A nightmare at Murder Farm: The story of one of America’s most prolific serial killers

Belle Gunness and her three children.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

Belle Gunness and her three children. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Children in La Porte, Indiana grow up listening to graphic horror stories about the gruesome murder’s 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 who 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 remains were thought to belong to 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.

Rumors circulated for the next 100 years that Hell’s Belle didn’t actually die in the fire and she probably faked her death. So in 2007, forensic anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki, and a group of graduate students from the University of Indianapolis exhumed Belle Gunness’ grave at the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, IL to see if they could positively identify her body.

When the research team exhumed Gunness’ coffin and sifted through the bones and dirt they found the bones of children comingled with Belle’s remains. This is odd because the remains of the three children recovered from the farmhouse in 1908 were buried separately. In 2008 Nawrocki and his team returned to the Chicago-area cemetery and exhumed the graves of Lucy, Myrtle, and Phillip.

The forensic team had to answer some lingering questions. Did Belle Gunness really die in the fire in 1908? Did the children’s bones, found in Belle’s coffin, belong to her 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, IN 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 when a sausage grinder and jar of hot water allegedly fell on him. In this case the coroner believed Peter had been murdered, he showed symptoms of strychnine poisoning, and ordered an inquest.

Because the 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 another husband’s life insurance policies. But she was pregnant at the time of Peter’s death, and in 1903 the widow gave birth to a son, Philip Gunness.

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, SD 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 North Dakota to meet Belle. That was the last his family ever saw or heard from him.

Gruesome Discovery

Investigators digging in Belle's basement   after the fire. Image Credit: La Porte County Historical Society

Investigators digging in Belle’s basement
after the fire. Image Credit: La Porte County Historical Society

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 Gunness, and three of her children of 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 he insisted they needed to search the farm for his remains. Investigators soon found the dismembered bodies of at least 11 people, which included three adolescents, an infant, and a woman. One of the 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, porcelain teeth, and gold crown work in between. The dentist identified them as the bridge he designed for Belle. The coroner’s inquest ruled that the headless female body found in the house belonged to Belle based on this evidence,

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 not of any of the murders. In January of 1910 Lamphere made a deathbed confession to a clergyman. He claimed that he didn’t kill anyone but he did help Belle dispose of the bodies. A list of Belle’s suspected victims can be found here.

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.

Since the men reported missing who visited Gunness outnumbered the bodies recovered, and since the authorities never searched the property thoroughly in 1908, many believe that that remains of many more victims were left on the property, and likely between 25 and 30 people.

Resurrection of a Killer

Many people believed that investigators mishandled and misinterpreted 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 sightings were reported 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, but she was also about the same age Belle would have been in 1931, Esther killed with Belle’s M.O., and there was no record of Carlson before 1908.

To find out if Belle and Esther were the same woman a team University of Indianapolis forensic anthropologists exhumed Belle’s coffin in November of 2007.  When the coffin was opened, they were surprised to find the skeletal remains of two children comingled with the remains of a woman.   The forensic team believed the mysterious remains could belong to other victims whose bones had been buried in the basement, and were carelessly scooped out of the ashes during the original investigation in 1908.

To forensic anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki this confirmed that the initial 1908 investigations of the fire and murders were bungled. In 2008 the University of Indianapolis forensic team returned to the cemetery to exhume the graves of the three children found with Gunness’ body. They wanted to see if the three children buried in Chicago-area graves were missing the same bones found in the Gunness’ coffin. If not, it’s likely Belle killed more children than originally believed.

The family of one of Belle’s victims gave Nawrocki and his team an envelope sent from the LaPorte Black Widow to one of her suitors. Since the envelope was opened with a letter opener, it was believed that the saliva under the still-sealed envelope flap could contain DNA that the team could compare to the remains in the Gunness coffin. Nawrocki’s team also wanted to do test the DNA of the children’s bones found in the coffin to see if they were her biological offspring.

When the forensic anthropologists measured the bones they found Gunness’ grave they found the adult remains belonged to a woman who would have stood between 5’6” and 5’9”. Since Gunness was 5’8” or 5’9”, depending on reports, she is well within this range of the bones in the coffin.

Was there a sequel?

Did Hell’s Belle die in that fire on April 28th, 1908?

That answer seems unclear even today.

Nawrocki and the University of Indianapolis team were hoping to have DNA test results by the 100th anniversary of the fire on April 28th, 2008. But definitive answers still remained elusive.

The DNA samples on the envelope and stamp were too old to get a viable sample.  At the time this article was written the results of the osteological exam of the children found in “Belle’s” coffin in 2008 were not released.

In 2008, one of Nawrocki’s students, Andrea Simmons, announced that she hoped to exhume the graves of Belle’s older sister and Esther Carlson to see if she could get a DNA match.

A version of this story was published on Atlas Obscura for their Morbid Monday series.

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

 



Categories: Forensic Science

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11 replies

  1. Steve Nawrocki is actually at the University of Indianapolis, not the University of Indiana.

  2. Thanks for the update on the Search For Belle. I remember hearing about the push to do DNA testing, and I’ve been wondering what, if anything, ever happened with that.

  3. This story reminds me of the serial killer in our area… whom we share our family name with… Henry Powers of Clarksburg, West Virginia… he was also a northern European, who was known for killing multiple wives from around our area… also lured in victim/ wifes with the letters in the paper… so strange!

  4. Wow that is gruesome! The woman looks mean but who wouldda thunk it? Yikes!

  5. Reblogged this on S.K. Epperson and commented:
    The crimes are so similar, Belle Gunness sounds like she could have been one of the Bloody Benders.

  6. She would be a great movie. Get Rob Zombie to direct it.

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  2. Las 5 asesinas seriales más escalofriantes de la historia – locurioxo

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