Saturday, June 25, 2022

Belle Gunness Indiana Serial Killer


Belle Gunness
(Nashville Republican. May 23, 1908.)

When 38-year-old Belle Gunness placed a personal ad in a Scandinavian matrimonial magazine, no one could have guessed it would lead to the death of at least a dozen men—possibly as many as 42.


Comely widow, who owns large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of gentleman equally well provided for with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit.[1]

Belle came to America from Norway when she was seventeen. She married Mads Sorenson (Max in some accounts) in Chicago in 1883 when she was just nineteen. They operated a candy store in Chicago that later burned down.[2] Sorenson’s daughter died a few years after they married. He died shortly after that in 1890 due to complications from an enlarged heart, although one doctor suspected he died from strychnine poisoning. However, an autopsy was never performed, so the allegation faded away.

Belle collected $8,500 on Sorenson’s life insurance and used the proceeds to buy a 13-acre farm in La Porte, Indiana, where she lived with her adopted daughter, Jennie Olesen.

Belle was no prize when she moved to La Porte in 1902. She stood five feet seven, weighed 220 pounds, and had what one modern writer said were at least a half-dozen chins. ”She had a big, heavy head, a mop of course hair of a muddy brown, little eyes that just missed being black, huge hands and arms and legs, and feet, grotesquely small for the burden they had to support.”[3]

John Adams Revolutionary


John Adams
(from an early engraving.)

History is an uncertain science, at best.

Much of it is outright lies and balderdash. For example, Napoleon looked at history as “a set of lies agreed upon.” Does it matter that he stole most of that line from Voltaire, who suggested, “History is a lie commonly agreed upon?”

George Santayana harbored significant doubts about the entire field. He told friends, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”

Too much of history rests on the memories of old men, old men whose minds have grown soft over time. Even the best men have doubts and question themselves as time goes by. They question the history books.

Fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson, wondering, “Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?”[1]

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Great Tornado of 1860


Camanche after the tornado.
(Harper's Weekly Magazine.)

1860 was the year the great tornado roared through Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois. It came up out of nowhere and took the lives of over one hundred and fifty people—one hundred in Iowa and fifty more in Illinois. The storm traveled the 150 miles from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Sterling, Illinois, in less than two hours. The cities of Camanche, Iowa, and Albany, Illinois, were erased from the earth in less than three minutes.

Two tornadoes formed near Palo, Iowa, just above Cedar Rapids, around 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, 1860. At Cedar Rapids, they passed on either side of the town. Five houses were destroyed on the west side of town. One man was killed and another injured. Two homes were blown apart on the south side.

Not too far from Cedar Rapids, the storm-tossed Mr. Wooley’s home end over end like a play toy. Mrs. Wooley and her daughter took shelter in the basement, but they were swept into the bushes twenty feet away when the wind lifted the house off the foundation. The wind yanked Mr. Wooley out of the house and carried him nearly fifty feet away, where he clung to a stump for dear life. When the wind let up, he ran to help his wife, but the storm wasn’t done with Wooley yet. It picked him up and carried him another thirty feet, depositing him in the creek.[2]

Thursday, June 23, 2022

General Lew Wallace


General Lew Wallace

General Lew Wallace’s career after the civil war was more impressive than anything he accomplished during the war. As Governor of the New Mexico Territory, he brokered a deal with Billy the Kid to turn himself in after the Lincoln County Wars, then thought the better of it. About that same time, he completed his bestselling novel, Ben Hur. Much later, it would be turned into a motion picture starring Charlton Heston.


Lew Wallace was with Ulysses S. Grant’s army almost from the start. He fought with him at Fort Henry and performed so well at Fort Donelson that he was promoted to major general.


Shiloh was a different story. Early in the morning, Grant sent Captain A. A. Baxter to order Wallace to march immediately to Pittsburg Landing. When Wallace did not show up by one o’clock, Grant dispatched Colonel McPherson and Captain Rowley to find him. As it turns out, Wallace took the wrong road and missed the entire first day of fighting.[i]


General Ambrose Burnside

Ambrose Burnside is best known today as the namesake for sideburns, that big-bushy growth of fuzz on the side of your face. However, Burnside took it to the extreme, connecting them to either end of his mustache, then shaved his face clean below the mouth.

Burnside graduated from West Point in 1847, then traveled to Veracruz, where he saw service in the Mexican-American War. After that, he fought Apaches in New Mexico. 

During the 1850s, he left the service and designed his own rifle, the Burnside Carbine. It fired a special .54 caliber cartridge, also designed by Burnside. The weapon saw widespread use during the civil war. It was much appreciated by soldiers who could load it from the rear of the gun body rather than having to jam a cartridge and powder into the muzzle. 

It’s easy to understand why Burnside became a founding member and served as the first president of the NRA.

The Ups and Downs of General George McClellan

General George McClellan
(Harpers New Monthly Magazine. May 1865)

Ulysses S. Grant captured the essence of General George McClellan when he said, “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”[1] If only he’d been more decisive, more eager to fight, and less worried about the size of the forces opposing him. If only he had enjoyed a better relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

There were so many what-ifs, so many could have beens, and should have beens.

We’ll never know what McClellan could have accomplished. Instead, we know where he went wrong.

Lincoln appointed George McClellan general-in-chief of the Union Army in November 1861. However, after five months of inaction, he removed McClellan as general-in-chief on March 11, but left him in command of the Army of the Potomac. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

William Hull And the Fall of Detroit (War of 1812)

William Hull
(from Harper's New Monthly Magazine. May 1863.)

When the War of 1812 began, Tecumseh traveled to Malden, joining forces with Major General Sir Isaac Brock.

The British erected defensive works at Sandwich, opposite Fort Detroit, on August 14 and set up a battery consisting of two eighteen-pounders and an eight-inch howitzer. The Americans watched as the British fortified their position but did nothing to stop them.

The next day Colonel McDonald and Captain Glegg crossed the river to Detroit under a flag of truce to deliver a message from General Brock ordering the garrison to surrender.

After that, the British and Native Americans played an elaborate game of psych with the Americans. First, Brock ordered the Canadian militia to wear the uniform of the 41st regiment to make it seem like he had a more experienced force. Then, when the army camped for the night, he had the men light individual fires, so it appeared he had a more significant force.

Tecumseh completed the deception, marching his warriors around the fort three times. To General Hull, who was already worried about the Native Americans, it seemed like there must be savages lurking behind every tree.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
(from The Authentic Life of
Billy the Kid. 1882.)
Billy, the Kid, wasn’t much more than a little squirt. He stood something like five feet, four inches tall (some say five foot, eight—he must have been wearing stilts when they said that), weighed about 140 pounds, and had a stringy muscular body. His hair was a sandy, brownish blond, and according to friends—he was a bit of a jokester, except when he was holding a pistol.

The only picture of him shows a kid with a lopsided face, holding a shotgun by his side. But that can’t be right. By all accounts, the Kid was a real lady’s man. The girls liked him as much as he liked them, so that picture can’t be accurate. It’s more likely that the Kid had a boyish smile that broke into a wide, childlike grin when spinning a yarn.

And, by all accounts, the Kid laughed a lot. According to Sheriff Pat Garrett, Billy ate “and laughed, drank and laughed, talked and laughed, fought and laughed and killed and laughed.”

That brings us to his real passion—six guns and shooting irons!

When he had his gun out—the Kid was deadly serious and a sure shot.

New Mexico Governor, Lew Wallace, said Billy was “forked lightning with a shooting tool.” The Kid told him he never used a gunsight to take deliberate aim. “I just point my finger at what I shoot at, that’s all.” Billy raised his hand and pointed a finger at the governor as he said the words.

“Bang! Bang!”

The Kid let his finger do the talking.

Wallace continued.  “He simply permitted his forefinger to rest along the barrel of his pistol. Then, instead of attempting to point the pistol at his mark, he pointed his forefinger at the target, pulling the trigger with his middle finger.”

The idea was when a guy points his finger—it’s instinctive. Think back to when you played cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers as a kid. Did your bullet ever miss its mark?

Of course, it didn’t—and neither did Billy’s.

John Wilkes Booth's Plot to Kidnap Abraham Lincoln

Colorized print of Joh Wilkes Booth,
originally printed in Harper's Weekly
Magazine in 1865.

John Wilkes Booth had several
kidnap schemes in the works. One was to snatch Lincoln when he walked between the War Department and the White House. He often traveled alone. It would be quick work to carry him through the White House Garden to the old Van Ness mansion on Seventeenth Street. The home had several cellars, one with a trap door, where they could conceal the President away.[i]

The Van Ness mansion was the perfect spot to hide Lincoln in plain sight. The grounds covered two acres and were surrounded by tall trees, shrubbery, and a high brick wall. Lincoln could scream his lungs out, and no one would hear him.[ii]

The plan was safe. Relatively simple and had an excellent chance of success.

Booth quickly discarded it.

Another idea involved snatching Lincoln when he rode out to his hideaway at the Old Soldiers’ Home. The President often traveled there alone or with just a driver. Like the plot to hide Lincoln away in the Van Ness mansion, it had a better than average chance of success. 

Booth decided it would never do.

He had visions of snatching Lincoln out of the Presidential box at Ford’s or Grover’s. It would be the most magnificent acting of his life. Even Edwin could not top that.

Tecumseh And William Henry Harrison at Vincennes (1810)


Tecumseh’s Indian confederacy experienced a bumpy ride during its first few years. Delegations from many tribes came to investigate but left just as quickly. The area around Greenville and on the Wabash could not support so many people. The prophet promised his followers that food would be plentiful. Instead, they starved or were forced to beg for food from the soldiers at Vincennes.

The pan-Indian movement might have disappeared on its own—then and there—if William Henry Harrison hadn’t engineered the Fort Wayne Treaty in September of 1809. It gave Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa the ammunition they needed to grow their confederacy.

The Fort Wayne Treaty snatched nearly three million acres in Illinois and Indiana from the tribes. The Miami (the rightful owners) opposed the treaty for several reasons. First, under the Treaty of Greenville signed in 1795, they were guaranteed the use of the lands around the Wabash. Second, they demanded that Harrison pay them a fair price per acre rather than purchasing the lands as one large parcel. Finally, they objected that the tract’s primary residents were the Weas, and they did not participate in the negotiations. Harrison steamrolled over their objections and purchased the land for roughly two cents an acre when the going rate was $2.00.

The move was classic William Henry Harrison. In Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer, Robert M. Owens said Harrison’s favorite negotiating tactic was including tribes with “little claim to an area.” They were likelier to sell because they had no stake in the game. That’s what Harrison did at Fort Wayne. He negotiated the treaty with the Delaware, Potawatomi, and just one Miami band.

Tecumseh was away when the Fort Wayne Treaty was made. He threatened to kill all the chiefs involved when he learned about it.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Early Days at Fort Armstrong (Rock Island)

Fort Armstrong at Rock Island.

In the beginning, there was Rock Island, situated in the middle of the Mississippi River between what would become and Iowa and Illinois. The Indians believed a good spirit inhabited the cave at the island’s edge. “He was white, with large wings like a swan’s,” said Black Hawk, “but ten times larger.”

The Sac and Fox used the island as a garden in the summer. They gathered strawberries, blackberries, plums, apples, and various nuts. Fish were abundant. They would often sit along its shores, catching catfish, carp, crappies, and perch. All the time, they were careful not to disturb the island’s spirit.

Saukenuk, the main village of the Sacs, stood opposite the north side of the island, at the foot of the rapids between the Rock River and the Mississippi.[i] Behind it sat a bluff where the tribe’s cornfields ran parallel to the Mississippi. The Fox village stood three miles away, opposite the lower end of the island.

It was a virtual paradise that satisfied all the Indian’s needs.


The Eighth United States Infantry, under the command of Colonel R. C. Nichols, set off from St. Louis in September 1815 with orders to build a fort at or near Rock Island.

Chief Moses Keokuk (Wunagisa)

Wunagisa—Chief Moses Keokuk.
(Ginter & Allen Tobacco Cards.

After Keokuk’s death, his son assumed control of the tribe.

Wunagisa visited Washington in 1852. “Keokuk’s father was made a chief because he was considered a good man and a true friend to the whites,” explained the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “The great white chief (General Winfield Scott) made him a chief. I see no reason why young Keokuk, if he is as good a man as his father was, should not continue to be your chief.

“But I would say to young Keokuk he ought to recollect how it is he derived his honorable distinction. It was because his father was a good man, a good friend to the whites, and disposed to listen to the advice of the government and conduct himself properly.”[i]

That last line was the government’s formula for success and how they measured a native chief’s ability. If young Keokuk wished to remain chief of the Sac and Fox, he needed to do what the government wanted and continue along his father's path.

Wunagisa converted to the Baptist religion in 1878 and changed his name to Moses Keokuk. As part of his conversion, he gave up one of his two wives, stopped drinking and gambling, and moved out of his bark wigwam.

Chief Jerome Big Eagle on Minnesota Sioux Uprising

Chief Jerome Big Eagle recalled that most of his men were against joining in the Minnesota Sioux uprising, but eventually, they drifted into it.

Big Eagle gave several reasons for the conflict: “There was a great dissatisfaction among the Indians over many things the whites did. The whites would not let them go to war against their enemies.” (The Indian Commissioners put a halt to intertribal feuding. As a result, the Sioux could not keep up their ongoing feud with the Chippewa.)

“Then, the whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men. Go to farming, work hard, and do as they did—and the Indians did not know how to do that and did not want to, anyway.”[i]

Another problem was the traders.

When the annuities came, the traders were right there with their books. The Sioux didn’t keep books, so they could not deny the amounts the traders said they were owed. As a result, the government paid them whatever they asked for.

A lot of it came down to attitude. “Many of the whites always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I am better than you,’ and the Indians did not like this.”[ii]

And then, there was the war.