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America's First Female Serial Killer

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 0

Belle Gunness

Pig-Farming Black Widow

Women killers are more fascinating, more compelling, than their male counterparts simply because the human organism does not attribute the aggressive viciousness required for murder to the “fairer sex”.  History, though, flies in the face of the image of the shy and retiring flower of femininity—there are many recorded instances of women who kill.

Not only that, there is also (though rare) a coterie of female serial killers, one of whom holds a dubious distinction as America’s first female serial killer, a lumbering Valkyrie named Belle Gunness.

Modus Operandi
Women who murder are sensationalized in the press, even romanticized.  Even women who are merelysuspected of killing make for great copy.   [Two notorious Australian examples of innocent women

Pulp fiction version of Belle Gunness
hyped as murderers were 1909’s Martha Rendell and the 1980s’ Lindy “The Dingo Ate My Baby” Chamberlain.]

Neither committed the crimes of which they were accused; Martha, however, was convicted and executed despite a case built mostly on conjecture and social hatred of her.  Lindy was finally cleared of all wrongdoing only after two decade of persecution from authorities and the court of public opinion.

Lizzie Borden (who murdered her stepmother and father with a hatchet in late summer 1892) became a cause célèbre; public interest, combined with the blinkering of an all-male jury (who just could not believe a woman could do what was claimed), led to her acquittal in 1893.

Kate Bender, in a murderous family (actually a group of four people who bore no blood relationship to each other), was part of an ongoing criminal enterprise along a pioneer route in Kansas in the mid 1800s.

Kate was pretty and vivacious (although she was a con older than her alleged late-teen years at the time of the murders).  She dabbled locally as a Spiritualist (à la The Fox Sisters’ “spirit” rappings). 

The Bender clan ran a way station; strangers who stopped to eat or rest (usually single men with no social or family ties) were sussed out by the family.  Those deemed having enough personal wealth on them were murdered for their cash and possessions (watches, jewelry, etc.).  The bodies were buried on the inn’s property. 

The modus operandi for the Bender family was the same in every case.  The little inn was a single large room divided roughly in half by a hanging canvas “wall”.  Guests targeted for murder were served their meals by either Kate (most often) or “Mrs.” Bender.  The victim was purposefully seated at the rough table with his back to the canvas wall (the seating was arranged so tightly the back of the victim’s head actually touched the canvas).  While engaged with the charming Kate, the stranger was cracked in the skull (from the other side of the canvas wall) with a large sledge-hammer swung at the back of his head by either John the “teen-aged” son, or the father.  Death was instantaneous. 

Suspicion developed when one particular guest did not arrive at his destination as planned.  The Benders got wind of the community agitation and fled.  The locals discovered the bodies on the property.  The inn was burned to the ground in disgust and community rage.  Kate Bender, although perhaps never committing any of the murders herself (but certainly complicit), became legendary as the ringleader of “The Bloody Benders”—it was more titillating to think of Kate as the dominatrix who ran the show.   [The reality is the group operated under the aegis of “the old man” and was largely democratic in scope].  Kate (like her counterpart Belle Gunness decades later) disappeared.  And like Belle, the Bender family crimes were only discovered after the main players were beyond the reach of justice.

Finally, the substance of the modus operandi needs addressing.  Women who kill often do so spuriously.  The 20th Century’s best known female serial killer was the part-time prostitute, Aileen Wuornos.  In 1992 she was convicted of gunning several men to death over a few years’ time.  She was ultimately executed in Florida by lethal injection. 

However, Aileen Wuornos was a hapless mess and probably one of the most psychically damaged women to ever walk the face of the planet.  Her murders were sloppy, poorly planned, and—although technically serial killings—did not meet any standard of finesse (unlike, say, Ted Bundy’s killings).  It was truly only a matter of time before she was caught.

But modus operandi (M.O) entails all elements of the body of a crime not just the murder method (as most people believe).  A killer’s “signature” does not change much; the killer may refine his or her technique but the basic method remains the same.  Aileen Wuornos, for example, cruised for johns, lured them to remote areas, and then shot them.  She usually abandoned the john’s car where it was.  This varied little from her first murder.  Her M.O. carried her “signature”.

Much has been made over the years about possible Jack the Ripper suspects.  One (whose name has long since been discredited by researchers, historians, and criminologists) was a man named George Chapman ( Kosminksi).  His background as a Ripper suspect is too lengthy for detailing here, but the bottom line is he poisoned his “wives”.  This fact alone clears Chapman as a Ripper suspect: Chapman, by choice and preference, was a poisoner, not a slasher.

Killers do not change horses in mid-stream.  It has never been documented.  They stick with what they know.  [The Ripper, if he is ever discovered, will probably be someone previously not on the radar.  Currently, the best such candidate is a morgue attendant who actually was instrumental in handling the murdered prostitutes' remains post-mortem.]

Unlike Aileen Wuornos (driven by whatever demons raged inside her), Belle Gunness was a coldly calculating, greedy killer.  Her M.O. was methodical, wildly successful, and she got away with murdering over 40 men and her own children (one of whom was a foster child). 

She disappeared in 1908.  But the murderous legacy she left was a long and profitable one.

Hell’s Belle
Serial killing involves a succession of at least two (but usually more) murders committed as discrete episodes over a substantial period, often months or years.  The serial killer, known later as Belle Gunness, was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth on November 11, 1859, in Selbu, Norway.  She was the youngest of eight children.

Belle’s parents were Norge peasantry (her father was a stonemason).  Scanty details of her childhood do not shed much light on why she became a serial killer.

There is one apocryphal episode that surfaced a few years ago, and although it should be taken on its face as unverifiable it is worth noting.  A documentarian reported in 2006 of uncovering a tale of Belle’s teen years that may have informed her later murderous behavior.

The story claims Brynhild worked as a domestic for a wealthy farmer.  She was impregnated by the farmer’s son.  Her family was poor, and she was trying to earn money to get to the United States (where she had an older sister living already).  This farm was some distance from her family’s home.  She and the farmer’s son decided to attend a local dance together.  They attended the event, and then went for a walk on the nearby beach.  This boy knew of Brynhild’s pregnancy, and he was not primed to be a father to her child.  He beat her severely, causing her to miscarry.  [No one other than she and the boy knew she was pregnant; therefore, she must not have been too far along, or she would have been showing].  Her attacker was never prosecuted, and she was probably too intimidated to press the matter.  The boy died about a month after his assault on Brynhild.  His cause of death was noted as stomach cancer. 

Allegedly, her personality changed in the wake of the attack.  The implication of the tale is Brynhild (who later poisoned her victims with arsenic and strychnine) may have poisoned her attacker as her first victim, thus starting her on the road to serial murder. 

If true, this story explains nothing: Belle Gunness killed for profit (part of her M.O.).  This killing, if indeed it were a killing, had no function but retribution; there was nothing materially gained by it.  In fact, given the tightness of the small village community it is clear everyone in town would have known of the assault, and Brynhild would have been the very first suspect in the boy’s untimely, if deemed suspicious, death.  She probably had no hand in killing him.

Brynhild’s older sister (later known as Nellie Larson) had immigrated to the US (she settled ultimately on the west coast in California where she died after living a full, non-criminal life).  Brynhild continued working as a domestic for the wealthy farmer.  Three years later she had saved enough money to go to America herself, making the trip in 1881.  Nellie and her husband sponsored Brynhild in Chicago.  Her first job (after altering her Nordic name of “Brynhild” to the more American sounding “Belle”) was as a domestic.

Early photos of Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness was an Amazonian, standing roughly 5’8” tall (a bit over 1.7 m) and weighing in at 200 pounds (about 91 kg) ballooning to nearly 280 pounds (over 127 kg) later in life.  She was robust and strong (and even her earliest known photographs show her peasant-stock sturdiness).

She was also not terribly attractive but she was able, in 1884, to marry.  Her husband was Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson (a department store security guard), and they lived in Chicago.  Belle was a matronly looking 25-year-old. 

During their first two years of marriage, the Sorenson’s were allegedly burned out of three homes.  Insurance payments helped them along.  [This “fact” may be nothing more than added sensationalism after Belle’s story broke in the press—it seems inconceivable any insurance company would run the risk of further insuring the seemingly accident prone Sorensons.]

Two years after getting married, Belle and Mads opened a confectionery shop.  The business was not successful.  Within a year of its grand opening it mysteriously burned down.  Belle and Mads collected on the insurance for the store and bought another home.  [This payout is a matter of record and is undisputed.  In fact, this taste of easy money might have been what provided the impetus for Belle’s later “career” path.]
Belle’s background is so confused that the number of progeny she had is also called into question.  What is accepted by most, however, is she did bear children to Mads Sorenson and (later) one child to Peter Gunness.  Mads and Belle had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy.

Caroline and Axel (the first two children) died in infancy.  The infants’ alleged cause of death was acute colitis, a common childhood ailment (colitis’ symptoms, however—nausea, fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain and cramping—are also indicative of many types of  poison, such as arsenic).  [It is claimed in other sources that all four of the Sorenson children were “foster” children from the neighborhood, and not biological ones.]

Both Caroline’s and Axel’s lives were insured, and their insurance carrier paid out.  On June 13, 1900, Belle’s family (including Mads) was counted in the US Census in Chicago.  The census listed Belle as the mother of four, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A., 3 years old (born c. 1897) and year-old Lucy B. (born c. 1899).  An “adopted” 10-year-old girl was also identified as a household member.  This girl’s name is noted as “Morgan Couch”.  [This “adoptive” condition seems fallacious—Belle had children and no need for adopting.  This girl may have been in foster care for which Belle received a stipend.  Furthermore, “Morgan Couch” in Belle’s biography is enigmatic; her name appears nowhere else.  She may actually be the girl “Jennie Olsen” whom Belle fostered and later murdered.  Or, she could be yet another unknown victim.]

Mads Sorenson was not in the best of health, and he had an enlarged heart for which he routinely saw a physician who prescribed what little treatments were available at the time for such a condition.  Mads died, however, on July 30, 1900; coincidentally, this was the only day on which two life insurance policies on him overlapped, thus paying out double what ordinarily might have been gained.  

Belle helpfully volunteered she had given her late husband “medicinal powders” to make him feel better.  The first attending physician thought clearly Mads had died of strychnine poisoning, though.  Their family doctor, however, overruled this doctor’s concerns, and concluded Mads’ death was caused by heart failure.  No autopsy was considered since the death was not believed suspicious enough. 

She applied for Mads’ life insurance money the day after his funeral.  Mads’ relatives claimed Belle had poisoned him (they suggested arsenic poisoning) to collect on the insurance.  Although an inquest was later ordered, it remains uncertain if it was ever executed; the insurance company paid out the princely sum of $8500 (equal to about a quarter-million dollars in today’s money).   

Belle bought a farm with part of her new money on the outskirts of LaPorte, Indiana (a community close to Chicago).  She, her remaining two children, and “Jennie Olsen” left Chicago for their new, and limited, lives.  [The new property had a history of its own.  She bought it at a county auction; it had been a brothel whose elderly ex-madame owner had allowed it to fall into disrepair before she died of old age.] 

New Life (and Death)
In 1901 shortly after Belle bought her farm, its boathouse and carriage house burned to the ground.  Insurance money was paid out without question.

A fellow Norwegian named Peter Gunness lived in LaPorte.  This man had two daughters and no wife.  One was an infant;  the other an older girl named Swanhild.  In what had to be a strict marriage of convenience for Peter Gunness (Belle was no looker, he needed a mother for his children, and she was financially sound), he and Belle wed on April 1, 1902.  Belle probably saw the marriage as one of opportunity, however—one week after the wedding ceremony, Peter's baby daughter died (of uncertain causes).  The infant had been alone in the house with Belle when the tragedy occurred.  

Eight months into the marriage (in December 1902) the clueless Peter met with a “tragic accident”.  The farm was remote; according to Belle, Peter was tinkering in a shed when part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, splitting his skull open.  He died instantly.  His death paid off between $3000 and $4000 in life insurance money (again, a significant amount in 1902).

Sausage grinding machine (c. early 1900s)
Local suspicions were aroused; Peter Gunness was well-liked if a bit unworldly.  There was general refusal to believe Peter had been as clumsy as Belle alleged—he had run the farm’s hog operation, and he was an experienced butcher.  Learning of Peter’s death (the second in the Gunness household since marrying Belle), Peter’s brother Gust came and took Peter’s other daughter, Swanhild, away with him to Wisconsin before further “accidents” could happen on Belle’s farm. 

The coroner’s office conducted a quick review and announced Peter Gunness had been murdered.  A coroner’s jury was convened to investigate the matter formally.  The foster child in Belle’s household, Jennie Olsen (then 14 years old) was allegedly overheard telling a classmate, “My mama killed my papa.  She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died.  Don’t tell a soul.”  [This remark has also been attributed to the younger girl, Myrtle, who according to the legend, walked in on Belle splitting Peter’s skull with a cleaver in their kitchen].

Jennie was brought to testify at the hearing, but she denied having made the remark.  [And it is possible she did not utter it, but Myrtle did.]  Belle, meanwhile, was pregnant with Peter’s child (born in 1903 and named Phillip).  She convinced the coroner’s jury that she was innocent of any wrongdoing.  The jurors were swayed by her condition; she was freed and no further efforts were expended on the issue.    

Belle needed someone to help around the farm.  She routinely hired various farm hands who didn’t stay long or who disappeared.  She hired alcoholic down-and-outer Ray Lamphere as her

Belle Gunness & children (c 1904)
handyman and helpmate. Ray was not too bright, but he was a skilled carpenter and the locals later reported he did not shy away from hard work.  Ray, an easily dominated milquetoast, quickly became Belle’s lover, and by 1906, they were considered “betrothed” (although there was never any clear sign Belle Gunness would ever marry Ray Lamphere).

Later in 1906, Jennie Olsen (about 17 or 18 years old) mysteriously disappeared from the area.  When neighbors asked, Belle told them Jennie had been sent to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles.  [Some neighbors later reported being told that Jennie went to a “finishing school for young ladies”].  The reality was more brutal—Jennie’s body would later be found buried on Belle’s property along with many others.

“Triflers Need not Apply”
Marriage was often solicited in the early 20th Century.  Lonely men, gold-digging women, opportunistic and unscrupulous gigolos, all practiced in the Lonely Hearts game (a class of murder, actually, to which Belle belongs along with some others.).  “Lonely Hearts” killers lure their victims with hopes of wedded bliss, or romance, or out of sheer desperation.  This group is particularly loathsome as they prey on the emotionally vulnerable (usually women as victims, but not always).

In a notorious case of chutzpah, the unattractive, hulking (though relatively wealthy) Belle Gunness, in need of a real man around her farm (Ray Lamphere was barely tolerated), placed the following ad in the “matrimonial” columns of all of Chicago’s dailies and several other newspapers in large Midwestern cities:

Personal—comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes.  No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit.  Triflers need not apply.

“Comely” indeed.  

Ads like these struck a chord with many men looking to live on easy street with a wealthy widow.  [And some who might genuinely want a relationship with marriage in mind, although no such men actually presented themselves.  If they had, Belle would have sent them packing. She wanted the money, not romance without cash.]  This ad would attract the greedy and those slavering to ease themselves of their fiscal burdens by joining fortunes with a woman who, frankly, probably had more money that any of her suitors.  [Although this reeks of “blaming the victim” these men are partly responsible for their own demise—had they not seen the dollar signs and come running, Belle could not have snared them in her black widow’s web.]

There were no triflers, however.  Several men of modest means (and greater) responded to her ad soon enough.  It is amazing to think how easy it was but the lure of the quick dollar appealed to these men.  [Belle did not offer photographs—one can only imagine the disappointment upon meeting her for the first time.]

Though in her late 40s, Belle garnered responses from several middle-aged men straightaway.  One of the first was John Moe from Minnesota.  He arrived to meet her with more than $1,000 (to pay off her mortgage, or so he told neighbors as he departed his home place).  [Upon his arrival Belle introduced him as her cousin.]  It is obvious she had written to Moe and given him a sob story about being a poor, helpless, widow woman.  John Moe disappeared from LaPorte within a week of his arrival.

George Anderson, from Missouri but a Norway native, paid a call.  He was a bit cagey—somewhat suspicious of Belle’s motives he only brought $300 in cash for his trip to LaPorte.  While dining with Belle she brought up the subject of  her mortgage on the farm (of which she had lamented).  [Belle had the money to have paid that debt off in full; why she had not by this time is not known.]  

Anderson said he’d pay off her loan if they ended up married.  That night, Belle put George up in a room of his own.  He later said he suddenly awoke in the night to find Belle standing over him as he slept.  She held a candle and had a “strange, sinister expression on her face”, Anderson recalled (with the benefit of hindsight, of course).  Saying nothing, she simply ran from the room upon Anderson’s waking.  He fled from the house, taking the first train possible back to Missouri.  [Anderson was the lucky one: out of the dozens of potential mates who arrived after responding to Belle’s ad he was the only one to leave.]

Belle then ordered several huge trunks delivered to her home.  She shouldered these easily and carried them into her house.  The hack driver who delivered those to her later commented how Belle lifted them:  “ . . . like boxes of marshmallows”. 

Many neighbor reports were garnered later telling of other strange doings at the farm.  Belle kept the farmhouse shuttered around the clock.  Farmers traveling past at night occasionally saw either her or Ray Lamphere out digging in the hog pen or around the house and barn.

Ole B. Budsberg, an elderly widower from Wisconsin, showed up in LaPorte to court Belle.  He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6, 1907.  He transacted the mortgage of his Wisconsin property holdings through the LaPorte bank; he signing the deed over with the bank as lien holder.  He departed with several thousand dollars in cash.

Ole’s sons only knew their father was gone.  They did not know where; they finally found a letter from Belle directing Ole to LaPorte.  They wrote to Belle Gunness.  She replied quickly and courteously that she had never seen their father, Ole.

Many other middle-aged men came to LaPorte, put in brief appearances at Belle’s side, and then disappeared without warning throughout all of 1907.

In December 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a South Dakotan bachelor farmer, wrote to Belle in response to her ad.  She replied very affectionately and encouraged him to come to LaPorte.

They wrote often to each other.  She cajoled him for money and to come see her.  Once Andrew had let her know he would visit, she, always thinking ahead, advised him in another letter in part:

Do not send any cash money through the bank  Banks cannot be trusted nowadays.  Change all the cash you have into paper bills, largest denomination you can get, and sew them real good and fast on the inside of your underwear.  Be careful and sew it real good, and be sure do not tell anyone of it, not even to your nearest relative.  Let this only be a secret between us two and no one else.  Probably we will have many other secrets, do you not think?

Finally, she sent him a letter that found him hard-charging off to LaPorte (he had been non-committal up until then, somewhat reticent and perhaps a bit suspicious of Belle’s ulterior motives).  This last missive from Belle was later found in Andrew’s personal papers at his farm in the wake of his body’s discovery on Belle’s farm.  It was handwritten by Belle, and was dated January 13, 1908: 

To the Dearest Friend in the World:

No woman in the world is happier than I am.  I know that you are now to come to me and be my own.  I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want.  It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know.  Think how we will enjoy each others company.  You, the sweetest man in the whole world.  We will be all alone with each other.  Can you conceive of anything nicer?  I think of you constantly.  When I hear your name mentioned, and this is when one of the dear children speaks of you, or I hear myself humming it with the words of an old love song, it is beautiful music to my ears.

My heart beats in wild rapture for you,

My Andrew, I love you.

Come prepared to stay forever.

“Come prepared to stay forever”—such a line could only entice a Lonely Heart.

Andrew Helgelien raced to LaPorte, arriving in late January 1908.  He brought a check for $2,900 (his savings) which he had drawn from his own bank before leaving.  A few days after he met Belle the two showed up in the LaPorte Savings Bank and deposited his check.  Andrew vanished a few days later; Belle went to the Savings Bank and made a $500 deposit.  She deposited another $700 in the State Bank.

About this time Ray Lamphere became a problem for Belle.  Ray was jealous.  Some of these men, Ray knew, she was having sex with to entice and keep them on hand.  When a new suitor arrived Belle threw Ray out of her bed.  The psychically wounded Ray Lamphere would often go and sleep in the barn or drown his sorrows in the local taverns, whining about Belle to any who would listen.  He did not particularly care for the steady stream of men romping through her sheets, even though they were bilked and killed.

In March 1908 Belle sent several letters to a Kansas farmer and horse dealer.  He was Lon Townsend; she aggressively encouraged him to come see her in LaPorte.   He waffled on going but deferred the trip until spring.  His reticence probably saved his life.  She also enticed a man named Bert Albert, but she broke off her interest quickly enough when she found he had no wealth.  She also had a continuing correspondence with an Arkansawyer to whom she sent a letter dated May 4, 1908.  [This date’s significance will be immediately obvious].   This Arkie never made it to her farm, either, although he did embark on the trip.

On April 28, 1908, Belle’s farm caught fire.  She and her children all burned to death.  If it were not for the fire on the farm both Townsend and the Arkansas man would have gone to see her.  Out of the roughly 40 men who saw Belle from 1906 through April 1908, only four lived: Anderson (left her farm after being spooked by Belle); Bert Albert (he was poor); and Lon Townsend and the Arkansas man (both didn’t go because the farm was gone). 

Up in Smoke
Belle’s problems with Ray Lamphere escalated in early 1908.  He, unfortunately and bizarrely, was very much in love with Belle and was almost her slave, doing anything she wanted to keep her happy.  He was insanely jealous of the men who kept showing up to court Belle, and he created scenes in some cases when a new suitor arrived.  He knew his place in her life was tenuous; she finally tired of him and fired him on February 3, 1908.

She planted a seed of suspicion against Ray Lamphere almost as soon as she fired him, indicative of a greater plan already in motion.  She went to the La Porte courthouse and told people there that Ray was not in his right mind and was a menace.  She managed to convince them that Ray (a definite problem for her) was a problem for others; a sanity hearing was scheduled.

Ray Lamphere was examined and declared sane.  He was released.

Belle went back to the courthouse a few days later and said Ray had come out to her farm and argued with her.  She said he posed a threat to her family; she had Ray arrested for trespassing.

Ray, though, couldn’t get enough humiliation apparently because he kept going back to Belle’s farm to try reconciling.  He returned again and again to see her.  She rejected him summarily in each case but that was not a deterrent for this determined lover. 

He became coy, agitated, and downright mysterious with locals.  He once remarked to a farmer, when he was still in Belle’s good graces, “Helgelien won't bother me no more.  We fixed him for keeps.”  [Andrew Helgelien, the South Dakotan, had long since disappeared.]

Ray told another neighbor, àpropos of nothing except Belle’s continued rejection:

“I know something about that old woman, and she has to come my way.  She is having me pinched all the time, and damned if I ain't getting tired of it!  If she don't leave me alone I'll send her over the road to the penitentiary that quick!” 

Andrew Helgelien’s brother, Asle, however, was disturbed when Andrew did not return from LaPorte after his visit in January 1908.  Asle wrote to Belle asking about his brother.  She dutifully replied his brother was not at her farm.  She ventured that he had probably gone to Norway to visit relatives. 

Asle responded by saying he did not believe Andrew would do any such thing, and he flat-out told Belle he believed Andrew was still in LaPorte.  She bluffed and told Asle to come on out and see for himself.  She even offered to help in the search.  But, she cautioned, searching for a missing person was a very expensive venture.  She advised Asle if he expected her help he would have to pay her well for her time and effort.  [Asle Helgelien did make it to LaPorte, but not until May 1908 when it was far too late.] 

Ray Lamphere remained a terrific liability for Belle.  His increasing instability and volatility could cause him to snap any day and tell all about the farm’s activities.  Asle Helgelien's badgering was likewise problematic—if he uncovered the truth about his brother it would be enough to sentence Belle to hang.
Belle continued laying down her trail of crumbs (first by casting aspersions on Ray’s competence and sanity).  She told a lawyer in town she feared for her life and the lives of her children.  She claimed Ray had threatened to kill her and to burn down the farm-house.  She wanted to make out a will, she said, in case Ray made good on his threats.

The lawyer drew up the will as she had requested.  She left her entire estate to her children.  She left the lawyer’s and went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property.  She paid that off in full.

Belle had hired a new handyman named Joe Maxon (or Maxson, sources differ) to replace Ray on the farm.  He awoke in the wee hours of April 28, 1908, smelling smoke in his room. 

His room was on the second

people involved in Belle Gunness life
floor of Belle’s farmhouse.  The door knob was hot, and the door inside the frame was swollen and blistered—he could not open it but yelled out for Belle and the children.  He got no response.  He could not stay in the burning house any longer.  Wearing only his long-handles he jumped out the second-story window.

He ran to town for help; along the way he came across two people who’d seen the flames and had pedaled over on bicycles.  Joe Maxon and one of the cyclists went back to the burning house to try to get Belle and the children out.  The front door was locked, and they were in the process of breaking it down when the first Samaritans arrived.  

By the time the old-fashioned hook-and-ladder team made it to the farm it was early dawn and there was only a smoldering heap of wreckage where the house stood.  The floors had collapsed, and four bodies were found in the cellar.

The parlor’s grand piano had crashed through the fire-weakened floor and was on top of the burned corpses.  One was an adult female: she was headless, however, and an immediate identification could not be made although it was automatically presumed to be Belle.  [The head for this body was never found.]

The other three bodies were Belle’s children (positively identified): Lucy, Myrtle, and little Phillip (about five years old by then). 

The bodies of the children were found near the adult female corpse.  County Sheriff Smutzer had somehow heard about Ray’s alleged threats.  [This was during the time Belle was making the rounds telling the townspeople of Ray’s threats and harassment, harassment she never bothered to tell police.   This is simply because he had not been threatening her at all; she had been laying the groundwork for the burning of the farm.]

Sheriff Smutzer quickly went in search of Ray.  And the lawyer who had filed Belle’s rushed will came forward and told his story. 

Ray did nothing to better his place when the Sheriff caught up with him at his new job on a neighboring farm.  Before the Sheriff could even address him, Ray blurted, “Did Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?”  Only then was Ray told about the fire; he denied having anything to do with it.  He claimed he was nowhere near the farm when the fire broke out.  [Frankly, he probably set it, at Belle's direction and her promise of marriage.  His intent of running away with Belle—who left an unknown female dead in her place—was thwarted; she double-crossed and ditched Ray, leaving him to take the fall.]

A local boy stepped up and said he had been “watching Belle’s place”.  [Why or for what is not recorded.]  This boy claimed he saw Ray running down the road from the house just before it burst into flames.

Ray decided to challenge the kid.  “You wouldn’t look me in the eye and say that!”  The boy shot back, “Yes, I will.  You found me hiding behind the bushes, and you told me you’d kill me if I didn’t get out of there.”

Ray Lamphere was immediately arrested and charged with murder and arson.  A corps of lawmen teemed over the property, searching for evidence in the ruins of the torched building.

The Body in the Basement
Identifying the headless woman in the fired basement was a top priority.

A neighboring farmer took one look at the charred remains; he advised it was not Belle Gunness.  Another farmer and a female friend, in turn, both reported the body was not

Arson aftermath (LaPorte, IN Apr-May 1908)
hers.  Two more friends arrived from Chicago for identification and they, too, reported this was not Belle Gunness. 

Doctors then reviewed the corpse they had on hand.

Best height estimates (taking into account the lost head and neck) gave the corpse’s height at about 5’3” (around 1.6 m, about half a foot shorter than Belle).

The dead body was reasonably estimated to weigh no more than 150 pounds (again, short of the mark of the robust Belle Gunness). 

Friends, neighbors, and the clothiers who made her dresses and other garments all gave sworn statements that Belle Gunness was at least 5’8” tall (1.7 m, if not taller) and weighed well over 200 pounds.

The corpse’s measurements were provided to the local stores where Belle bought her clothes.

They did not match Belle’s stats for bust (48”—123 cm), waist (37”, corseted—94 cm) and hips (a ponderous 57”—145 cm).

Once the analysis was complete, and all parties were heard on the matter, it was concluded the body in the basement was not Belle Gunness (even taking into consideration the damaging effects of the fire on the body).  A doctor who inspected the corpse’s internal organs reported the unknown woman’s cause of death was strychnine poisoning.

Belle’s local dentist reported if police could find any dental work in the ruins it would help in the identification process.  A former miner was hired.  He built a sluice, sifting through the ashes and debris of the house fire. 

Asle Helgelien (Andrew’s brother) arrived in La Porte.  He told the sheriff he believed his brother had met with foul play at the hands of Belle.  The newer handyman, Joe Maxon, gave up the information that Belle had him carting loads of dirt to a large area around the hog pen (surrounded by a high wire fence) which was pitted with depressions.  Maxon said the depressions had the look of filled-in holes.  Belle told him they were rubbish barrows, and she wanted the ground made level.  He filled them in with no further questions.

Sheriff Smutzer ordered a dozen men back to the farm for digging.  The diggers unearthed the body of Jennie Olson on May 3, 1908 (she disappeared in December 1906).  The body of Andrew Helgelien was unearthed.  [Ray Lamphere was later found wearing Andrew’s overcoat.]  As the days progressed one body after another revealed itself in Belle’s hog pen. 

As more were found the sluice used for sifting ashes was put to use isolating human remains.  On May 19, 1908, a piece of bridgework was found.  It contained two human teeth, with porcelain and gold crown work between the two real teeth.  Belle’s dentist positively identified this bridgework as Belle’s (something he had made for her).  An inquest upheld, based solely on this bridgework, that the unknown adult female found in the fiery debris was Belle Gunness (despite all the other, better evidence, that it was not).

Andrew Helgelien (in death & life, 1908)

On the same day Belle’s bridgework was found the bodies of seven victims were interred in LaPorte’s Potter’s Field.  Jennie Olsen and Andrew Helgelien were buried in LaPorte’s Patton Cemetery.  [Jennie Olsen’s death was one of necessity for Belle.  The late-teen Jennie was a very attractive girl; shortly before her disappearance a local boy began hanging around to spend time with her.  Belle could not have a stranger on the premises.  Also, according to Ray later, Jennie was growing suspicious about the strange men who kept showing up, staying for a few days and then “disappearing”.] 

The bodies of over 40 people were found on the farm, scattered beneath the hog pen, buried near the farm house and barn, and out in a field.  Of this number, two (including the headless corpse) were adult women.

Not all of them were “Lonely Hearts” however.  Several were later determined to be “disappeared” farmhands (whom apparently Belle had grown tired of or had annoyed her).  Four were unnamed victims (in two cases, their horses and buggies were found among Belle’s stock of animals and carriages).

Of the 37 remaining, six were

Ole Budsberg head (May 1908)
positively identified immediately.  [These included Andrew Helgelien, Ole Budsberg, and John Moe (whose watch was found in Ray Lamphere’s possession later).  Some were children (an unnamed teenage girl and Jennie Olsen in addition to Belle’s three children).]

The carnage rocked the little town.

Belle Gunness actually had friends in the burg and she was well-liked.  She was always courteous, giving greetings in her routine trips to town for supplies or just browsing the shops.   She was a neighbor.

Ray came up as a target for the ire of LaPorte.  He was shifty looking.  He had “taken up” with Belle without marrying her (they did not know, of course, she wanted no part of marriage to Ray).

Upon his arrest, Ray pleaded guilty only to arson.  He denied murdering Belle and her children (or anyone else, for that matter).  His defense rested solely on the assertion that the headless corpse in the fire was not Belle.  [The children, of course, were hers, but that was not addressed by the defense.]

Ray’s lawyer contradicted the identification of Belle’s dental work.  He produced a local jeweler who claimed the bridgework’s gold came out of the fire pit almost undamaged.  He testified the heat had melted the gold plating on several watches and items of gold jewelry. 

Some local doctors experimented with this claim.  They stuck a piece of similar bridgework into a blacksmith’s forge.  The real teeth crumbled and disintegrated.  The false porcelain teeth emerged pocked and pitted.  The gold parts melted into a twisted mass.

 The hired hand (Joe Maxon) and another man testified that they’d seen the former miner (who’d built the sluice for sifting debris) take the “evidence” bridgework out of his own pocket and dump it on the crime scene where it was “discovered”. 

Ray Lamphere in custody (LaPorte, IN 1908)
Enough doubt existed about Ray’s part in any murders that he was acquitted of those charges.  [And although it is certain he helped dispose of the bodies it is not likely he ever killed anyone.]  He was found guilty of arson, however.  On November 26, 1908, he was fined $5000 and sentenced to 2-to-20 years in the State Prison (in Michigan City, Indiana). He lasted slightly over a year in stir; he died of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909.

A few weeks later on January 14, 1910, the Rev. E. A. Schell came forward.  He had ministered to Ray Lamphere in his dying days; Ray gave a confession of sorts (at least with respect to his complicity in Belle’s murders).  Ray told the Reverend and another inmate he had not killed anyone but he had helped dispose of the bodies (helping himself to some of the deceased’s personal effects, such as watches and clothing). 

Ray claimed Belle’s M.O. was relatively invariant: she lured the men to her home, killed them with either poison, chloroform, or a meat cleaver, and then disposed of the bodies.

When one of her “Lonely Hearts” arrived, she made him cozy.  The ungainly woman apparently was quite the coquette and was very charming to these callers.  She cooked the suitor a large meal; afterward she drugged the man’s after-dinner coffee.  Sometimes she used the time-saving expedient of adding strychnine to the victim’s coffee.  Once the victim was in a drug-induced stupor she split his skull with a meat cleaver.  Other times she would wait for her new suitor to go to bed.  She then entered the room by candlelight and chloroformed the sleeper.  [George Anderson’s waking up under such a nocturnal visit from Belle no doubt saved his skin.]

Ray claimed Belle (a powerfully strong woman) then carried the dead man to her basement, threw him on a table, and butchered him for disposal.  [Her butchering expertise came from her second husband, Peter Gunness.]  The remains were then bundled and buried in the hog pen and on the farm grounds.

She also occasionally dumped corpses into a hog-scalding vat and covered the remains with quicklime.  Ray asserted that if Belle was particularly worn out from a murder (and it is assumed he means the physical labor involved in the dissection) she chopped up the remains and, in the middle of the night, went out to the hog pen and fed the pieces to her hogs (versus the labor of digging a hole for burial). 

Ray tentatively identified the headless body found in Belle’s basement as well.  Belle had already formed a plan to leave LaPorte permanently.  He said the corpse was a woman Belle had enticed from Chicago with the promise of a job as her housekeeper just a few days before the farm fire.  She drugged the woman, bashed in her head, and decapitated her.  The head was weighted and dropped in the deep water of a swamp.  The fate of Belle’s children was similar: Belle chloroformed them, only she smothered them to death and then dragged their bodies to the basement for staging along with the headless woman. 

The dead woman was dressed in some of Belle’s old clothes by Belle.  She then removed her own dental work and placed it near the female corpse. [This part may or may not be true.  The dental work, as pointed out in the trial, probably could not have survived as pristine as it was discovered.  What is to be made of this piece of information is unclear.]  

According to Ray it was Belle who torched the house (apparently without regard for Joe Maxon, the new handyman asleep upstairs).  Ray had helped her with the staging, and he said he waited for her at their appointed meet up place.  She, however, did not follow the road she was supposed to.  Instead, she cut across some open fields and slipped into the woods, disappearing for good.  [Another account has Ray claiming he took her to Stilwell, Indiana, about nine miles (14 km) from LaPorte, and put her on a train to Chicago.  This is probably a fabrication—Ray Lamphere would not have willingly let Belle go on alone without him.  It is certain he intended to abscond with her on the night of the fire.]

Belle was a rich woman.  By Ray’s count, she killed 42 men at least and had bilked them (in addition to her own insurance fraud money from killing two husbands and burning her candy store, boathouse, and carriage house).  The money she got outright from her suckers totaled about $32,000.  She allegedly accumulated more than $250,000 through her murder schemes over the years (selling the deads’ goods, her insurance scams, etc.).  [This was a phenomenal fortune for those days (pushing over $7 million dollars in today’s money).]

Belle left a small amount of money ($720, pocket change to Belle Gunness, quite a sum for anyone else in town) in one of her savings accounts.  [This was a diversionary tactic of Belle’s—no one would believe the woman would take off and leave such a sum in the bank.  She must be dead!]

Local bankers, though, all reported she had withdrawn most of her cash shortly before the fire.  This withdrawing of funds is an obvious indicator of her plans to flee.

Dead Woman Walking
Much like Elvis Presley, seventy years later in the same century, there would be Belle Gunness sightings at various, often odd, or even comical locations.

Ominously, she was reported lurking in the area, wearing widow's weeds complete with veil, as little as three months after the fire by three different people, all claiming to have seen her in the company of a strange man with a grey mustache (not Ray Lamphere).  She was reportedly seen in locations as scattershot as Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.  She was a Madame in a whore house in Texas.  In 1931, it was alleged that a 72-year-old Belle Gunness was living in a small Mississippi town; she allegedly enjoyed the high life there, owning a great number of properties.  Sheriff Smutzer (for more than 20 years afterward) received an average of two Belle Gunness sighting reports a month.

The corpse that filled in for Belle Gunness in the fire has never been positively identified.  However, it was buried next to Mads Sorenson (Belle’s first husband and probable first poisoning murder victim) in the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.  In an attempt to put one part of the Belle Gunness story to rest, on November 5, 2007, the female headless body was exhumed from Belle’s grave by a forensic anthropology team composed of grad students from the University of Indianapolis.  This group was armed with an envelope (whose seal was presumably closed with Belle’s saliva).  They intended to use the envelope as a baseline source for DNA comparison against the headless corpse.  There was insufficient DNA on the envelope, however, for an extraction or analysis.  Thus, the exhumation proved fruitless. 

There is some ongoing debate today

Pulp vixen, Belle Gunness (c 1910)
about Belle’s fate.  Some believe Ray Lamphere, his jealousy uncontrolled and knowing he could never have her and that she was preparing to ditch him, killed her.

Most, however, believe she faked her own death; this is what makes the most sense. 

Belle Gunness, America’s first female serial killer, is certainly long dead, after running off into the LaPorte dawn. 

And, just like Kate Bender, she got away with murder. 


The torrid classic!


The Truth About Belle Gunness
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Nov 14, 2015)

And a more credible look at the bad woman

Trucker Man
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(price as of Nov 14, 2015)


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  1. "Belle Gunness (1859-?): Murderess." Encyclopedia of American Crime. 1982.

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