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Belle 'Hell's Belle' Gunness

Lady Bluebeard

When, for whatever reason, you start trolling your brain for a list of the most prolific, violent and all around evil serial killers most people would tend to forget Belle Gunness. With numbers ranging from 40 to the theorized and staggering 180 victims, it's pretty incredible that she isn't mentioned among the ranks of Dahmer, Gacy, and Bundy. 

Why doesn't she get brought up more? Honestly, who knows. It could be that the term "black widow" gets thrown around a lot. It seems to lead some to think about a more "passionate" crime or a crime of greed rather than a cold calculated murderer.

She was in fact just that though, a cold and calculated serial murderer. Sure money was a motivator, as it was claimed she made off with a little over a quarter of a million (almost 7 million today) dollars. That amount of money would motivate plenty of people to do some nasty things but with the number of people she supposedly had to off to reach those riches, she also just had to really enjoy being a murder machine.

Did I mention that there is a long-held and apparently very plausible theory that she successfully faked her own death, ran from Indiana to California and lived to be 72? Yeah, she got away with it too. The fact that she isn't one of the most well-known serial killers or more talked about is kind of astounding.

Don't get me wrong people know her. There are books, tv shows, and even a movie about her. A google search will bring up plenty of articles about her but I bet you $10 if you walk up to a stranger on the street and asked them who she was they probably wouldn't know. 

So what exactly is her story?

Belle was a Norwegian immigrant, coming from the village of Selbu, Norway to the city of Chicago. She wasn't a dainty little damsel in distress. She stood over six feet tall and weighed in at over 200 pounds. She grew up astoundingly poor and came to America to try and live the American Dream. It seemed like she would accomplish just that.  In 1893 Belle married Mads Sorenson. They started a business, had four kids, Myrtle, Axel, Caroline, and Lucy and even took in a foster child, Jennie Olsen. Unfortunately for the family the business mysteriously burned down and  Caroline and Axel both succumbed to acute colitis very shortly afterward. These are believed to be her first and very successful attempts at insurance fraud. Mads would follow his children in death in 1900. The initial cause was said to be strychnine poisoning but that was overruled and the official cause was listed as heart failure...more insurance money for Belle.

In 1901 Belle left the city life of Chicago for a farm in the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. By early 1902 she had bagged husband number two, Peter Gunness. Peter entered into the marriage with two children of his own and shortly after the nuptials one of them suddenly passed under mysterious circumstances. The second daughter was sent to live with relatives making her the only child to survive the wrath of Belle. Before the year was out Peter too had lost his life when supposedly a meat grinder had fallen off a shelf and struck him in the head. There was an inquest into the murder launched when the coroner noticed evidence of strychnine poisoning, but nothing definitive was found and Belle was still free. A short while after Belle gave birth to a son, Philip.

After that close brush with the law, Belle changed her tactics. She began placing and responding to "lonely-heart" ads in various newspapers. Feigning interest in lonely desperate men, she would tell them to come "prepared to stay forever." Although technically, she wasn't lying. She convinced them to not tell anyone where they were going and for whatever reason, they came in droves.

The men would bring all their assets. They would put the money into her bank accounts under the guise of "buying shares" in her farm. When she got what she wanted out of them she would turn to her old pal strychnine (reportedly sometimes she used a meat cleaver instead) to do away with them. 

In 1906 Jennie Olsen would go missing. Belle told people that the girl had gone to California, but apparently, after Peter's death, Jennie told her classmates that her mother had murdered him. One would assume that that wouldn't sit too well with Belle when she found out.

Disposing of all those bodies had to be difficult right? Not if you know your way around butchering and have a faithful farmhand. It is said that she with the help of farmhand Ray Lamphere would dismember the men. They would then either bury them in the hog pen or feed them directly to the hogs. 

This carried on for some time until the brother of one of the missing men began putting pressure on Belle and started threatening a visit. Asle Helgelien contacted Belle about the well-being and whereabouts for his brother Andrew after not hearing from him for some time. She told him he had gone to Norway.

April 27th, 1908 Belle would visit with a lawyer in town asking to draft a will. She claimed she was fearful that Lamphere was going to kill her and specifically "burn my house." She then went to the market and purchased various things and among them was a five-gallon can of kerosene. 

On April 28th the farmhouse burnt to the ground. In the basement, the bodies of Belle's three remaining children a headless woman (because you know only your head burns completely up in a fire) said to be Belle were found. They identified the body as hers because of a dental bridge belonging to her laying next to it. 

Lamphere was, of course, suspect number one. Police arrested him on charges of murder and arson.

Asle heard about the fire and traveled east from South Dakota. He met with police and told them he feared his brother had been killed and that Belle had set the fire to throw them off and escape. They kind of thought he was insane until a search of the farm and eventually the hog pen turned up bones from multiple bodies including the body of foster daughter Jennie Olsen. Despite the evidence to prove his theory the coroner came to the conclusion that because of the physical similarities and the dental bridge that the body was that of Gunness. They would eventually only be able to charge Lamphere with arson, however, they still believed him guilty. 

Lamphere would admit later in life that Belle, in fact, was the killer and had faked her own death with his help. He claimed that days before the fire he had gone to the city with her to bring back a housekeeper. She would later be murdered, beheaded and Belle, then removed her own dental work for identification.

It is said that Belle left for California and changed her name to Esther Carlson. At the age of 72, she would be arrested for poisoning her husband and died while awaiting trial. As well as physical similarities to Belle and being the right age, Esther was said to have a photo of three children baring a striking resemblance to Belle's in a trunk at her home. 

The theory that she faked her own death and got away with it is widely accepted and in 2008 a DNA test on the headless corpse was performed. The results were inconclusive. The mystery still remains, but let's be real here, Belle Gunness was likely one of the most successful and prolific serial killers of all time.

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