The beauty, if that is really the word that should be used, of modern murder cases is that they are usually wrapped up in neat little bows once the murderer has been discovered. With modern science and forensic evidence leaving little room for error, the days of the murder shrouded in mystery may now be almost at an end. This was not the case in the early 1900’s, and many of the crimes that took place back then went unnoticed, unsolved, or became very much the stuff of legend where it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction; such is the story of Belle Gunness, whose killing spree now leaves an indelible blotch on the history of Indiana.
At a time when women were admired for their tiny, petite little frames, Bell Gunness struck an imposing shadow, standing 5 foot 8 inches tall, and weighing in at over 200lbs. The Norwegian “giant”, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, , but changed her name after immigrating to the United States in 1881. Bell worked as a servant during her early years in the states, but by 1884 she was married to Chicago native, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, and the couple went on to open a confectionary store. The shop proved to be a bust, and within a year it burnt to the ground in rather mysterious fashion. After collection the insurance money, the couple purchased a new home. The shop burning roused a little suspicion, but when Sorenson passed away on July 30, 1900, alarm bells went off with his entire family who believed he had been poisoned by Gunness so that she could get her hands on two insurance policies which overlapped on that very day. The autopsies were inconclusive, but this was not the only mystery surrounding the family from that period, with differing reports about the size of the family. Many believe there were no offspring from that union, but census reports from the time show Gunness as being the mother of 4 (Caroline, Axel, Myrtle and Lucy), as well as a 5th adopted child, Jennie Olsen, although 2 of them, Caroline and Axel died very young, again in mysterious circumstances.
Bell used the insurance money from her husband’s death, an amount that would be worth around a quarter of a million dollars by today’s standards, to purchase a home and land in La Porte, Indiana, and shortly after the purchase the boat and carriage houses burnt to the ground, which again meant more insurance money. Around this time, Bell met and married another Norwegian immigrant named Peter Gunness, and just one week after the wedding, Peter’s infant daughter died while in Bell’s care, and shortly after that incident, Peter himself was found dead, allegedly after falling and splitting his head open on a meat grinding machine. None of the locals believed that Peter could be so clumsy, and their suspicions were aroused even further when little Jennie Olsen was overheard telling a schoolmate that, “My mama killed my papa”. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don’t tell a soul.” When questioned, the girl denied ever saying such a thing, and with Bell pregnant by Peter, the coroner’s jury found it impossible to find her guilty of any wrongdoing, so she walked free with another substantial insurance claim in her possession.
Once that investigation was complete, Bell hired Ray Lamphere to help her carry out the duties of the farm, and in a short time they become lovers, eventually becoming engaged in 1906. The locals were told that Jennie had been sent off to finishing school, but her body was later discovered buried on the property. Despite her engagement to Lamphere, Bell started placing ads for suitors in many of the Chicago newspapers; many came, but very few went, with Gunness depositing large sums of money in the bank, allegedly stolen from the men who had come to woo her. Lamphere’s jealousy grew to the point where he started making a nuisance of himself around the suitors, and in 1908 Bell decided to fire him from his farm hand position. As if that were not enough, she went to local authorities claiming that Lamphere was crazy and was threatening to burn down the house with her and the children inside. This all seemed to be in response to enquiries made about one of her gentleman callers, Andrew Helgelien, who had gone missing during his visit, and whose family was starting to ask some serious questions about his whereabouts. It’s believed that Bell, feeling the pressure from those questions, tried to incriminate Lamphere in the arson she was about to commit.
Sure enough, the house burned down, and four charred bodies were recovered, including a headless corpse that could not be identified, but was assumed to be that of Bell Gunness. The residents of La Porte did not like the unsolved nature of the headless body, and after further measurements and examinations, it was revealed that the body could not possibly be Bell’s. It didn’t end there though, and when a dentist claimed he could identify the teeth if the head was found, it set off a search at the farm where a crown and bridgework were found that matched those of Gunness. Further digging started to reveal a host of bodies, other than just Jennie’s, and with many of their personal property items found on Lamphere, he was charged with arson and murder. During the trial, he told of how Bell would chloroform the men and then kill them before Lamphere carried them off and buried them in the hog pen. He also claimed that the arson had been planned by Bell, including leaving the teeth as proof of her death, and that she had withdrawn all her money (millions of dollars by todays values) and fled from the law.
In the years that followed, many folks in the Chicago area claimed to have seen bell, alive and well, and the mystery continued to present times when, in 2007, the headless body was exhumed for DNA testing, but again results were inconclusive. If Lamphere is to be believed, the Bell Gunness racked up 42 murders, putting her very near the top of the Evil Ladies list.