“Hell’s Belle” Gunness – Black Widow of the Midwest

The suitors kept coming, but none, except for the lucky Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. In the meantime, she began ordering large trunks to be delivered, kept the shutters of her home closed day and night and kept mostly to herself.

Ole B. Budsberg, 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, signed over a deed and obtained several thousand dollars in cash. Budsberg’s sons had no idea that their father had gone off to visit Gunness. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to her and she promptly responded, 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 arrived 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 rushed 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.

At this time, Belle started to have problems with her farm hand, Ray Lamphere. Ray was deeply in love with Gunness and performed any chore for her, no matter how gruesome. He was jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and up to this time had endured most of these attentive strangers. However, when he was introduced to Andrew Hegelian — Belle’s new husband-to-be, he made a scene and Belle promptly fired him on February 3, 1908. A few days later Helgelien was gone, but Gunness appeared at the bank to make an additional $1200.00 deposit.

Belle Gunness and Children

Belle Gunness and Children

Shortly after dispensing with Lamphere, she presented herself at the La Porte County courthouse, declaring that her former employee was not in his right mind and was a menace to the public. Somehow, she convinced local authorities to hold a sanity hearing, but 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.

Despite the arrest, Lamphere returned again and again to see her, but she drove him away. On one occasion, he confided to a neighboring farmer: “Helgelien won’t bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps.”

But, for Helgelien’s brother, Asle, the matter was far from over. Disturbed when Andrew failed to return home, Asle wrote to Belle 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 wrote back saying that he did not believe his brother would do that and that he believed that his brother was still in the La Porte area. Bravely, Gunness responded that if he wanted to come and look for his brother, she would help conduct a search, but that if she was involved Asle should pay her for her efforts.

Next, Belle presented herself to a lawyer in La Porte named M.E. Leliter, telling him 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 and she wanted to make out a will, in case he went through with his threats. The will was completed, leaving her estate to her children. However, she never went to the police to tell them about Lamphere’s allegedly life-threatening statements.

In February 1908 Belle hired another man named Joe Maxon to help her with the farm. A couple of months later, Maxson 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 and screamed Gunness’ name and those of her children but got no response. He slammed the door and then, in his underwear, leaped from the second-story window, barely surviving the fire that was closing in around him.

Gunness House burned

Gunness House burned

He raced to town to get help, but by the time it arrived, the house was already in smoking ruins. Four bodies were found inside the house — the headless corpse of a woman and three children. On-site was County Sheriff Albert Smutzer who had heard about Lamphere’s alleged threats. Taking in the grizzly scene, he immediately concluded that the fire was no accident, but rather, was arson and murder. He then sent two of his deputies digging into the debris digging for the corpse’s missing head and sent two others to arrest Lamphere.

When former handyman was brought in, he denied having anything to do with the fire, claiming that he was not near the farm when the blaze occurred. However, a neighborhood boy said that he had seen Lamphere running down the road from the Gunness house just before the structure erupted in flames. Lamphere was arrested and charged with murder, with his cries of innocence falling on deaf ears.

At first, investigators believed the bodies to be those of Belle Gunness and her three children: Myrtle, age eleven Lucy, age nine; and Phillip, age five. But, from the start, there were questions as to whether the headless corpse was that of Belle Gunness. The woman in the fire was estimated to be approximately 5′ 3″ tall and weighed about 125 pounds, significantly smaller than Belle Gunness. Furthermore, several neighbors and friends viewed the corpse including two neighboring farmers and several friends who all said it was not Belle.

The local dentist then stepped in, stating that if any dental work could be found he could make a positive identification. The investigators then began to sift through the debris and a piece of bridgework was found, the dentist identified it as work done for Gunness. As a result, Coroner Charles Mack officially concluded that the adult female body discovered in the ruins was Belle Gunness.

2 thoughts on ““Hell’s Belle” Gunness – Black Widow of the Midwest”

  1. Hi Kathy,
    I must tell you, I totally enjoyed the article about Belle Gunness. I love old history, and true crime and mysteries. You did a terrific job on this article.
    Yea, I just re-watched the program about the Bender clan. It was so interesting the first time, and even more so the 2nd time around. Just keep me glued to the tv or the articles you write.
    Always look forward to your Newletter.
    Prayers and God bless you both,

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