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Wild Women Wednesday: Belle Gunness

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Wednesday: Belle Gunness

Belle Gunness cowgirl magazine

Photo courtesy of bellegunnessthemovie.com.

The impact of women on the American frontier in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries should not be underestimated.  To a large degree women were responsible for taming the wilderness.  Under their influence churches were formed, schools, and libraries were established, and the importance of home and hearth was rediscovered.  The result was nothing short of a complete transformation; the conversion of the western frontier from a rowdy male-dominated society into a place that became a mecca for settlement even after the Gold Rush and the promise of cheap land came to an end.   

At the turn of the twentieth century as the frontier was becoming increasingly more civilized, mail order bride advertisements crowded the pages of a variety of publications from San Francisco to New York.  Men and women sought wives and husbands to help them work a homestead and raise a family.  Longing for the ties that bind they risked everything in making an alliance with a virtual stranger.  Sometimes the result was a happy union, but there were instances where the venture ended in murder.  Such was the case for those who responded to an ad from a Norwegian serial killer.  

“Comely widow, who owns large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes.  No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit.”

Belle Gunness, a two-hundred pound, 5’7, Nordic woman with dark eyes and dark hair worn in a pompadour style penned the ad in search of a spouse in 1905.  The request in the personal column generated a healthy interest in the widow with two children and before the end of the year Belle had married a promising suitor named John Moo.  A few weeks after they were wed John disappeared.

Belle became the subject of much gossip in the county.  John wasn’t the first husband she had lost, nor was he the second.  Belle was twenty-five when she exchanged vows with Mads Ditley Anton Sorenson in Northern Illinois in 1884.  The couple owned and operated a confectionary store in Chicago.  The business did not do well and in 1886 it burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances.  

The Sorensons received an insurance settlement and used the money to purchase a home for themselves and their four children.  Shortly after the fire two of those children died.  The cause of death was listed as acute colitis, but neighbors and friends who had seen Belle abuse the children suspected they were poisoned.  In 1890, Belle and Mads adopted the infant daughter of Antone Oldson, a resident of Chicago’s south side who found himself a widower with a child to take care of.  

When Sorenson died in 1900, Belle collected on the $8,000 life insurance policy he carried.  The same people who whispered about the demise of the Sorenson’s infant children now talked about Mads’ unexpected departure.  Speculation over what brought down a man in the prime of his life was bantered about.  Tired of the hurtful chatter, Belle sold the Chicago home and moved to a forty-five acre farm in Indiana.

Belle was well suited for farm work.  She was not afraid of manual labor and was capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting.  She cared for the livestock and butchered her own hogs.

In April 1902 she met and married Peter Gunness.  He owned and operated his own homestead and hoped that he and Belle could combine their efforts to grow their holdings.  In December 1902 Peter was killed in an unusual accident.  He was working in a farm building when a heavy sausage grinder, stored too near the edge of a high shelf, tumbled from its precarious perch and crushed his skull.  That’s what Belle said and a coroner’s jury believed her.  

Belle collected $4,000 on Peter’s life and a few months later bore his posthumous child, Phillip.  Her neighbors were sympathetic and friendly toward the unfortunate woman.  Twice widowed within two years, and now with another young one to feed and care for, she had a rough time ahead of her they opined.  

With the help of hired man, the widow Gunness operated the farm herself.  Belle and her children lived in a two-story, brick house, separated by solid walls from the two-story frame addition at the rear where the hired man stayed.  

The neighbors were pleased when, in 1906, John Moo arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota with $1,000 to pay off the mortgage and pledge his love to Belle.  When John came up missing Belle told everyone he decided to return to Minnesota.  

According to the May 10, 1908, edition of the Daily News Democrat, Belle began exhibiting peculiar behavior shortly after John Moo disappeared.  Neighbors noted her children hadn’t been seen outdoors playing, her livestock roamed free, she kept the window shades drawn during the day, and left the house dark at night.  She also installed a double-wire fence around a large garden and kept careful vigil over the area in the evenings.  She frequently shooed passersby away from prowling around on the country roads leading to her property.  

Hack drivers came from La Porte on strange nocturnal missions to deliver trunks.  Concerned townspeople who offered their help around the farm should she ever need it were publicly chastised.  Belle thought they were questioning her ability to care for herself or her children.  Suitors came to call on Jennie, her adopted daughter, but they were abruptly turned away. She told curious young men and inquisitive neighbors that Jennie had left La Porte County to attend law school in Los Angeles.  

Another potential husband visited the farm in the spring of 1907.  Ole Budsberg had responded to an ad for a spouse Belle had placed in the Iola, Wisconsin newspaper.  Ole was a widower with several grown sons.  He was intent on matrimony and brought $2,000 with him when he traveled to Indiana to meet Belle in person.  He too disappeared after a few days.  When Ole’s children hadn’t heard from him for a while they wrote Belle asking about him.  She informed them that he had decided to make a new life for himself in Oregon.  

A drifter by the name of Ray Lamphere was the next man to answer Belle’s call for a husband, but he had no money or property.  Belle hired him to work on the farm, but would not entertain the notion of marrying him.  Andrew Helgelien of Aberdeen, South Dakota came calling in the fall of 1907.  Andrew’s objective was matrimony and he brought with him $3,000 as a dowry.  Andrew and Belle corresponded for weeks before he traveled to La Porte County.  Belle’s letters described her intensions towards Andrew and included an attractive invitation.

“I think of you constantly.  When I hear your name mentioned – and this is generally when one of the dear children speaks of you or I hear myself humming it, with the words of an old love song – it is beautiful music in my ears,” Belle wrote her intended.  “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew.  I love you.  Come prepared to stay forever.”

Andrew came, stayed a week, and vanished.

Belle turned her attention to Ray Lamphere who was encouraged to believe they had a future.  When he found out she was going to run another advertisement for a husband he was outraged.  The pair quarreled and Belle demanded he leave.  Lamphere refused and she had him arrested for trespassing.  He promised to get even with her and she promised he’d regret ever crossing her.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, Asle Helgelein had become worried about his brother Andrew.  He wrote Belle about him.  She replied that Andrew had departed to Chicago.  Asle doubted the story.  Belle wrote that a man who worked for her, Lamphere, had met a man from Mansfield, South Dakota, and that he had told Lamphere that Andrew was now living in Deadwood.

Asle wrote of his intention to come to La Porte and look for Andrew.  Belle sent a cordial invitation for him to join her in the search, advising him to sell Andrew’s stock and “bring plenty of money.”  Asle replied that he was coming to La Porte and had notified the authorities that his brother was missing.

On April 27, 1908, Belle visited her attorney in La Porte and made out her will.  She was, she said, afraid of Lamphere and wanted to prepare for any eventuality.  “I’m afraid he’s going to kill me and burn my house,” she told her lawyer.

At four in the morning on April 28, 1908, an employee at Belle’s farm was awakened to find the Gunness homestead engulfed in flames.  He made every effort to rescue the family inside but failed.  Late in the afternoon searchers managed to get into the home to look for bodies in the smoldering ruins.  On a mattress in the basement the remains of three children were found – and there was another dreadful sight – the body of a headless woman, her head severed.  There was some question that the body was Belle’s since the head was missing the corpse was that of a woman much smaller than Belle had been.  

Almost at once Lamphere was arrested and charged with arson and murder.  He denied any involvement in the tragic account, but authorities were not convinced.  Given his tumultuous history with Belle they believed he had killed her and her children.

Unaware that there had been a fire Asle Helgelein arrived in La Porte on May 3, 1908.  He confided his belief to the local authorities that Belle had murdered his brother Andrew.  The police dismissed the notion outright.  Belle was dead and everyone knew Lamphere had done it because she spurned his love.  Asle was persistent and finally persuaded the sheriff’s department to search the grounds for evidence of another body.  Deputies began digging in the soft spots in the garden area and in a short amount of time uncovered a body wrapped in a gunny sack.  Asle identified the remains as his brother’s.  Inside a few hours four more bodies were uncovered.  One of the four bodies was Jennie Olson’s.  The excavation continued and five more victims were recovered.  Ole Budsberg was among them.  

Doctor Walter S. Haines, a prominent doctor from a Chicago college was summons to the farm to analyze the organs that could be salvaged from some of the corpses.  He found both strychnine and arsenic in the stomach of the headless woman, two of the three children, and Andrew Helgelein.  On May 12, 1908, four additional doctors were called to the scene to examine the body of the headless woman in order to determine if it indeed was Belle’s remains.  The gold rings on the fingers of the corpse were inscribed to Belle, but authorities didn’t except that as definitive proof the body was indeed hers.  

A La Porte dentist came forward and asked to examine any teeth they might have found.  He had fitted Belle with dentures and felt certain he would recognize his work.  The ruins had already been searched and mulled over many times and authorities had not come across any teeth.  A former placer miner in the area suggested sluicing the ruins as a prospector sluices for gold in an attempt to find a set of teeth.  He was hired to do the work.  

The operation brought thousands of morbidly curious sightseers to La Porte and the Gunness farm.  As many as 15,000 people arrived in a single day.  Railroads ran special excursions.  Postcard vendors did a brisk business with grisly pictures of some of the victims.  Refreshment stands blossomed along the roads leading to the farm.  

On May 19, 1908, the miner found two rows of porcelain teeth, fitted at each end by gold caps to natural teeth.  The La Porte dentist identified them as teeth he had worked on.  That, however, did not convince authorities that Belle was the headless woman found at the scene.  They argued that the teeth had been planted.  After several days of deliberation authorities indicted Belle for murder and charged Lamphere as an accessary.  

On December 30, 1908, Lamphere was brought to trial and a circuit court jury found him guilty of arson and acquitted him of murder.  He was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison.  Two months after he began serving time at the Indiana State Prison Lamphere was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  On his deathbed he told physicians that Belle had killed forty-two people and buried them on the Gunness farm.  He added that Belle had plotted her own death and disappearance and that the headless body found in the charred remains of the home belonged to a woman from Chicago who had been hired as a household servant.   

Lamphere died on December 30, 1909.  The riddle of what happened to Belle has never been settled.  In 1986 she was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female killer in modern times.  

What do you think?

Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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