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People came from near and far to watch as police investigated these horrific crimes.

Black Widow

Belle Sorenson Gunness was a six-foot-tall Norwegian-American woman who killed between 25- 40 people in her lifetime, some say many more. Nicknamed “Lady Bluebeard,” Gunness allegedly killed several of her suitors, boyfriends, husbands, and children. But why? She committed these murders to collect large sums of money in life insurance (as well as other valuables), then killed her witnesses?

A series of suspicious fires and deaths (mostly resulting in insurance awards) followed. Belle also began posting notices in lovelorn columns to entice wealthy men to her farm, after which they were never seen again. Authorities eventually found the remains of over 40 victims on her property, but Belle disappeared without a trace.

Children in La Porte, Indiana, grew 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.

Over a span of about five years, she killed at least 25 people that are considered substantiated victims because they were listed as missing, and their bodies were recovered at the farm. But Gunness may have killed many, many more. Some estimates put it closer to 100.

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.

Belle Gunness and her three children. Often pictured with three children, Lucy, Myrtle and Phillip. But she also took in other children at the farm, either orphans or those who came with their fathers.

Belle Sorenson Gunness’ origins are a matter of some debate. Most of her biographers state that she was born on November 11, 1859, near the lake of Selbu, S?r-Tr?ndelag, Norway, and christened Brynhild Paulsdatter St?rset. Her parents were Paul Pedersen St?rset (a stonemason) and Berit Olsdatter. She was the youngest of their eight children. They lived at St?rsetgjerdet, a very small cotter’s farm in Innbygda, 60?km southeast of Trondheim, the largest city in central Norway (Tr?ndelag).

An Irish TV documentary tells a common, but unverified, story about Gunness’ early life. The story holds that, in 1877, Gunness attended a country dance while pregnant. There she was attacked by a man who kicked her in the abdomen, causing her to miscarry the child. The man, who came from a rich family, was never prosecuted by the Norwegian authorities. According to people who knew her, her personality changed markedly. The man who attacked her died shortly afterwards. His cause of death was said to be stomach cancer. Having grown up in poverty, Gunness took service the next year on a large, wealthy farm and served there for three years in order to pay for a trip across the Atlantic.

Following the example of a sister, Nellie Larson, who had immigrated to America earlier, Gunness moved to the United States in 1881 and assumed a more American-style name.

Initially, she worked as a servant (or even as a farmgirl); but the newly re-labelled ?Belle? was both ambitious and avaricious. Her sister allegedly stated (years later): “Belle was crazy for money. It was her great weakness.”

Belle Gunness as a young woman. Belle Gunness killed around 40 people, according to estimates, while others speculate there are well over a hundred victims.

In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, Illinois, where, two years later, they opened a confectionery store. The business was not successful; within a year the shop mysteriously burned down. They collected insurance, which paid for another home.

Though some researchers assert that the Sorenson union produced no offspring, other investigators report that the couple had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy, allegedly of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis ? nausea, fever, diarrhea, and lower abdominal pain and cramping ? are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. Both Caroline’s and Axel’s lives were reportedly insured, and the insurance company paid out.

A May 7, 1908 article in?The New York Times?states that two children belonging to Gunness and her husband Mads Sorensen were interred in her plot in Forest Home cemetery.

On June 13, 1900, Gunness and her family were counted on the United States Census in Chicago. The census recorded her as the mother of four children, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A., 3, and Lucy B. An adopted 10-year-old girl, identified possibly as Morgan Couch but apparently later known as Jennie Olsen, also was counted in the household.

Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, reportedly the only day on which two life insurance policies on him overlapped. The first doctor to see him thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorensons’ family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart, and he concluded that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was considered unnecessary because the death was not thought suspicious. Gunness told the doctor that she had given her late husband medicinal “powders” to help him feel better.

She applied for the insurance money the day after her husband’s funeral. Sorenson’s relatives claimed that Gunness had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance. Surviving records suggest that an inquest was ordered.?The insurance companies awarded her $8,500 (about $217,000 in 2008 dollars), with which she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana.

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.

Unsurprisingly, Belle still strongly believed in insurance; her husband?s untimely demise racked up another $3,000 (some sources say $4,000). Local people refused to believe that Gunness could be so clumsy. He?d run a hog farm on the property and was known to be an experienced butcher; the district coroner reviewed the case and unequivocally announced: “This was murder!” He convened a coroner’s jury to look into the matter. Meanwhile, Jennie Olson, then aged fourteen, was overheard confessing to a classmate: “My momma killed my poppa. She hit him with a cleaver.” Jennie was brought before the coroner’s jury but denied having made the remark. While she testified, Belle sat nearby at a witness table – silently glowering at her. Then Belle took the stand and tearfully told her tale.

She managed to convince the coroner’s jury that she was innocent of any wrongdoing; she cast herself in the role of disadvantaged single parent – a woman left alone with the responsibility of raising children without the help of a strong man. Belle was pregnant (in the Spring of 1903, a son – named Philip – was born) and the jurors must have been swayed by her apparent hardships. She was released and the matter was dropped.

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.

People came from near and far to view the crime scene after many bodies were discovered at Belle Gunness’ farm in 1908.

Several middle-aged men of means responded to Gunness’ ads. One of these was John Moe, who arrived from Elbow Lake, Minnesota. He had brought more than $1,000 with him to pay off her mortgage, or so he told neighbors, whom Gunness introduced him to as her cousin. He disappeared from her farm within a week of his arrival. Next came George Anderson from Tarkio, Missouri who, like Peter Gunness and John Moe, was an immigrant from Norway.

During dinner with Anderson, she raised the issue of her mortgage. Anderson agreed that he would pay this off if they decided to wed. Late that night, Anderson awoke to see her standing over him, holding a guttering candle in her hand and with a strange, sinister expression on her face. Without uttering a word, she ran from the room. Anderson fled from the house, soon taking a train to Missouri.

Belle generally employed a single hand to help run the farm; in 1906 she engaged Ray Lamphere, a sombre little man with a drooping moustache, to perform the chores. Later in the same year, Jennie dropped out of sight. When neighbours inquired about her, Belle told them that she had sent to a Lutheran College in Los Angeles (some neighbours were informed that it was a finishing school for young ladies). In fact, Jennie had been killed and her body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother’s property.

The suitors kept coming, but none, except for Anderson, ever left the Gunness farm. By this time, she had begun ordering huge trunks to be delivered to her home. Hack driver Clyde Sturgis delivered many such trunks to her from La Porte and later remarked how the heavyset woman would lift these enormous trunks “like boxes of marshmallows”, tossing them onto her wide shoulders and carrying them into the house. She kept the shutters of her house closed day and night; farmers traveling past the dwelling at night saw her digging in the hog pen.

Ole B. Budsberg, an elderly widower from Iola, Wisconsin, appeared next. He was last seen alive at the La Porte Savings Bank on April 6, 1907, when he mortgaged his Wisconsin land there, signing over a deed and obtaining several thousand dollars in cash. Ole B. Budsberg’s sons, Oscar and Mathew Budsberg, had no idea that their father had gone off to visit Gunness. When they finally discovered his destination, they wrote to her; she promptly responded, saying she had never seen their father.

Several other middle-aged men appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm throughout 1907. Then, in December 1907, Andrew Helgelien, a bachelor farmer from Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote to her and was warmly received. The pair exchanged many letters, until a letter that overwhelmed Helgelien, written in Gunness’ own careful handwriting and dated January 13, 1908. This letter was later found at the Helgelien farm. It read:

To the Dearest Friend in the World: No woman in the world is happier than I am. I know that you are now to come to me and be my own. I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want. It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know. Think how we will enjoy each other’s company. You, the sweetest man in the whole world. We will be all alone with each other. Can you conceive of anything nicer? I think of you constantly. When I hear your name mentioned, and this is 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 to my ears. My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.

In response to her letter, Helgelien flew to her side in January 1908. He had with him a check for $2,900, his savings, which he had drawn from his local bank. A few days after Helgelien arrived, he and Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank in La Porte and deposited the check. Helgelien vanished a few days later, but Gunness appeared at the Savings Bank to make a $500 deposit and another deposit of $700 in the State Bank. At this time, she started to have problems with Ray Lamphere.

The bodies were found in Gunness’ home when it burnt to the ground.

In March 1908, Gunness sent several letters to a farmer and horse dealer in Topeka, Kansas named Lon Townsend, inviting him to visit her; he decided to put off the visit until spring, and thus did not see her before a fire at her farm. Gunness was also in correspondence with a man from Arkansas and sent him a letter dated May 4, 1908. He would have visited her, but did not because of the fire at her farm. Gunness allegedly promised marriage to a suitor Bert Albert, which did not go through because of his lack of wealth.

The hired hand Ray Lamphere was deeply in love with Gunness; he performed any chore for her, no matter how gruesome. He became jealous of the many men who arrived to court his employer and began making scenes. She fired him on February 3, 1908. Shortly after dispensing with Lamphere, she presented herself at the La Porte courthouse. She declared that her former employee was not in his right mind and was a menace to the public. She somehow convinced local authorities to hold a sanity hearing. Lamphere was pronounced sane and released. Gunness was back a few days later to complain to the sheriff that Lamphere had visited her farm and argued with her. She contended that he posed a threat to her family and had Lamphere arrested for trespassing.

Investigators stand in front of a hole where bodies were found buried in 1908.

Lamphere returned again and again to see her, but she drove him away. Lamphere made thinly disguised threats; on one occasion, he confided to farmer William Slater, “Helgelien won’t bother me no more. We fixed him for keeps.” Helgelien had long since disappeared from the precincts of La Porte, or so it was believed. However, his brother, Asle Helgelien, was disturbed when Andrew failed to return home and he wrote to Belle in Indiana, asking her about his sibling’s whereabouts. Gunness wrote back, telling Asle Helgelien that his brother was not at her farm and probably went to Norway to visit relatives. Asle Helgelien wrote back saying that he did not believe his brother would do that; moreover, he believed that his brother was still in the La Porte area, the last place he was seen or heard from. Gunness brazened it out; she told him that if he wanted to come and look for his brother, she would help conduct a search, but she cautioned him that searching for missing persons was an expensive proposition. If she were to be involved in such a manhunt, she stated, Asle Helgelien should be prepared to pay her for her efforts. Asle Helgelien did come to La Porte, but not until May.

Lamphere represented an unresolved danger to her; now Asle Helgelien was making inquiries that could very well send her to the gallows. She told a lawyer in La Porte, M.E. Leliter, that she feared for her life and that of her children. Ray Lamphere, she said, had threatened to kill her and burn her house down. She wanted to make out a will, in case Lamphere went through with his threats. Leliter complied and drew up her will. She left her entire estate to her children and then departed Leliter’s offices. She went to one of the La Porte banks holding the mortgage for her property and paid this off. She did not go to the police to tell them about Lamphere’s allegedly life-threatening conduct. The reason for this, most later concluded, was that there had been no threats; she was merely setting the stage for her own arson.

Police hired a gold miner to sift through the rubble of the fire. He is searching for Gunness’ teeth. Investigators hoped to ID the woman’s body through dental work.

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.

The burnt corpse of the adult female bore some resemblance to Indiana?s Lady Bluebeard, but there was a grain of doubt.?Lamphere, was convicted of arson, and later said that he had set the fire, and that she had gotten away. The body that had been found, he said, was that of a woman who had come to the farm as a housekeeper. He also said Belle had stolen about a quarter of a million dollars (more than $8?million today) from her victims.

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.

Investigators dig up bodies on Belle Gunness’ property.

One man reportedly got away from Belle. This man was surprised to find such a large woman – 6 feet tall and 200 pounds (as opposed to comely, as advertised) – but he stayed and ate a meal with plans of staying for just a day or two. He had gone to bed but awakened, startled to see Belle leaning over him with a candle and a wet rag in her hands. He jumped up, knocked her down and ran out of the house in his bare feet – all the way to the train station. Embarrassed, he reportedly kept this story to himself until after the slayings were discovered.

She was good. .. very good, most of the men probably did not last the night.

Her murder spree ended in April 1908, when the kerosene-drenched house on McClung Road burned to the ground, leaving the three bodies, which authorities believed to be those of Gunness and two of her children.

The brother of one of the missing men showed up and demanded to know whether his brother’s body had been found. That led police to search the property, and the horrible truth came to light.

Police removed bags of torsos, heads, arms and legs from shallow pits as large crowds watched.

The case was so shocking that LaPorte became the center of a media storm, with reporters from across the country arriving to cover the story.

Shortly after the fire and the subsequent unearthing of the bones, Gunness’ handyman, Ray Lamphere, was tried on charges of murder and arson. Lamphere’s attorneys were able to raise enough doubt to clear him of murder, but he was convicted of helping to torch the farmhouse.

Years later, while still in prison, Lamphere made a death-bed confession that he had helped Belle dispose of her victims, and that in the days just before the fire, he traveled with her to Chicago to find a woman whose physical attributes were close to Belle’s ? the perfect body double.

Local banks, ?also confirmed that before the fire, Belle had emptied out her hefty accounts.?The most sought-after evidence needed?? other than DNA ? are trial transcripts prepared for Lamphere’s appeal.?The state of Indiana apparently has boxes of early 1900s legal documents collected from the archives of the Indiana Court of Appeals, but they are not organized and would take many hours to sift through.

The biggest questions are who died in the fire, and how many people did she really kill? And who are they?

The bodies of Belle’s three children were found in the burnt out basement next to the body of a headless woman.

For the next 100 years, rumours 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.

The answer could be found in the bones unearthed from a Chicago cemetery in November ? and an envelope that may bear traces of the killer’s saliva beneath its stamp. In that saliva could be the DNA clue that clinches the identity of those bones.

“It makes me doubt every conclusion these people came to,” said Nawrocki.

So far, researchers checking the bones have an age range, height range and some information on their structure, but little else. If they can extract DNA from the bones, they will try for a match from the envelope.

“Is it her? That’s what we will be trying to find out,” said Andrea?Simmons, a Zionsville, Ind. attorney who is researching one of Indiana’s most notorious killing sprees, who will be getting help from the Indiana State Police and the FBI crime labs.

If this DNA test is not enough, Simmons is ready to travel to California to dig up two more graves ? those of Belle’s older sister and Esther Carlson, who was accused of poisoning a man for his money in 1931 and who bore a striking resemblance to Gunness.

“I had often wished that somehow we could prove by present-day DNA, to all the naysayers, that it was not Belle in that grave!” said Suzanne McKay, of Portland, Ore., the great-granddaughter of Nellie Larson, Belle’s older sister. McKay has spent years researching her relative and is eager to know for certain whether Gunness was buried in that grave.

She figures Gunness killed a young woman from Chicago, beheaded her the night before the fire and put her in the basement to make it look as if she died in the blaze.

Investigators dig up bodies on Belle Gunness’ property.

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.

Unfortunately, there was not enough DNA there, so efforts continue to find a reliable source for comparison purposes, including the disinterment of additional bodies and contact with known living relatives.

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

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