America’s first “Black Widow” of the 20th century was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset, on November 11, 1859, in the fishing hamlet of Selbu on Norway’s west coast. The daughter of an unsuccessful merchant, Brynhild immigrated to the United States in 1881; three years later, she settled in Chicago, Americanizing her given name to “Belle” (or sometimes “Bella”). In 1884, at age 25, she married a Norwegian immigrant, Mads Sorenson.
The couple opened a confectioner’s shop in 1896, but the business was wiped out by fire the following year. Belle told her insurance agents that a kerosene lamp had exploded, and the company paid off on her policy, although no lamp was found in the wreckage. The Sorensens used their found money to purchase a
home, but fire leveled the house in 1898, bringing further insurance payments. Bad luck dogged the couple, and a second house burned down before they found a home that met their needs, on Alma Street.
As everything Belle touched was soon reduced to ashes, so her family began to dwindle in the latter 1890s. Daughter Caroline, her oldest child, went first, in 1896. Two years later, Axel, her first son, was laid to rest. In each case, the children were diagnosed as victims of “acute colitis,” demonstrating symptoms which—in hindsight—may have indicated they were poisoned.
On July 30, 1900, Mads Sorenson died at home, exhibiting the classic symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Belle admitted giving her husband “a powder,” in an effort to “help his cold,” but the family physician did not request an autopsy. With Mads under treatment for an enlarged heart, his death was automatically ascribed to natural causes.
The widow Sorenson collected her insurance money and departed from Chicago, settling outside La Porte, Indiana, with three children under her wing. Two were natural daughters: Myrtle, born in 1897, and Lucy, born in 1899. The new addition, Jennie Olsen, was a foster daughter, passed along to Belle by parents who, apparently, were tired of dealing with the child.
In April 1902, Belle married a Norwegian farmer named Peter Gunness. Less durable than Sorenson before him, Gunness lasted only eight months. On December 16, 1902, he was killed when a heavy sausage grinder “fell” from its place on a shelf, fracturing his skull. A son, named Philip, was born of the brief union in 1903, and Jennie Olsen vanished from the farm three years later. When neighbors inquired, Belle explained that her foster child had been sent “to a finishing school in California.”
Widowed for the second time, with only children to assist her on the farm, Belle started hiring drifters who would work for a while and then, apparently, move on. She also started placing “lonely hearts” ads in Norwegian- language newspapers throughout the Midwest, entertaining a series of prospective husbands at her farm. Somehow, none of them measured up to her standards . . . and none of them were ever seen again.
On April 28, 1908, the Gunness homestead was leveled by fire. Searchers, digging through the rubble, found a quartet of incinerated bodies in the basement; three were clearly children, while the fourth—a woman’s headless corpse, without the skull in evidence— was taken for the last remains of Mrs. Gunness. The local sheriff arrested handyman Ray Lamphere, employed by Belle from 1906 until his dismissal in February 1908, on charges of arson and murder.
The case became more complicated on May 5, when searchers started finding other bodies on the Gunness ranch. Dismembered, wrapped in gunny sacks, and doused with lye, a few reduced to skeletons, the corpses told a graphic tale of wholesale slaughter spanning years. The final body count has been a subject of enduring controversy. Without citing its source, the Guinness Book of World Records credited Belle with 16 known victims and another 12 “possibles.” The local coroner’s report was more modest, listing—in addition to the basement bodies—10 male victims, two females, and an unspecified quantity of human bone fragments. Belle’s suitors were buried together in the muck of a hog pen, while her female victims had been planted in a nearby garden patch.
Only six of the victims were positively identified. Jennie Olsen was there, far removed from the mythical finishing school. Farmhands Eric Gurhold and Olaf Lindblom had ended their days in the hog pen, beside farmers John Moo of Elbow Lake, Minnesota, and Ole Budsberg of lola, Wisconsin. Both of the latter had answered Belle’s newspaper ads—and so, presumably, had their six anonymous companions in death. The single
“Jane Doe,” buried beside Jennie Olsen, is an anomaly, unexplained to this day.
A coroner’s inquest was launched on April 29, and witness depositions taken through May 1 reflect a standard hearing “over the dead body of Belle Gunness.” After May 5, with the discovery of new corpses, official documents began describing the headless woman as “an unidentified adult female,” assuming that Belle might have faked her own death to escape from the scene. A futile search for the missing skull was begun on May 19, resulting in discovery of Belle’s dental bridge, complete with anchor teeth attached. Ignoring the various unanswered questions, the coroner issued his final report on May 20, declaring that Belle Gunness had died “at the hands of persons unknown.”
Ray Lamphere, from his cell, was adamant in claiming that Belle was still alive. On April 28, he said, once Belle had set the house on fire, he drove her to the railway station at Stillwell, Indiana. Police initially took his story at face value, arresting an innocent widow, Flora Heerin, en route from Chicago to visit relatives in New York City. Hauled off the train at Syracuse and briefly detained as Belle Gunness, Mrs. Heerin retaliated in a lawsuit charging Syracuse police with false arrest.
Charged with four counts of murder and one count of arson, Ray Lamphere’s case went to the jury in November 1908. On November 26, he was convicted on the arson charge alone, suggesting that the jurors felt Belle’s death had not been proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Surviving for two years in prison, Lamphere talked endlessly about the case, crediting Belle with 49 murders, netting more than $100,000 from her victims between 1903 and 1908. The basement victim, he contended, had been found in a saloon, hired for the evening, and murdered to serve as a stand-in. Belle had promised she would get in touch with Lamphere after she was settled elsewhere, but it seemed that she had changed her plans.
The first reported sighting of a resurrected Belle was logged on April 29, six days before the new bodies were found at her farm. Conductor Jesse Hurst was certain Mrs. Gunness went aboard his train at the Decatur, Indiana, station. She was bundled on a stretcher, Hurst recalled, and seemed quite ill.
Perhaps, but what are we to make of the reported sighting at La Porte on April 30? While visiting Belle’s closest friend, Almetta Hay, a local farmer claimed he saw the missing woman sitting down to coffee. When Almetta died in 1916, neighbors picking through the litter in her crowded shack retrieved a woman’s skull, wedged in between two mattresses. In spite of speculation that it might belong to the decapitated basement victim, the intriguing lead was not pursued.
More “sightings” were recorded through the years. In 1917, a childhood neighbor recognized Belle Gunness on admission as a patient to the South Bend hospital where he was working as a student nurse. He called police, but Belle had slipped away before detectives reached the scene. In 1931, a Los Angeles prosecutor wrote to La Porte’s sheriff, claiming that murder defendant Esther Carlson—charged with poisoning 81-yearold August Lindstrom for money—might be Belle Gunness. Carlson carried photographs of three children resembling Belle’s, but La Porte could not afford to send its sheriff west in those Depression days, and the suspect died of tuberculosis before trial, leaving the question forever open.
As late as 1935, subscribers to a detective magazine allegedly recognized Belle’s photograph as the likeness of a whorehouse madam in Ohio. Confronting the old woman and addressing her as “Belle,” one amateur sleuth was impressed by the vehemence of her reaction. Pursuing the matter through friends, he was urgently warned to let the matter rest . . . and so it has.
If Gunness did, in fact, survive her “death,” she stands with Bela Kiss in that elite society of slayers who—although identified, with ample evidence to win convictions—manage to escape arrest and so live out their lives in anonymity. Her legacy is rumor, and a snatch of tawdry rhyme that reads, in part:
There’s red upon the Hoosier moon
For Belle was strong and full of doom;
And think of all those Norska men
Who’ll never see St. Paul again.