It is that time of year folks! The goblins, ghouls, witches, and warlocks have come out to play! I have always had this connection with Halloween and it is by far my favorite holiday. I’m more into the historical aspect then the get so scared you throw up aspect. I will watch my fair share of scary movies around this time but usually through the gaps of my fingers while I cover my eyes. To keep with the holiday spirit, these weeks post will be different from my usual posts. I wanted to branch out and I thought a spooky, but true, story would be ideal. As you may know, I work at the Indiana Historical Society and decided to stick close to home and tell the story of one of our own local serial killers, Belle Gunness.
Belle Gunness, originally Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth, was born in Norway in 1859 to a poor family. Very little is known about her life in Norway other than the fact she worked as a servant to a local wealthy family to save up enough money to emigrate to America in 1881. Once in America, she changed her name to Belle and again worked in service but had dreams of becoming wealthy. Even at a young age, Belle was already a large and strong woman. She was said to be 5’8″ and at least 200 pounds.
She married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, Illinois in 1884. The newly married couple opened a sweets shop together but it was unsuccessful. After two years the business mysteriously burned down and the insurance collected bought the pair a new home. Sources vary on if their were children in the home, if those children were their own, or if they were foster children. A common theme is that there were four children, Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel ended up dying very young supposedly of acute colitis. Acute colitis shares a lot of symptoms with poisoning and both of their lives were insured. A 1900 census lists two dead children, two living (Myrtle and Lucy) and an adopted/foster daughter named Jennie Olsen. That same year Sorenson died on the same day that two life insurance policies overlapped. Two different doctors came up with two different causes of death. The first doctor said he showed signs of strychnine poisoning and their family doctor said it was an enlarged heart that led to heart failure. Belle admitted she had been giving him medicinal powders to help with his health but no autopsy was performed. Belle collected on both insurance policies the day after his death. Sorenson’s family submitted an inquest regarding his death claiming Belle killed him but no investigation was recorded. Belle used the money to buy a large farm in La Porte, Indiana.
Belle married Peter Gunness in April of 1902. Peter had two daughters at the time of their marriage, Jennie and Swanhild. Jennie died a week after they were married under mysterious circumstances while left alone with Belle. Peter would die in December of 1902. At first, Belle claimed he was reaching for a pair of slippers placed by the fire and clumsily knocked over a scalding vat onto himself. Then later she said he clumsily knocked part of a sausage grinder off of a shelf which fell on his head. Community suspicion was raised immediately, how could a successful hog farmer and butcher suddenly be so careless and clumsy? Eventually there was enough suspicion for an autopsy to be performed and his death was declared a murder. Belle was put on trial but was somehow found innocent of any wrong-doing. During the trial she was pregnant and in May 1903 gave birth to a son, Phillip. A year after Peter’s death his brother came and removed Swanhild from Belle’s care.
From 1903 to 1906, Belle ran the farm by herself along with Jennie Olsen and her remaining children. In 1906, Jennie Olsen disappeared from the farm. Belle told several neighbors she had moved to California to attend a Lutheran College and she told several others it was a finishing school for girls. Sometime in 1907 Belle hires on Ray Lamphere as a farm hand and around that same time her personal ad hit news stands. She advertised herself as a widow with a large farm looking for a gentleman to join fortunes with and required a personal visit for consideration. It was then that men would come to the farm and were never seen again.
John Moe was the first bachelor reported by neighbors to visit the farm. He was from Elbow Lake, Minnesota and Belle introduced him to neighbors as her cousin. He brought $1,000 which he reportedly used to pay off Belle’s mortgage. John would disappear a week later. The next gentlemen to arrive on the farm was George Anderson from Tarkis, Missouri. Belle made him dinner and while they ate she brought up her mortgage and asked if he would be willing to pay it off for her. He agreed, but only after they were married. That night he awoke to Belle standing over his bed with murder in her eyes. He screamed at her and she fled without saying a word. He quickly followed, leaving the farm and all of his possessions behind. He never went back for his things and never had contact with Belle again. It was also around this time that Belle began ordering large trunks to be delivered to her farm. She started sticking close to home, kept her curtains closed, and was seen digging around the hog pen.
Ole B. Bubsberg would be the next caller. He was a widower from Wisconsin and brought several thousand dollars with him. Belle and Bubsberg were seen at the La Porte bank soon after his arrival where he mortgaged his farm in Wisconsin. He had two sons who didn’t know where there father had gone until finding his correspondence to Belle. They immediately wrote her and she wrote back saying she had never seen their father. Several more men would come to the Gunness farm and disappear throughout 1907. Andrew Helgelien was among the last and came from Aberdeen, South Dakota. He brought with him a check for $2,900 which they were seen together depositing together in a La Porte bank. He disappeared from the farm a few days later. A letter Belle wrote to him was found at his farm in South Dakota which led to suspicion from his brother. Lon Townsend and an Arkansas man were both supposed to visit the farm but put their visits off and another man, Bert Albert, was set to marry Belle but didn’t have enough money to his name and her interest fell through.
In 1908, Belle began to have problem with her hired man, Ray Lamphere. He loved her and would do anything for her but became increasingly jealous of the other men. She fired him in February of 1908 and Belle’s world began to crumble. Ray didn’t want to leave Belle so she tried everything to get him not only to leave her alone but not speak about what was happening to all of the men. She first tried to have him declared insane but it didn’t work out. She then had him arrested for trespassing but it didn’t hold. Ray then made the mistake of making comments about Andrew Helgelien which managed to get back to his brother, Asle, who was still looking for him. He wrote to Belle and she wrote back saying he had left the farm and maybe went back to Norway to visit family there. In her increasing concern regarding Ray, Belle hatched a plan. She paid a visit to her lawyer and told him Ray threatened to kill her and burn her house down. She wanted to make out a will to leave everything to her children in case something happened to her. Belle then went to the bank, withdrew the money from all of her accounts, and paid off the rest of her mortgage. She never took her concerns regarding Ray’s murderous threats to the police. All of this happened within weeks.
At the end of February 1908, Belle’s new farm hand, Joe Maxson, awoke to the home engulfed in flames. He jumped from the second story and ran to town for the fire department. In the meantime the home burns completely and four bodies are found inside. The first three are confirmed as the body of Belle’s children, the fourth was an older female but was missing it’s head. The sheriff had heard from Belle’s lawyer her concerns regarding Ray and had him arrested the same day. He didn’t help his cause by asking the sheriff if Belle and the children got out alright before the sheriff could tell him why he was being arrested. There was also a witness who put Ray at the farm. A young boy witnessed Ray running away from the blaze, when Ray saw the boy he threatened to kill him if he said anything. Almost immediately neighbors and friends all said the body was not Belle’s, it was too small. The body found in the wreckage was only 5’1″ and about 150 pounds, Belle was much larger than that. They took measurements from the body which was still intact and compared them to the measurements from local businesses where Belle bought clothes. They didn’t match and deemed the body could not have been Belle’s. Concrete evidence was still needed, so a local retired miner was hired to build a sluice and search the wreckage for the missing head. In May 1908, a piece of bridgework was found containing teeth with roots still attached along with porcelain and golden crowns. The local dentist was brought in and confirmed he had performed that work on Belle. The coroner then officially concluded that the body was indeed Belle’s.
Soon after the fire, Asle Helgelin arrived in La Porte and filed a report regarding his missing brother and her connection to Belle. Joe Maxson, the farm hand, told the sheriff how Belle would have him carry dirt to even out large depressions in the soil around the hog pen. Belle told him that they were filled with rubbish. The sheriff decided to look into and took a digging crew back out to Belle’s farm. It was then that they discovered Belle’s disturbing deeds.
Jennie Olsen, the adopted daughter who disappeared in 1906 and was supposed to be at finishing school was found first. She was followed by two small unidentified children. Eventually the bodies of Andrew Helgelien, Ole B. Bubsburg, Thomas Lindboe (left Chicago 3 years prior to work for Belle), Henry Gurholdt (left Wisconsin to marry Belle with $1,500), Olaf Svenhurd from Chicago, John Moe, and Olaf Lindbloom were all found and identified. They found Helgelien’s coat and Moe’s watch in Ray’s possession. An approximate number of bodies found is hard to determine due to the way the bodies were dug up but 12 bodies were confirmed. After the discovery, there were 26 other possible victims reported missing under the same circumstances and 5 unnamed victims. All of these possible victims are listed on her Wikipedia page, link below.
Ray Lamphere would be tried for arson and the murder of Belle Gunness and her family. Soon the dental evidence that was used to confirm Belle’s body was called into question. First if the dental work was in the home when it was ablaze it would not have survived. A demonstration was given to the court showing the teeth popping like popcorn and everything else melting away. Second Joe Maxson and another man testified that they saw the old miner plant the dentures. Ray would be found guilty of arson, acquitted of murder, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He would die a year later of tuberculosis.
In 1910, Reverend Schell and a fellow inmate, Harry Meyers, came forward and told the public what Ray had confessed to them before he died. He revealed all of Belle’s crimes and stated she was still alive. He never murdered anyone himself but would help Belle bury the bodies. He said she would make her suitors comfortable, cook for them, then drug their coffee. While they were aloof, she would split their heads with a meat chopper. Other times she would wait for them to go to bed, chloroform them in their sleep, and carry them to the basement where she would dissect their bodies. He also said she would sometimes poison their dinners with strychnine. After she would dissect the bodies, something he said she was an expert at after learning how to break down pigs, she would dispose of the body in one of three way. The first was simply burying them, the second involved a scalding vat and quicklime, and the third, if she was in hurry, was to just feed them to the hogs. He had helped Belle fake her death and burn the home. Belle lured the headless woman from Chicago under the pretense of becoming a housekeeper. She then drugged her, smashed her head in, decapitated and weighted the head down before throwing into the swamp around the farm. She then dressed the woman in her clothes and removed her false teeth to be found later. The children were chloroformed in their sleep and smothered by their mother. Ray helped her torch the house and they were supposed to meet up down the road. There are two accounts of what happened next. Ray claimed she never met him and abandoned him to his fate and the other claims he drove her to Stillwell and put her on a train.
According to Ray, she killed 42 people total and had accumulated $250,000 (today this would be more than 6 million dollars) through her schemes. Because she withdrew all of her money before the fire and settled all of her affairs it would appear she was planning to flee. After Ray’s confession came to light people began reporting sightings of the large Norwegian woman every where. The first was supposedly just three days after the fire. A delivery boy claimed to have seen her in the kitchen of Elizabeth Smith’s home, one of Belle’s friends. Reports came in from Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. For years, the La Porte sheriff would receive at least two calls a month regarding Belle Gunness. The most substantiated claim came in 1931. A woman named Esther Carlson was arrested for poisoning August Lindstrom for his money. Many neighbors and close friends all claimed the picture of Ether Carlson looked exactly like Gunness. Before any investigation could be carried out Esther died while awaiting trial.
Belle Gunnes Photo Credits go to Flickriver.com and the La Porte County Historical Society.
A Nightmare at Murder Farm (this is actually a really cool blog if you are into bizarre, creepy, and strange history stories!)