True-crime author Harold Schechter first ran across the name Belle Gunness more than 10 years ago while researching a different book, but he could never get out of his mind the lurid details of her crimes—poisoning and chopping up a succession of victims—before possibly disappearing.
Schecter’s new book, “Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men,” recounts the tale of Gunness, a Norwegian woman who immigrated to the United States in 1881 and became one of the country’s most infamous serial killers. Although the exact number of her victims is not known, experts say she murdered 14 to 24 people.
After settling in La Porte, Indiana with her children, the widow—her first and second husbands died in “accidents”—began luring potential suitors between 1902 and 1908 with the promise of sharing her pig farm and her money. But soon her visitors, as well as her farm hands, began disappearing. Their whereabouts remained unknown until a fire at her farm in 1908. Afterward, searchers found numerous body parts, the headless body of a woman and teeth that had seemingly belonged to Gunness.
Why were you interested in writing about Belle Gunness?
At the time, the general line was that there was really no such thing as a female serial murderer. But I knew from my own research that there have been many, many women who had killed multiple victims. I’m interested in crimes that tell a certain kind of story…interesting characters or interesting histories or elements of suspense.
Female serial killers are relatively rare. Did she behave differently than a male serial killer?
Nobody knows 100 percent for sure how she murdered her victims, but apparently she killed them by poisoning, which is very typical of female serial murders.
What made her more like male serial killers is that she then chopped up the bodies of her victims.
So she really combined elements of the classic female serial poisoner with the male dismemberment murderer, and that makes her pretty much unique.
Was there something in her early life that might have led to her becoming such a cold-blooded killer?
We really don’t know. Supposedly she had been impregnated when she was a teenager by the son of a wealthy landowner, who then beat her up and she miscarried. But a lot of these things have a quality of urban legend.
Why did she become so notorious? Was it the manner of the killings?
Yeah. Discovering that there was this graveyard on the property of this Midwestern Indiana farm woman containing the dismembered remains of dozens of victims was a very sensational crime. There’s a quality to certain murderers that I think evokes in the public a sort of childlike awe and terror, as if these monsters from their childhood imagination have taken on this flesh-and-blood life.
How many murders have definitely been attributed to her?
It’s a little hard to tell because there were apparently different body parts and different victims in the same graves. But possibly, realistically speaking, I would say maybe two dozen.
Was the fire on her farm the talk of the town?
Yes, this was a major fire which completely destroyed the entire house down to its foundation. I came across the diary of a schoolboy who was talking about what a huge event it was and how basically everybody in town immediately flocked to the site to see the ruins of the building.
Why was it initially thought that Gunness was among the victims?
The only thing remaining of the house was the cellar, and they found in the cellar the body of this woman who was clutching the charred remains of three children. So the immediate assumption was that Belle had somehow gathered up her children and attempted to save them and they had all died in the fire.
When did people begin to suspect that it was not her body?
Right away (because) the fact that the body they found A) didn’t have a head and B) was much smaller [than Gunness].
Has it ever officially been confirmed that the body was not hers?
No. There were a couple of anthropologists who dug up the remains of a partial body that was presumably Belle’s. They did DNA testing, but the results were inconclusive.
What about the bridge with human teeth, porcelain teeth and gold crowns found in the ruins?
The dentist who made the bridge testified that [it] was the bridge he had created for her. However even that, in the end, didn’t definitively prove the body was Belle’s because people thought [she] could have easily planted the bridgework along with the body to mislead investigators.
Her hired hand, Ray Lamphere, was convicted of arson in the case. Did he actually have any role in the fire?
It’s a little unclear. Belle, the night before the fire, had purchased a big can of kerosene. So that suggests she started the fire. On the other hand, there was a lot of animus between Belle and Lamphere and he was seen suspiciously close to the house at the time fire broke out; he acknowledged that he saw the house in flames and didn’t tell anybody about it. So again, it’s another one of these unresolved ambiguities about the case.
What do you believe about the fire?
I believe that she set the fire. I don’t believe Lamphere set it. However, I am completely of two minds about whether she staged it and escaped or whether she committed suicide.
People claimed to have seen her all over the country for years after the fire.
It’s a sign of the mythic quality that Belle Gunness assumed. She became this phantom that was haunting the public imagination. People are constantly seeing her the way one might see a ghost of a dead relative. She became this specter of death.