History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part VI: Juana Barraza

In parts IV and V we covered two of history’s least grandmotherly grannies Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli. As ruthless as these women were they would have been no match for today’s killer, whose crimes earned her the nickname La Mataviejitas, The Old Lady Killer.

Juana Barraza was born in Hidalgo, Mexico in 1957. Like almost all of the women in this series she began her life a victim of those around her. Her parents were Trinidad Barraza, a policeman, and Justa Samperio, a prostitute. Justa left her partner shortly after giving birth to Juana, and the two shared a cold and unloving relationship as she grew.

When she was just 12 years old, Juana’s mother sold her to a man, Jose Lugo, allegedly  for the paltry sum of three beers. For four years she lived with his abuse and was impregnated by him on two occasions, however both ended in miscarriages. After Justa died of cirrhosis, Juana fled to Mexico City.

It was here that Juana, now free of her mother and her abuser, began to take hold of her own life. She held a number of jobs throughout the 80’s and set about making a lifelong dream of hers into a reality. Juana was obsessed with the sport of lucha libre, Mexican masked wrestling, and idolized the fighters, called luchadors.

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Juana Barraza as La Dama de Silencio. source

She became a regular at local matches, often sitting in the front row of the arenas. She eventually made her way into the wrestling world, organizing events and even getting in the ring herself. Juana cut an imposing figure and could bench up to 200 lbs at the height of her wrestling career. She toured central Mexico as a luchador who went by La Dama de Silencio, The Lady of Silence. The name was reflective of Juana’s shy, reserved nature outside of the ring.

By the 90’s Juana had fallen on hard times. She had four children from a number of failed relationships, and supporting them all as a single mother was costly. In 1995, after the birth of her fourth child, she took to stealing from shops and burglarizing homes to help make ends meet.

She and a friend, Araceli Tapia Martinez, combined efforts in a scheme to rob the elderly. The pair would gain entry into people’s homes dressed in all white, claiming to be nurses or social workers. Once inside they would make their way through the house and relieve the occupant of their valuables.

This would become Juana’s modus operandi, except that she rarely stopped at just robbing her victims during these unprompted house calls. In the early 2000’s there was a sharp uptick in murders involving elderly women in Mexico City. When the press picked up the story rumors spread of a new serial killer dubbed El Mataviejitas. Note the use of the masculine “el,” as no one believed these brutal crimes could possibly be the work of a woman.

Juana’s first victim was María de la Luz González, who apparently made some derogatory remarks toward the woman intruding in her apartment. Juana didn’t take kindly to whatever was said and answered by beating González before strangling her to death with her bare hands.

Bodies began to pile up and in 2003 police confirmed the long standing rumor that a serial killer was likely responsible. Despite eyewitness accounts of a woman leaving the scene of these crimes, police held stubbornly to the original assertion that a man was behind the killings. Many of the city’s transgender and transvestite population were rounded up and questioned but none of their prints matched the ones lifted from the crime scenes.

By 2006, the El Mataviejitas murders had subsided leading investigators to suspect the serial killer had committed suicide. Fingerprints of all recent arrivals to the city’s morgues were taken and checked against the crime scene prints but once again no matches were found.

The ultimate break in the case occurred January 25, 2006, when a tenant spotted Juana leaving the scene of the murder of landlady Ana Maria de los Reyes Alfaro. Officers patrolling the area responded to the call and arrested Juana.

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Bust and composite sketches of El Mataviejitas. source

Once in custody, investigators posed Juana next to composite sketches and a bust made of her based on eyewitness testimony. Authorities were eager to give the appearance they had been on her trail for some time when almost every step of the case seemed to indicate the opposite. Juana had even showed her face inside of a police station and in a TV interview about wrestling just weeks prior to her arrest.

A search of her home revealed a trophy room full of newspaper clippings of her murders and a number of objects taken from her victim’s homes. In addition to the mementos police found altars to Jesús Malverde and Santa Muerte, folk saints revered by individuals in the Mexican crime world.

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Juana appearing for trial. source

Juana was tried in spring 2008, the prosecution sought charges in connection with 40 murders. She confessed only to Alfaro, her most recent victim. By the end of her trial on 31 March, she was found guilty of 16 counts of murder and aggravated burglary and sentenced to 759 years in prison. Maximum sentence under Mexican law is 60 years, so Juana will be up for parole in 2058 should she live to see 100.

Sources:

Criminal Minds Wiki – “Juana Barraza” 

Murderpedia – “Juana Barraza”, “The Lady Killer”

J.H. Moncrieff – “The Startling True Story of Mexico’s “Old Lady Killer””

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History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part V: Leonarda Cianciulli

In Part III, we covered the life and crimes of the “jolly” nurse Jane Toppan. Today’s entries are being released concurrently as they focus on two more women you would never have seen coming. Much in the way people trusted Toppan as a nurse, these women didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a killer looks like. Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli would have reminded you more of your Grandma than of Ted Bundy. They might have even offered you tea and cookies, but you’d be wise not to accept any consumables from these ladies.

Leonarda Cianciulli was a beloved figure in her Italian community. She was by all appearances a sweet elderly woman fond of entertaining and preparing food for her guests. Like the case of Nannie Doss, no one saw the wolf behind the sheep’s clothing until it was too late.

Born in Italy some time between 1893 and 1894, Leonarda’s childhood was nothing short of tragic. She was conceived through rape, and her mother was left with few options. Rather than face being ostracized by her community, she was forced to marry her rapist Mariano Cianciulli. Leonarda was a painful reminder to her mother of the terrible decision she had to make. Needless to say, this resentment made for an unhappy childhood, resulting in two separate attempts at suicide at a young age.

Leonarda struck out on her own as soon as she was able. Going against her parent’s wishes she married in 1917 to Raffaele Pansardi. She would come to believe her mother had placed a curse on them for this transgression. Leonarda was extremely superstitious and often sought the council of fortune tellers. This propensity for the mystic arts would have a lasting effect on the direction her life would take.

She and her husband were met with an unfortunate series of events early on and were forced to move around on more than one occasion. One move in particular came as a result of an earthquake in 1930 that struck their region, killing over 1,400 people and leveling their home. Leonarda attributed this all to her mother’s alleged curse.

From there, the couple finally settled in Correggio, where Leonarda set up a small shop and quickly earned a reputation as a kindly neighbor and loving mother. For a time it seemed her misfortune had run its course.

This turn wouldn’t last however, and Leonarda began to feel once again like a cursed woman. Out of 17 pregnancies three would miscarry and 10 would die at a young age from a variety of illnesses. She was understandably protective of her surviving four children, especially her son Giuseppe, her eldest and favorite child.

During this time, Leonarda met with a fortune teller who prophesied that she would have many children but would lose them all before she died. Her fears for her remaining children deepened. In 1939, as Italy was entering the war, she learned that her son Giuseppe was to be drafted. She would do whatever it took to redirect what she saw as fate coming to claim another of her offspring.

Leonarda decided the only way to cheat death was to provide a replacement soul for the afterlife. She had become something of a fortune teller herself and could easily manipulate the elderly women who came seeking her services. One particular client, Faustina Setti, was drawn in by Leonarda’s promise of providing a husband. She convinced her to write all of her family and loved ones informing them of her great fortune and that she would be travelling to Pola to meet her future husband.

Leonarda made sure Faustina stopped in to say goodbye before her trip. Ever grateful, her client was happy to oblige. Leonarda drugged the wine she provided her guest and before long Faustina was rendered unconscious. Wasting no time, Leonarda took an axe and cut the woman into nine pieces, collecting the blood into a basin.

In her memoir, Leonarda goes into detail about her unsettling process.

“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.”

 It turned out just one soul wasn’t enough to put Leonarda’s worries to rest. Her first kill had gone smoothly enough that her method varied little for the ones to follow. This time instead of a husband, she claimed to find a job for a Francesca Soavi at a girl’s school in Piacenza. Once again, farewell letters were written to explain her disappearance, and a final appointment made for Francesca to come visit Leonarda before her departure. The visit took place on September 5, 1940 and mirrored that of Faustina’s. Again, the remains didn’t go to waste and were used to make soap and more of Leonarda’s famous tea cakes.

Just to be safe, Leonarda decided a third victim was necessary. Virginia Cacioppo was lured into her trap with a promise of a secretary position in Florence. According to a chilling statement by Leonarda:

“She ended up in the pot, like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”

 Her third victim would prove to be her undoing. Virginia’s sister-in-law wasn’t satisfied with the explanation she was given for her disappearance and decided to look into it herself. When she learned Virginia was last seen entering the Cianciulli’s home, she relayed her concerns to the local chief of police.

After an investigation, Leonarda was arrested. She confessed to the murders almost immediately, and even made corrections to the official account of her crimes during her trial in 1946. She was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three in a criminal asylum.

Leonarda Cianciulli died on October 15, 1970 of cerebral apoplexy while housed at the women’s criminal asylum in Pozuolli. Artifacts from the case, among them the pot she used to boil the bodies of her victims, are on display at the Criminological Museum in Rome.

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Sources:

gizmodo.com “The Superstitious Murderer Who Turned Her Victims into Cake and Soap”

murderpedia.org “Leonarda Cianciulli”

youtube.com “Making Bodies Into Soap” – Leonarda Cianciulli

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part IV: Nannie Doss

In Part III, we covered the life and crimes of the “jolly” nurse Jane Toppan. Today’s entries are being released concurrently as they focus on two more women you would never have seen coming. Much in the way people trusted Toppan as a nurse, these women didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a killer looks like. Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli would have reminded you more of your Grandma than of Ted Bundy. They might have even offered you tea and cookies, but you’d be wise not to accept any consumables from these ladies.

Nannie Doss, born Nancy Hazle on Nov. 4, 1905, in Blue Mountain Alabama, had an unhappy childhood. She and the rest of the Hazle family lived under her father James’ strict and often abusive rule. As education was of little import to the family, Nannie left school after sixth grade to focus on household chores.

At 16, Nannie began work at a linen factory where she met her first husband, Charley Braggs. While living at home, she and her sisters were never allowed to wear dresses or makeup and talking with members of the opposite sex was likewise forbidden. She saw Charley as an escape from this oppression and the two were married within the first year of their meeting. She moved in with him and his mother in 1921.

Despite her high hopes, Charley turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and his mother a control freak much in the same manner as Nannie’s father. Six years and four children into the marriage, she found the escape she had been seeking. In 1927, the Bragg’s two middle children died suddenly after breakfast one day. Doctors attributed the deaths to food poisoning, a more common killer at the time.

Suspicious of Nannie, given their deteriorating marriage, Charley moved out with their eldest daughter, Melvina. The controlling mother-in-law didn’t last long after her son’s departure, and died under mysterious circumstances. In 1928, Charley returned briefly to drop Melvina off, and finalize their divorce. He would be the only man to survive a marriage to Nannie.

Before long, Nannie decided it was time to move on and took to the lonely hearts column of her local paper for prospective mates. It was through these ads that she met and married her second husband, Frank Harrelson in 1929. They spent a mostly unhappy 16 years together. Like Nannie’s first husband, Frank was an alcoholic. After a particularly hard night of drinking with friends, he returned home and forced himself on Nannie. Revenge was swift, and came in the form of rat poisoned corn whiskey. Frank died an agonizing death while Nannie watched on.

In 1943, Nannie became a grandmother at just 38 years old. Her daughter Melvina had a son, Robert, and a daughter who died shortly after being born. Accounts from family that were present at the hospital would later surface that allege Nannie had stuck the newborn with a hairpin while Melvina recovered from the delivery. Just a few months later, Robert died from asphyxia while in his grandmother’s care.

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A concerned looking Melvina keeps a wary eye on Doss with children. source

Nannie was married again in 1947 to Arlie Lanning, another alcoholic. This marriage lasted only two and a half years before the man fell suddenly ill and died. No autopsy was performed as doctors believed the death was due to a heart attack brought on by Arlie’s lifelong drinking.

1952 saw Nannie’s fourth marriage to a Richard L. Morton. Although this one was not an alcoholic like her previous beau’s, he seemed to have a tenuous grasp on the sanctity of marriage. He didn’t last long after Nannie discovered he was seeing an old flame on the side. One arsenic laced thermos of coffee later, Morton joined Frank and Arlie on Nannie’s burgeoning list of victims.

Nannie’s fifth and final marriage was to Samuel Doss in 1953. This time she decided to go against her usual type. Samuel was neither abusive nor an alcoholic. If anyone could temper her murderous tendencies, this man was it. Or so it seemed for a time.

It would seem Nannie’s previous husbands had ruined her for more mild mannered individuals. She found Samuel uptight and boring. He lived a strict and disciplined life, enforcing household bedtimes and forbidding what he saw as frivolous activities like magazines and television.

Nannie was particularly not fond of Samuel’s tight grip on their finances. She ended up moving out for a short time until he agreed to add her name to his bank account. She returned a much more affectionate bride and Samuel believed the matter settled. Such was their marital bliss that he didn’t think twice when she convinced him to take out two life insurance policies with her as the sole beneficiary.

When Nannie decided it was time to collect, she set right to work. An arsenic-laced prune cake almost did the trick, but resulted instead in a months long hospital stay for Samuel when he complained of extreme stomach pains. Nannie’s upped the dosage for her second attempt, this time in his morning coffee.

Her deceased husband’s doctors took note of how quickly he passed after returning home and ordered an autopsy. When the report showed staggering levels of arsenic in Samuel’s system at the time of his death, Nannie topped the list of suspects and was arrested in 1954.

Nannie was surprisingly forthcoming with her confession, which police received in return for allowing her to keep romance magazines in prison. She appeared to actually enjoy the attention she received during her trial and the investigation into her murders. She was often seen smiling and laughing and made jokes about her late husbands. She earned the nickname the “Giggling Granny” for her unsettlingly cheery manner throughout interviews and the trial process.

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Nannie Doss leaving Tulsa County Attorney’s Office in Tulsa, OK in 1954. source

On May 17, 1955 Nannie Doss received a life sentence at 50 years old. After eight years of incarceration, she died of leukemia in 1963 while housed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. She is believed to have claimed at least 11 lives before she was caught.

Sources:

encyclopediaofalabama.org “Nannie Doss”

gizmodo.com “The “Giggling Granny” Serial Killer Who Smiled All the Way to Prison”

thoughtco.com “Profile of ‘The Jolly Black Widow’ Nannie Doss”

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part III: Jane Toppan

Today’s entry falls roughly in the same time frame as the previous two. The turn of the century seemed to be something of a hotbed for killers. Or perhaps information about our recent past is just more readily available, meaning we’re simply more aware of events the likes of which had been occurring since the dawn of time. It was certainly easier to evade detection for long stretches before modern technology made a number of these stories impossible to reproduce today. In 2018 if someone disappears from social media for more than 48 hours people start to wonder. Information traveled much slower in the 1800’s, making it frightfully easy to disappear without anyone realizing for months.

This week’s killer is a tough pill to swallow. A successful, and for a time beloved nurse who took a chilling turn to sadism with the unfortunate patients in her care. You may want to have a bed pan handy, you’re about to meet “Jolly Jane” Toppan, the woman who makes Nurse Ratched look like Patch Adams.

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“Jolly Jane” Toppan. Source

Not unlike other killers of her ilk, Toppan’s tumultuous childhood seemed to lay the groundwork for her future turn to violence. Born Honora Kelley around 1857, she was the youngest of four girls. A family of poor, Irish immigrants, life was not easy for the Kelleys. While she was still very young, Honora lost her mother to a bout of tuberculosis.

Her father, Peter Kelley, was an abusive alcoholic who struggled with his waning sanity. Those around him knew him by his less than flattering nickname “Kelley the Crack;” as in “crackpot.” Living up to this moniker, Peter is said to have once sewed his own eyelids shut while working as a tailor.

In 1863, he brought Honora and her older sister Delia to the Boston Female Asylum and skipped town. This particular asylum placed orphaned or abandoned girls with well-to-do families looking to adopt. Honora ended up an indentured servant to the wealthy Toppan family of Lowell, Massachusetts.

She took the name Jane Toppan after some time living with the family. This new name meant a second chance for her, an opportunity to craft a new identity from scratch. Jane reportedly did very well in school and had many friends. When she turned 18, she was released from her indenture.

In 1885, around twenty years after her adoption, Jane began studying to become a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. Here, her gracious demeanor and outgoing personality earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.” By all appearances she was flourishing, but lying in wait just underneath her sparkling facade was Honora, daughter of “Kelley the Crack.”

It is during her residency at Cambridge that Jane began performing twisted experiments on several of her patients. She seemed fascinated with death; during her training colleagues noted her apparent obsession with autopsies. This fascination drove Jane’s experiments on her patients.

She would first administer a dangerously high dose of sedative, completely immobilizing her chosen guinea pig. Once rendered helpless, she would often lay with the person and hold them. Jane is one of the few female killers motivated, at least in part, by sexual thrill. Her victims were conscious through long stretches of this experience but unable to move a muscle.

She would alternate drugs, bringing them close to death with a meticulously measured overdose, and then pull them back from the brink with something to revive them. She would repeat this process over and over, employing her medical expertise to keep her victims teetering between life and death.

An article about Jane published in a 1902 issue of the Indianapolis Journal describes this brutal tug-of-war:

“She said that the paroxysms of desire were intermittent and there were times when patients were quietly dying that her better nature would become uppermost and she would try to check approaching death. She might nurse the patient ever so carefully and seek to effect a cure. Then would come a craving to administer poison, and this amounted to the strongest uncontrollable impulse, which only physical restraint would stop, and then would render her patient unconscious. In the presence of death she would gleefully fondle the patient, stare into the eyes as if it were to see the inner workings of the soul, do all possible to intensify the agony of the patients, and then when the end came she would become herself again.”

Jane was very good at what she did. She preyed on the weak and the elderly of her hospital’s population, those whose deaths wouldn’t come as a shock. No foul play was suspected of any of the deaths at Cambridge Hospital.

After a brief stint at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the killings continued unchecked, Jane took to private nursing. Doctors recommended her to their wealthy clients for home care. She was a great success, despite the unusually high mortality rate of her patients, and traveled from one rich household to another.

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Massachusetts General Hospital. Source

Around this time, Jane lured her foster sister Elizabeth to come visit her after she had complained about feelings of depression. Jane made an attempt at alleviating Elizabeth’s ills with a picnic at the beach, but ended up poisoning her with strychnine.

In 1901, Jane set her sights on the elderly Alden Davis and his family. She created a vacancy in the house when she murdered the man’s wife, and promptly moved in to care for him in his time of loss. After only a short time in the Davis home, Jane claimed the lives of Alden and two of his daughters.

She left what remained of the Davis family and spent some time back in her home town to seemingly take a stab at relative normalcy. She sought the affections of her late foster sister Elizabeth’s widower, Oramel Brigham after inserting herself into his home. Although he made it clear he was not interested, Jane made several attempts to win him over. Most notably poisoning him just enough to be able to nurse him back to health. He was less than charmed and she was ordered out of the house.

While Jane had been busy making ham-fisted attempts at expressing love, one of Alden Davis’s surviving family members ordered a toxicology report on his body. When it was discovered he had been poisoned a police detail was assigned to Jane. After a brief investigation she was arrested for murder on October 26.

By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. When her sanity was called into question during her trial she replied:

“How can I be insane? When I killed those people I knew that I was doing wrong. I was perfectly conscious that I was not doing right. I never at any time failed to realize what I was doing. Insanity is complete lack of mental responsibility, isn’t it?”

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Source

Despite her claims to the contrary, Jane was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Asylum. There she took her turn as a patient until her death on August 17, 1938.

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Sources:

http://murderpedia.org/female.T/t/toppan-jane.htm

Indianapolis Journal, Volume 52, Number 176, Indianapolis, Marion County, 25 June 1902

http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/jolly-jane-toppan-killer-nurse-obsessed-death/

http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2017/01/27/the-twisted-but-true-tale-of-serial-killer-nurse-jolly-jane-toppan/

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part II: Belle Gunness

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.

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Belle with children. Source

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.

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Gunness farm LaPorte, Indiana. Source

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.

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Ray Lamphere. Source

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.

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Human remains found on the Gunness Farm. Source

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.

Sources:

https://www.biography.com/people/belle-gunness-235416

https://www.headstuff.org/history/belle-gunness-deadly-lonely-heart/

Belle Gunness Serial Killer Documentary

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evqp74/americas-first-craigslist-killer-was-a-six-foot-tall-norwegian-widow

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-a-nightmare-at-murder-farm

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part I: Lavinia Fisher

Recorded history has an unfortunate tendency to bury or simply ignore the achievements of women in our world. Before the 2016 film addressing this issue, Hidden Figures, few knew of the brilliant work of three African American women that gave NASA an edge in the space race. Their story is one of many that may never see the light of day. Much in the same way women’s achievements and contributions to mankind have been swept under the rug of history, their crimes are often overshadowed by their more notorious male counterparts.

Researching serial killers, one has to scroll a ways down past the Dahmers and Gacys of the world before hitting on a single female. Other than perhaps Eileen Wuornos, famously portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster, the serial killer deck is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of men when it comes to notoriety. The celebrity attached to killers is very real, and has led to countless films, books and television shows seeking to explore the minds of these individuals.

Such fame has, for the most part, eluded women who kill, despite their murders being just as intriguing as and often more terrifying than the men standing in the serial killer spotlight. Perhaps we’re just more comfortable with the idea of a man committing violence, as it fits more comfortably with traditional gender roles. These killers don’t fit this preconceived notion. We’re more content with the woman as nurturer archetype.

This is a big part of what makes the women in this series so unsettling. A number of them worked as nurses or caretakers, people you might be quick to trust with your own well-being or that of a loved one. These women knew how to exploit this trust and draw their victims close. These killers you never see until it’s too late.

Part I: The Legend of Lavinia Fisher

LaviniaFisher
Image Credit: swordandscale.com

We’re starting things off with a woman widely cited as America’s first female serial killer: Lavinia Fisher. Long before H.H. Holmes and his “murder castle,” Lavinia and her husband John owned and operated the original hotel of horror, the Six Mile Wayfarer House near Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Like Holmes’ castle, the hotel came fully equipped with all the trappings of an evil lair. Complete with hidden rooms and passages and a bed designed to fall through a trap door at the flip of a switch.

According to legend, Lavinia would employ her considerable looks and charm to lure men to the parlor of the hotel and offer them tea. After imbibing the drug-laden beverage, the victim would be put to bed and subsequently swallowed by the trap door on a one-way trip to the basement. Rumors began to circulate after a number of men disappeared with their last known location being the Wayfarer House. Absent proof, Lavinia and her husband initially evaded prosecution, claiming ignorance of the whereabouts of the men in question after they left the hotel.

It wasn’t until a man by the name of John Peeples came for a stay that things took a turn. As was her method, Lavinia offered Peeples some tea, and they sat and talked. Fortunately for the intended victim, he didn’t much care for the Fisher’s particular brand of tea, and took an opportunity when Lavinia wasn’t looking to dispose of it in secret, as not to offend his host. Believed to be sufficiently drugged, Peeples was led to a recently vacated room where he remained awake in a chair by the door, unable to shake an uneasy feeling about his conversation with Lavinia. After some time, Peeples was startled by a loud bang as the bed across the room suddenly disappeared. After peering down into a dark basement through a newly opened hole in the floor, Peeples hastily escaped out of a window and made for the Charleston police station.

The subsequent investigation turned up enough evidence to convict the couple, and the two were sentenced to death by hanging. While jailed in the same facility, awaiting an appeal for their conviction, Lavinia and John set to planning their escape. This took the form of a long rope fashioned from bed sheets they tied together. The attempt was almost a success, but the makeshift rope broke after John reached the ground. Unwilling to leave his wife trapped in the cell, John turned himself back in and the two were kept under much heavier security.

Charleston Jail
Charleston Jail Image Credit: zulkey.com

On the day of their execution, February 18, 1820, John went quietly, offering an apology to anyone he had offended in life before he was hanged. Lavinia on the other hand offered no such apology, opting instead to arrive to her execution dressed in her wedding gown. According to the law at the time, a married woman could not be executed, which is why John was first to hang, rendering her a widow. When it came time for her last words, Lavinia addressed the crowd, inviting any man present to marry her in a last ditch effort to stay her fate. When no one took a knee for her, she turned on them shouting, “If any of you has a message for the Devil, tell me now… for I will be seeing him in moment.” With that she took her own life, opting to jump from the hanging platform rather than wait for the executioner. According to witnesses of the event, Lavinia left this earth with a chilling sneer frozen on her face as she hung.

Much of this particular version of the legend of Lavinia Fisher has been disputed or downright debunked, however it remains the most colorful telling of what transpired at the Six Mile Wayfarer House. For a different, perhaps more historically sound version of this story check out Sword and Scale’s article The Truth Behind the Legend of Lavinia Fisher. Stay tuned for further entries in this series, next week we delve into the story of the six foot tall, 200 pound killing machine Belle Gunness. See you then.

Sources:

https://www.legendsofamerica.com/sc-laviniafisher/

http://swordandscale.com/the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-lavinia-fisher/

http://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/charlestons-most-inhospitable-hosts-the-story-of-john-and-lavinia-fisher/