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Morbid Monday: A Nightmare at Murder Farm

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Belle Gunness and her three children. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Children in La Porte, Indiana, grow up listening to graphic horror stories about the gruesome murders committed by Belle Gunness on her farm at the end of McClung Road. The most disturbing part about these grisly stories is that the gory parts are not fiction. Belle Gunness (also known as Lady Bluebeard, The LaPorte Black Widow, The Mistress of Murder Farm, and Hell’s Belle) was probably one of America’s most prolific serial killers. She likely killed between 25 and 30 people, including women and children, at the turn of the 20th century.

Belle’s crimes were discovered on April 28th, 1908, when authorities were called out to the Gunness farm to investigate a fire that razed the farmhouse. When officials combed through the ashes they found the remains of a headless woman and three children. The woman was said to be Belle herself, and the children’s remains were thought to belong to her children Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson, ages 9 and 11 respectively, and Phillip Gunness, 5. 

During the investigation, Asle Helgelien showed up and insisted that his brother, Andrew, had been murdered by Belle earlier that year. When investigators searched the property, they unearthed the butchered remains of at least 11 people buried near the hog pen on the farm.

For the next 100 years, rumors circulated that Hell’s Belle didn’t actually die in the fire and probably faked her death. So in 2007, forensic anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki and a group of graduate students from the University of Indiana exhumed Belle Gunness’ grave at the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, near Chicago. The goal was to see if they could positively identify her body.

When the team exhumed Gunness’ coffin and sifted through the bones and dirt, they found the bones of children comingled with Belle’s remains. This was odd, because the remains of the three children recovered from the farmhouse in 1908 had been buried separately.

Nawrocki and his team returned to the cemetery the following year, and exhumed the graves of Lucy, Myrtle, and Phillip—the children found dead after the fire. The forensic team had some lingering questions to answer: Did Belle Gunness really die in the fire in 1908? Did the children’s bones found in Belle’s coffin belong to her own children, or did they belong to additional victims? 

“Come prepared to stay forever.”

Belle Sorenson Gunness (November 11, 1859 – April 28, 1908) left her native Norway in 1881, at the age of 21, to travel to Chicago. She married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, three years later in 1884. The couple opened an unsuccessful confectionery store that burned down under strange circumstances almost a year later. Belle and Mads collected the insurance on the business to pay for a new home. They had two biological children that survived infancy, Myrtle (b. 1897) and Lucy (b. 1899), and one foster child, Jennie Olsen.

Mads died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally, on the only day his two life insurance policies overlapped. The first doctor to examine Mads’ body believed he suffered from strychnine poisoning. But the Sorensons’ family doctor, who had been treating him for an enlarged heart, overruled the first doctor and determined that Mads died of heart failure. Shortly after Mad’s death, Belle moved to LaPorte, Indiana, where she purchased the 42-acre farm at the end of McClung road.

She soon met a local butcher, Peter Gunness, and they married in April 1902. One week after the marriage, Peter’s infant daughter died while Belle was watching her. Peter died less than a year later, when a sausage grinder and jar of hot water allegedly fell on him. In this case the coroner believed Peter had been murdered (the body showed symptoms of strychnine poisoning), and so he ordered an inquest.

Because Belle played a convincing widow in mourning, and there was no hard evidence to convict her, she walked away a free woman and collected on Gunness’ life insurance policy. But she was pregnant at the time of Peter’s death, and in 1903 gave birth to a son, Philip Gunness.

However, the La Porte Black Widow was quick to recover and put ads in the “matrimonial columns” of Midwestern Norwegian-language newspapers.

“WANTED: A woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in the same. Some little cash is required for which will be furnished first-class security.”

Many men answered these ads and traveled to La Porte to meet Belle. In December of 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, was one of these men and exchanged letters with Gunness. In January of 1908 he received a passionate letter from Belle that closed with the ominous line, “Come prepared to stay forever.” Andrew promptly emptied his bank accounts and left South Dakota to meet Belle. That was the last his family ever saw or heard from him.

Gruesome Discovery

Early in the morning on April 28th, 1908, a fire destroyed the Gunness farmhouse. When the embers cooled, town authorities found the headless body of a woman, believed to be Belle, and three of her children: Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson, and Phillip Gunness.

Initially, investigators believed Gunness was the innocent victim of foul play, until Asle Helgelien arrived in La Porte to look for his brother, Andrew. Asle insisted his brother had met with foul play at the hands of Belle, and demanded they needed to search the farm for his remains. Investigators soon found the dismembered bodies of at least 11 people, including three adolescents, an infant, and a woman. One of the bodies belonged to Belle’s foster daughter Jennie Olsen, who was last seen in 1906. The butchered body parts were found in gunny sacks buried near the hog pen.

Belle’s dentist said that if Belle’s head or dentures were found, he could positively identify her by examining her teeth. After searching the burnt-out remains of the house, investigators found a piece of bridgework consisting of two human teeth, some porcelain teeth, and gold crown work in between. The dentist identified them as the bridge he designed for Belle. Based on this evidence, the coroner’s inquest ruled that the headless female body found in the house belonged to Belle.

When authorities determined the fire was caused by arson, Gunness’ farm hand, Ray Lamphere, became the prime suspect. In November 1908, Lamphere was convicted of setting the house on fire, but he wasn’t convicted of any of the murders. In January of 1910 Lamphere made a deathbed confession to a clergyman. He claimed that although he didn’t kill anyone, he did help Belle dispose of the bodies. 

Lamphere said that when a man answered an ad and came to the farm to meet Belle, she would invite her prey to dinner. During dinner she would either drug her date and hit him over the head with a meat cleaver, or poison the food with strychnine. Belle would butcher and dismember the corpse, then either feed the remains to the hogs or bury the body parts near the hog pen.

Lamphere also claimed that they traveled to Chicago a few days before the fire to find a body double for Belle. They brought back a “housekeeper,” who Gunness killed and decapitated.

In the years that followed, some came to believe there were further victims left on Gunness’ farm. The number of men who had visited Gunness and subsequently been reported missing outnumbered the bodies recovered, and it’s said the authorities never searched the property thoroughly in 1908. (A list of Belle’s suspected victims can be found here.)

Resurrection of a Killer

Many people believed that investigators mishandled and misinterpreted the evidence in the early twentieth century, letting The Mistress of Murder Farm escape unscathed. Like Leatherface or Hannibal Lecter, who survive to kill another day, Gunness was reportedly seen for years after the fire.

The last sighting was in 1931, when a woman named Esther Carlson, who had an uncanny physical resemblance to Belle, died in Los Angeles while awaiting trial on charges she poisoned a man for his money. Not only did Carlson resemble Gunness, she was about the same age Belle would have been in 1931. Esther also killed with Belle’s M.O., and there was no record of her before 1908.

To find out if Belle and Esther were the same woman, Stephen Nawrocki and a team of University of Indianapolis graduate students exhumed Belle’s coffin in November of 2007. They hoped to use DNA analysis to identify the remains, but samples from the still-sealed flap of an envelope that Belle had sent to one of her suitors proved too degraded to be useful. A woman from Norway, a direct descendent of Belle’s grandmother, offered her DNA to compare to the bones in Belle’s grave. But there was not enough money to get the samples examined, and they remain untested in a crime lab in Texas. 

The team had also been surprised to find the skeletal remains of two children in Belle’s coffin. Nawrocki and his students returned in 2008 to exhume the bodies of Gunness’ three children, hoping to see if they were missing the bones that were found in the coffin. If not, it could mean Belle killed more children than initially believed. However, at the time of this writing the osteological exam of the children found in “Belle’s” coffin in 2008 was unavailable.

Whenever and wherever she was when she died, Belle seems to have taken her secrets to the grave.

References:

Belle’s Story: The Short Version (2012). Retrieved on May 18, 2014 from:http://www.laportelibrary.org/genealogy/bellegunness.html

Bien, K. (2011 November 14). HOMETOWN SECRETS: Mystery still surrounds 100-year-old LaPorte serial killer story. Retrieved on May 16, 2014 from:http://www.orlandosentinel.com/topic/wsbt-mystery-still-surrounds-100-year-old-laporte-serial-killer-story-20111114,0,7428674.story

Hartzell, T. (2007 November 18). Did Belle Gunness really die in LaPorte? Retrieved on May 16, 2014 from: http://articles.southbendtribune.com/2007-11-18/news/26809754_1_exhumed-three-children-dna

Kridel, K. (2008 February 17). Unlocking secrets of Indiana “murder farm.” Retrieved on May 16, 2014 from:http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2004186653_farmmurders17.html

Kridel, K. (2008 May 14). Children’s remains exhumed in 100-year-old murder mystery. Retrieved on May 16, 2014 from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-05-14/news/0805130697_1_exhumed-murder-mystery-three-children

McFeely, D. (2008 January 6). DNA to help solve century-old case. Retrieved on May 18, 2014 from: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-01-06-GNS-murder-me_N.htm

For more fascinating stories of forensic anthropology visit Dolly Stolze’s Strange Remains, where a version of this article also appeared