Guest Author - Vance R. Rowe
On April 28, 1908, authorities of LaPorte, Indiana were called out to the Gunness farm to investigate a fire that destroyed the farmhouse. Combing through the ashes, authorities found the remains of three children and that of a woman sans the head. The remains found were thought to be of Belle Gunness and her three children, Lucy Sorenson, 9, Myrtle Sorenson, 11, and Philip Gunness, 5.
A man named Asle Helgelien arrived at the farm during the investigation and told authorities that he believed his brother, Andrew was murdered by Belle, earlier in the year. Investigators began searching the property and unearthed the remains of at least eleven people buried near the hog pen. Reports vary at the amount of remains that were eventually found on the property at the end of McClung Road in LaPorte. Anywhere between 20 and thirty people were found there. All told it was estimated that Belle Gunness had killed at least forty people, becoming one of America’s most prolific serial killers, that you have probably never heard of.
Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth in Norway in 1859, Belle immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in 1881 at the age of 21. This was soon followed by a series of insurance frauds and crimes that escalated into murder.
In 1884, three years after her move to the U.S., she married her first husband, Mads Sorenson. They opened a confectionary store that soon failed and the store eventually burned down under suspicious circumstances Belle and Mads Sorenson collected the insurance money on the business and used it to buy a new home. They had two biological children, the aforementioned Myrtle and Lucy. The couple also had one foster child, Jennie Olsen.
Mads Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, ironically on the only day that his two insurance policies overlapped. The doctor who examined the body said he believed that Mads suffered from strychnine poisoning. However, the family doctor who had been treating Mads Sorenson for an enlarged heart overruled the first doctor and reported that he had died from heart failure. Belle Sorenson collected the insurance money, moved to LaPorte, Indiana and purchased a 42-acre farm.
Belle soon met a local butcher named Peter Gunness and they were married in April of 1902. One week after the marriage, his infant daughter died while Belle was watching her and less than a year later, Peter was killed “accidentally” when a sausage grinder and a container of hot water fell on him. Believing that Peter Gunness was murdered after showing symptoms of strychnine poisoning and ordered an inquest.
However, Belle played the part of a convincing widow in mourning and since there was no hard evidence to convict Belle, she walked away scot-free, pregnant, and was able to collect on another husband’s life insurance policy. In 1903, Belle Gunness gave birth to a son, Philip Gunness. Convincing as a mourner, Belle was quick to get back on the horse, as it were, and placed ads in the personal columns of Midwestern Norwegian-language newspapers.
Her ad had said that a woman who owns a farm is looking for a good and reliable man. Her ad also said that they must bring some money with them and they will be furnished with first-class security. Many men answered the ad over the weeks, each one of them bringing money with them and each one then disappearing for good. When the farm house mysteriously burned down, a farm hand named Ray Lamphere was arrested and charged with the fire and the murders. However, he was convicted of the arson but cleared of the murder charges.
Ray Lamphere eventually died in prison but not before confessing that it was Belle Gunness who started the fire and committed the murders and that the woman’s body they found was not Belle but of a housekeeper they hired, that was the same size and look of Belle. He said that she emptied the bank accounts of all of the monies and fled. Whether Belle died in that fire or not, is still a mystery today.