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Belle Gunness
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Black Widow Belle Gunness

By James Donahue

Belle Gunness, believed to have killed two husbands, six children and an estimated 40 to 180 potential suitors between 1884 and 1908, has remained one of America’s great unsolved mysteries. She is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as among the worst female serial killers in history.

After a fatal fire that destroyed her farm home near La Porte, Indiana in 1908, Belle absconded with about a quarter of a million dollars from insurance payments and her victims, and was never caught.

She got away because a hired handyman was jailed for starting the fire and a woman’s headless charred remains were among the bodies found in the charred ruins. Ray Lamphere was found guilty of starting the fire. He later told authorities the woman’s body was that of a maid, and that Gunness had planned the fire and the killings before leaving town.

She was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth in Selbu, Norway, on November 22, 1859. She was a big woman who stood six feet tall, was physically powerful, and weighed about 280 pounds. She immigrated to the United States in 1881 and married Mads Albert Sorenson.

It was believed the Sorenson’s produced two children, who both died in infancy. Researchers now believe the children were poisoned in infancy for insurance money. In 1884 the store that Sorenson owned and their home were destroyed by fire. The couple collected insurance money for both buildings. Not long after that, Sorenson died. Incredibly he was declared dead of heart failure on the day his two life insurance policies overlapped. The family requested an inquiry but no charges were filed.

She became known as Belle Gunness after marrying her second husband, Peter Gunness. The couple lived on the farm near La Porte. An infant daughter from this marriage also died shortly after childbirth. He died in December, 1902 under strange circumstances. His skull was crushed. Belle told authorities a meat grinder had fallen from a high shelf and hit him in the head. Belle next adopted a young daughter, Jeanne, who would become one of the victims. Two other children seemed to have joined the family by the time of the fire.

The farmhouse was destroyed by fire the morning of April 28, 1908. Four charred corpses, three children and a headless woman were found under the remains of a burnt piano that had fallen into the basement. Lamphere, who was hired to help on the farm, was arrested on charges of arson and murder.

Lamphere told police that he feared Belle. He said "she wanted me killed because I knew too much."

Also, a day before the fire, Belle had asked a La Porte lawyer to draft a will. She told him she wanted to prepare for trouble. "I’m afraid that fool Lamphere is going to kill me and burn my house," she allegedly told him.

Lamphere was found guilty of arson, but never charged with murder. The woman’s body from the burned house was never identified. Lamphere admitted starting the fire but he said the dead woman had been hired as a housekeeper. He said Belle escaped with about a quarter of a million dollars.

The full depth of the Gunness killing spree became known when Asle Helgelien, a South Dakota sheriff, came to La Porte in search of his missing brother. It seems that Andrew Helgelien had answered an ad in a Scandinavian newspaper and traveled to La Porte to meet the woman who was searching for "a good and reliable man as partner" on a valuable farm.

When he heard about the fire, Asle told Indiana police he feared that his brother had been murdered. Police didn’t believe him at first until body parts began showing up on the farm.

As the investigation continued, the bones of a lot of dead men were found in a hog pen. It was learned that Gunness had been using a lovelorn column to attract wealthy men to the farm where she took their money before killing and burying their bodies. The more police investigated, the more bodies turned up. The property became known as the "Murder Farm."

Authorities said there were so many bones that it was clear that Gunness had been on her killing spree for a very long time . . . possibly from the time she arrived in America and probably killed her first husband, Mads Sorenson.

The search for Belle Gunness continued for decades. The last possible lead came in 1931 with a death of a woman who had been accused of poisoning an elderly man for his money.