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

As the investigation was ongoing, Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte from South Dakota and told Sheriff Smutzer that he believed his brother, Andrew, had met with foul play at Gunness’ hands. He also stated that Andrew had answered a matrimonial ad that had been placed by Belle Gunness in a Norwegian language newspaper. In her reply, Belle offered true love and a life of wedded bliss, but also mentioned a quick $1,000 that she needed to pay off a mortgage. When Andrew left home he withdrew his life savings from the bank and was never heard from again.

Four bodies found at the Gunness farm

Four bodies found at the Gunness farm

Helgelien became even more convinced of foul play when he went out to the ruins of Belle’s home and watched as the men digging for her head turned up eight men’s watches, assorted bones, and human teeth instead. He searched through the property on his own and shouted to the men to start digging in the rubbish hole that was located in Belle’s hog pen. As they began turning the earth, they found four bodies — all of them skillfully sliced apart and wrapped in oilcloth. One of the bodies belonged to Andrew Hegelian.

Then, Joe Maxson came forward with information that could not be ignored. He told the Sheriff that 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. Maxson said that there were many deep depressions in the ground that had been covered by dirt. These filled-in holes, Gunness had told Maxson, contained rubbish. She wanted the ground made level, so he filled in the depressions. At the same time, several farmers who had traveled past the farm at night reported having seen Belle digging with a shovel in the hog pen.

Sheriff Smutzer then took a dozen men back to the farm and began to dig and on May 3, 1908, the diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson who had vanished in December 1906. They then they found the small bodies of two unidentified children. As days progressed and the gruesome work continued, one body after another was discovered in Gunness’ hog pen. Those that could be identified included:

  • Ole B. Budsberg of Iola, Wisconsin, who vanished May 1907.
  • Thomas Lindboe, who had left Chicago and had gone to work as a hired man for Gunness three years earlier.
  • Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wisconsin, who had gone to wed her a year earlier, taking $1,500. A watch corresponding to one belonging to Gurholdt was found with a body.
  • Olaf Svenherud, from Chicago.
  • John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minnesota. His watch was found in Lamphere’s possession.
  • Olaf Lindbloom, age 35 from Wisconsin.
  • Benjamin Carling of Chicago, Illinois, was last seen by his wife in 1907 after telling her that he was going to La Porte to secure an investment with a rich widow. He had with him $1,000 from an insurance company and had borrowed money from several investors as well. In June 1908 his widow was able to identify his remains from La Porte’s Pauper’s cemetery by the contour of his skull and three missing teeth

The unidentified bodies and unsolved mysteries that would emerge from these ruins would make headlines across the Midwest. More reports of missing men began to pour in from surrounding Midwestern states and relatives began to appear from all over the region to claim bodies. All of them told of lonesome brothers, uncles, and cousins answering Belle’s matrimonial ads and traveling hopefully to La Porte with their life savings stuffed in their pockets.

Some of these were most certainly additional victims, though they were never proven.

  • Christie Hilkven of Dovre, Wisconsin, who sold his farm and came to La Porte in 1906.
  • Chares Neiburg, a 28-year-old Scandinavian immigrant who lived in Philadelphia, told friends that he was going to visit Gunness in June 1906 and never came back — he had been working for a saloon keeper and took $500 with him.
  • John H. McJunkin of Coraopolis (near Pittsburgh) left his wife in December 1906 after corresponding with a La Porte woman.
  • Olaf Jensen, a Norwegian immigrant of Carroll, Indiana, wrote his relatives in 1906 he was going to marry a wealthy widow at La Porte.
  • Bert Chase of Mishawaka, Indiana, sold his butcher shop and told friends of a wealthy widow and that he was going to look her up; his brother received a telegram supposedly from Aberdeen, South Dakota claiming Bert had been killed in a train wreck; his brother investigated and found the telegram was fictitious.
  • A hired man named George Bradley of Tuscola, Illinois is alleged to have gone to La Porte to meet a widow and three children in October 1907.
  • T.J. Tiefland of Minneapolis is alleged to have come to see Gunness in 1907,
  • Frank Riedinger, a farmer of Waukesha, Wisconsin, came to Indiana in 1907 to marry and never returned.
  • Emil Tell, a Swede from Kansas City, Missouri, alleged to have gone in 1907 to La Porte.
  • Lee Porter of Bartonville, Oklahoma separated from his wife and told his brother he was going to marry a wealthy widow at La Porte.
  • John E. Hunter left Duquesne, Pennsylvania, on November 25, 1907, after telling his daughters he was going to marry a wealthy widow in Northern Indiana.
  • Abraham Phillips, a railwayman of Burlington, West Virginia, left in the winter of 1907 to go to Northern Indiana and marry a rich widow — a railway watch was found in the debris of the house.

Reported other unnamed victims may have been:

  • A daughter of Mrs. H. Whitzer of Toledo, Ohio, who had attended Valparaiso University near La Porte in 1902.
  • An unknown man and woman are alleged to have disappeared in September 1906, the same night Jennie Olson went missing. Gunness claimed they were a Los Angeles “professor” and his wife who had taken Jennie to California.
  • A brother of Miss Jennie Graham of Waukesha, Wisconsin, who had left her to marry a rich widow in La Porte but vanished.
  • A hired man from Ohio age 50 name unknown is alleged to have disappeared and Gunness became the “heir” to his horse and buggy.
  • An unnamed man from Montana told people at a resort he was going to sell Gunness his horse and buggy, which were found with several other horses and buggies at the farm.
Bones and Body parts found at the Gunness farm

Bones and Body parts found at the Gunness farm

Most of the remains found on the property could not be identified. Because of the crude recovery methods, the exact number of individuals unearthed on the Gunness farm is unknown, but 14 of Belle’s victims were pieced together, with a number of teeth, bones, and watches left over. In all, the number murdered was estimated to be as many a 40.

On May 22, 1908, Ray Lamphere and tried for murder and arson. He pled innocent to all charges; his defense hinging on the assertion that the body was not Gunness’. Lamphere’s lawyer, Wirt Worden, developed evidence that the bridgework that was found may have been planted. In the end, Lamphere was found guilty of arson, but acquitted of murder. On November 26, 1908, he was sentenced to two to 21 years in the State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. He died there of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909.

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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