Belle Gunness FamilyBelle Gunness, a homely Norwegian immigrant from Chicago, desired to be married. She also desired money. In an attempt to satisfy at least one of those wishes, Belle ran an advertisement in 1906 editions of area Chicago newspapers.

“Comely widow desires to make the acquaintance of a gentlemen equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.”

In the early 1900’s, Belle owned a hog farm in rural Indiana where she raised her three children, Lucy, Myrtle, and Philip. Physically very strong, she was quite capable of manhandling the strongest of men and in fact, she may have killed both of her husbands – motivated in these cases by insurance benefits. When she ran out of husbands, she began running advertisements in Chicago papers looking for suitors.

And indeed the gentlemen arrived – in droves. To Andrew Hegelein, a farmer from South Dakota, she closed her letter to him with “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.” And stay forever he did – dead, buried underneath her barn.

Ray LamphereRegardless of her physical strength, Belle hired a ranch hand to assist with the hog farm operations. Ray Lamphere began work in 1906 and it was not too long before he fell deeply in love with Belle – he would to anything for her. When the potential suitors arrived, Ray was livid with jealousy as Belle would provide the typical pompous affair not unlike what you see in the movies – a large meal and a romantic piano piece played by Belle on her baby grand piano. When the relationships reached a point where Belle could secretly secure some of the men’s personal finances, Belle would dispose of them. Sometimes they were drugged and then hacked in the back of the head with a meat cleaver and on other occasions they were poisoned. Belle would then promptly chop the men to pieces and bury their bodies in the back yard or in some instances, feed their various body parts to her hogs. Although quite jealous, Ray often assisted Belle with her dirty deeds.

Belle’s criminal history actually went back much further. In 1884, she married her first husband, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, and together they started and operated a successful candy store in Chicago. Within a year the store burned to the ground and insurance money was paid to Belle. Belle used the money to build a home in Chicago which ironically, was also destroyed by fire four years later. Again, insurance money was paid and Belle used the money to fund the purchase of another home. Her first husband, Sorenson, died on July 30, 1900 – the only day that two different life insurance policies overlapped. Suspicions were raised but eventually both insurance policies were paid.

In the years following, more coincidences and more insurance payments to Bell. Another husband was tragically killed when a meat grinding machine fell on his head. Two children died from stomach aches, and more houses burned to the ground. In all cases, insurance proceeds were grudgingly paid to Belle.

As suitors arrived in droves, neighbors noted Belle purchasing large trunks. The deliverymen noted how husky Belle would lift the trunks and toss them onto her shoulder “like boxes of marshmallows”. Neighbors pointed out that Belle kept her shades closed at all times and was often seen digging in her yard during the middle of the night. Sometimes Ray assisted with the digging.

Belle Gunness farm burnt to the groundOver the years, authorities estimate that Belle swindled over $100,000 from the men that visited her farm. In Andrew Hegelein’s instance, they noted a $2,900 check written from the bachelor to Belle. When Andrew’s brother noted the unusual transaction and the fact that he had not seen his brother since he trekked to Indiana to be with his beloved Belle, he mailed Belle to let her know he was coming to check on his brother. Belle replied, letting him know that Andrew had left on a foreign trip. Not to be dissuaded, the brother insisted he would arrive to investigate for himself. Belle’s farm was promptly burnt to the ground before he could disembark.

The police arrived on the scene to find the Gunnes’s farm in rubble. A search of the scene turned up men’s billfolds, men’s coat buttons, then a human rib cage. A more rigorous search revealed the three small bodies of Belle’s children and a headless female corpse with Belle’s false teeth lying next to it. Investigators were puzzled to find that the corpse did not fit the measurements of Belle Gunness. The corpse measured 5’3” while local merchants noted that Belle’s height was 5’8”. The suspicious nature of the corpse prompted authorities to begin a thorough search of the farm. Their search revealed 10 buried bodies including bodies of her stepdaughter and of course, Andrew Hegelein.

Digging the celler of the Belle Gunness farmAfter the Gunness farm arson, Belle’s ranch hand was convicted of arson in the blaze and confessed his belief that Belle had killed at least forty-two victims. Gunness was, for several decades, allegedly seen or sighted in cities and towns throughout the USA. Friends, acquaintances, and amateur detectives apparently spotted her on the streets of Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. As late as 1931, Gunness was reported alive and living in a Mississippi town where she owned a great deal of property and lived the life of a doyenne. Sheriff Smutzer, for more than 20 years, received an average of two reports a month. She became part of American criminal folklore, a female Bluebeard.

The bodies of Gunness’ three children were found in the home’s wreckage, but the headless adult female corpse with them was never positively identified — her head was missing. In 1931, a woman known as “Esther Carlson” was arrested in Los Angeles for poisoning August Lindstrom for money. Two people who had known Gunness claimed to recognize her from photographs, but the identification was never proved. Carlson died while awaiting trial.

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