Belle Gunness was born in Norway on November 11th, 1859. She was the youngest of eight children. From a young age, Belle dreamed of immigrating to the United States of America as her older sister had done. While still in Norway as a young teenager, Belle became pregnant, but the young man responsible refused to marry her and instead beat her until she miscarried. Devastated, she started working on farms to earn the money to travel across the ocean. In 1881, Belle traveled to the United States, changing her given name to Belle. She joined her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, where she found work as a house servant. After that, she worked cutting up carcasses at a butcher shop. She worked there until she married in 1884.
Unlike other young women, Belle was heavyset and tall. She stood 5’9” and weighed between 200-250 lbs. She a generally masculine appearance. Despite this, she became the bride of Mads Sorenson in 1884. Soon after, the Sorenson family home burned to the ground in Chicago. Mads and Belle used the insurance money to buy a confectionery store in Chicago. The store was not successful, causing financial stress. Two years after the wedding, the store burned to the ground. The couple was granted another large insurance payout, funding a new home.
The Sorenson family experience much more than bad luck, however. Belle gave birth to a baby who died from inflammation of the large intestine. Shortly after this death, another baby was born who also died of inflammation of the intestine, or colitis. While not terribly uncommon prior to the twentieth century, it is possible that the deaths were related to either accidental or intentional food poisoning. Neighbors began to gossip, but Belle began to collect. She had life insurance on both babies. Two other children were born to the marriage as well.
Belle also had insurance on her husband, Mads Sorenson. On July 30th, 1900, Mads Sorenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage. According to Belle, Mads came home from work that day with a significant headache. She stated she gave him some quinine powder for the pain. A few hours later, she found him deceased. The authorities did not believe there was anything suspicious about the death, although it happened to be on the one day that the expiring insurance policy on the man’s life and the replacing policy overlapped. Belle collected a double insurance payout following the death of her husband in 1900.
After collecting a total of $5,000, equivalent to about $180,000 today, Belle purchased a pig farm in La Porte, Indiana with her two living children and stepdaughter. While in Indiana, Belle met Peter Gunness, a widower with an infant daughter. The two were married April 1st, 1902. The following week, Peter’s infant daughter died while home alone with Belle. Doctors were unable to determine the baby’s cause of death. It was not evident in my research if the baby’s life was insured.
Eight months after the baby’s death, Peter Gunness suffered a severe head injury. According to his wife, Belle, Peter was reaching for something on a high self when a meat grinder fell on his head. The meat grinder caused massive skull fractures, killing Peter. This time, however, authorities were suspicious. Peter was not a clumsy man, and the story just didn’t make sense. Belle’s stepdaughter Jenny also told schoolmates that, “My mama killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died” (Rennie, 2022). The district coroner convened a coroner’s jury to rule on the cause of death, but the jury was unable to determine if the death was related to a crime or a horrible accident. Belle collected $3,000 in insurance payouts and told everyone she sent Jenny away to school in California.
Now twice widowed, Belle sought out for a new companion. She began placing marriage ads in Chicago area newspapers in 1905. She would often send her new pen pals four leaf clovers with promises of a good life if he joined her on the Indiana farm. Multiple men took Belle up on her offer, leaving their lives behind to move to La Porte, Indiana.
The first was Henry Gurholt. Once Henry arrived, he wrote back to his family explaining that he was happy and healthy. He said the farm was great but asked them to send seed potatoes for him to plant. They never heard from him again after that initial correspondence. After contacting Belle, Henry’s family was told that he ran off to Chicago. His trunk and fur coat were still in her possession, however.
John Moe of Minnesota saw one of Belle’s ads in the paper in 1906. The two became pen pals for several months. Finally, John withdrew a large amount of cash from his bank and set out to La Porte, Indiana to live with Belle. Believing he was leaving for a new life, Moe’s family became concerned after not hearing from him for several months. His belongings, along with those of several other men, were found in Belle’s home.
Belle continued to write to wealthy bachelors who responded to her ads. She would write things such as, “My heart beats in wild rapture for you. I love you. Come prepared to stay forever” (Rennie, 2022). “Mrs. Gunness received men visits all the time. A different man came nearly every week to stay at the house. She introduced them as cousins from Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and from Chicago. She was always careful to make the children stay away from her ‘cousins’” a farm hand on the farm would later say (Rennie, 2022). Not all disappeared, however. George Anderson came from Missouri to be with Belle. He said he woke up one night with Belle standing over him with a darkness in her eyes. The incident terrified the man, so he left immediately.
In January of 1908, Andrew Helgelien moved from Minneapolis to La Porte to live with Belle. He soon stopped responding to letters from his brother. His brother spoke with Belle, who claimed she did not know where Andrew went but that he had left her. She suggested he was likely in Chicago, but Andrew’s brother grew suspicious.
Meanwhile, Belle had hired farmhand Ray Lamphere. Ray fell in love with Belle and resented the men she brought to her property. Ray and Belle, at some point, were romantically and sexually involved, but Belle had ended it. On April 27th, 1908, Belle went to see an attorney because she feared Lamphere, whom she had fired from the farm. She said that Ray was threatening her so she wanted to have a will in place in case something happened to her. “This man is out to get me. I fear one of these nights he will burn my house to the ground” Belle said (Rennie, 2022). On her way home from the lawyer’s office, she bought toys for her two young girls and two canisters of kerosene.
That same night, the home of Belle Gunness burned to the ground. The remains of three children and a headless woman were found in the home. Police believed the headless woman to be Belle Gunness and arrested Ray Lamphere for the murders and arson. Upon learning of the fire, Andrew’s brother came to La Porte to find his long-lost brother. He asked the farmhand, Ray Lamphere, where to search on the farm. Ray led police and Andrew’s brother to the hog pen where they found Andrew’s head, hands, and feet.
Ray told authorities they had it all wrong. He was not a jilted lover who killed the woman he loved and her children. He said Belle was the murderer. Police began to search the farm at Ray’s insistence and found the remains of numerous bodies, including the stepdaughter Jenny who had told others that Belle killed her father. In the first two days, police found eleven bodies on the farm. Ray also explained that the headless woman found inside the charred house was not Belle Gunness. Ray was convicted of arson, but not murder.
The body found inside of Belle’s home next to her children was a petite woman, whereas Belle was a larger woman, standing 5’9" and weighed two-hundred and twenty pounds. Belle had a lot of dental work done on her teeth with gold, but without a head they could not positively identify her. Ray said Belle had planned the fire and faked her own death, ensuring no head would be found with the body.
Belle is believed to have killed at least 15 people before allegedly faking her own death. She garnered nick names including “Hell’s Belle” and “Indiana’s Black Widow”. Ray’s story of Belle faking her own death seems plausible considering she withdrew her money from the bank the day before, but it is not confirmed to this day. Ray went to prison for the arson. Upon his deathbed, he said that he helped Belle kill forty-two men. Belle would spike their coffee, bash their heads in, cut up their bodies and put them in sacks. Ray would then “plant” the bodies on the farm.
In 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning an American-Norwegian man and attempting to steal his money. The woman strongly resembled Belle and carried a picture of children that resembled her children. However, the woman died of tuberculosis while awaiting trial and was never confirmed to be Belle Gunness. DNA testing over the last several decades has failed to positively identify the body found on the farm as Belle. First, they tested the exhumed body against letters Belle wrote and sealed the envelopes of, but the evidence was not enough to provide an accurate result. DNA was also tested and compared to a maternal relative of Belle in Norway, but he results were not conclusive.
The life, crimes, and death of Belle Gunness remains a mystery and legend in the Midwest. The Gunness farm became a tourist attraction and the La Porte County Historical Society continues to research and preserve the historic mystery of Belle Gunness. Was Ray Lamphere a jealous lover who murdered Belle and blamed his own crimes upon her? Was Belle Gunness one of the first and deadliest serial killers in the Midwest? If Belle did fake her death, where did she end up and, did she kill again? We have more questions than answers.
Dettmer, S. (2008). Belle Gunness still a mystery. The South Bend Tribune. 10 Mar 2008
Burlington Daily News. (1908). Death Harvest of Belle Gunness. Burlington Daily News. 15 May 1908
Kridel, K. (2008). Womans’ DNA could solve 100-year mystery. Chicago Tribune. 08 Oct 2008