brother-in-law in Chigaco, which is when she Americanized her name and began to be known as Belle or Bella. She quickly got a job as a servant again for a wealthy family. Surrounded by the finery of her employers, Belle soon began to covet that lifestyle herself. Belle’s sister was later quoted saying, “Belle was crazy for money. It was her greatest weakness.”
In 1884, Belle met and married fellow Norwegian-American Mads Albert Sorenson. Things seemed to be going well for the couple. They opened a confectionary shop and were said to have had four children (although that number is contested). However, it wasn’t long before tragedy after tragedy would befall the Sorenson family.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
The first mysterious event was the burning of Sorenson’s confectionary shop. Belle told the insurance company that a kerosene lamp exploded, although there had been no evidence for this found in the ruins of the shop. However, insurance money was promptly paid out. A few years later, the home of the Sorensons also burned down, and again insurance money was paid out.
Two of Belle’s children were said to have died in their infancy. Their deaths were attributed to acute colitis at the time, although those symptoms align with common poisoning methods. Myrtle and Lucy survived, but there are conflicting reports on whether these were Belle and Mad’s children or if they were adopted. On the 1900 census, Belle claimed two deceased children, two living children (Myrtle and Lucy Sorenson, 3 and 1 years old), and an adopted daughter Jenny Olson, 10.
The last great tragedy for the Sorensons was Mads’ death on July 30, 1900. The first doctor who examined his body thought it was possible strychnine poisoning. His family doctor cited medical issues he had been treating Mads for, and his death was classified as natural causes. However, Mads family did not believe this and demanded an inquiry. They were suspicious since it just so happened that the day Mads died was the only day his old and new life insurance policies overlapped. Belle gained $8,500 (240K today) from Mads death. However, no inquiry happened, and Belle quickly picked up and moved with her children and bought a hog farm in La Porte, Indiana.
Belle did not stay single for long. She married another Norwegian-American, Peter Gunness, on April 1, 1902. Peter was a butcher, hog farmer, and widower with two young girls, one still an infant. It seemed like a fresh start for Mrs. Guinness; however, tragedy would soon strike.
Just days after their marriage, Peter’s baby daughter mysteriously died while alone with Belle at the farm. He later sent his other daughter to live with family, he didn’t want to think the worse of his new wife, but the circumstances were concerning.
Then, in December of 1902, Peter Gunness died in a “tragic accident.” Belle told authorities that the auger of a meat grinder had fallen from a high shelf onto Peter’s head. Her story was immediately doubted, the coroner was convinced it had to be murder, and the locals couldn’t believe that Peter would be so clumsy. To make matters worse, Jenny told a classmate, “Momma killed Papa… don’t tell anyone.” A coroner’s inquest was held. However, Belle stood her ground on her story and was never charged with Peter’s death. She could cash in on Peter’s $3,000 insurance policy (81K today), and it was soon revealed that Belle was pregnant with Peter’s child and gave birth to a son, Philip.
Belle worked the farm alone, with the odd help of farm hands and other laborers, for the next few years. She was often seen working in men’s overalls and handling the butchering of her hogs on her own. Her strength and fortitude were noted often by others. However, Belle would soon start looking for another husband, and a slew of suitors came courting the now twice-widowed Belle.
Sometimes in 1905, Belle started advertising in Norwegian papers for a potential business and romantic partner. Her ad read:
“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.”
Not long after, Belle began visiting the post office daily with an employee, saying it wasn’t unusual for her to pick up eight letters at a time. She would spend months corresponding with the men who answered her ads, sifting through who were “triflers” and those who could give her what she wanted. Soon after, men started showing up on the farm to see the woman behind the ad and letters. Sometimes Belle would tell others they were cousins from other states; sometimes, she would be honest and tell folks they were potential suitors. Some of the men boasted of how they would marry Belle and brought money with them to pay off the mortgage. However, Belle kept them away from her children and others, and just as suddenly as they showed up, they seemed to disappear. “He had to leave in the middle of the night on some business” was often Belle’s answer. Many found the situation suspicious and frequently asked questions, especially after some men had been seen in the local bank depositing large amounts of money. Questions began to swirl even more when neighbors noted that Belle would be seen digging in her pig pen at night, or men working on the farm would mention the stacks of trunks and personal items left around the farmhouse.
Another mysterious disappearance occurred in 1906, when the neighbors noted Belle’s adopted daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, as missing. According to Belle, she had gone to Los Angeles to attend Luthern College. Many couldn’t believe that Jenny would just up and leave without telling anyone. What’s more, she never sent letters or came back for holidays. Belle later said she got married in L.A. and was too busy for such things.
Murder Maps. Crime Scenes Revisited by Dr. Grew Gray, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Menby Harold Schechter, Legends of America, Murderpedia, La Porte County Public Library, La Porte Historical Society, Mental Floss, IndyStar, and Library of Congress.