Belle Gunness: Black Widow of Indiana
In her day Bella Poulsdatter was a strikingly beautiful woman. And even as she aged and packed on pounds she still managed to turn quite a few heads. Norwegian by birth, she was born in 1859 in Trondhjeim. At the insistence of her older sister Anna, she came to America in 1883 at the age of 24 to live with her and husband, John Larson in Chicago.
The Larson’s lived in a section of the city heavily populated with other Norwegians who had come to America seeking a better life. Before long she met Mads Sorenson, a department store guard. Mads was eager to begin a family with Bella who had now Americanized her name to Belle. However, they were unable to conceive any children. Over the next 16 years the Sorenson’s fostered three girls, Jennie, Myrtle and Lucy.
Although the Sorenson’s seemed to be a happy couple, they also seemed to attract misfortune. Three houses they lived in burnt to the ground as well as the small store they then owned. But, on the whole, neighbors reported Belle was a good wife and mother.
In early 1900 Mads died suddenly of undetermined causes. On the day he died he had been complaining of chest pains, so the death certificate listed heart attack as the cause of death. If the widow Belle had been having any financial difficulties the $8,000 life insurance she collected solved them.
Belle wasted little time in clearing out of town and moving to La Porte, Indiana. There she bought a rundown farm which had previously been a house of ill repute and set about cleaning up the place.
Belle, Lucy, Myrtle and Phillip
Not long afterwards, Belle suddenly had a new husband, Peter Gunness, who just appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Peter had a baby boy, Phillip, from a previous marriage who died from a virus not long after they arrived.
Then in late 1900, daughter Jennie, hearing a disturbance in the kitchen, rushed downstairs to find her stepfather lying on the kitchen floor in agony. Standing over him was a tearful Belle who hysterically tried to explain the large iron meat grinder had fallen off the shelf and hit him in the head. Shortly after, Peter died from the injury.
Over the next several years, farmhands came and went…many who became suitors and openly talked of marriage about town. But Belle seemed to have nothing but bad luck with men. Any who became interested in her seemed to walk out on her in the middle of the night and were never heard from again.
Then along came 30 year old handyman Ray Lamphere who hired on with the widow to do odd jobs. Lamphere was glad to get the job, if for nothing else than to support his craving for alcohol. The curly haired Lamphere, who was said to be not very bright, moved into a spare room on the second floor. Not long after they were seen strolling about town arm in arm.
About Christmas of 1907 Belle was seen around La Porte cavorting with a new man who, like many others, seemed to materialize out of nowhere. When Lamphere learned the couple was seen purchasing a wedding ring at a local department store he became outraged and stormed off to the saloons to rant and rave to his drinking buddies. However, this new suitor also disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
Andrew Helgelein, not Lamphere, was the next to capture Belle’s attention. He was described as a happy-go-lucky big Swede from South Dakota. One day while withdrawing all his funds from accounts in South Dakota he was heard to announce he and Belle planned to marry. That evening, Belle threw Lamphere out on his ear and Helgelein moved in. Lamphere returned to the saloons to vent his rage. But within a week Helgelein had “walked out” also. Belle asked Lamphere to return to help with the crops but he had learned his lesson and refused.
Desperate for help with her spring harvest Belle hired Joe Maxson. Maxson apparently was not interested in a relationship with the widow Belle as he never pursued one. Rather he kept to himself and after work would retire to his room to play his violin and read.
Although Lamphere had no interest in working the farm he nevertheless still carried a torch for her as he was often seen hanging about the outskirts of the farm even though he was constantly being arrested for doing so. Belle managed to turn this to her advantage.
In April of 1908, Belle visited an attorney to write her last will and testament. During the proceedings Belle commented she was afraid Lamphere might try to kill her by burning her house down. The will left her property to her children or, in the event of their deaths, to the Norwegian Orphan's Home.
The attorney said since that wasn’t the official name of the orphanage, signing the will would have to be postponed until he found out the proper name. At that news Belle became upset and insisted it be done right then as there was no telling what Lamphere might have in mind. The lawyer relented and the will was signed. That night the Gunness farm burned and the bodies of the three children and headless corpse of Belle were found in the ashes.
Naturally, Ray Lamphere was thought to be responsible and was immediately arrested and thrown in jail. However, the law had yet to prove it. There were conflicting views on whether he was guilty or not. Belle’s false teeth had been found in the ashes and were identified by the dentist who made them. On May 22, the grand jury indicted Ray Lamphere of arson and the murder of the Gunness family.
But to prove Lamphere guilty they needed Belle’s head which had yet to be found. Confusing the case further, the woman’s decapitated body was smaller than Belle’s. The rumor mill went into overdrive…doubts and questions began to arise. Maybe the guilty party was none other than Belle Gunness herself.
Where had so many out of town suitors come from and so quickly, leaving behind their personal belongings? Answers to these disturbing questions began to come in as searchers looking for Belle’s head came across some damning evidence in the rubble. Men's watches, men's coat buttons, billfolds and then a human rib cage were dug up. Next were a skeletal arm and a complete skeleton.
The sheriff wanted to keep this information quiet and hired two men to discreetly dig around the grounds to see what else might turn up. But there was no way to keep the news under wraps. A parade of curiosity seekers were constantly streaming past the farm house. And it wasn’t long before the news media got wind of the scandal and reporters from across the country descended upon the small town. Publicity fueled souvenir hunters to buy up anything connected with the murders, including the dog, cats and horse and buggy.
When Asle Helgelein, Andrew Helgelein’s brother, heard about the goings on in La Porte he immediately left South Dakota for La Porte. He was aware Andrew had withdrawn all funds from his bank and had gone to La Porte to meet Belle. He hadn’t heard from him since and decided to investigate. As proof he brought with him dozens of letters the two had written to each other.
Belle's first letters described herself as "a good Norwegian woman" and consisted basically of what one would expect in a romance by mail. But as time went on, she began to pressure Andrew to come to La Porte and stay with her. Once he had made up his mind to do it, Belle wrote a letter which should have been a red flag to the big gullible Swede.
It read in part "...Do not send any cash money through the bank. Banks cannot be trusted nowadays. Change all the cash you have into paper bills, largest denomination you can get, and sew them real good and fast on the inside of your underwear…and be sure do not tell anyone of it, not even to your nearest relative.”
Asle knew about the two men hired to scour the farmhouse grounds and he went to see if he could be of any assistance because he “had a hunch.” Asle introduced himself and asked if Belle had dug any holes on the property since January, the time his brother had arrived. The two pointed to a large garbage pit behind the house.
Asle picked up a shovel and began digging at the spot they indicated. The two hired hands followed suit. At the start all they found was trash. But, then the smell of rotting flesh filled their nostrils. Digging deeper they found the remains of Asle’s brother in pieces. By the end of the day they had uncovered four more bodies, two males and two females, also hacked to pieces.
Throughout May, the digging continued and the number of bodies found mounted. Some were identified, some not. Belle sometimes had men for such a short time no one had learned their names. As investigators looked into Belle’s past, they found out about her two previous husbands, Mads Sorenson who died of unknown causes and Peter Gunness, killed by a falling sausage grinder. Upon closer inspection, it was found Mads had shown signs of strychnine poisoning. However, the physicians who were treating him for heart disease anyway decided not to add to the widow’s distress and indicated the cause of death as "enlargement of the heart.”
"Even little Myrtle had known about the murderess Belle. Only a week before the fire she had told a schoolmate “My mamma killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul.” Unfortunately, her friend kept the secret until it was too late. But with the mention of strychnine poisoning another look was taken at the children and Belle’s corpse. As suspected, traces of strychnine were found in their stomachs.
By now the press had turned the tragedy into a media circus. They had dubbed Belle the “Black Widow of Indiana.” Some now thought Belle had staged the whole event, killing her children and a woman whose body closely resembled hers. However, there were still some nagging questions. Why would Belle have left town still having over $700 in her bank account? And Ray Lamphere had no reason to murder the little girls. His beef was with their mother. But the town was still divided and Lamphere languished in jail while authorities decided what to do.
Stories of men who had escaped the deadly clutches of the black widow began to be reported. There was no way the stories couldn’t be true. Some still had letters received from Belle and knew too many details about her and the farm. Carl Peterson from Michigan showed authorities a letter he had received which read in part, "...I have decided that every applicant must make a satisfactory deposit of cash or security...” Fortunately, Peterson didn’t have the sum she requested.
There were many others such as George Anderson of Missouri who decided to check out the deal before he committed himself. Arriving with only $300 Belle urged him to return home and sell his farm and come back with the rest. Anderson began to smell a rat. He awoke that night to find Belle standing over him. That clinched his suspicions. Anderson was on the next train out of town.
But, there were many others who weren’t as fortunate as Anderson or Peterson. Letters from across the country from families whose relatives they knew had gone to La Porte in answer to a mail order bride ad poured in asking the sheriff to find their loved ones. The trial opened Friday, November 13. It would be a long, hard case for the jury to decide.
Since, Belle’s head had not been found, Lamphere’s case was decided mostly on circumstantial evidence. Lamphere was found guilty of arson and sent to the state penitentiary in Michigan City, not far from La Porte. He died a little more than a year later after contracting an illness on December 30, 1909.
However, before he passed away he had often mentioned Belle’s name to his cellmate, Harry Myers. Myers told reporters he always kept saying "She's still out there, Harry. People think she's dead. She's not dead. She had a large scar on her left thigh, but the body that was burned, it had no scar. She's still out there.”
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