Belle Gunness wanted the American Dream. She eventually found it through insurance fraud and killing husbands, children, and anyone in her way.
Belle Gunness grew up dirt poor in the small Norwegian village of Selbu. Like many, she emigrated to the United States in search of the American Dream. She found it in Chicago when she discovered a most ingenious way to make money: insurance fraud.
To the outside world, disaster and tragedy struck Gunness an inordinate amount of times. Properties she owned mysteriously burned to the ground, while those closest to her tragically started to drop like flies. But there was always a silver lining for Gunness in the form of a large insurance payout.
In reality, she was one of the first Black Widows and became a prolific serial killer credited with murdering around 40 victims. Hell’s Belle, or Lady Bluebeard as she is often known, killed her husbands and even her own children.
When she ran out of husbands, she attracted would-be suitors to her ‘Murder Farm,’ telling them to always bring their savings. At six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, Gunness could certainly handle herself if one of her victims attempted to escape.
Gunness’ penchant for murder and insurance fraud started shortly after she married her first husband Mads Sorenson in 1893. Together they opened a confectionary store and had four children — Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. They also had a foster child named Jennie Olsen.
With a husband, children, and a business there were plenty of opportunities for Gunness to claim insurance. The business burned down first and then two of her children, Caroline and Axel, died from acute colitis. However, acute colitis and strychnine poisoning share some common symptoms, such as abdominal pain, but this slipped past the coroner and Gunness got her money.
Motivated by escalating greed, Belle Gunness grew even bolder. In 1900, her first husband Mads died on the day when his two life insurance policies conveniently overlapped. Gunness received two insurance pay-outs for one life.
The first doctor examined his body and discovered Mads had died of strychnine poisoning. But Gunness’ doctor overruled the finding and determined that he had died of heart failure. Yet again, Gunness got away with murder.
With plenty of insurance money in her pocket, she took her three remaining children to LaPorte, Indiana. In 1901, she bought a 42-acre farm at the end of McClung road. Though a woman of means, she still wanted more. Soon after, a part of the farm burned down and she collected more insurance money.
On April 1, 1902, she married Peter Gunness, a local butcher and widower. Her new husband brought with him two daughters, who Belle saw as dollar signs.
Not long after the wedding, one child died under mysterious circumstances. Peter knew something wasn’t right and sent his eldest daughter, Swanhild, to stay with relatives. She was the only child to survive Gunness.
As it turns out, Peter should have left too. In December of 1902, he died when a meat grinder fell off a kitchen shelf and onto his head. Gunness’ daughter Jennie told schoolmates, “My mama killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don’t tell a soul.”
This time the coroner noticed symptoms of strychnine poisoning and ordered an inquest. But no hard evidence was found and Gunness convincingly cried crocodile tears over her husband’s death. However, they soon dried up when she cashed in Peter’s life insurance policy. Six months after Peter’s death, Belle gave birth to his son, Philip Gunness.
With her second husband gone, she found a far more efficient way to get money. She placed ads in newspapers for well-off suitors to come to her farm. Many men traveled to LaPorte never to be seen again.
In her letters, she had no problem convincing them to bring their money and to “not to tell anyone you are coming!”
They bought “shares” in her farm by depositing their cash into Belle’s bank account. When the transactions were done, she would poison their food or hit them over the head with a meat cleaver.
Then according to Jack Rosewood, author of Belle Gunness: The True Story of The Slaying Mother: Historical Serial Killers and Murderers, she would dismember the bodies and either feed them to her pigs or bury them in the hog pen.
On the morning of April 28, 1908, her farmhouse burned to the ground where town authorities found the bodies of Belle’s three children: Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson, and Philip Gunness. They also found the corpse of a headless woman thought to be Belle Gunness.
Originally, authorities believed that Belle had been murdered. But several days after the fire, Asa Helgelein turned up looking for his missing brother Andrew. He was adamant that Gunness had killed his brother and pressed the LaPorte County Sheriff to search the farm for him. At his urging, investigators found another 11 bodies in the hog pen. One was Gunness’ foster daughter Jennie Olsen, who had been missing since 1906.
After combing through the ashes, the investigators found dental bridgework belonging to Gunness. The coroner deemed this sufficient evidence to confirm that the headless corpse belonged to Gunness.
With Gunness ruled out, attention turned to her farmhand, Ray Lamphere. For a while, he was the prime suspect. But in the end, he was only charged with arson and not for the murders.
Years later, Lamphere admitted on his deathbed that Belle was the killer and had faked her death. Days before the fire, they had traveled to Chicago to find and bring back a housekeeper. Unbeknownst to the woman, she was to become Belle’s headless body double in the fire.
Doubts remain about whether the headless woman is Belle Gunness or a body double. DNA results from 2008 were inconclusive.
Yet, there is one case which suggests that Gunness did indeed fake her death. In 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson died in Los Angeles while awaiting trial for poisoning a man.
She bore a striking resemblance to Gunness and was of a similar age. But the clincher is that Carlson had photographs of three children that resembled Gunness’ in her possessions.
Enjoy this look at Belle Gunness, the infamous black widow killer of early 1900s America? Next, read about the Rodney Alcala, the serial killer who won ‘The Dating Game’ during his murder spree. Then learn about Leonarda Cianciulli, the serial killer who turned her victims into soap and teacakes.