Maybe this is just plain old sexist, but when I hear about women who murder my first thought is: the guy had to have done something to deserve it. The myth of women being natural nurturers and protectors has gone by the wayside as we read about women killing their own children or committing ‘crimes of passion’ against lovers. Even now when I hear about a female killer I wince, a knee-jerk reaction as my brain hisses “A woman? She’s supposed to be the protector of children.” But the shock has worn off as I realize humans, male or female, are capable of horrendous deeds.
This came into focus as I read the true crime work Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunnes, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter.
Belle Gunness immigrated to the United States from Norway in 1881 and married Mads Sorensen in 1884. They opened up a candy store but then fell on hard times. The store burned down and investigators were a little suspicious of the cause, but Belle and Mads collected the insurance money. They produced two children who later died in infancy. That was not unusual in those days, with the infant mortality rate being high. Belle collected insurance money on the children (which set off alarm bells in my head.)
Next Mads died from heart failure. Or should I say “heart failure??” Strychnine was found in his system and his family wanted an inquest into his death, but Belle got lucky because he was previously diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Interestingly Mads happened to die on the only day his two insurance policies overlapped and Belle was left with a healthy chunk of cash. Belle bought a 42-acre farm with the money.
How do I describe Belle Gunness without sounding superficial? Maybe because she was a monster she automatically comes off as ugly. She was a big woman, close to 300 pounds, and had a sour face that in today’s parlance would be considered RBF. She was abrasive and unfriendly to townspeople.
She met and married Peter Gunness and his infant daughter mysteriously died. Peter followed shortly after by being brained to death by a meat grinder that fell off a shelf in the kitchen. Funny how a meat grinder wound looks an awful lot like a hatchet wound. But I digress. The coroner who inspected the body of Peter Gunness was suspicious that foul play was involved. Many people were suspicious of Belle. But this was 1908 and she was considered a poor widow trying to make a living off the land and raise her children.
I think I might be the only person alive who didn’t know they had lovelorn ads in newspapers back then. It was the 1908 version of Tinder but instead of swiping left or right, you wrote looking for someone to share your life with and work on a farm. Replies took six weeks. Slowest dating service ever. Belle was looking for a man to sell all his earthly goods, liquidate his assets and move to Belle’s Indiana farm.
Many men thought they had hit the jackpot and sold everything only to arrive at Belle’s and never be seen again. Ray Lamphere, Belle’s farm hand, wondered about the room stacked with steamer trunks and piles of men’s coats. Belle explained that they were left behind and that she would send them on to their owners. I don’t think Ray was an idiot. He had a room and a job at Belle’s. He just didn’t question her.
Andrew Hegelein wanted a fresh start and sold his belongings to be with Belle. He arrived and was never seen again… But Belle’s luck was beginning to run out. Hegelein’s brothers arrived and began searching for their missing sibling, poking around and asking questions about Belle.
One evening in April 1908, Belle’s farmhouse burned to the ground. After the smoldering ruins were cleared, four bodies were found. 3 were children and the adult female was believed to be Belle. Except ‘Belle’s’ head was missing. If the tragedy of a burned home and discovered bodies wasn’t bad enough, Belle’s land began to give up its ghosts. Her paramours were unearthed from their shallow graves.
In all, the bodies and bones of 40 men and children were found. Ray Lamphere was arrested and convicted of arson but not the murders. Before he died in prison not long after the verdict, he confessed that Belle herself had burned down her farmhouse and killed her children. But the headless body was not hers. He said Belle skipped town. It was never known just whose headless body was found in that house with three children huddled around it.
Over the years there were Belle Gunness sightings. People saw her board a train wearing a black veil. Belle sightings came from many states. People were positive it was the butcheress. The police didn’t put much effort into investigating the sightings. They claimed the body from the fire was Belle Gunness, even though the body was shorter and weighed less. Years later, a woman in California killed several men by poisoning them. It was said she was Belle Gunness: thinner and aged but evidently still seeking big insurance payouts. People were divided about whether she actually was the Norwegian murderess. Belle’s whereabouts and death went unconfirmed.
Death comes in every shape and size. It can be innocent and darkly alluring. It can be a sweet ad placed in a newspaper looking for love or at the very least, companionship. There’s no judgement here on how you find love, whether it be from an app or from the back of a newspaper or during last call in a poorly lit bar. But beware the P.S. “Come prepared to stay forever.”