Most of us can recall knowing or encountering at least one truly toxic person at some point in our lives. Someone who draws people close then proceeds to eat away at them until there’s nothing left. Almost as if it’s just part of their nature to harm those around them, and anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves within this toxic sphere are inevitably and irrevocably effected.
This week’s entry: Belle Gunness
Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth on November 22, 1859 in Selbu, Norway to a poor family, Belle Gunness grew into a formidable woman at six feet tall, weighing over 200 pounds. By age 21 she had worked for years as a servant on a wealthy farm in order to afford passage to America in 1881. Upon her arrival in the states she took the name Belle and settled in Chicago.
Before long she married fellow Norwegian immigrant Mads Sorenson in 1884. The two opened up a confectionary store that never quite took off, and burned down under mysterious circumstances within its first year of operation. With the considerable insurance money they collected on their failed business, the couple bought a home where they lived for the next fifteen years.
Belle and Mads had four children, yet only two, Myrtle and Lucy, would survive infancy. The other two reportedly died of infant colitis which was common at the time. There is however some controversy over this detail, as the effects of poisoning would have been strikingly similar to colitis, and the life insurance money collected from these children would become a pattern in Belle’s modus operandi.
On July 30, 1900 Mads Sorenson died of what appeared to be heart failure. The family doctor, who had been treating him for an enlarged heart, attributed his death to complications related to his condition. However, a second doctor believed the cause of death to be strychnine poisoning. Although no autopsy was ever performed, this came at an extremely convenient time, as Mads was in the process of changing life insurance policies and had the decency to kick off on the only day the two policies overlapped. This resulted in a double payday for Belle, who was reportedly so distraught over her husband’s demise she evaded any suspicion.
Belle used the $85,000 payout, the modern equivalent of $240,000, to buy a 42-acre farm in LaPorte, Indiana. There she met a local butcher, the recently widowed Peter Gunness, and they were married shortly after in April, 1902. Only a few weeks had passed when Peter’s youngest daughter died while in Belle’s care.
Peter himself didn’t last much longer and joined his daughter less than a year later. The cause of his death was clearer than Belle’s first husband’s had been. Peter died from a severe blow to the head, which Belle blamed on an errant sausage grinder that fell on him as he was retrieving something off a high shelf. This explanation was questioned as some people thought it strange an experienced butcher would make such an error. The coroner ordered an inquest, but there was insufficient evidence to disprove Belle’s version of events.
Peter’s life insurance netted Belle a cool $3,000. His eldest daughter was fortunate enough to be adopted by her uncle, making her one of the precious few to survive living with Belle. His son Phillip wasn’t so lucky and remained in her tenuous care.
Widowed for the second time, Belle hired a man named Ray Lamphere to help with the farm. Before long she began her search for a new husband. She placed advertisements in a number of local papers that read:
“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.”
A flood of suitors made the requested personal visit, all with cash to offer. One by one, these hopefuls made their way to the farm, and were never heard from again. Save for one visitor, George Anderson, who left after waking the night of his stay to find Belle watching him sleep, none of the men left the farm alive. Among them was Andrew Helgelien, who corresponded with Belle for a time before accepting her request which included the foreboding line, “Come prepared to stay forever.” Needless to say, he did.
During this time, Belle’s hired hand Ray fell madly in love with his employer. She didn’t return his affections, and when she had had enough of his proclamations of love, she fired him. Ray apparently didn’t quite get the message and continued to pursue the object of his misplaced desires. Belle ended up taking the matter to her lawyer, claiming Ray had threatened to burn the farm down around her.
It wasn’t long before her alleged fears came true. In April, 1908 the Gunness farm burned to the ground. Four bodies were recovered from the ashes. Three children identified as Myrtle, Lucy and Phillip, and one woman assumed to be Belle. This body was missing a head however, and was about a hundred pounds lighter than Belle had been in life. The charred remains were never positively identified.
Given Belle’s claims to her lawyer, Ray was promptly arrested as the prime suspect. It wasn’t until her former suitor Andrew’s brother Asle Helgelien came to town inquiring as to his whereabouts, that Belle’s story was called into question. Andrew had failed to return his brother’s letters, which brought Asle to Indiana in search of him. He didn’t trust Belle, and feared the worst. He demanded a thorough search of the farm which turned up a number of bodies stuffed neatly into sacks, buried in and around the pig pen. With everything recovered after the first bodies were unearthed, it is estimated between 30-40 men, women and children met their ends on the Gunness farm.
Ray eventually admitted to aiding Belle in the disposal of bodies that were piling up on the farm during his tenure. According to his testimony they would bury them around the property or chop them up and feed them to the pigs. He also claimed Belle had been the cause of the fire, and that the headless body of the woman that was found was in fact a housekeeper hired just prior to the incident.
A manhunt was called for Belle Gunness, but she was never found. For years after her disappearance, there were numerous alleged sightings but none of them ever turned up the real Belle. It is unknown how long she lived or if she continued to kill. She remains one of the great unsolved mysteries and one of the deadliest women in American history.