The notorious Belle Gunness—she dunnit!

Norwegian America’s best butcher

gunness

Photo: La Porte County Historical Society Museum
ONLY SKULLS: Many of the victims of the notorious Belle Gunness have never been identified. The Norwegian-American immigrant became known as the “most degenerate woman serial killer in history” and is believed to have killed at least 22 people..

CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

Some have called Belle Gunness, or Hell’s Belle, the “most degenerate female serial killer in history,” who is believed to have killed at least 22 people in Chicago and La Porte, Ind. Her story has lots of twists and turns, but, in the end, it is a mystery.

Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth on Nov. 11, 1859, in Selbu, Norway, the youngest of eight children, her family lived as tenants on a small farm owned by the Størseth family. From the age of 14, she worked on neighboring farms milking and herding cattle to save money for passage to America.

When she was processed by immigration at Castle Garden in New York City, she changed her name to Belle and traveled to join her sister Nellie in Chicago. While living with her sister and brother-in-law, she worked as a domestic servant until her first marriage to Mads Sorenson from Drammen, Norway, in 1884.

The Sorensens had a home in Chicago that burned down. With the fire insurance money, they purchased a candy store in Chicago. The business burned down and with that fire insurance money, they bought a new home in Austin, Ill. They did not have children of their own, so they took care of foster children. Two children in their care died from inflammation of the large intestine, which can result from poison. Rest assured, Belle had insured both children and again collected an insurance check after each death.

When her husband died of a cerebral hemorrhage, it was determined that he had purchased two life insurance policies, which overlapped on the very day that he died. Belle collected money from both policies, the one that was expiring on that day and the one that went into effect on that day, bringing in a total of $5,000. Do you see a pattern here? With that money, Belle moved to La Porte, Ind., where she bought a pig farm.

Then Belle married widower Peter Gunness, who came with two young daughters in 1902, and the next week, while Peter was out of the house, his infant daughter died of an unknown cause. Peter died eight months later because of a skull injury. Belle explained that Peter reached for an item on a high shelf and a sausage grinder fell on him, smashing his skull. A coroner’s jury suspected murder, but the case was never tried. Once again, Belle collected insurance money, $3,000 for Peter’s death.

 

Looking for love

The rise of personal and matrimonial ads—appeals for companionship—in newspapers in 19th-century America was a modern solution to a growing problem. America was expanding at a great rate, and many people who moved into new regions were often single men. It makes sense that people who are geographically isolated needed help to find mates.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
LOOKING FOR LOVE: Belle Gunness lured unsuspecting Norwegian immigrant men to her “attractively located farm” outside of La Porte, Ind., by placing matrimonial ads in Norwegian-language newspapers. This ad in the Minneapolis Tidende calls for a “good, dependable man to be her partner at the farm.” This person should have some cash on hand before marriage could be considered.

Belle took advantage of this phenomenon and began placing marriage ads in Midwestern Norwegian-language newspapers, namely Skandinaven, Minneapolis Tidende, and Decorah-Posten. One of her ads was answered by a Wisconsin farmhand, Henry Gurholt. After traveling to La Porte, Gurholt wrote his family that he liked the farm, was in good health, and requested that they send him seed potatoes. When they failed to hear from him after that initial letter, the family contacted Gunness and was told that Gurholt had gone off with horse traders to Chicago.

John O. Moe from Minnesota also answered an ad in 1906. After corresponding for several months, he left for La Porte, having withdrawn a large amount of cash from his bank account, and he was never heard from again. A carpenter who did freelance work for Belle observed that Moe’s trunk was in Belle’s house along with more than a dozen others.

Photo: source unknown / public domain.
BLACK WIDOW: Belle Gunness, from Selbu, Norway, is infamous as America’s first woman serial killer. She immigrated to the United States, where she lured her victims to her remote farm in Indiana. This photo dates to about 1904.

After the fire at the Gunness homestead, La Porte police were contacted by Asle Helgelien, who had found correspondence between his brother, Andrew, a Norwegian farmer from Aberdeen, S.D., and Belle. The letters included Belle’s demands for him to come to La Porte, to bring money, and to keep the move a secret. A later visit to the Gunness farm by Helgelien led to the discovery of “soft depressions” in what had been made into a hog pen. After digging into one of the depressions, a sack was found that contained “two hands, two feet, and one head.” These were quickly recognized by Helgelien to be those of his brother.

That led authorities to dozens of such “slumped depressions,” and more digging yielded many sacks containing all types of human remains, often with “loose flesh that dripped like jelly.”

Quoting the Chicago Inter Ocean,  Lucas Reilly noted that “the bones

had been crushed on the ends , as though they had been …  struck with hammers after they were dismembered … [and that] quicklime had been scattered over the faces and stuffed in the ears.”

 

Death or disappearance?

Authorities dug up bodies of a headless adult woman, initially identified as Belle Gunness, and three children. Further investigation unearthed the partial remains of 13 more people. After finding so many parts of human bodies on the first day and then the second day, the police stopped counting. Meanwhile, news had spread and thousands of people from throughout the country had arrived to watch the digging. The news coverage of the mass murders invited inquiries from families desperate to locate men that had gone missing, but most of the remains could never be identified.

Ray Lamphere was Belle’s hired hand and an on-and-off lover. In November 1908,  he was convicted of arson in connection with the fire. Lamphere confessed that Belle had placed advertisements seeking male companionship only to murder and rob the men who responded and visited her on the farm. Lamphere also asserted that the body thought to be Belle was in fact a murder victim, chosen to mislead investigators. The brother of one victim had warned Belle that he was coming for her, and this impending visit motivated her to destroy the house, fake her own death, and flee. When Lamphere was arrested, he was wearing John Moe’s overcoat and Henry Gurholt’s watch.

According to Bruce R. Johnson, local researcher, county historian, and narrator of the documentary film The Gunness Mystery, Lamphere had hoped to marry Belle and become a partner in the farm. In January 1908, when Andrew Helgelien arrived to visit Belle, Ray became jealous of Andrew. After two weeks with Belle, Andrew had money sent from his bank account in Aberdeen to the First National Bank in La Porte. Andrew and Belle went to the bank. Belle made sure to take it all in cash. Andrew was gone the next day. When he did not return home, his brother became concerned. That was when Asle found Andrew’s letters from Belle.

The story gets murky from here. Lamphere made another confession in which he said he killed Belle. The inconsistencies of the two confessions and the life or death of Belle Gunness remain a mystery.

Photo: Seven Shook collection / Flickr:
NOT YOUR TYPICAL CRIME SCENE: At first glance, the granery at the Gunness farm near La Porte, Ind., looked usual enough, but with time, it came to be known as the “Granary Morgue,” as unearthed bodies were stored there. Visitors came to view the bodies, and many sent postcards like this one from 1908.

Nonetheless, Belle was pronounced dead, even though the doctor who performed the postmortem testified that the headless body was shorter and thinner than Belle. Reported sightings of Belle continued long after her alleged death, and the Gunness farm soon became a tourist attraction. She was thought to perhaps be a Los Angeles woman named Esther Carlson, who died while awaiting trial on charges she killed her employer, but this connection has been refuted.

 

Check it out for yourself

belle gunness

Photo: Steve Shook collection / Flickr
MOTHERLY LOVE: A postcard from 1908 shows another side of Belle Gunness, as she poses for a photograph with her three children. From left to right are Lucy, Myrtle, Phillip, and the notorious Belle.

Today, the La Porte County Historical Society Museum has a permanent Gunness exhibit. Belle Gunness has been the subject of musical ballads, a 2004 film, Method and in 2017, a true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. The Farm, a 2021 film is based on the story. In addition, Amazon sells at least 15 titles that tell the story, including the Garden of Spite: A Novel of the Black Widow of LaPorte in 2021 by Camilla Bruce with elements of Norwegian noir and true crime, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, The Mistress of Murder Hill: The Serial Killings of Belle Gunness, and America’s Femme Fatale: the Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness, and two books in German and one in French.

And, if you still can’t get enough gory details, the La Porte County  Historical Society sells a package of 58 pages of transcriptions of coroner’s inquisitions, victims recovered at Belle Gunness’ farm, prepared by Andrea Simmons. Including inquisitions of five unidentified people, Phillip Alexander Gunness, Lucy Bergiat Sorenson, possibly Henry Gurholt, John O. Moe, and Ole O. Budsberg. Just send a check for $12, including postage and handling. It’s perfect bedside reading for the lover of Norwegian-American noir.

For more information, contact: La Porte County Historical Society Museum, 2405 Indiana Ave., Suite 1, La Porte, IN 46350, info@laportecountyhistory.org. Visit their website at laportecountyhistory.org/.

 

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD, travel editor, is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

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