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]

Add to that, Belle was a bit of an eccentric. She often walked around her property at night, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. When strangers happened by, she sicked the dogs on them.

She married Peter Gunness in April 1902. A few months later, he was found on the kitchen floor with his head smashed in. Belle told investigators a roller from a heavy sausage grinder fell off a high shelf. The coroner had his doubts but didn’t pursue the case. Belle collected $3,000 in insurance money.

Belle lived a solitary life at La Porte—keeping the window shades and curtains drawn day and night. She built a fence around her farm to keep nosy neighbors out, and when people got too close, she sicked her dogs on them to scare them off.

A steady parade of men visited the farm over the next several years. Some stayed a few days or a week. Others disappeared almost as quickly as they came. If people had any questions about the constant procession of men, Belle remained closed-mouthed about what happened to them.

 Belle kept up a copious correspondence with men she met through her personal ads.

Belle’s response to Christian Hansen played on her loneliness and need for a man and money. She fashioned herself as a kindly woman, who needed someone to help raise her family, but all the time, she kept drilling down, digging into his financial situation.

I am a lonely Norwegian woman, and you have been recommended to me by a mutual friend who tells me you have plenty of this world’s goods and have a kind and generous disposition. I have a little 75-acre farm just fifty miles from Chicago, with a cozy twelve-room cottage, kitchen, and the rest, and badly need a good, kind husband to look after myself and small family of three children. I have two little girls and a boy 5 years. His father died five years ago when he was a little baby, so he needs a father and one who will aid in his bringing up.

You know that I hire help here, but none of the men I hire can be depended upon, so you must not come as a hired man but as my husband. I will entertain you under my roof until we understand each other. You will find me a kind woman with a loving disposition. I have plenty of money on which to live. You must have plenty of money, too. In order that I may know that you do not marry me for my money, you must be sure to bring with you $1000 in currency. I live only a few miles from La Porte and have a splendid farm with a nice little garden. Lovingly yours.”[4]

Andrew Helgelein came to the La Porte farm in December 1907, intending to marry Belle. She gave Lamphere a few days off. When he returned, Helgelein was gone, as was the nearly $3,000 he brought with him. The bank manager verified that Helgelein withdrew $2893.30, all in cash at Belle’s insistence, on January 14. That was the last time anyone saw Helgelein alive.[5]


Ray Lamphere
(Los Angeles Post Record. November 9, 1908.)

Belle’s house burned to the ground on April 28, 1908. Her hired hand, Joseph Maxson, smelled smoke at about 2:30 a.m. and jumped out a second-story window to escape the flames. When he attempted to warn Belle and her children, all the doors and windows were locked.

Searchers found the charred remains of three children and a headless woman in the basement, so at first, everyone assumed Belle perished in the fire. After the fire, Coroner Mack discovered something more sinister had happened. The children died before the fire started. They had been struck in the forehead with a hammer or similar instrument.[6]

Ray Lamphere, Belle’s ex-handyman, turned up in the hollow of a tree in the nearby woods. He denied setting the fire, telling investigators he spent the night with a colored prostitute named Elizabeth Smith, a voodoo witch, better-known as “Nigger Lizzie.”[7] “Someday,” Lizzie told Warden Wirt H. Worden, “when I feel I’m going to die, I will send for you and tell you everything.” Unfortunately, Lizzie died before she could keep her promise.[8]


The week after the fire, South Dakota farmer Asle Helgelein showed up in La Porte looking for his brother Andrew, who had answered one of Belle’s matrimonial ads. Several months before, Andrew had left Aberdeen with all his money—roughly $3,000—intending to marry Belle Gunness. When Asle contacted Belle, she said things didn’t work out, and his brother decided to return to Norway.[9] However, something about her response didn’t ring true, so Helgelein traveled to La Porte to investigate.

Belle wrote nearly eighty letters to Andrew Helgelein arranging their marriage. Many of them focused on finances. She suggested Helgelein, “gather up the cattle and horses on your farm and bring them to Chicago. We will sell the stock.”

Another letter advised him, “when you have turned your property and stock there into ready cash, do not put the money in a bank. Instead, carry your money in your clothes. Sew it in the lining. Then, bring the money and come and live happily with me till the end of your life.”[10]

“I think she killed my brother,” Asle told Sheriff Smutzer. “Then I think she faked her death, started the fire, and ran away.”

The sheriff had doubts, but he sent Dan Hudson and Joe Maxson to dig in Gunness’s truck garden, where Lamphere said Belle had him dump manure on some soft spots.

Belle Gunness with her children.
(Inter Ocean. May 6, 1908)

Sure, enough, they found a body wrapped in a gunny sack. Before the day was over, the diggers discovered four more bodies. Within a week, they recovered ten bodies or the parts and pieces of ten bodies.[11]

“The arms and legs had been cut off,” one of the bodies. The “head had been severed, but all the parts were there, done up in a gunny sack.” It looked like someone had attempted to destroy the remains with quick lime. All that was left was the skeleton, some hair, and a few traces of human flesh.

“It would not surprise me to find in the earth under that basement any number of bones and skeletons,” said Coroner Hoffman. “The total of Mrs. Gunness’s victims has not been reached by a good deal. She was no novice in the art of murder at the time she went to La Porte.”[12]

Sheriff Smutzer hired Louis Schultz, a California placer miner, to sift through the debris in the charred basement. He hoped to find remnants of Belle’s gold teeth.[13]

The town went crazy in the days after the bodies were discovered. The Chicago Tribune reported that people seemed to regard wholesale murders as a “light-hearted celebration.” One savvy restaurateur billed his chili con carne as “Gunness Stew” and quickly sold out.[14]


Sheriff Smutzer’s men identified a laundry list of victims once the digging began.

John Moe left Elbow Lake, Minnesota, in December 1906, telling his brother-in-law, J. G. Renden, he had some business to take care of in La Porte. He left with two drafts totaling $1100 and $400 in cash.

Moe arrived in La Porte on December 20 and cashed his drafts six days later. That was the last time he was seen alive. Coincidentally, December 26 was the last time anyone saw Jennie Oleson alive, so Belle may have treated herself to a Christmas week double murder.[15]

Sheriff Smutzer suspected Belle had killed four people that week, including John Moe, Jennie Oleson, a music professor, and his wife. They were supposed to take Jennie to school in California.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Gunness killed and cut up all four of them on the same night,” said Smutzer. “The four bodies were in the same grave and apparently were buried at the same time.” Unfortunately, the bodies were too decayed to identify the man and woman.[16]

Ole Budsberg answered Belle’s matrimonial ad in March 1907. He arrived at the farm with $1,000, then withdrew it from the bank on April 6. That was the last anyone saw of Budsberg until his son identified his body after the digging started.

Henry Gerhalt left Scandinavia, Wisconsin, on March 12, 1906. He told relatives he was engaged to Mrs. Peter Gunness, who had a beautiful thirteen-room brick home near La Porte. A few days later, he wrote home saying he was “at work and liked it very much.”

Belle's burial ground.
(South Bend Tribune. May 9, 1908)

That was the last his family heard from him. Then, when they wrote Belle, she said he left for Chicago with a horse trader in August and had never returned.

There were others, but the story remained the same. So many men came to visit Belle, but only one got out alive. George Anderson woke up to find Belle hovering over him with a candle. She ran out of the room, and he fled the house catching the first train home to Missouri.


Almost as soon as Belle’s horrors were discovered, people began to ask: “Is Belle Gunness still alive?”[17]

She made out her will on April 27, the day before the fire. She told her lawyer, M. E. Leliter, that she thought her life was in danger, hinting Lamphere had threatened to burn her house down and kill her.

Belle left her property to her three children—Philip Gunness, age 5; Myrtle Sorenson, age 11; and Lucy Sorenson, age 9. If anything happened to them, her estate would go to the Norwegian Orphans and Children’s Home of Chicago.

In 1908 Belle stood five feet seven and tipped the scales at 225 pounds. However, the headless corpse found in the house stood five feet three and weighed 150 pounds. That seemed to prove Belle faked her death.

Dr. H. H. Long, the former coroner of La Porte County, said the body found in the basement belonged to a much smaller woman.[18] What made him suspicious was Belle’s head would not have burned away completely if the children’s heads had not. So someone had to have cut it off to conceal the corpse’s identity.

Except—Belle’s dentist, Dr. Ira P. Norton confirmed the upper and lower dentures matched the ones he made for Belle. He had put gold crowns on the two lower bicuspids the year before.[19]

Lamphere told detectives the body found in the basement belonged to Mae O’Reilly, but she turned up alive in Saratoga, New York. Her husband, Julius G. Truelson, Jr., concocted a story that he worked as a paid assassin for Belle. Eventually, Trueleson grew tired of Belle and killed her and her children. However, Truelson’s story fell apart when it was shown he was in jail when Belle died.

“Bodies, murder,” exclaimed Lamphere. “I know she was dangerous. Good heavens, she tried to get me to buy chloroform for her once. Now that they have found the bodies, I see what was going on.”[20]

Lamphere told detectives Belle wanted to marry him, but only if he bought a life insurance policy naming her the beneficiary. When he refused to do that, they had a falling out, and he left the farm.


Lamphere hinted that he “always thought there was something wrong” at Belle’s farm.[21]

His girlfriend, Bessie Conklin, told detectives Ray bragged, “Mrs. Gunness had to be good to him, or he would make it hot for her and send her to the gallows.”[22]

Lamphere received 21 years in the state prison at Michigan City for arson. However, the jury failed to convict him of murder. He died a year later, on December 30, 1909, from tuberculosis.[23]

The year after Lamphere died, the Reverend Dr. E. A. Schell divulged details of Lamphere’s confession while imprisoned.

“Three times at [Belle’s] request, I purchased chloroform,” said Lamphere, “and once I dug a hole in the hog lot for her and helped her put the body of someone in it who she said had died suddenly about the house, and she thought the easiest was to cover him up and say nothing about it.”

Another time when he returned from Michigan City, he watched her “administer some chloroform to a man [Andrew Helgelein] and hit him in the back of the head with a hatchet.”[24] Again, Belle paid him several times to keep his mouth shut—$50, $15, and then $5.

He admitted going to Belle’s house with Lizzie Smith on the night of the fire. They had been drinking heavily and decided to search the house for the money they were sure Belle kept there.

They crept into the bedrooms and chloroformed everyone before they ransacked the house. Lamphere insisted he did not start the fire, but “he was not certain that the negress did not do it, for she was as drunk as he was.”[25]

In the days leading up to his death, Lamphere shared many intimate details of Belle’s crimes with his hospital attendant, Harry Meyers. Many of them contradicted his earlier statements to the police and Reverend Schell.

In the six years Belle spent at her La Porte murder farm, Lamphere said she killed 42 men and collected tens of thousands of dollars from them.

Belle’s adopted daughter, Jenny Olesen, disappeared in November 1906. She told John Weidner, a local boy, she might go away because of health problems, but she would give him her address to write if she did.

In a later confession, Lamphere said Belled killed Jennie because she knew too much and wouldn’t stop talking, especially about the death of Peter Gunness. “My mama killed my papa,” Jennie told classmates. “She hit him with a meat cleaver, and he died. Don’t tell a soul.” Belle denied it but couldn’t afford to let any rumors spread.

Belle killed her three younger children for the same reason. They kept talking about all the men coming and leaving the farm and about Lamphere always working in the fields after dark. Belle worried they would give her away, so she got rid of them.

Lamphere denied killing any of the men who came to the farm but did say he helped bury many of them. Most of the bodies had been decapitated, and the arms and legs cut off. He buried the heads on one side of the farm and the bodies on the other so they would be harder to identify.

And yes, Belle survived the fire.

The body found in the house belonged to a Chicago woman; they lured to La Porte to be Belle’s housekeeper. Three days after she came, Belle killed the woman and her three children, then planted them there to make it look as if she perished in the fire with them.

Lamphere drove Belle out into the country about nine miles, where she was met by another man who took her to Chicago. From there, she planned to return to Norway. Lamphere returned to Belle’s house and set it on fire.[26]

Many people reported seeing Belle in the years following the fire.

In 1930, Sheriff Tom Moore of Hinds County, Mississippi, reported he was ready to arrest Gunness. The seventy-year-old woman had lived in his county for years, going by the name of Smith.

Someone else suggested Esther Carlson, who died in California in 1931 awaiting trial for poisoning her employer, 81-year-old August Lindstrom, was Belle?

Esther stared at the photos of Belle Gunness the sheriff handed to her. “No,” she shook her head, “that is not me.” She explained that she lived in Hartford, Connecticut, and New Hampshire before moving to California—never in Indiana.[27]

[1] South Bend Tribune. May 7, 1908.

[2] There is some confusion here. Some accounts say she operated the store with Sorenson, others say she ran it alone after his death. In either case, the store was failing and mysteriously caught fire. Belle collected the insurance and walked away a little richer.

[3] Burlington Daily News. May 15, 1908.

[4] The Evening Mail. May 12, 1908.

[5] The Inter Ocean. May 10, 1908.

[6] South Bend Tribune. May 7, 1908.

[7] Chicago Tribune. May 6, 1916.

[8] Chicago Tribune. May 6, 1916.

[9] Burlington Dily News. May 15, 1908.

[10] The Inter Ocean. May 10, 1908.

[11] Burlington Daily News. May 15, 1908.

[12] South Bend Tribune. May 9, 1908.

[13] The Inter Ocean. May 10, 1908.

[14] Chicago Tribune. May 18, 1908.

[15] The Inter Ocean. May 18, 1908.

[16] Chicago Tribune. May 19, 1908.hicago Tribune reported

[17] Burlington Daily News. May 15, 1908.

[18] South Bend Tribune. May 9, 1908.

[19] The Inter Ocean. May 10, 1908.

[20] The Inter Ocean. May 6, 1908.

[21] Burlington Daily News. May 15, 1908.

[22] South Bend Tribune. May 7, 1908.

[23] Washington Post. December 31, 1909.

[24] South Ben Tribune. May 15, 1910.

[25] South Bend Tribune. January 15, 1910.

[26] Indianapolis News. July 19, 1930. The confession was made to Warden James E. Reed on January 10, 1910, but details about it did not come out until 1930, over thirty years later. Warden Edgar Hogarth did not explain, other than to say he found it in a collection of papers Myers left behind after his release.

[27] Los Angeles Evening Post-Record. February 27, 1931.

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