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

 

Belle Gunness

Belle Gunness

“Hell’s Belle” Gunness was America’s most degenerate female serial killer in history, Gunness likely killed both her husbands and all of her children. What is certain is that she murdered most of her boyfriends and her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. Between 1884 and 1908, the Norwegian immigrant is believed to have slain over 40 people in Chicago, Illinois and La Porte, Indiana, profiting from insurance claims and other scams, before disappearing without a trace.

Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth on November 11, 1859, in Selbu, Norway, Brynhild was the youngest daughter of eight children born of stonemason, Paul Pedersen Størseth, and Berit Olsdatter. She was raised on a small farm in Innbygda, Norway and grew up to be a physically very strong woman, standing 5′ 9″ tall and weighing over 200 pounds.

One common, but unverified story, says that when she was about 18 years old she was pregnant and attended a country dance. While there, she was attacked by a man who kicked her in the abdomen, causing her to miscarry. The man, who came from a rich family, was never prosecuted by the Norwegian authorities. Afterward, the locals said that Brynhild’s personality drastically changed. A short time later, the man who had kicked her died of what was said to be stomach cancer.

She then went to work as a servant on a wealthy farm for the next several years. Then, in 1881, following the example of her sister, who had emigrated to America earlier, Brynhild moved to the United States where she assumed a more American-style name. She then made her way to Chicago, Illinois where she again worked as a servant for a time.

In 1884, Gunness married Mads Albert Sorenson in Chicago and two years later they opened a candy store that was not very successful. Not long afterward, their home and the store mysteriously burned down. The couple collected the insurance money and bought a new home. The pair had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died as infants from acute colitis, the symptoms of which — nausea, fever, diarrhea, and lower abdominal pain and cramping — are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. They collected on life insurance policies for both children.

On June 13, 1900, Gunness and her family were counted on the United States Census in Chicago, recording her as the mother of four children, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A. and Lucy B.. Also counted was an adopted 10-year-old girl, identified as Morgan Couch at the time, but who was apparently later known as Jennie Olsen.

On July 30, 1900, Albert Sorenson, on the one day his two life insurance policies overlapped, died. The first doctor to see him thought he had suffered from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorensons’ family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart, and he concluded that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was considered unnecessary because the death was not thought suspicious.

Though her husband’s family demanded an inquiry, claiming Belle had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance, no charges were filed. In the end, she was awarded $8,500 (about $240,000 today), with which she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana. It was reported that both the boat and carriage houses burned to the ground shortly after she acquired the property.

Gunness Farm

Gunness Farm

As she was preparing to move from Chicago to LaPorte, she became re-acquainted with a recent widower named Peter Gunness, who was also from Norway. Gunness, a butcher by profession, and Belle were married in LaPorte 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 struck on the head when a sausage-grinding machine had toppled off a high shelf in the kitchen. But, when the coroner looked at the body, he allegedly muttered: “this is a case of murder.” To make matter worse, one of Belle’s own children told a classmate that her mother had hit her husband over the head with a cleaver. Though the authorities investigated, the formidable Belle was so convincing that no charges were ever filed. A year later, Peter’s brother, Gust, took Peter’s older daughter, Swanhild, to Wisconsin. She was the only child to have survived to live with Belle.

Belle’s husband’s death netted her another $3,000 (about $81,000 today). Local people refused to believe that her husband 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, unequivocally announced that he had been murdered, and convened a coroner’s jury to look into the matter. However, Gunness successfully convinced the investigators that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. At the time, Gunness did not mention that she was pregnant, despite the possibility that it might have inspired sympathy, and in May 1903 Gunness gave birth to a son she named Phillip.

In late 1906 Belle told neighbors that her foster daughter, Jennie Olsen, had gone away to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles. In fact, Jennie’s body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother’s property.

Ray Lamphere

Ray Lamphere

In 1907, she employed a farmhand, Ray Lamphere, to help with chores. However, word soon spread that her relationship with Lamphere was more than strictly professional. When drinking, Lamphere often boasted of sleeping with his employer, which came as a surprise to those who only saw Belle as the burly woman who liked to dress in men’s overalls and do her own hog butchering. But, there was another side to the woman that Lamphere saw, and soon the local folk would as well.

Lamphere would not be enough for Belle. She wanted something more and soon began to look for new suitors by inserting the following advertisement in the lovelorn column of newspapers in 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 a personal visit. Triflers need not apply.

Several middle-aged men of means responded to Gunness’ ads and within no time, Belle was often seen going for carriage rides with strangers on Sunday afternoons. On those occasions, Belle was wearing the finest clothing and her hair was adorned in the latest style. Usually accompanied by a handsome man, she was unrecognizable from the rough farm woman the locals were used to seeing.

One of these men was John Moe, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off her mortgage, or so he told neighbors, to whom Gunness introduced him as her cousin. He disappeared from her farm within a week of his arrival.

Next came George Anderson from Tarkio, Missouri who said he would pay the mortgage off if they decided to wed. Late that night, while sleeping in the guest room, Anderson awoke startled to see Belle standing over him, peering into his eyes and holding a candle in her hand. He later stated that the expression on her face was so sinister and murderous, that he let out a loud yell and she immediately ran from the room without uttering a single word. Feeling terrified and uncomfortable, Anderson believed that Gunness intended to murder him. He quickly jumped out of bed and threw on his clothes. He fled the house without saying goodbye, and ran away, getting on the first rain headed to Missouri. He never returned for his belongings, nor did he ever speak to Gunness again.

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 farmhand, 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’s 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.

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’s 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.

A few weeks later, a reverend came forward with a confession that Lamphere made to him before he died. In his statement, he revealed the details of Gunness’ crimes and swore that she was still alive. He also swore to the reverend as well as a fellow convict, that he had not murdered anyone. However, he had helped Belle 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. At other times, she would simply wait for the suitor to go to bed and then entered the bedroom by candlelight and chloroformed her sleeping victim.

The powerful 48-year-old woman would then carry the body to the basement, where she most often dissected it, bundled the remains, and then buried them in the hog pen. At other times, she dumped the corpse into a hog-scalding vat and then covered the remains with quicklime. And, worse, according to Lamphere, if she was overly tired, she would chop up the remains and feed them to the hogs.

Lamphere also cleared up the mysterious question of the headless female corpse found in the smoking ruins of Gunness’ home. Belle 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. Once dead, she decapitated the body, tied weights to the head, and disposed of it in a swamp. She then dragged the corpse to the basement, dressed it in her own clothing, removed her false teeth, and placed them beside the headless corpse to assure it would be identified as Belle Gunness.

She also chloroformed her children, smothered them to death, and carried them to the basement. She then torched the small brick farmhouse and fled.

Lamphere was to wait for her at a designated place on the road after the fire was set. But, she never showed up, instead, she cut across open fields and disappeared into the woods.

The media surrounding the whole affair drew hundreds of people and postcars were made.

The media surrounding the whole affair drew hundreds of people and postcards were made.

The former handyman also stated that Belle had become a very rich woman. By his count, he said she had murdered 42 men and had taken amounts from them ranging from $1,000 to $32,000. By the time she disappeared he estimated that she had accumulated more than $250,000 through her murder schemes over the years — a huge fortune for those days (about $6.7 million today). The investigators had previously checked her bank accounts and though there was a small amount remaining in one of her savings accounts, the money in all other accounts had been completely withdrawn shortly before the fire, suggesting that the evil woman had created a great hoax and evaded the law.

Over the next several decades, Gunness was allegedly sighted in various cities across the nation. As late as 1931, Gunness was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town, where she supposedly owned a great deal of property and lived her life as a prominent citizen.

Another report in 1931 suggested that she may have been a woman known as “Esther Carlson” who was arrested in Los Angeles, California for poisoning August Lindstrom, a Norwegian-American man, on February 9, 1931, for his money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs that were in her possession but the identification was never proved. Carlson died on May 6, 1931, while awaiting trial.

Of the remains found at the murder site, the bodies of Belle’s three children were identified as well as several of her suitors. The headless adult female corpse was never positively identified.

In the belief that the headless corpse was in fact, Belle Gunness, the remains were buried next to Belle’s first husband, Mads Sorenson, at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.

On November 5, 2007, with the permission of descendants of Belle’s sister, the headless body was exhumed from the grave by a team of forensic anthropologists and graduate students from the University of Indianapolis in an effort to learn her true identity. 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 so the mystery remains unsolved.

By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated September 2019.

Also See:

20th Century Gangsters & Outlaws

Mysteries in American History

Outlaws Across America

Women in American History

Sources:

Biography.com 
The Line-UP 
Prairie Ghosts
Wikipedia

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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