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Serial killer

       March 29, 2012 3:51 PM

 Bad-luck Belle or diabolical killer?


Belle wasn't the prettiest woman around, but she attracted plenty of men. A sturdy hard-working hog farmer, she weighed 250 pounds. She married twice and bore several children, but suffered a series of tragedies. Her neighbors in La Porte, Indiana, felt sorry for her. How much heartbreak could one woman endure?

Belle was forty-eight when tragedy struck again. On April 28, 1908, fire destroyed her farmhouse. Police found four bodies in the basement. Three were identified as Belle's young children. They assumed the fourth was Belle, but identification was difficult. The head was missing. Questions arose. It wasn't the first time.

Brynhild Storseth was born in Norway in 1859. According to some accounts, she got pregnant at age 17, but miscarried. The baby's father died a month later. Was this her first murder? No one knows for sure. At 24, she emigrated to America in 1883 to live with her older sister in Chicago. There, she changed her name to Belle. In 1884, she married another Norwegian immigrant, Mads Sorenson, and they opened a candy shop. A year later the store burned down. This was the first of many suspicious fires associated with Belle.

Two of Belle's children died in infancy, Caroline in 1896 and Axel in 1898. Both allegedly died of acute colitis, but colitis symptoms mimic those of certain poisons. Both had life insurance policies. Belle and Mads used the insurance money to buy a house.

Insurance payouts became a continuing theme. In 1898, their house burned down; they used the insurance payout to buy a house in Chicago. The 1900 census listed three children in the household: two Sorenson girls, Myrtle, age 3, and Lucy, age 1, and a foster child, Jennie Olsen, age 10.

In July 1900 Mads Sorenson, (photo right) died. Was his life insured? You bet. But this time there were questions. One doctor believed he died of strychnine poisoning, but another doctor, who had treated Mads for an enlarged heart, ruled that he had died of heart failure. There was no autopsy. The insurance payout was $8,500, a hefty sum in 1900; the average annual income was $637 per year.  

A farm and a new husband

Belle used some of the insurance money to buy a hog farm in La Porte, Indiana, and began looking for another husband. On April 1, 1902, she married Peter Gunness (photo left), a local butcher and recent widower. A week after the wedding, Peter's infant child died while left alone in Belle's care. This resulted in yet another insurance payout.

Eight months later, Peter died. The circumstances were suspicious to say the least. Belle told police that a meat grinder had fallen from a high shelf and landed on Peter's head.

The coroner didn't believe it and ruled it a homicide.

A witness claimed to have heard Belle's foster child Jennie, now 14, tell a classmate that her mother killed her father with a meat cleaver. A grand jury questioned them. Jennie denied her incriminating statement. Belle denied killing her husband. The jury found Belle innocent. Belle collected the $3,000 insurance payout and got to thinking.

Lonely Hearts ads

By now Belle weighed 280 pounds, but full-figured women were considered glamorous back then. Thanks to her silky blonde hair, bright Nordic smile and flashing blue eyes, Belle was a still looker. She began running ads in newspapers that circulated widely in the Midwest.

One said: "Comely widow who owns a large farm ... desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of sharing fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."

Sure enough, suitors soon came calling. John Moo arrived at the farm in 1902 with $1,000. A week later he disappeared. Henry Gurholdt brought $1,500. He too disappeared. Between 1902 and 1908, many men answered Belle's lonely-heart ads and met the same fate. In 1906, Belle told people her foster daughter Jennie, now 17 and pretty, was going to Los Angeles to attend school. That was the last anyone saw of Jennie.

Belle's luck runs out

Sometime in 1907 Belle hired Ray Lamphere (photo left) to work on her farm. Ray fell in love with Belle, but the constant arrival of Belle's many suitors enraged him.

Late in 1907 another suitor arrived. Andrew Hegelein (photo below) was young, handsome and quite personable. But, like others before him, he was last seen at a local bank in January 1908.

In February Belle fired Lamphere and hired Joe Maxon to help with the farm work. She told the local sheriff that Lamphere had been threatening her. She then had a lawyer draw up her will, saying that Lamphere had threatened to burn down the house with her and her children inside.

On the night of April 28, 1908, it appeared that Belle's fears were justified.

Farmhand Joe Maxon awoke in his upstairs bedroom and smelled smoke. He yelled to Belle and her three children to warn them. When he got no response, he jumped out a second floor window and ran for help. Maxon was the only survivor.

Questions arose about the identity of the headless corpse in the basement. Belle weighed 280 pounds. The charred remains were that of a much smaller woman.

Two of Belle's neighbors viewed the remains and said they didn't know who it was, but they were certain it wasn't Belle.

Recalling Belle's allegations about her former workman, the sheriff arrested Ray Lamphere and charged him with arson and four counts of murder.

A new twist

The brother of Andrew Hegelein, Belle's last suitor, arrived. He believed Andrew had been murdered and insisted that police search Belle's property. By then, the story was making headlines around the country. Carl Peterson had answered one of Belle's "lonely hearts" newspaper ads and showed police a letter he got from Belle that read in part: " ... Every applicant must make a satisfactory deposit. ... If you can put up $1,000, we can talk matters over personally."

But Peterson didn't have $1,000. This probably saved his life. Soon other families contacted La Porte officials, pleading for information about missing family members who had gone to meet the sweet-talking mail-order bride in La Porte, Indiana.

Grisly discoveries

Police got busy with their shovels. They dug up five dismembered bodies wrapped in oilcloth. Some had been doused with lye. One was Belle's foster daughter, Jennie. Another was Andrew Hegelein. A third was an unidentified man, the fourth and fifth were young girls.

After neighbors told police they had often seen Belle digging in her hog pen, police dug up the remains of at least 25 bodies. The exact number is unclear. Some of the victims had been fed to the hogs. Others were dismembered and police could not be sure which body parts went together.

Police now suspected Belle might have faked her own death. They theorized that when Andrew Hegelein's brother threatened to come find him, Belle came up with a diabolical plan: kill her children (and the farm hand) and substitute another woman's body for her own. This theory collapsed when Belle's dentist analyzed part of a jawbone and a section of dentures found in the ruins and declared they  belonged to Belle. Still, doubts lingered.

The Trial

Ray Lamphere was tried for arson and murder, but due to lingering doubts and lack of evidence he was convicted only of arson. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but died a year later of tuberculosis. Before he died, he told the prison chaplain that he had helped Belle bury some of her victims. He said that a few days before the fire, Belle hired a Chicago woman to be her housekeeper.

Belle drugged and killed her, decapitated her, dressed the corpse in Belle's clothes and put it in the basement. Lamphere admitted helping Belle start the fire, but said she double crossed him. He was supposed to escape with her, but she left without him. Lamphere went to his grave believing that the woman found in the basement was NOT Belle. But there was no way to verify his story.

Visions of Belle

Over the years many people reported seeing Belle. In 1931, Los Angeles police arrested an elderly woman, Esther Carlson, and charged her with killing a man for money. She died before her trial began, but two La Porte residents saw her photo in a newspaper and swore it was Belle. But they had no way to prove it.

In 2008, 100 years after her mysterious death, a team of forensic biologists went to the grave where Belle's remains were buried. With her descendents' permission, they dug up the corpse, extracted DNA and compared it to the DNA of Belle's living relatives. Alas, the results were inconclusive. And so the mystery continues. Did Belle escape and live to kill again? Or did she perish in the fire?

See more details on this and other cases in DARK DEEDS, Volume One: http://http://susanfleet.com/darkdeeds-v1.html#.UubLSrQo4dU

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Director Edward Bass plans to make a movie about Belle. Who do you think should play Belle? Please leave a comment and tell me what you think of Belle!

Citations: "Belle Gunness: The Terror of La Porte," Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.  "Com e Prepared to Stay Forever," Belle Gunness: Indiana serial killer, Troy Taylor  www.prairieghosts.com

Belle Gunness, "The Lady Bluebeard," Jenna McAlpine and Iris Dickerson, Radford University (VA)

Belle Gunness, "Narrow Escapes" Joseph Geringer, www.trutv.com


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[ Posted by Haley, April 03, 2012 8:32 PM ]
     Ugh! The photos of Belle look like she was one pissed-off-person. The poor kids...Yeah, she got away; one step ahead at all times.

She reminds me of the horse farming widow in a town close to me who killed all her hired hands. But they caught that one.

Kathy Bates for the elder Belle?

[ Posted by admin, April 04, 2012 7:39 AM ]
     Thanks for the comment, Haley. Yes, it's hard to understand, given the photo, how all these men became enamored of her.

Kathy Bates ... I like it! And who plays the last young handsome suitor who arrived and ... disappeared as usual?

[ Posted by Diana Hockley, April 04, 2012 11:53 PM ]
     All I can say is, I am very glad I wasn't alive then and associated with Belle. I suspect she faked her own death and got away with everything.

[ Posted by admin, April 05, 2012 8:09 AM ]
     Thanks for the comment Diana. That's pretty much what I think. Even with the DNA analysis, I guess the truth may never be known.

[ Posted by mYRNA, April 05, 2012 9:18 AM ]

[ Posted by admin, April 05, 2012 10:45 AM ]
     Well .... Belle would be pretty old if she was still alive, 100 but hey, you never know. Thanks for the comment!

[ Posted by haley, April 09, 2012 6:51 PM ]
     Hey, Susan,

The last, handsome suitor looks like that guy who played "Jem" in The Town...good actor, too. Saw him in a now defunct series called the Unusuals...this time he played a cop instead of a drugged-out psychopath.

Whatcha think?

[ Posted by admin, April 09, 2012 7:29 PM ]
     Thanks for the comment, Haley. I know the guy you mean. Jeremy Remmer. He's very good actor. I think you suggested that Kathy Bates could play Belle as the older woman. Somehow, I don't think Hollywood will portray her as the plain jane she actually was.

Stay tuned!

[ Posted by Stephanie Hatfield, April 25, 2012 8:51 AM ]
     The most reliable accounts have her at 180 to 200 lbs. Quite a stretch as you have a photo of her tagged at 280lbs and she was only around 5'8" and no photo of her indicates a 280lb woman. I find this relevant - not to defend her weight - as I could care less - but to accurately depict that even a person of smaller stature is quite capable of these crimes. And as well for the sake of accuracy

[ Posted by Stephanie Hatfield, April 25, 2012 8:59 AM ]
     Oh - I also think she lived and was the woman later arrested Esther Carlson - if there were a photo available of Esther we would have a better idea - but I'm sure she lived - with assets worth almost $7 million in todays value - she would have had no trouble relocating - and the whole thing is obviously premeditated. As well, her half wit hired hand had been an accomplice all along , until the very end where she outwitted him yet again and ran off with the cash. She was a smart, rich depraved and spiritually bankrupt woman. I am mesmerized by her brand of evil. How could anybody kill a child is beyond me.

[ Posted by admin, May 13, 2012 9:39 AM ]
     Thanks Stephanie. I agree that the weight estimate is based upon very disparate accounts. As for her size ... a 5'8" woman is common these days ... not sure it was so common back then.

[ Posted by admin, May 13, 2012 9:41 AM ]
     I agree, how could anybody kill a child ... but I find it amazing and somewhat disturbing that when men kill their children ... and far more men than women kill their children, it receives far less attention and condemnation than when women do it.


[ Posted by Brenda Desper, December 15, 2013 8:17 AM ]
     As a teenager , I learned of this woman , Our family was distantly related ....
. I think as the mature Belle , Cathy Bates would be awesome .
Perhaps as a younger Belle , a unknown actress , would be interesting .
. Thanks for a well written story , and your arrive , added more information to the information , my family already knew .
. Brenda Desper

[ Posted by admin, December 15, 2013 8:44 AM ]
     Thanks for the comment, Brenda. Belle's story is rather unique. Certainly she is one of the earliest known female serial killers. And the mystery surrounding her disappearance ... did she actually escape or not? ... adds to the mystique.

[ Posted by denise nicholas, January 28, 2014 1:30 PM ]
     Kathy Bates as Belle

[ Posted by denise nicholas, January 28, 2014 1:33 PM ]
     Kirsty Alley as Emma

[ Posted by admin, January 28, 2014 4:06 PM ]
     Thanks for the comments, Denise. I like your suggestions! Kathy Bates would be great as Belle! Kirsty Alley = an inspired choice for Emma!

posted by SUSAN FLEET   March 29, 2012 3:51 PM  Serial Killers 


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