Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Belle Gunness

Belle Gunness is listed as #6 on the list of the Top 10 Most Evil Women:
Belle Gunness was one of America’s most profligate known female serial killers. At 6 ft (1.83 m) tall and over 200 lb (91 kg), she was a powerful Norwegian-American woman. She may have killed both of her husbands and all of her children (on different occasions), but she is known to have killed most of her suitors, boyfriends, and her two daughters Myrtle and Lucy. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance benefits. Reports estimate that she killed more than twenty people over several decades–some claim more than one hundred–and possibly got away with it. She became part of American criminal folklore, a female Bluebeard.
The story of Belle caught my eye today as Andrea Simmons, graduate student at the University of Indianapolis, has exhumed Belle's remains, and is now analyzing them, comparing the DNA with DNA samples from Belle's letters, with hopes to clarify if the body is really Belle's. While a good historical mystery is fascinating, the life and deeds of Gunness are even more compelling -- in a morbid way.

From CrimeLibrary.com:
Belle Gunness' history was re-examined and reporters wrote about the sudden inexplicable death in 1900 of her first husband, Mads Sorensen, who had been well-insured for $8,500. Two of her adopted children had died a few years earlier from conditions that might well have been due to poison, and several of her insured establishments had burned down. Belle traded her home in Austin, Illinois, for a farm in LaPorte, Indiana, and soon married Peter Gunness, who died eight months later when, as Belle reported, a meat grinder and jar of scalding water fell on his head (although no burns were present on the body and the blow to his head did not quite fit the supposed weapon).

Belle then placed matrimonial ads in various papers to lure men without family ties and with money—many of whom disappeared. That is, until they were found buried on her farm.
From Belle Gunness, La Porte's "Lady Bluebeard" we learn that Belle was in this for the money:
Belle Gunness was born in Selbu, Norway in 1858, and emigrated to the United States about 1886. She married Mads Sorenson in 1893. They owned a Chicago store that only turned a profit after it burned and they collected the insurance. In 1900 Sorenson died of convulsions and Belle received about $8,000 from his life insurance.
And she lured men via ads, like today's personal ads:
Belle began advertising in Norwegian language newspapers, "Widow, with mortgaged farm, seeks marriage. Triflers need not apply."

Apparently many answered her letters. Belle would introduce them as relatives. Belle's pretty, 18 year old niece, Jenny Olson, got suspicious because the suitors always left the farm during the night. Soon Jenny was away at school in California, according to Belle.
Do we have to guess where Jenny likely ended up?

It is believed that Belle had killed at least 25 people (other say 40 or more), including children, and the fire April 28, 1908 at Belle's home led to the discovery of many bodies -- but it also appeared as if Belle was now a victim herself.

From Crime Library:
The prime suspect in this apparent arson was a former hired hand named Ray Lamphere, who had worked for Belle about a year and who continued to have issues with her. He was even seen near her farm that morning, and he admitted he saw the fire, but said he had not felt compelled to warn anyone. Lamphere was arrested and detained.
But not everyone believes Belle was murdered, or that she even died in that fire. La Porte County Historical Society:
Ray Lamphere, Belle's hired hand, was eventually charged with murder and arson. He was convicted only on the later charge. Before dying in prison, he maintained that Belle had escaped. For years afterwards there were numerous sightings of the murderess across the country, but none were confirmed.
Now, with the work at the university, we may find an answer. However, there are still surprises:
Already, however, the researchers have made a shocking discovery: The casket they exhumed contained not just an adult woman's body, but also the partial remains of two children.

To Nawrocki, this surprise further confirmed that the initial investigations of the fire and Gunness' crimes were botched from the start.

"It makes me doubt every conclusion these people came to," he says. "Instead of answering questions, it just opened up more."
All the more reason to keep an eye on the story.

Photos (including grizzly photos of victims bodies) and other information at the La Porte County Historical Society.

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2 Comments:

Blogger ElPato said...

Also, the most interesting! I had no idea...poor, distorted Belle...

8:24 PM  
Blogger Shon Richards said...

"Widow, with mortgaged farm, seeks marriage. Triflers need not apply."

Early 1990's spam is not much different from today.

I had known about Belle's story but had no idea there were recent exhumations. They are going to have a mess on their hands.

7:34 AM  

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