|The Naked City | Vintage Pulp||Oct 28 2010|
Above is an October 1930 issue of The Master Detective with an article on “Chicago’s Female Bluebeard,” aka Belle Gunness, a Norwegian-born serial killer who offed practically everyone she ever knew over the course of eight years between 1900 and 1908. Records are spotty, but what is known of the story is mightily intriguing. Her first victim may have been her husband, a butcher named Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, who took sick and died on the only day when an expiring insurance policy and a new one happened to overlap. However, it’s possible Belle might have already killed two of the couple’s four kids. Officially, the children died of colitis. Colitis has symptoms similar to those for certain types of poisoning, but no inquest was convened, even though Gunness owned insurance policies on both kids. In the case of her husband, questions were asked, but forensic science being what it was back then, no evidence of foul play was uncovered. Cleared of wrongdoing, Gunness left Chicago.
In 1902, now living on a farm in LaPorte, Indiana she had bought with insurance money, Gunness met and married another Norwegian—Peter Gunness, a local butcher. This man who already shared her last name had two young daughters. One of the girls died of a sudden stomach ailment shortly after the wedding, then Peter himself died when a sausage-grinding machine fell on his head, splitting his skull and killing him instantly. At least, that what it looked like. But what had actually happened is that Belle Gunness had hit him with a cleaver. It should be mentioned that she was about five-nine, went 200 pounds and was physically strong. Belle Gunness was charged with murder, but in the absence of solid forensic evidence, the case hinged on hearsay—namely, that of Gunness’s adopted daughter Jennie Olson, who had told a classmate, “My mama killed my papa. She hit him with a cleaver and he died.” But Olson refused to repeat the statement in court and, since Belle was pregnant, the jury acquitted her. Not long after, young Jennie Olson vanished.
Belle Gunness had acquired butchery skills, and these would soon come in handy. In a local paper she bought an ad in which she described herself as a widow looking for a gentleman. The suitors came calling and the corpses began piling up. It’s impossible to say for sure how many she murdered. Only one fact is certain—she began ordering lots of steamer trunks. The only reason Belle Gunness was ever caught is because her live-in farmhand, a man named Ray Lamphere, had fallen in love with her. Lamphere was well aware of Belle’s activities, and began to make thinly veiled threats when it became clear she wasn’t interested in him. Belle retaliated by firing him then trying to get him locked in an asylum, and Lamphere retaliated in turn by arousing the suspicions of a man whose brother had gone missing on the farm. In the end, she had no choice to but to agree to a police search of the place. The game was up, but that didn’t mean she had to stick around for the conclusion.
On April 28, 1908 the Gunness farmhouse caught fire. By the time emergency crews arrived the place was cinders. In the basement four bodies were found—those of Gunness’s three children and the body of a woman that couldn’t be identified because it was headless. The headlessness pointed to murder, and so police arrested Ray Lamphere. They believed he had killed Belle Gunness and her children, then set the fire to cover up his crime. Continued digging in the basement finally unearthed Belle Gunness’s dental bridge near where the unidentified corpse had been found. It seemed Gunness was dead. Meanwhile, evidence of serial murder emerged when excavations in the farm’s hog pen, pictured above, uncovered a mass grave. Inside was interred the body of Jennie Olson and many other victims. The morbid case became a nationwide sensation.
At trial Ray Lamphere had a novel defense—he said he wasn’t guilty of murder because Belle Gunness wasn’t dead. The jury agreed there was indeed reasonable doubt about this—the body from the fire was about six inches shorter than Gunness, even accounting for the missing head. Lamphere was acquitted of murder but jailed for arson. He would last in prison only for a year before dying of consumption, but before his death he told the whole story. According to him, Belle had been killing for years, usually with a cleaver to the skull or chloroform. She would then dismember the bodies using her butchery skills, and he would help bury the pieces. The motive was simple—Belle was hungry for money. The killings sometimes triggered insurance payments; other times Belle killed after suitors had lent her large amounts of cash.
Ray explained that when the LaPorte police began nosing around, he and Belle forgot their differences and worked out a plan to escape town together. She killed her three children and a local woman whose body would serve as a decoy, left them in the basement of the farmhouse with her dental bridge, and dumped the decapitated head in a swamp. Lamphere torched the place, and they were to meet at a crossroads likeeloping lovers and venture forth toward their new lives. Instead, Lamphere claimed Gunness cut across a deserted wood and ditched him. According to him, she escaped with all the cash from her various insurance murders and scams—some $250,000, or about 7 million in modern money. A check of local banks revealed that her accounts had been emptied just before the fire. Belle Gunness—killer of forty-two people according to Ray Lamphere—had outsmarted everyone and vanished for parts unknown with a fortune.
The Gunness case is one of particular interest to murder historians, partly because the lack of solid records leaves so many gaps in the narrative. The summary you’ve just read follows one line of reasoning, but in truth, there is doubt about where she lived and when, who she met and when, and even how many children she had. There are many questions over whether she actually escaped. Some believe Lamphere killed her and ditched the body. There is also a theory, supported by intriguing circumstantial evidence, that she went on to kill more people in California. DNA tests on Gunness descendants might clear up some questions, but these are pending as of today. In any case, it’s safe to say that Belle Gunness is one of the most accomplished killers who ever lived. Her story—whichever one you prefer—proves once again what we always say here at Pulp Intl. The world hasn’t grown crueler. It was always that way.