The horrifying account of Belle Gunness is that of which nightmares are made. This Lady Bluebeard lured in her prey under the guise of a rich widow in search of a man to share her wealth and companionship with. Leaving 28 hacked up and decomposing corpses buried in her hog pen, including her own children, Gunness fled in the night, never to be seen again. Till this day no-one can definitively claim to know Belle ended up or even if she took up her murder business to a new location.
Joe Maxson could barely breathe when the smoke enveloped his upstairs room in the wee hours of April 28, 1908. Running out of the front door was no longer an option for him, jumping out of his window was his only chance of surviving the approaching flames.
Maxson knew that saving the widow and her three children would be an impossible chore, but still he grabbed a hatchet from the barn and ran back through the smoke. The fire that consumed the Gunness farm was now relentlessly hot, giving Maxson no opportunity to reenter the home.All he could do at this point was to watch the fire burn.
A local newspaper described the charred remains of what appeared to be the mother and her children. “The bodies of the mother and her children were piled up together, indicating that the mother had evidently made an effort to escape from the house with the children clinging to her.”
The journalist left out no gruesome detail in describing the smallest child, the little boy “whose face was black, with a hole in the forehead from a falling brick. It’s limbs below the knees had been burned away. The child’s moth was open, silent testimony to the agony of death.”
The mother, Belle Gunness, was described as an “unrecognizable mass” with her bones protruding through the “naked flesh.” What’s more disturbing was the absence of the head “decapitated by the ruthless and torturing flames.” Diggers and on-lookers spent days sifting through the remaining rubbish hoping to find the mother’s head, but to their dismay, it was never uncovered.
Perhaps its ultimate resting place was the nearby lake. Perhaps it’s still there today.
Not only was the woman’s head missing, but it appeared to detectives that the mother’s left arm was completely “burned off” along with her right arm, which was burned off at the shoulder. In fact Belle’s body, or what they initially believed was Belle’s body, was absent from both arms and her lower portion, “burned off at the knee”.
Now we know that her body, along with others found, wasn’t burned off like what they initially believed, but previously chopped off by the blood-lusting arch-murderess.
For several days before the fire, the farm widow Belle Gunness had been complaining to the La Porte sheriff’s office that a former farmhand and employee of hers, Ray Lamphere, had been stalking and threatening Belle and her children.
Belle claimed Lamphere became disgruntled over being fired weeks earlier and was most likely plotting to kill the mother and her kids. The sheriff’s deputies arrested Lamphere multiple times for trespassing on the Gunness farm.
Little did anyone know at the time that Belle falsely accusing Lamphere prior to the conflagration would cast ultimate suspicion on the farmhand and away from her. Her planned worked and even after the public came to know of the Gunness farm crimes, Ray Lamphere would still be convicted and sentenced with setting the fire of the farmhouse and killing Belle and her three children.
Found a “Heap of Human Bones”
As local newspapers were touting Belle Gunness as the farm widow who heroically attempted to save her children from the flames, detectives were uncovering something farm more sinister.
While searching for the head of Belle searchers came across a collection, nearly a dozen of men’s shoes of all sizes. The diggers surmised the shoes came from former farmhands that according to what the widow told Ray Lamphere, “quit” or left to go out west.
Under the collection of shoes searchers came across human bones and according to the local paper a “heap of human bones” was unearthed.
Immediately the widow’s status as heroic mother changed to that of despicable serial murderess who not only brutally murdered her farm hands but also her own children. Overnight, the Gunness “house of horrors” became comparable to the infamous Jack the Ripper, with a body count far exceeding his own.
Searchers would unearth hundreds of human bones that belonged to at least 28 victims.
“About three feet down, rotting burlap, the remnants of the sack in which a torso had been stuffed, clung to the rib cage, pelvis, and spine. The skull, which bore a three-inch gash, lay nearby along with the sawed-off leg bones.”
The High Priestess of Murder
After the bones, at least most of them, were uncovered from the ashes, Belle became the most notorious criminal and serial killer in modern times. Newspapers took every opportunity to include any salacious details they could. Many monikers were given to Belle including: Lady Bluebeard, the La Porte Ghoul, Indiana Ogress, The Human Vampire, Female Bluebeard, High Priestess of Murder, Mistress of the Castle of Death, Queen of Crime, and the most notorious of all, Hell’s Princess.
But how did this ordinary Norwegian immigrant develop into the horrible monster that newsmen portrayed her to be?
To answer this question, Gunness’ childhood would be held under a microscope and the press would surface any clues.
First, Belle Gunness was not her actual name; it was Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset. The name a literal translation of the daughter of Paul (her father). Brynhild was born on November 11, 1859, in the city of Selbu, Norway, to a poor sharecropper and his home-maker’s wife.
Brynhild was not an attractive woman by any means, and her large stature, eventually weighing nearly 300 pounds, did little to attract a mate.
One acquaintance reminisces about Brynhild as an “unlovely young woman with a large head, small eyes, short nose, and a wide, fat-lipped mouth that, when set in a frown, bore resemblance to a frogs’”
Brynhild wouldn’t immigrate to America until she was 22-years-old, first living in Chicago under the name ‘Bella Peterson’, before eventually adopting the name Bella. Her last name Gunness would be from her second husband, Peter Gunness, whom like her first husband, she also killed.