I’m sorry to inform all of you that Belle Gunness bears absolutely relationship—inspiration or otherwise—to the Belle that was voiced by Paige O’Hara in Beauty and the Beast. However, I do have reason to believe that she inspired Emma Watson in the 2017 live action version as just like Watson’s singing, Belle is one of America’s most notorious female serial killers, and most certainly left me cringing.
Born November 11, 1859 in Selbu, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway, Belle Gunness (or Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset if you wish to refer to her by her Norwegian name) had a dream. A dream to move to America and make it big. She did just that in 1881 at the age of 21, where her dream became a reality.
Settling down in Chicago, Belle married a Mads Albert Sorenson in 1884. For all intents and purposes, she seemed to fit in the rest of the community perfectly fine. However, there was more to Belle than met the eye. No, she wasn’t a Transformer. Rather, she was one of America’s first Black Widow Serial Killers.
While I’d normally tell the story in chronological order, I want to instead take a dive into Belle as a person before we go over her horrific deeds. Known by an array of nicknames, such as Lady Bluebeard, The LaPorte Black Widow, The Mistress of Murder Farm (which we’ll get to in a little), and Hell’s Belle, her tactics are one of the first instances of what’s become known as a “lonely heart killer”. These types of killers are sometimes referred to as “want-ad killers”, and operate as follows:
It all starts with an advertisement in a newspaper’s classified ad section, an ad along the road, or through a website such as Craigslist (Philip Markoff became infamous by doing just this). Several of the most notorious serial killers were lonely heart killers, such as Albert FIsh, Béla Kiss, and Bobby Joe Long. The motives to all three vary. Fish’s was sexual gratification, Kiss was never caught, though some believe he was killed in World War I, and Long’s seemed to be insanity.
In the case of Belle: it was insurance fraud, which is a very common motive for any lonely heart killer. It’s simple really: find a man—be they wealthy or not, marry them, take out a large insurance policy, murder them, and then bury the body. Fake sorrow, get the insurance policy, and find another man.
While not abnormal nowadays, things were different back then. Sure, there had been female killers (you need not look any further than Hungary’s Elizabeth Bathory and her rumored bodycount of 650), but in the grand old US where women had the image of being nothing more than motherly and kind? That was unheard of! However, as would be proven: Belle was a major exception to that supposed rule, and that exception would make her unique and even special.
It was in 1908 that the truth of her crimes became known and given that up until then, Belle seemed to just be the unluckiest woman on Earth. Nobody had even fathom suspecting that she was capable of such horrible crimes, especially given that she was so young. But with a bodycount of anywhere between 14 and 40, Belle would go on to garner a sort of urban myth status that was then told to the children of La Porte. While legends such as Momo exist nowadays, they don’t carry the same weight as the crazy black widow who lived a few houses down from you who will kill you if you don’t eat your vegetables. Topping it all off is the fact she was never caught… supposedly—it’s complicated and we’ll touch upon that near the end.
So that’s Belle as a person and my attempt at sounding smart through rambling. So let’s discuss the nit and gritty of her crimes. It all started in 1884 when she married the aforementioned Mads Albert Sorenson. The two had a total of four children, but beyond that: life for them was nothing special. At some point after their marriage, they opened a candy shop, though like their life: it was nothing special. A year after they opened it however, it burned down, and the two received a nice insurance payout on it. With their money, the two bought a new home.
Tragedy would strike the couple again when two of their children died of acute colitis. Both had insurance policies however, and the suffering of losing children was eased when Belle collected the insurance money.
Fast forward to July 30, 1900. This is the one and only day where Mads’ two life insurance policies overlap. Coincidentally, it’s also the day he died of supposed heart failure. When Belle was questioned on the matter, she claimed to have given him “medicinal powders” to help with his pain. With no reason to suspect that Belle poisoned her husband, she was given the payouts on both insurance policies.
Not all were satisfied with the verdict however. Mads’ family wanted the death looked into more and the first doctor who investigated Mads said that the death was caused by strychnine poisoning. However, the doctor who’d been treating Mads for an enlarged heart overruled that verdict by stating it was simply heart failure.
No charges were ever filed against Belle, who ended up purchasing a quaint, 42 acre farm at the end of McClung Road in La Porte, Indiana. It’s there that she met Peter Gunness, who himself was a widower and had a daughter of his own. Peter fell in love with Belle, while Belle fell in love with the insurance policies that were Peter and his daughter. The two married in 1902 and it didn’t take long for Peter’s daughter to die while she was under the care of Belle, who cackled her way to the bank as she collected the insurance money.
The quote unquote grieving mother soon found “tragedy” knocking at her door mere months later when Peter himself died. According to Belle, it was because he “scalded himself with brine” while reaching over the stove. With no reason to believe such an unlucky woman whose previous children and husband all had insurance payouts that made her wealthy, nothing ever came about of this. As for Belle, she placed some ads in some newspapers that were big in the midwest. They claimed that she was “comely widow.”
I had to do a Google search to find out what “comely” meant as it was a word that, while I’d heard of it, I wasn’t familiar with. It means “pleasant to look at it.” While I’m not one to judge looks as I don’t find myself to be the most attractive person on Earth, I have to ask: does this look like someone you’d want to wake up next to each day?
I’m just asking.
Anyways, Belle’s ad went on to state that “Triflers need not apply.” For reasons unknown, numerous men—including one who arrived with enough money to pay off Belle’s mortgage—arrived and subsequently disappeared. Of these men, one managed to escape: George Anderson, who arrived from Missouri. Anderson had arrived with some money to assist with the mortgage payments. One night, he awoke and to see Belle staring him down in the dark. Immediately, he ran out of the house and never went back.
Despite the numerous unfortunate deaths that her husbands would die from—some as soon as a week of moving in—men still took up the advertisement offers, taking the trip to Belle’s quaint farmhouse: windows always shut, blinds always drawn, numerous orders of trunks that were to be used for completely legal reasons.
But all good bad things must come to an end. That’s exactly what happened when South Dakota native Andrew Helgelien arrived. Although it took many letters, Andrew was convinced after reading the follow letter:
My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.
As was the case with the previous men: Andrew arrived and subsequently vanished. Unlike the other men, he had a brother who didn’t buy into the nonsensical excuses that Belle threw his way. When she realized Andrew’s brother wouldn’t budge on her stories, she handled it as most would: she rewrote her entire will, leaving her estate to her still young children.
Fast forward to April 28, 1908 and Belle’s farmhand, Joe Maxson—who’d replaced the recently fired Ray Lamphere, a man who was envious of each and every man who got into a relationship with Belle—was woken up to smoke entering his room. Realizing the house was ablaze, he jumped through his bedroom window, which was on the second floor, and died when he hit the ground. Belle’s children meanwhile died in the fire.
As for Belle: the corpse of a headless woman was discovered. Police initially suspected this was Belle, but she was crazy stacked six feet tall and was two hundred pounds of pure, unadulterated sociopath. As for the headless body: it was neither of those things. However, Belle’s dentist said that teeth found at the scene matched the work he’d performed on Belle.
As for who started the fire: that was discovered in November of that year when Ray Lamphere was arrested for arson, but quickly fell ill. Before dying however, he told a priest everything about not just the fire, but Belle herself. He said that he’d assisted Belle in most of murders, stating that she’d drug the mens drinks—typically coffee—before using a meat chopper to cave in their heads. After this, she’d dismember their bodies and bury them in the hog pen.
As for Belle herself: Ray told the priest that on the day of the fire, Belle decapitated her new maid and dressed the corpse in her own clothing before igniting the house and fleeing. If this is accurate: it’s a mystery as to whether Belle yanked her teeth out and planted them there or if she got caught in the fire and it shaved some weight and height off of her.
Police were able to verify at least one aspect to Ray’s claims: twelve bodies were found in the hog pen. WIth no other leads to go on however, there’s little reason to doubt the rest of his story is legitimate. There’s also the fact that before the fire turned Belle’s house to little more than a mass grave, she withdrew all of the money in her bank account. This could have either been for the road trip she was about to take or she had a plan that she was going to enact, but ended up dying in her own fire. One can argue that she never quite had a head on her shoulders given her actions.
In 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested in Los Angeles after poisoning a Norwegian-American man for money. Some people who knew Belle claimed that they recognized Esther as her—but she died while waiting to go to trial.
So that’s the story of Belle Gunness. The ultimate question to this all is simple: did she die or did she live? Well, two theories exist exist and they’re very simple: she either did indeed die in the fire or she fled and went elsewhere to live out her days as a wealthy single woman, finally settle down with a man, or continued her activities as “Esther Carlson”.
Esther’s story is a very short one. In 1931, all the way in Los Angeles, California, a woman was by the name of Esther Carlson was arrested after poisoning a man for what else: money. Those who knew Belle recognized her as this “Esther Carlson”. However, before she went to trial, she died.
Nobody knows for certain whether or not this woman was in fact Belle, but many state the similarities between the crimes, the motives, and the claims made by those who knew her are enough evidence to confirm this theory. Others argue that unless DNA can confirm the remains that are buried as hers, it’s all speculation.
In my eyes: while it isn’t uncommon for serial killers to retire (a good example of this is Joseph James DeAngelo; the Original Nightstalker/East Area Rapist), Belle’s sheer lack of remorse makes me skeptical she’d suddenly grow a conscious. Besides, money is finite. On the other hand, stranger things have happened. See the aforementioned DeAngelo.
Nevertheless, it remains a mystery if she did indeed die in the fire or if she fled. Whatever the case, Belle Gunness’ story is one for the books and one I think is often overlooked. It’s a landmark in the way of crime in the United States. A black widow serial was unheard of back then. A shame it didn’t stay that way.
And for those curious: although it was never proven, acute colitis has symptoms that are extremely similar to poisoning. Whether or not Belle did in fact poison the two children she had while she was with Mads is unknown, but many suspect she did given the numerous other people she poisoned.