When most people think about female American serial killers – not that most people often do – their list begins and ends with Aileen Wuornos. Aileen was the Florida prostitute convicted of killing six men; the body of a seventh victim attributed to her was never found.
Intensified by her extraordinary courtroom outbursts, Aileen’s trial was heavily publicized. After all, it exposed her deep-seeded hatred of all men dating to her youth in Michigan, where the men in her life objectified her and some may have even raped her. Through her murders, she seemed to say that she would never be victimized again.
At the time of her death by lethal injection in 2002, Aileen was only the tenth woman to be executed in the United States since the country’s ban on capital punishment was lifted in 1976.
But the public was so gripped by Aileen’s story that it was made into countless documentaries and feature films, and earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress. That’s why we remember Aileen.
But what if I told you that, although prolific, Aileen’s exploits were paltry in comparison to an Indiana woman you’ve probably never heard of?
Meet Belle Gunness…
The story of Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth in 1859, begins in her native Norway. Her career as a killer was apparently set in motion around age 18.
According to one account, during her first pregnancy, she was attacked by a man at a country dance. The man kicked her in the abdomen, ultimately causing her to miscarry. Never prosecuted by Norwegian authorities, the man who attacked her died shortly afterwards of a reported stomach cancer.
In a more poetic version of the same story, as a 17-year old farmhand, Belle learned she was pregnant by the son of the landlord. Unwilling to marry her, the man reportedly beat her until she miscarried. And it was he who died less than a year later of an illness that resembled poisoning, though that would never be proven.
In either case, with things not working out for her in Norway, she emigrated to the United States in 1881 and assumed the more American-sounding “Belle.” She too would never be victimized again.
Within three years, Belle married a Chicago man named Mads Sorenson, and it was around this time that a foster daughter, later known as Jennie Olsen, was placed in her care. Together, the couple had four children, but sadly, two of them died in infancy, allegedly of acute colitis, the symptoms of which are also associated with many forms of poisoning. Interestingly, both lives were reportedly insured, and the insurance company made payments to the family.
In 1900, Mads himself became violently ill and died – coincidentally on the only day that two insurance policies on his life overlapped. An attending physician and subsequently the Sorensen family suspected strychnine poisoning, but the family doctor claimed he was treating Mads for an enlarged heart and that this was the cause of his death.
In either case, the insurance companies paid Belle $8,500 (roughly a quarter million in today’s dollars), and with things now heating up for her in Chicago, Belle used the money to purchase a farm in La Porte, Indiana. There, she married Peter Gunness in 1902 and became stepmother to his two daughters.
Reportedly just one week after the ceremony, Peter’s infant daughter died under dubious circumstances while alone in the house with Belle. In December of the same year, Peter met with a bizarre accident: according to Belle, part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, fatally striking him in the head. Belle’s adopted daughter, Jennie, apparently told a classmate that her mother had killed Peter with a meat cleaver, but denied saying anything of the sort when authorities questioned her later.
Ultimately, Peter’s death may have netted Belle another $4,000, more than $100,000 today. Amid the strange circumstances, Peter’s brother took guardianship of Peter’s older daughter, removing her from Belle’s custody and effectively saving her life.
That left Jennie and Belle’s two remaining children from her marriage to Mads Sorensen. But wait … In May, 1903, a baby boy named Phillip joined the family. Belle had been pregnant with Peter’s child when she offed him with a meat cleaver.
In 1906, Belle began telling neighbors that Jennie had gone away to a Lutheran college in Los Angeles (it’s interesting that Belle would expressly mention Los Angeles, as it comes up again in this story). In fact, Jennie’s body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother’s property.
Beginning in late 1906 or early 1907, Belle started placing personal ads in local newspapers, and a steady stream of middle-aged male suitors appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm over the next year and a half. They may have numbered more than 40.
Belle would take their money, kill them, dismember them, and bury them in the yard – perhaps also feeding some to her pigs. Her preferred method seems to have been poison and then hacking them to death as they slept or were otherwise incapacitated; the scale of her crimes simply leaves no time for her to have waited until they died from the effects of the poison.
Such was the carnage that in 1907, she hired a farmhand named Ray Lamphere to help with chores – like digging holes around the farm. Ray fell in love with Gunness and almost certainly was privy to her gruesome secret.
A year later, Belle went to a La Porte lawyer to make out a will. She told him she had fired Rayand that he threatened to kill her – that she feared for her life and wanted to have things in order. Within weeks, the Gunness farm suspiciously burned to the ground, and Belle Gunness disappeared from history.
In the aftermath, authorities quickly found four charred bodies – three children and a headless woman who in life was estimated to be about 5’3” tall weighing no more than 150 pounds.
Did the farmhand kill the family to avenge his termination? Or was it all a ruse, conceived by Belle, to stave off inquiries from the families of her dead suitors?
A Trail of Lies and Bodies
Belle Gunness was a robust woman – at least 5’8”, perhaps up to 6’ tall, likely weighing more than 200 pounds. Neighbors and even her tailors who viewed the small-framed body from the fire unequivocally stated that it could not be Belle’s. What’s more, Belle was seen with her old farmhand and an unidentified woman during the previous few days. Local police were quickly convinced that the headless female was not Belle.
Curiously, there is some speculation that the local sheriff was paid off to plant the bridgework after the fire – which may explain why it survived the blaze intact, why it was overlooked when the body was first found, and why the coroner came to such a certain conclusion despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Over the subsequent few months, body parts from what appeared to be 40 different people were found strewn all over the property (though mostly in the hog pen), and a more elaborate tale began to emerge.
It was revealed that Belle’s bank accounts were emptied in the days leading up to the fire. And although his story changed over time, Ray reportedly confessed that he helped Belle fake her death and saw her board a train to Chicago.
He reportedly also said that the kids had to die because they were beginning to ask questions, and that he helped Belle identify and hire a housekeeper – the woman who would stand in for her in death. The confessions came in the 13 months after Ray was convicted of arson, but acquitted of murder, partly on the argument that the female body recovered from the fire was not Belle. He died while in prison in December, 1909, apparently not worth enough for Belle to have killed and dismembered him.
Belle’s closest friend in La Porte had been an eccentric local psychic and voodoo woman named Elizabeth Smith, an African-American who may have been born a slave. Her home was a dilapidated shack a mere 15-minute walk from the Gunness farm. When Elizabeth died in 1916, neighbors rummaging through her belongings retrieved a woman’s skull wedged between two mattresses. Although an intriguing find, she certainly seemed the type to have owned such a thing – perhaps for use in her spells – and a connection to the headless female corpse was never made.
Life After Death
Even before it became known that Belle may have faked her own death, supposed Belle sightings began to spring up. Just days after the fire, at least one Indiana train worker claimed to have seen Belle boarding a train bound for Chicago. By that time, her photo was plastered all over the local papers, but given the coroner’s assertion, the sighting was eventually dismissed.
A local delivery boy who had brought some groceries to Elizabeth’s home three days after the fire later said he saw Belle standing in her kitchen. Terrified, however, he didn’t tell anyone for years, and of course, his story would never be verified.
In the two decades that followed, many other purported sightings were investigated and also dismissed.
Then in 1930, the sheriff of Hinds County, Mississippi, received a tip that a 70-yr old widow living on an estate in Harrison County, some 150 miles away, was none other than Belle Gunness. The tip reportedly came from a man who had worked on the Gunness farm back in La Porte more than 20 years earlier, but the sheriff did not get the tipster’s name. Why the tip was turned in to the Hinds County sheriff – and not the sheriff of Harrison County, where the woman lived – is also peculiarly unclear.
Nevertheless, the woman in question reportedly made occasional visits to Illinois and Indiana, and her husband had died the previous year – of natural causes, it was believed. Moreover, she had lived on the estate for only the previous 13 years, and her history prior to 1917 was apparently a matter of some debate. Unfortunately, as she was of some prominence in the community, she was never arrested or interrogated.
However compelling, even this sighting was put aside when the curious case of Esther Carlson came to light the following year.
In 1931, in Los Angeles, a heavyset woman in her 70’s going by the name of Esther Carlson, was arrested for the fatal poisoning of an 81-year old man named August Lindstrom, who she apparently murdered for his money.
Suspicions immediately arose that this could be Belle, but Esther contracted tuberculosis and quickly died in prison while awaiting trial. Her true identity was still in doubt, and the story of her life prior to that year remained completely unsubstantiated.
Esther’s modus operandi certainly fit. Additionally, she was of Scandinavian descent, and her possessions reportedly included old photographs of what looked strikingly like the Gunness children.
Authorities in Indiana were contacted, and they arranged for two former La Porte residents who had known Belle to view the body – one via photograph and one actually at the morgue. Both, separately, came away convinced they had just seen the body of the murderess Belle Gunness.
The man who viewed the body in the Los Angeles morgue had interacted with Belle “hundreds of times” back in La Porte. He said that this body had Belle’s fingers, eyes, hairlines, and a characteristic “twist” on her lips, all of which he asserted were unique to Belle.
At first blush, the man who viewed the photo was said to have remarked, “That sure looks like Belle Gunness, except that Belle had a wart on her face, and this lady doesn’t.” However, he too ultimately asserted that the person in the photo could only be Belle. Later, knowing that commercial photographs of the time were often retouched, police obtained a negative of the picture. The woman did, indeed, have a distinctive wart on her face.
Belle is believed to have netted more than $200,000 in insurance payments and stolen savings, roughly $6 million today, and to have had a hand in as many as 50 murders – 10 times that of her contemporary Jack the Ripper.
Comparatively, the case for Esther as Belle is more compelling than the early 1900’s sightings of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy put together.
Unfortunately, attempts to analyze DNA from the remains of the headless female in the Sorensen grave, as well as from the body of Esther Carlson, who was buried in California, remain ongoing and have thus far been inconclusive.
Meanwhile, recent psychological profiles of Belle suggest that she was not suicidal; that she was certainly a survivor and gifted liar, probably cunning and psychopathic enough to have killed her own children to evade the law; and that she probably would continue killing for money, if alive.
Given the psychological clues and physical evidence, experts generally agree that Belle Gunness eventually died somewhere other than in La Porte, Indiana – perhaps in Los Angeles, plying her trade until the end.