Real Crime Blog

Belle Gunness: The Early 20th Century Female Serial Killer You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Belle Gunness with her children Lucy Sorensen, Myrtle Sorensen, and Philip Gunness in 1904.

The 1906 matrimonial ad read: “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.”

Those potential suiters who took up the condition of a personal visit to the “comely widow’s” farm were walking into a deadly trap. Belle Gunness, the twice-widowed Norwegian American who placed the ad, was a murderer for profit. By the time her crimes were discovered at her burnt-out pig farm in 1908, her tally of victims had risen to at least 12, and possibly as high as 40.

Gunness’s methods were as businesslike as her ads: having lured her victims to her remote property, Gunness would give them a meal and a strychnine-dosed cup of coffee, and then often finish the job by bludgeoning her comatose victim. She disposed of the bodies in various ways, burying some, butchering and burning others—even, it was later alleged, feeding the remains to her hogs.

Born in 1859 in Trondheim, Gunness immigrated to the United States from Norway in 1881, moving to Chicago and marrying a fellow Norwegian immigrant, Mads Sorenson, three years later. The Sorensons ran a confectionery store in the city, and had four children, two of whom were later recorded on the census as having died.

Over the next few years, though accounts differ about the sequence of events, the store burned down, and Mads Sorenson died, in 1900. Both events were treated as accidents at the time, and Gunness was able to collect the insurance pay-outs on her business and her dead husband. It has been alleged that the date of Mads Sorenson’s death was the only day on which both his life insurance policies overlapped. With this money, Gunness bought a farm in La Porte Indiana, moving there with her two children and a third, adopted daughter, Jennie.

In 1902, Belle Gunness remarried. Her new husband was another Norwegian, Peter Gunness, a hog farmer and butcher. Eight months after their wedding, Peter died in a domestic accident, in which his widow alleged, a meat grinder fell on his head from a high shelf, and he scalded himself. Although suspicion once again fell on Belle Gunness, and an inquest was held, she was, once again, able to persuade the authorities that the death was accidental. Another life insurance pay-out was duly made.

Sometime after her husband’s death, Gunness told her neighbors that she sent away Jennie—who had been overheard telling a friend that her adopted mother had murdered Peter, but would not testify to it in court. After that, Gunness hired a farm hand, Ray Lamphere, and began to place her ads in the newspapers.

Over a period of about two years, a number of suitors or farm hands, many bearing cash, arrived at her door: Ole Budsberg, Thomas Lindboe, Henry Gurholdt, Olaf Svenherud, John Moe, Olaf Lindbloom, Andrew Helgelien. None was ever seen again. One visitor who did leave alive, George Anderson, described waking at night in Gunness’s farmhouse to see his hostess standing over him with a candle, her sinister expression so terrifying that he dressed and left immediately.

Gunness fired Ray Lamphere in February 1908 and began to allege publicly that he was threatening to burn down her house with her children inside it. The truth behind these allegations seems more likely to have been that a brother of one of the missing suitors, Andrew Helgelien, was making inquiries about his sibling’s whereabouts, and was even proposing to come to La Porte to search the Gunness farm.

Lamphere was a witness to Helgelien’s murder, and seems to have been threatening to reveal the facts.

On April 28, 1908, a fire broke out on Belle Gunness’s farm. The body of a woman and two children were found in the burnt-out wreckage. The children were identified as Gunness’s. The woman’s body, which was decapitated, was initially thought to be Gunness, but later comparisons with records of clothes made for Gunness showed that the dead body was much smaller. Gunness had stood at five feet eight inches, and was known to be a strong woman weighing as much as 200 pounds. The headless corpse was five inches shorter and would have weighed 50 pounds less.

Although suspicion initially fell on Lamphere—probably the calculated effect of Gunness’s accusations—a series of gruesome discoveries over the next months turned the focus back on to Gunness herself. Twelve bodies were dug up on her property, including those of Jennie, two more children and six men. If Gunness was not the woman in the burnt-down farm, but had set the fire herself before leaving town, then this brought her total killings to 12.

As her story began to emerge, Gunness was accused of the murder of other missing persons who may have come into contact with her. The true total of her victims can never be known. The deaths of her first and second husband, and of her first two children, came back under suspicion too.

Gunness’s legend, inflated by her own absence and Lamphere’s self-serving testimony, grew, and she became known as the “Lady Bluebeard.” Local stories of her feeding the bodies of her victims as sausages to unsuspecting visitors began to spread, as well as rhymes about the murderess, “strong and full of doom.” Gunness herself was never discovered.

— David Horspool

For more on female serial killers, read the post 4 Female Serial Killers Who Will Haunt Your Dreams.

To learn more about another famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, check out the new HISTORY series American Ripper, Tuesdays at 10P. 

(Image: Bettmann/Getty Images)

 

 

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