The Belle Gunness Case

Keeping in line with my last case, this is another older case.  The difference between this and the last is that this case is more infamous than the other case, however, there remains conflicting information throughout the story.  In a way this one is more difficult to determine just what the true facts are because of its "popularity." In fact, I have made more than one attempt to pull all of the information together in attempts to make it as accurate as I can make it, as well as less difficult to follow.  

Belle was born (more than likely anyway) in 1859 in Norway. Although I have an actual date of November 11, 1859, that date is in dispute.  Belle grew to be a rather large woman apparently.  Reports say she was 6 foot tall and weighed anywhere from 200 to 280 pounds. She was officially declared dead on April 28, 1908 in LaPorte Indiana.  Even her death has been in question. Whether she actually died on her farm that day or she escaped and all but re-invented herself (some say in California) is something that is often born out of legends of which this case has become. Reports are that she was the youngest of 8 children and that in 1881 she immigrated to the United States and worked as a servant.

No one knows for sure just how many victims Belle Gunness claimed or when she actually began killing.  Some believe that her killing spree began on July 30, 1900 when her husband, Mads Ditler Anton Sorenson died.  Others suspect he was not her first victim.  Sorenson and Belle married in 1884 and they lived in the Chicago area.  They reportedly ran a candy store and their home was attached.  Within a year of opening the store, it caught on fire and burned.  The Sorenson's collected insurance from this fire.  Reports on just how many children Belle had with Sorenson vary.  There are some that say they had no children, while others claim they had four, Caroline, Axel, Myrtle and Lucy. Both Caroline and Axel died as infants.  Their official cause of death was listed as acute colitis but there are some that believe that the symptoms also pointed to poison.  Both of the children were insured, which was a little odd for the time, and the Sorenson's collected both of these times also. The 1900 census says that she was the mother of four but only two were living.  Whether you believe Belle caused the deaths of her children or not, there are but few that do not believe the motive behind all of her crimes were greed for money. 

On July 30, 1900 Mads Sorenson died.  The official cause was written down as heart failure but at least one doctor suspected strychnine poisoning.  She had been left in charge of him and was giving him "meds" according to her, for what I cannot confirm.  For those who are leery on if she caused the deaths of her infant children, it is believed that Mads was her first victim.  Apparently it was the only day that two life insurance policies overlapped in coverage. One day after the funeral she applied for the $8,500.  There were reports that his family protested but I was unable to find out if anything was ever done about their concerns as apparently the claim was distributed to her.  It was with these funds that she left Chicago and bought a farm in LaPorte in 1901.  

Belle had not been on her new farm for very long when the boat and carriage house burnt to the ground (admittedly upon further review I am unsure if this fire occurred at the LaPorte farm or was at a new residence still in Chicago, just prior to her move).  Of course Belle had insured the property and was generously compensated.  Then on April 2, 1902 Belle married Peter Gunness in LaPorte.  One week later his infant daughter supposedly died while in Belle's care but the cause has been left unknown.  Then in December 1902 Peter died.  In the first story that Belle apparently gave she stated that Peter was reaching up to grab his slippers near the stove and was burned.  Seemingly this story did not ring true with the evidence, or someone questioned it and she stated that a sausage grinding machine fell from a high shelf and hit him in his head which caused his death.  People became suspicious, especially Peter's brother, and the coroner review his findings. This time he decided that Peter had been murdered and ordered a coroner's jury inquest but she was subsequently cleared. She had not revealed to anyone that she was pregnant at the time.  She subsequently claimed the nearly $4,000 in insurance and in May of 1903 gave birth to her son, Phillip Gunness.  Peter had another living daughter at the time of his death and while she remained under Belle's care for about a year her uncle eventually took her with him.  Most believe that this child was the only child to survive her care.  

Back when Belle was still married to Mads Sorenson they had apparently adopted a child.  Her name was Jennie Olsen, although she was also known as Morgan Couch.  I was unable to determine who she actually was or how she came about to live with Belle but it seems in 1900 she was approximately 10 years old.  By late 1906 Belle began telling people that Jennie, who would have been about 16 years old by then, had gone away to school.  While I am sure there were still those who may have questioned whether she had killed Peter Gunness there appeared to be no reason not to believe this about Jennie.  

In 1907 Belle hired Ray Lamphere as a farm hand, or so she wanted everyone to believe.  It was not long after his hiring (Or maybe it was before only there were no real witnesses) that Belle began advertising in Chicago and other large city newspapers for "suitors."  Over the next year or so men seemed to come to the farm but never seemed to leave. Lamphere, it was said, was actually in love with Belle and was jealous of the men that she had coming to the farm, despite the fact she never seemed to want to keep them. In February of 1908 Belle fired Ray and then she went to the courts stating that he was insane and a menace to society.  There was a hearing held and Lamphere was found sane and was released.  A few days later she had him arrested for trespassing.  The thing that is a bit odd about this relationship, is that it seems that Belle feared he was going to tell her secrets but apparently either she allowed him to live or because he knew what had happened to the other men he was able to be careful enough not to get close enough to her.  

The walls were closing in on Belle.  First she has Lamphere out and about knowing her secrets and her attempts to have him committed or at the very least considered crazy, so no one would believe his stories if he told them, had failed. Secondly, the brother of one of the men who had mysteriously disappeared after telling his family he was going to LaPorte to meet Belle, was headed her way.  She told the brother that the man had left, she thought to visit relatives in Norway, but after persisting Belle had in fact invited him to come to her place and search for him. Thirdly, while she had replaced Lamphere with a man named Joseph Maxson if she were to continue with her ways she risked having another Lamphere on her hands.  What to do... what to do.... 

So, on April 27, 1908 she went to the bank and paid off her mortgage, she then went to her lawyers office.  While there she made out a will giving her estate to her children.  She told her lawyer that she was doing this because she feared for her life and the lives of her children.  She said that Lamphere had threatened to burn down her home. Subsequently it was discovered that she had not told the police of this threat and many believe there was no threat at all but that Belle simply wanted it in the ear of at least one person. So of course when her farm went up in flames the following night Ray Lamphere went to the top of the suspect list.  

Joseph Maxson claimed that he was woke up during the night/early morning of April 28th to smoke in his room.  He jumped from his second story window and went to the town for help.  With significant help and effort the fire finally died out and when authorities were able to enter the home they found four bodies.  There was the headless body of an adult woman and three children in their beds.  Obviously it was assumed that the woman's body was Belle and the children were those of her children, Myrtle, Lucy and Phillip.  There was a young boy named John Solyem who first claimed to have seen Lamphere running from the farmhouse just prior to fire, later he seemed to expand on his story. Seemingly the entire town, including Lamphere were at the least aware of the fire, if not awaken to help fight it.  It was reported that Lamphere immediately asked "Did Widow Gunness and kids get out alright?" Then of course Belle's lawyer told what he knew so of course with all of this pointing to Lamphere and on May 22nd he was eventually arrested for murder and arson.  However, while apparently everyone minded their own business, or at least did not report anything suspicious while she was alive, once the fire happened many stories started to emerge.  First everyone seemed suspicious that the adult woman's body was headless and at least three people claimed immediately that it was not the body of Belle. Upon an examination the coroner believed that the body would have belonged to a person who was about 5'3" tall and weighed about 150 pounds, so again, did not match Belle. Reportedly the stomach contents of all the victims were sent to Chicago, and they all supposedly contained lethal doses of strychnine, but this was not discovered until later. Belle's dentist proclaimed that if the teeth of the headless woman could be found in the debris he would be able to tell if it was Belle's or not.  So a former miner by the name of Louis Schultz was hired to sift through what was left from the fire.  On May 19th he found some bridgework and through this the dentist proclaimed that it had belong to Belle so officially the headless woman became identified as Belle. Unofficially that was disputed and likely proven to be wrong later.

Almost immediately the neighbors began talking about how the shades to the farmhouse were always closed and they had seen digging in or near the hog pen late at night. And then a man by the name of Asle Helgelien arrived in LaPorte. He immediately told the sheriff why he was there. According to Asle, who was from South Dakota, his brother Andrew had begun writing letters to presumably Belle Gunness in December of 1907. The following month he had supposedly arrived in LaPorte with nearly $3,000 and seemingly disappeared just a few days later.  At this point Joseph Maxson speaks up and reports that in the few months that he had been employed by Belle, she had ordered him to bring wheelbarrows of dirt around to where the hogs fed to finish filling some holes that were there.  Belle had told him that the holes had contained rubbish and just need to be filled completely.  Finally this became enough for the sheriff to look deeper and take shovels with him as he did.

Within just a few short days several bodies were found.  Most could not be officially identified and even the number found could not be specific but it was thought to be around 12.  At least two bodies were officially ID'd.... those of Jennie Olson and Andrew Helgelien.  Among the bodies found were two small children that were never identified. At least two other bodies were thought to be either identified or to have been among the bodies found.  One belonged to John Moe.  Moe was from Minnesota. At least a few people in the area had met him and Belle had introduced him as her cousin.  He had gone to LaPorte with about $1,000 supposedly to pay off her mortgage; a week later he was gone.  However, it was discovered that Lamphere was in possession of his watch. Another body had a watch similar to that of Henry Gurholdt. Gurholdt was from Wisconsin.  He had supposedly left home with plans of marrying Belle. He was said to be in the possession of about $1,500.  

As bodies were discovered reports of other missing men started pouring in.  I will list some of those here, but keep in mind that most of these reports were not substantiated and while, no, not all the bodies found were identified, that does not mean that every report that came in was a valid one.  By the time of some of them came in it was reported, at least in theory, that she had lured men there, many in hopes to marry her and disappeared.  My point in this is that without proof there is no way of knowing if a family member who said their loved one said they were going to LaPorte is legitimately true. There were many, many more reports than I am going to list, as I am going just going to report a few of the more credible ones.

  • Ole Budsberg: He was from Wisconsin.  He was reportedly last seen at a bank on 4-6-1907 where he mortgaged his land and got cash. Presumably he told his family he was going to meet Belle. His sons claim they later wrote Belle looking for him and that she claimed Ole never came.
  • Thomas Lindboe: He had gone to work for Belle as a hired hand presumably before Lamphere was hired and had disappeared.  I found very little on him and his disappearance but if it was proven that he worked for her, and he simply disappeared, we can almost reasonably assume he became one of her victims.
  • Christie Hilkven: He was also from Wisconsin. He sold his own farm in 1906 and presumably or reportedly went to LaPorte and disappeared.
  • Charles Neiburg: He was from Pennsylvania.  He reportedly took $500 with him in June of 1906 and told friends he was going to LaPorte to visit Belle.  He never returned.
  • Olaf Jensen: He was from Indiana and from the looks of it just a few hours south of LaPorte.  In 1906 he supposedly wrote relatives telling them he was going to marry a wealthy widow in LaPorte.
  • George Bradley: a hired hand from Illinois disappeared in October 1907 after he reportedly said he was going to LaPorte to meet a widow and her three children.
  • Benjamin Carling: He was last seen in Chicago in 1907. He had reportedly told his wife that he was going to LaPorte to secure an investment with a wealthy widow.  He had cashed in an insurance policy for $1,000 and had borrowed from several others for investments.  He was never seen again.  Reports say that in June of 1908 after several bodies, or bodies parts had been buried in the LaPorte Pauper Cemetery Carling's wife identified him from his skull and some missing teeth.
There were other cases in which people had suspiciously disappeared in the LaPorte area over the years that immediately were suspected of being victims of Belle.  There were even some in which their names could not be found but their property was found in Belle's possession. There was a gold ring found with the inscription "S.B May 28, 1907" when the authorities and residents were digging in the area.  

One man, named George Anderson came forward and after telling his story it was believed that he was the only person to get away from Belle.  He was from Missouri and he claimed he had agreed to pay Belle's mortgage if in fact they married, to which she apparently agreed, like so many others.  He claims he woke up one night to find her standing over him holding a candle and having what he claimed a sinister look on her face. Apparently the fact that he woke up startled her to the point that she ran from the room and he ran even faster and went right back to Missouri. It seems that the only men luckier than he were the at least three men that were believed to be headed her way near the time of the fire.

In November of 1908 Ray Lamphere was put on trial for arson and murder. His defense did an excellent job in questioning whether the female adult body was that of Belle. His lawyer claimed, and Joseph Maxson and another man apparently confirmed, that the bridgework found at the site of the fire had been planted there by Louis Schultz, the former miner hired to go through the debris.  Maxson and the other man claimed to have seen him plant it just before the "discovery."  The defense had also had tests done on similar bridgework as well as gold (as the bridgework contained gold) and discovered that with the heat of the fire if the said bridgework would have been present it would not have been pristine as it appeared to be.  Strangely enough while he was acquitted for the murders he was found guilty of arson, likely from the supposed testimony of the boy who claimed to have seen him running from the area as well as the claims of Belle's lawyer who said she said Lamphere had threatened to set her home on fire.  On November 26, 1908 Lamphere was sentenced to 20  years in prison.  He died on December 30, 1909 of tuberculosis.  

A few weeks later a minister claimed that on his death bed Lamphere had revealed what had occurred on the Gunness farm.  He claimed that once Gunness lured the men to the farm she would drug them or use chloroform on them while they slept and then hit them with a meat cleaver.  He claimed that Belle would then dismember the bodies and had him help get rid of the bodies. The minister said that Lamphere claimed that some bodies were fed to the hogs, some were soak in quicklime after they had been put in the hog scalding vat.  Lamphere claimed that Belle, known to be a physically strong woman had learned how to dissect because Peter Gunness had been a butcher by trade.  As far as the headless woman and the night of the fire?  According to the minister Lamphere said that the body had actually been that of a woman that he had lured to the farm on the premises of being a housekeeper. He claimed that Belle killed her, removed her head and had weighed it down in a nearby body of water. He claimed that after this she had chloroformed the children and smothered them, dressed the headless body in her clothes and put her own false teeth nearby. Lamphere supposedly stated that he had helped her start the fire and that Belle had fled from the scene. He claimed by his count at least 42 men had come from all parts of the country to the farm and Belle had obtained anywhere from $1,000 to $32,000 from each of them.

Some believe that Lamphere did tell this story and that it is true but I have several issues with it. As far as the murders, regardless if Lamphere told the story or not that seems plausible. But, the Belle Gunness story was a huge story and there was a lot of interest in it. It seems unusual that this "minister" would wait two weeks before revealing what was said, especially if, as Lamphere supposedly claimed, Belle was alive. If that was the case she obviously could have been anywhere in the country. If she was not already killing again, she would be soon.  Then you have the issue of what supposedly transpired before the fire. Why would Lamphere claim that she had removed her false teeth?  It had already been proven (or at the very least his defense had gotten people to believe) that the bridgework supposedly found at the site had been planted and could not have been Belle's or been present at the time of the fire, and no other dental work had been found.  One could argue that she could have very well left her dental work and it had disintegrated just as his defense team argued that it would have, however, I just find it unlikely that she would have left her dental work as it would have brought attention to her wherever she may have gone.  Then according to this story the children were chloroformed and then strangled yet supposedly the stomach contents were tested and were positive for strychnine.  If the latter is true what would be the point of then strangling them?  And what about Lamphere helping start the fire?  It was reported that all of his problems with Belle had begun in the first place because he was in love with her.  However, she then fired him, attempted to have him declared insane and had even had him arrested at some point for trespassing. Of course it is not likely that he knew that she had told the lawyer that he had supposedly threatened to burn her house so he may not have had the knowledge that she had set him up. But, I have a problem with him helping her to this point. The question would be why. And to top that off why would he not have told this whole story at his trial instead of waiting another year?  The fire was at the end of April and he did not go to trial until November so there was plenty of time for her to have gotten away at that point, why would he take then take the rap for the fire, and risk getting the death penalty (as I'm sure had he been convicted of murder he would have received) if this story was true? It just simply does not make sense to me.

Of course this story flamed the fires of the stories that Belle had gotten away alive, true or not.  There were several supposed sighting of her but none seemed to be verified at all. One claim came from a delivery boy who said years later that three days after the fire he saw Belle at the home of one of her neighbors.  Then in 1931 a woman by the name of Esther Carlson was arrested for poisoning a man for money in Los Angeles.  She died awaiting trial but she was supposedly identified as Belle by two old friends who saw her photo. As far as I am aware this too was debunked.

Trying to settle once and for all if the headless body that was found in the fire was that of Belle Gunness in late 2007 some forensic anthropologists along with some students from the University of Indianapolis obtained permission from decedents of one of Belle's siblings exhumed the headless body was exhumed.  There had been an envelope found in the home at the time of the fire that had been preserved but it was found to not have enough DNA available to compare to the remains.  

In the end no one really knows just how many people Belle Gunness was responsible for killing. It has been estimated somewhere between 25-40 over a period of several decades.  Most believe with certainty that she killed at least both of her husbands, Mads Sorenson and Peter Gunness. It is almost certain that she also killed Jennie Olson since she was in Belle's care, Belle made claims she had gone to school and yet the body was found on the property. Then are the men.  At least four were all but identified... Andrew Helgelien, John Moe, Henry Gurholdt and Benjamin Carling.  Aside from Andrew's brother identifying him, there was property found in the area that had belonged to the first three men and as long as we are to believe Carling's wife, she identified his body. Carling's body had been buried with at least six other unidentified remains of men.  There were also the two unidentified children's bodies found.  Counting the two husband's, Jennie, the 4 identified men, the six other unidentified men and the two children the count is 15. Some would add the two infants she had with Sorenson that died as well as Peter Gunness infant daughter that died in Belle's care.  I am certain there are those who would argue that it is likely that there were more bodies buried in or around that farm in LaPorte. And unless or until the headless body can ever be truly identified at Belle we will never know for certain if she escaped that farm on that April night and continued her reign.  


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