I’m beyond excited to introduce you to one of my all-time favorite authors, Nancy Mehl! Not only is her Kaely Quinn Profiler series one of the best I’ve read, but she’s been a personal blessing to me over the last few months. Without further ado, let’s dig into the interview.
Are any events/people in your books based on reality, or is it pure imagination?
A combination. I believe we put some of ourselves and our life experiences in our stories. It’s what we know and what we understand.
2. Have you visited any of the locations in your books?
Yes. When my stories were based in Kansas, I almost always visited the places I wrote about. Most of the towns weren’t real, but I wanted to make certain they could exist in areas where I put them. When working on a series set in Sugarcreek, Ohio, I actually traveled there and was able to visit local shops and places I’d written about. It was a lot of fun.
3. Who was your favorite character to write and why?
Kaely Quinn, the main character in my Kaely Quinn Profiler series. She is so unique I loved writing about her.
4. What is your favorite genre to read?
Mystery and suspense. I’ve always loved it since I was a little girl. Still do.
5. Do you hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Sometimes I put the names of friends in my books without telling them. I love it when they find themselves in my story.
6. What is your most unusual writing quirk?
I can’t think of anything that’s really unusual. I do listen to music when I write. My dog is always in the room with me. I have a bird feeder outside my window and like to watch the birds while I’m writing. Not sure those are very unusual. Sorry.
7. What do you most hope your readers take away from Dead End?
Of course, I want them to enjoy the book. I’ll be wrapping up Kaely’s story so I pray they will be satisfied with the way I did it. I think Dead End offers a lot of hope. My prayer is that they’ll take that away with them.
8. What is your favorite word and why?
My favorite word? That’s easy. Jesus.
9. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?
Alaska! I dream about taking a cruise there. I want to see the northern lights and watch a whale swim past the boat. Anyone who knows me knows I love snow. I think I could be happy there for a year!
10. Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for buying my books and for all your kind comments to me. They mean more than you will ever know. Their encouragement is almost as good as chocolate!
I’m so thankful Nancy took the time to give us a peek into her process and her life.
In honor of her newest release, Dead End, I’m hosting a giveaway. Comment below (with your email address) to be entered for a chance to win one of three e-book copies of this amazing story! Be sure to drop your comment before midnight Saturday, April 4th. I’ll draw names on Sunday! To be honest, I’m a low key jelly of whoever wins. I pre-ordered a paperback, and Amazon said I won’t get it until April 30th. That is way to long to wait, considering I’ve been rather impatiently biding my time since December to find out how the series ends . . . But, I’ll take the moral high ground and be over the moon happy for the three lucky winners!
Some people enjoy watching horror movies. The sensation of a tingling spine and racing pulse gives them a little thrill. But when the credits roll, and the TV flickers off, it’s only stories. They can curl beneath the cool sheets, close their eyes, and know none of that can happen. It’s all make-believe. Right?
Well, sometimes the truth is scarier than fiction. Such was the case for Annie Andrews and her family.
The year was 1986. Annie and Jessica’s mother had passed away, leaving them grieving and often alone while their father worked to pay the bills. Their mother had been the glue that held the family together, and Annie wished she could talk to her one more time.
One day, the phone rang, and Annie answered. A neighborhood boy, Danny LaPlante, had begged her number from mutual friends. Without being a total skeez, he told her she was pretty and how much he’d like to get to know her. All the things girls want to hear. After several phone calls, he asked her out for ice cream. It sounded innocent enough, and Annie hoped to somehow fill the void her mother left behind. Maybe a boyfriend was the answer. She agreed, and they made a visit to the ice cream parlor together.
Like teenage girls–or any girl, for that matter–Annie’s mind built Danny into a dream boat he could never hope to be. When she met him face to face, disappointment soured the ice cream. As kindly as possible, she ended things with the anti-Prince Charming.
Needing her mother more than ever, Annie, along with Jessica, grabbed an Ouija board and candles. It was time for a seance. She had to talk with her mother. Tell her good-bye. Let her know how much she was missed. Candle flames bobbed, casting light against the grimy basement walls. Nothing. The planchette didn’t move. It was all just a bunch of baloney
Later that night, when Annie lay in bed, a knocking sound tapped the walls. When she searched the house, everything seemed normal. But the thumps persisted. Was it her mother? Had the seance actually worked?
As months progressed, the tapping continued intermittently. Probably just a friendly greeting from their dear departed. But when the girls started finding personal items and furniture moved around the house, a creepy crawly feeling settled it. Whatever was happening was more sinister than their mother’s presence.
After their father left for work one day, strange sounds filtered from the basement. Together the girls trekked the creaking steps. When they reached the concrete floor, words written in what appeared to be blood dripped from the walls. ‘I’m in your room come find me.’ This wasn’t Mother. The girls ran screaming from the house, looking for a neighbor to call their father and alert him.
The girls’ father, Brian Andrews, hadn’t heard the noises. He believed his daughters’ hysterics were their way of acting out after losing their mother. When he checked the writing on the basement wall, he found the cryptic message had been written in ketchup. Yep, nothing more than a cry for attention.
For the next few days, things in the Andrews’ home returned to a semblance of normal. No more noises, ketchup messages, or misplaced furniture. Annie breathed a relieved sigh. Fear’s clutches loosened their hold. But all good things must come to an end, and one night another message appeared on the wall. Again, the girls ran from the house in an attempt to escape the unknown menace within.
Seeing the girls’ terror, Brian Andrews entered the house with his daughters, planning to find another staged work of art from Annie and Jessica. But when he stood still in the foyer, sounds from upstairs snagged his attention. Slowly, he moved to the second floor. The noises grew louder with each step. Light seeped under a bedroom door, and a shadow played from somewhere inside the room.
Brian pushed open the door. Panic rippled as Danny LaPlante, dressed in the clothing of the deceased Mrs. Andrews turned to face him. The teenager carried a hatchet, poised to strike.
LaPlante chased the family through the house. Once he’d captured Brian, Annie, and Jessica and tied them up, he told them to start praying, because they were going to die. Their prayers were answered when one of the girls broke free of her ligatures and helped her sister and father escape through a bedroom window. They called the police. It was over. Or it should have been, anyway.
Police arrived at the scene, and what they found left them scratching their heads. Messages written on the walls and coins glued to the ceiling. Weird. But they didn’t find Danny LaPlante. Still, the Andrews family was understandably uncomfortable with the idea of returning home and stayed away for nearly two weeks. When they gathered the courage to go back, Danny LaPlate was standing in the window–waiting for them.
Again, the police stormed the Andrews home. They searched the place top to bottom, and in the basement, an officer found something odd behind the washing machine. When they moved it away from the wall, shock prevailed. A hole in the plaster led to a space between the inside and outside walls. Danny LaPlante crouched inside his hiding place, and he didn’t come out quietly.
Eventually, they coaxed him out and arrested him. In the space behind the wall, lay a sleeping bag, beer, and food wrappers. He’d been living there a while. When the whole story came to light, it was discovered he broke into the Andrews’ home for the first time after Annie decided they weren’t a match. He’d watched the seance Annie and Jessica had performed nearly a year earlier. In that moment, he had seen the girls’ vulnerability and determined to terrify them. Annie would pay for spurning his advances. Turns out Annie Andrews’ radar was working. I’d like to say she dodged a bullet, but after the horror movie she and her family survived, that wouldn’t be a fair statement.
I’d also like to say that Danny LaPlate was sentenced to some serious hard time, and they all lived happily ever after, but the story doesn’t end here. Due to the fact Scary McCreeperson (a.k.a. Danny LaPlante) was a minor and no physical harm was done, Annie’s ex-boyfriend spent a few months in a youth detention facility. Then, before the trial, his mommy paid his bail.
Court was scheduled for December 1987, but before Danny could be tried for his crimes, the unthinkable happened. LaPlante disappeared.
Then one day, Andrew Gustofson returned home from work to find his pregnant wife had been shot in the head, and their two children drowned in separate bathtubs. The evidence pointed to Danny LaPlante. Police tracked down the seventeen-year-old triple murderer. It was still unclear whether the killings resulted from a robbery gone wrong or something more evil.
This time, justice was served and the judge sentenced LaPlante to three life sentences. Good call, Judge!
Despite the fact this seriously disturbed man will never breathe free air again, I can’t imagine Annie Andrews is able to crawl into bed at night, knowing the monsters on TV are little more than figments of a writer’s imagination. She knows monsters are real. And sometimes, they live in the walls of your home.
I’m so excited to introduce you to my friend Tom Threadgill! He’s authored the Jeremy Winter trilogy and, most recently, Collision of Lies. All four ebooks will be up for grabs, but I’ll get to that part later. Hope you enjoy reading Tom’s responses to my questions as much as I did.
1. Are any events/people in Collision of Lies or the Jeremy Winter series based on reality, or is it pure imagination?
When I look back on the Winter series, I can see a lot of myself in the main character, particularly as far as his opinions and sarcasm. I didn’t plan that, but I think it’s impossible to write without including part of yourself in there somewhere. A lot of the banter in the story is typical of conversations my wife and I have. Oh, and Maggie’s penchant for mangling idioms is based loosely on my wife. “Loosely.”
2. Have you visited any of the locations in your books?
I have, but not specifically for research purposes. West Tennessee, St. Louis, and San Antonio are all on that list.
3. Who was your favorite character to write and why?
I enjoyed writing Amara in Collision of Lies a lot, but I think my favorite was the Medical Examiner, Douglas Pritchard. I still haven’t figured out what the deal is with that guy. I love his quirks but not sure I could ever tolerate being around him for long. He’s kind of a combination of Monk, House, and Quincy (you youngsters will need to look that one up).
4. Did you have to edit any fun scenes from Collision of Lies before publication?
Not really. Collision is my fourth novel and I’ve pretty much learned when something isn’t going to work. If I can’t figure out a way for the scene to move the plot forward, it won’t be in there. Plus, my first drafts are almost always way shorter than the final manuscript, so there’s not a lot to cut. I prefer to flesh out the story in the edits rather than fret about what needs to go.
5. Do you hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Nah. I mean, there may be inside jokes that only certain friends or family will recognize, but nothing earth-shattering. I did have several readers comment about a cameo in Collision that they enjoyed, but that’s not really a secret.
6. One of your characters in Collision of Lies is a Downton Abbey buff. Did you watch the series for research, and if so, did you love it?
I do research a lot of things in my stories, but I have my limits. That said, I have been exposed to second-hand Downton Abbey (which I believe the Surgeon General has issued a warning about) because my wife loved it. But I had to Google the information on the show’s scenes that are mentioned in my novel.
7. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
About a year, although the sequel to Collision is taking a lot longer due to life getting in the way. My goal for 2020 was to finish the sequel as well as another novel before the year ended. Not sure I’m going to make it.
8. Do you personally eat Cheetos with chopstick or know someone who does?
I’m way too uncoordinated to use chopsticks and I’m not a fan of Cheetos. Cool concept though, right?
9. What are your five favorite movies and why?
That’s such a hard question because I tend to have favorite scenes rather than movies. Like Infinity War when Thor shows up in Wakanda or the final battle in Endgame (the unforced parts of it). I do like all the John Wick movies and most of the Jason Bourne ones too. The LOTR movies are good (skip the blasphemy that is The Hobbit), but can be quite slow in parts.
10. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Ah, the old “what did you want to be” question. I’ll give the same answer I always do. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an adult. Now I want to be a kid again. 😊
11. Which of your characters do you most relate to?
I think it’s still Jeremy Winter. There’s a lot of his character still to be explored if I ever decide to go back there.
12. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
None. I don’t plot at all. I work out the first chapter from whatever idea I’m using and go from there. All research is done during the writing phase.
13. Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Please leave reviews when you read books! It helps authors in lots of ways. And writing can be lonely, so don’t be afraid to fire off an email to your favorite writer and let them know you enjoy their work. Nothing brightens our day/week/month more!
Thank you all for joining me as I interviewed one of my favorite authors! Now to sweeten the pot. On March 1st, I will be drawing names, and one lucky winner will receive all three Jeremy Winter books and Collision of Lies in ebook format. I’m sure you’re dying to know how to enter, and it’s simple. Just comment below and tell me why you love reading suspense. Be sure to include your email address so I can contact you if your name is drawn.
Be sure to subscribe, since I’ll be conducting giveaways every month, and I’d hate you to miss anything!
A new year is upon us. For some that means making resolutions that will last until sometime next week. For others that means pulling out a Twinkie and a Coke and laughing at those who are trying once again to turn over a new leaf. Maybe you’re one to make resolutions and like Kelly from The Office, you plan to get more attention by any means necessary. Maybe you’re like Creed and want to perform the perfect cartwheel (and your idea of perfect is a little ambiguous.)
Statistically, losing weight is the most common resolution made this time of year. Couch potatoes flock to gyms and produce sections for their annual appearance–much like the one day in February that Punxsatawny Phil pokes his fuzzy head out of his burrow to tell us if we have a whole six weeks left of winter or if there are only six weeks left of winter. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that kind of the same thing? Seriously, there is no way for this groundhog to fail. How does one find a job like this?)
If you are the type to make resolutions, I’d like to caution you not to go overboard like British sisters, Claire and Dorthea Williamson did at the turn of the century.
Claire and Dorthea were orphaned by a wealthy father, and their inheritance left them more than comfortable. Still, money doesn’t buy happiness. But it can put you on the road to good health, and as far as the Williamson sisters were concerned, that was almost the same as happiness. While summering at the Empress Hotel in British Columbia, they stumbled across an advertisement for Linda Hazzard’s book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease. While neither sister was sick, per se, they did suffer from rheumatism and swollen glands at times. #thestruggle
In a quest for health, the sisters had already given up their corsets and eating meat. (I understand the corset burning, but nobody better come between me and my steak.) When the Williamsons realized Linda Hazzard ran a clinic for natural health in Olalla, Washington, they packed their bags and checked themselves in, determined to undergo what Linda Hazzard referred to as ‘the most beautiful treatment.’
Set in the lush Washington countryside, Hazzard’s Institute of Natural Theraputics’ scenery was almost as inviting as the promises of improved health. They dreamed of breathing in fresh air, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and sampling the homemade broth Linda Hazzard promised contained healing properties. But when they arrived, Linda informed them that the sanitarium was undergoing renovations and wasn’t ready for their extended stay. Instead, they were put up in a Seattle hotel where she began feeding them broth made from canned tomatoes. One cup twice a day was all the food they were allowed. In addition to the meager portions, they were also given daily enemas in the bathtub that lasted hours on end. (If you don’t know what an enema is, ask your mom. But whatever you do don’t watch the YouTube videos unless you’ve got a strong stomach than I do.) When the girls grew weak and fainted, canvas supports were brought in to hold them up for their ‘treatment.’
By the time the facilities were ready for patients two months later, Claire and Dorthea Williamson weighed just 70 pounds according to a concerned neighbor. Unfortunately, the Williamson family was unaware of the sisters’ stay at the Hazzard Institute. More than once they’d discouraged the girls from extreme health fads, and since they’d manage to rain on this parade too, Claire and Dorthea kept their newest health resolution to themselves. Their childhood nurse, Margaret Conway, who was visiting family in Australia received a mysterious telegram. The message contained nothing but gibberish and only a few words. Concerned, she hopped on a boat to the Pacific Northwest to check on Claire and Dorthea.
While on her way to the Hazzard Institute, Margaret ended up on the bus with Sam Hazzard, Linda’s husband. (As an aside, Sammy Boy served jail time for bigamy after marrying Dr. Linda. Yeah. He was a real peach.) While on the ride to Olalla, Sam dropped a truth bomb. Claire was dead. Dr. Linda Hazzard later explained her passing as the result of a course of drugs administered to Claire while she was still a child. Hazzard believed the drugs had shrunk Clair’s intestines and caused cirrhosis of the liver. According to the good doctor, Claire was too far gone by the time she arrived at the Institute for the ‘beautiful treatment’ to do her any good.
Now, Margaret wasn’t a doctor, but the whole think made no sense. Claire had been healthy and vibrant before her stay at Hazzard’s Health Institute. How could she be dead? When she stopped at the Butterworth’s Mortuary to view Claire’s body, it didn’t even look like the woman Margaret used to know. The hands, face, and hair color looked like they belonged to a different person. After her trip to the funeral home, she hurried to the sanatorium to check on Dorthea. Shock set in when her gaze fell on her former charge. Weighing in at 50 pounds and with bones jutting out at every joint, Dorthea was little more than a shell of her former self. Strangely enough, Dorthea Williamson didn’t want to leave, even though she was obviously starving to death.
When Margaret tried taking matters into her own hands, she was distressed to find that Linda Hazzard had been appointed executor of Claire’s fortune and sole guardian of Dorthea. In addition to Linda raking in the Williamson inheritance, Dorthea had declared Sam Hazzard her legal power of attorney. The Hazzards had helped themselves to Claire’s clothes and around $6,000 in the family jewels. As cringey as it sounds, Linda Hazzard gave her report on Dorthea’s mental state while dressed in Claire’s clothing. Talk about sick.
Nothing Margaret said could convince Linda Hazzard to let Dorthea go. Linda flashed her dark eyes and shook her head, perhaps conjuring a curse in keeping with her rumored dabbling in the occult. Was she hypnotizing her patients. Were they so helpless under her control that they were willing to sign their lives away then starve themselves to appease her?
Finally, Dorthea’s uncle, John Herbert, came to the rescue. He payed Linda Hazzard $1,000 to free his niece. With Miss Dorthea Williamson safely away, Herbert started investigating Dr. Hazzard’s deadly sanitarium. He found his nieces weren’t an isolated case. In fact, Hazzard was connected to several deaths of wealthy people. People who had signed their fortunes over to her before dying of starvation. In total, the death count at Linda Hazzard’s health spa is guessed to be around twelve, though some believe the number is significantly higher.
In 1911, Linda Hazzard was tried for the death of Claire Williamson. Nurses and servant from the facility testified against her, claiming the Williamson sister cried out in pain during treatments, suffered through never ending enemas, and were forced to take scalding hot baths. Not only was she accused of physical starvation, but financial starvation as well. There were also unproven allegations that Hazzard had a little side deal with Butterworth’s Mortuary and had swapped Claire’s body for a healthier one to hide just how shriveled the poor woman had become.
Linda Hazzard never took responsibility in any of the deaths on her watch. She believed that dying during a fast was the result of organic imperfections. Not starving. So basically, anyone who died, must have an underlying condition that would have killed them anyway. She believed the trial was a battle between traditional medicine and her more natural methods. However, the jury didn’t think Claire had an underlying condition. They found Ms. Hazzard guilty, sentence her to hard labor, and revoked her medical license. While on the chain gain for two years, Linda fasted to show the validity of her methods.Then, for some strange reason, the governor of Washington pardoned her.
In 1920, Linda Hazzard returned to Olalla to build her dream sanitarium which she referred to as a ‘school for health.’
In 1935, the health institute caught fire and burned down. Three years later in her early 70s, Linda fell ill and started a fast to get herself back to health. It didn’t have the effect she’d hope, and she died soon after. Today, ivy scaled ruins of the Health Institute are all that remain of Linda Hazzard’s dreams of better health for the masses and a chubby pocketbook for herself.
So, friend, if you want to kick off the new year with fresh health goals, I’m proud of you. But please, don’t go to extremes. Don’t strive for perfection at any price, because history has taught us that the price could be too high.
Happy Friday, Friends and Neighbors! Hope you all are doing fantastic. I’d like to introduce you to a great author and an even better friend, Sharee Stover. She also lives in my town, and I’ve been to lunch with her, so . . . yeah. I know a real-life celebrity. Her newest release, Silent Night Suspect, will his the shelves on December 1st. Can you believe that’s only nine days away?!? I can’t.
If you’re like me, you prefer your romantic suspense with a realistic amount of romance. Not the ooey-gooey, fall-in-love-with-a-stranger-you-know-literally-nothing-about in two days stuff that I can’t seem to escape. That was a major run-on sentence. My apologies. Anyhow. I absolutely loved the realism in Silent Night Suspect. Everything about this story was on point, and I highly recommend. Also, I have a little surprise at the end for you, my faithful readers.
I won’t waste anymore of your valuable time with my drivel. Let’s get on to the main event, shall we. Here was my interview with Sharee for your reading pleasure.
1. What is your favorite under-appreciated novel? My all-time favorite novel is Safely Home by Randy Alcorn. It’s the kind of book that stays with you. I own it in multiple formats. Ebook, Paperback, Audio…yep, it’s that good. Definitely one I’d recommend to anyone.
2. Are any of your characters based on real people? All names have been changed to protect the innocent. Giggle. Just kidding. Actually, all of my characters have certain features or characteristics of people I know. I think it helps to write a better character when I can picture or hear him/her in my mind. I might pick a friend or foe and take features from them to develop the dialogue.
3. Which of your characters do you most relate with? Asia Stratton from Silent Night Suspect is the most relatable for me. She’s raw and honest with her scars. I love that she’s still healing and though she’s come a long way, she’s willing to work on that healing. Asia is far more courageous than I would be too. There’s a line (NO SPOILERS) where she believes it’s the end and prays for courage to face it.
4. What kind of researching do you do, and how much time to you spend researching before beginning a book? Research is often done throughout the book especially as I come upon situations where I need more information, or like in Silent Night Suspect, needing to know drug actions/reactions. I’m always plotting several books at a time so if I see things that apply to a particular story I’m working on, I’ll tuck those away in my Scrivener folder or print them out and keep a file to reference later.
5. Stephen King advises authors to ‘Kill their darlings.’ Have you edited any scenes out of your books thatyou particularly loved? If so, would you give an example? Editing and deleting things isn’t much an issue for me. I know I have a lot to learn and I want to maintain a teachable spirit, so I trust if I’m told something’s gotta go, it’s the best decision for the book. I can’t think of any particular scenes, but I do have a couple of books (yes, entire books) that are my darlings and I hope they’ll someday get their limelight.
6. How do you select your character’s names? I absolutely LOVE naming characters and I keep a spreadsheet of all my books to try and ensure that I don’t use the same name twice. One huge factor is checking that the name isn’t a famous person. Especially an infamous person. I use lots of different references, websites, and sometimes football players or credits from movies. I like unique names so I’m always on the lookout. I even keep a list for future reference. I’m a total name nerd.
7. Do you read your book reviews?
Book reviews are tricky things. I write
many reviews myself for books I read so I appreciate the time and effort that
goes into them. I’ve heard repeatedly at writing conferences that authors shouldn’t
read our reviews. Especially the mean ones. I’m amazed sometimes at how cruel
people can be. They forget there is a person behind that book.
However, it is a lot of fun to see how a
book affected a reader and what things they especially liked. In the words of
Mark Twain, I could live two months on one good compliment. Unfortunately, the
reverse means those bad reviews also stick and can be discouraging. My husband
runs interference for me by reading them first.
8. How long does it take you to write a book? Because I start plotting books way in advance, I usually write an entire book within a couple of months but then I need another two months to edit, re-edit, and re-re-edit my edits. I have trouble letting go.
9. Do you believe in writer’s block? Yes, but not for ideas. I always have too many of those bouncing around in my brain. I do have times when I just can’t seem to get my brain and fingers cooperating to put words on the page. When that happens, I take a break, Netflix binge and then try again.
10. What was your favorite childhood book?Rainbow Garden by Patricia M. St John. It’s the first book I specially ordered. I think I was
11. What is your favorite genre to read and why? I read almost all genres but my favorites are women’s fiction and suspense/mystery. Women’s fiction has deep characters that stick with me and I appreciate the changes they must endure. But I also need suspense/mystery because I get antsy for the plot action and nail-biting, page flipping that must happen.
12. How many drafts of you book do you generally write before publication? Depends on how many revisions I have to do. Giggle. There’s always a least two, but sometimes it’s a major overhaul.
13. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose? I would love to go to South Korea and travel the country.
14. Do you have an unusual writing quirk? Not really. I always keep a glass of ice water beside me and generally speaking I’m chewing cinnamon gum. It helps me think.
15. What is your favorite word and why? I do love the word juxtaposition and try to put it in at least once in every book. It’s such a fun word to spell and I love the definition. For quick reference, dictionary.com says: an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. I don’t know why it’s my favorite, it’s just groovy.
Sharee, thank you so much for answering my burning questions! I can’t wait to read your next book, Untraceable Evidence!
Would you like to win a free copy of Silent Night Suspect? That’s the only stupid question I’ll ask today, I promise. Receive an entry into the drawing for every comment on this post. Winner will be drawn on November 30th, so comment, comment, comment. You’ll thank me later!
Happy Friday, friends! As I pondered which story to share next, I remembered this little gem from not so very long ago. 2012 to be exact. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Well, I think we all know there’s something a little wrong with me. Why else would I have such an unsettling fascination with this kind of stuff? But I’m talking about a different issue entirely. I’m taking a deep breath as I share my secret with you. Please, don’t judge me too harshly, but . . . I’ve never had what some call ‘Baby Fever.’ Apparently, this is not normal. I work in my church nursery fairly regularly, and hear women ooohing and aaahing over wriggling, crying bundles of joy. They talk about how they can’t wait to have a baby, or another baby depending on their circumstances. I get weird looks when I don’t share in their wishing upon stars. For one, I’m not married, so having children isn’t on the to-do list. For two, I know my limitations. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like kids, especially after they’re verbal enough to tell you what they need. I’m no Miss Trunchbull, snapping my whip and making disobedient little boys eat entire chocolate layer cakes. But I haven’t experienced baby fever like most women my age and younger. And I certainly never suffered a severe case like ice cream parlor owner Estibaliz Carrazna. When this tale is told, I think even the maternal ladies in my church will find their case of the fever to be mild.
Owning or working at an ice cream shop would be a dream come true. How could you be stressed or annoyed while surrounded by something as wonderful as ice cream? When have you ever been treated like a second-class citizen by someone scooping your mint chip or cookies n’ cream? Never, right? Well, apparently, Estibaliz Carranza, owner of an ice cream parlor in Vienna, Austria never got the memo regarding the love affair between ice cream and happiness. Not only did she fail to appreciate the blessings of ice cream, she failed to make the necessary repairs to her slice of paradise, and the parlor fell into a state of disarray. Business slacked, but the business school graduate didn’t see a problem. I’d say the education system failed her, but hey, that’s just my opinion. Looking back, I’m sure she wishes she’d kept the place up though.
Married to Holger Holz, Estibaliz appeared to have it all. I mean, she owned an ice cream parlor for crying out loud. Still, there was something missing. A baby. More than anything, Estibaliz yearned to be a mother. To hold a baby in her arms and shower it with love. But after years of marriage and no children, she started an affair with ice cream machinery salesman, Manfred Hinterberger. Estibaliz divorced her husband Holger, but due to financial constraints the pair continued living together. After Manfred dumped Estibaliz for another woman in 2008, her ex-husband found joy in taunting her. Telling her she would never be a mother and would die alone. This played on the business owner’s deepest fears and insecurities. Before long, Holger was no longer in the picture. Financial problems or not, she couldn’t bear living with him.
Before long, Manfred returned, begging Estibaliz to take him back. Though her trust in him was a thing of memory, her desire to hear the patter of little feet over-rode the fact he was a scoundrel. Despite her career, she believed being a mother was her main purpose on earth, and Manfred was her ticket to fulfillment. Time passed, and no children came, no positive pregnancy tests, nothing. Tick tock, tick tock. Her biological clock trudged on and her anxiety soared. If she didn’t have a child, how on earth was she supposed to live her best life? The life she was destined to live? Soon she ended her relationship with Manfred. What use was he anyway? She wasn’t getting any younger, and there was no time to waste. Like seriously, no time to waste. She was 32 years old for pity’s sake.
With a new man in her life and hope for a happy ending, a pipe burst in her Vienna ice cream shop and dumped cold water on her dream. Estibaliz called the repairmen, and they hurried down the basement to address the issue. They noticed patches of uneven concrete on the floor, but they needed to dig the floor up anyway to get to the pipes. No doubt they’d leave the basement floor in better shape than they found it.
The workers didn’t think much of the janky floor until their tools hit metal. Something wasn’t right. What they found beneath the basement floor was the very thing no human being wishes to find in his lifetime. A freezer filled with the disembodied remains of two men. The decomposing bodies were later identified as belonging to Holger Holz and Manfred Hinterberger.
In an ironic twist of fate, Estibaliz learned she was pregnant the day her two victims were found and police hauled her off to the pokey. She would finally have the child she longed for, but would be unable to care for it.
After the discovery of the bodies, many creepy details came to light. And if you know me at all, you know I love creepy details.
When Estibaliz finished shooting each of her former significant others in the back of the head, she brought their bodies to the basement where she used her trusty chainsaw to make fitting them in the freezer easier. To drown out the mechanical drone of the saw, she made sure the ice cream maker was churning out fresh treats. When neighbors asked about the racket, she blamed it on the antiquated ice cream equipment.
Here’s another detail that made my skin crawl. After dismembering Manfred, Estibaliz made a beeline to the nail salon. She got a manicure, because her nails were ‘wrecked’ after her night of hacking up the man who burst her dream of motherhood. I guess when you’re out looking for victim number three it doesn’t do to have jagged fingernails.
The body parts of her victims were not only found in small freezers in the basement, but in garden containers. She had filled the pots with concrete to cover the smell of decomposition.
The father of her child actually married her in 2011 while she was in prison. Yikes! That takes guts . . . or something.
Carranza was so violent that women’s prisons in Austria weren’t equipped for her brand of crazy. She is serving time in a men’s prison staffed by nurses, therapists, doctors, and prison guards.
Well, now you know the story of the Ice Cream Killer and perhaps have a better handle on just how mild most cases of ‘Baby Fever’ are. Of course, this begs the question: If Estibaliz Carranza would kill a man who didn’t give her what she wanted, what would she do for a Klondike Bar?
Hi, friends! Welcome to the party! Today, I’m introducing one of my favorite series while conducting an interview with the author. I’m not gonna lie, ya’ll, I’ve gotten a little picky when it comes to suspense in the recent past. I don’t know if it’s the sheer abundance of mystery books I’ve read or that my mind takes a very investigative turn, but I can usually pick out the villain in any mystery as soon as they’re introduced. I’ll be reading with a cat in my lap and say, “There he is. I’ve got my eye on you, ya little scamp.” After getting a super judgmental look from my furry friend, I hope against hope that I’m wrong. I want to be surprised, I do, but that seldom happens. Then, I feel the bitter sting of disappointment. In the words of Adrian Monk, ‘It’s a gift . . . and a curse.’ Let me tell you, the the only disappointment I felt while reading C.C. Warren’s Holly series was due to the fact that I am gainfully employed and couldn’t read the whole lot in one sitting. #adulting
Without further ado, here is my interview with the lovely C.C. Warrens. At the end, I’ll share how you can get a free copy of ‘Criss Cross!’ Huzzah!!!
Are any of your characters based on real people?
husband would tell you yes, and on an unconscious level I suppose some of them
are. It wasn’t my intention, but reflecting back, I can certainly see it.
and my dad have a similar temperament. My dad (Mark) is technically my stepdad,
but like Marx is for Holly, he’s my father in every way that matters.
is in a wheelchair like my husband, and like him, she’s insanely competitive in
(the man and the cat) is based off a gray, blue-eyed cat I had when I was a
teenager. From there, Jordan did pick up some of my husband’s better
qualities—his patience and understanding, and the gentlemanly way he comports
Holly, appearance aside, has quite a few of my quirks and characteristics (including her love of coconut shampoo and marshmallow hot chocolate), but as a whole, she’s designed to represent a lot of abused and neglected children that I’ve worked with.
2. Which of your characters do you relate most with?
relate the most with Holly. Her social awkwardness and mischievous attitude are
similar to mine. As a kid, I used to cut the centers out of the cakes and
brownies mom baked just to drive my dad bonkers.
I’m also a disaster in the kitchen, and I occasionally catch things on fire. I could set off the smoke alarms by boiling water, and frequently did in our old apartment.
3. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I do things a little backwards by researching as I’m writing. I’ve never calculated the time it takes, but I’m sure it takes a while. An example of this is Criss Cross, which is set in New York City, a place I had never been at the time. After I finished writing some of the scenes, I did some research to figure out where things might have taken place.
4. Stephen King advises authors to ‘Kill their darlings.’ Have you edited any scenes out of your books that you particularly loved? If so, would you give an example?
Oh yes. Every book is a struggle because I write scenes that I love, only to realize that they just don’t fit with the overall manuscript. In my current WIP, I had written a scene where Shannon takes Holly shopping for court attire, and Holly gets frustrated because she’s so petite that all of the suits make her look like a kid playing dress-up. Unfortunately, while it was a cute scene, I had to take it out.
5. How do you select your character’s names?
There is no method to my madness there. Jordan and Holly have existed in my head since I was a teenager, and I knew I would want to write a book with them in it someday. The others… your guess is as good as mine!
6. Do you read your book reviews?
I do. Some authors say you shouldn’t, but I find the positive feedback from readers motivating.
7. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Before my current WIP, I would say about six months. This one though, it’s a tangled web of complication, and it’s taking a lot longer.
8. Do you believe in writer’s block?
Absolutely. Though for me, writer’s block isn’t so much a lack of ideas. It’s when my brain gets stuck on one particular idea that I just can’t seem to maneuver around.
9. What is your favorite childhood book?
10. What is your favorite genre to read? Why?
I love suspense. I’m drawn to cop shows like Blue Bloods and NCIS, and having them in book form is even better!
11. How many drafts of your book do you generally write before publication?
Haha… I couldn’t even tell you. Truly. I lose count. I think I had about eighteen versions of Criss Cross before I settled on the final copy, but that’s just a guess.
12. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?
I’ve never thought about it, but I loved forests and rolling hills. So someplace like that.
I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed learning some of the aspects of C.C. Warren’s creative process! If you haven’t read her series yet, you are missing out in a big way. I’m attaching a link to her website below. Sign up for her newsletter and she’ll give you a free copy of Criss Cross in e-book format. The characters are unforgettable, and the plot will leave you on the edge of your seat, breathless, and reaching for book two. You won’t regret it!
Remember how the mischievous Ferris Bueller claimed to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago in an effort to trick the snooty host of an upscale restaruant? If you weren’t living under a rock in the 80s and 90s, chances are good you’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But did you know there was an honest to goodness Sausage King of Chicago? Well, there really was such a meat monarch. And his story is a little–unsettling.
Adolph Luetgert was born in Germany in 1845 as the third of eleven children. After dropping out of school and leaving home at age fourteen, he became apprentice to a tanner. Determined to make his fortune, Adolph set out for London when he turned nineteen. He met with no success and in sailed to New York, hoping to make a name for himself in the Land of Opportunity. He soon transitioned from the Big Apple to the Windy City. He worked as a tanner until he’d saved enough to establish his own business in 1872. He attempted to make a fortune in Liquor, but in 1879 he switched to sausage. A good call really, since he made his fortune in the meat industry.
Like most people, Adolph didn’t wish to live the life of a wealthy recluse. He married Caroline Roepke in 1871. They had two children before she passed away in 1877. A quick two months later, he met and married a woman named Louise. Two months really isn’t that fast . . . is it? Not when you have as much in common as Louise and Adolph. Both had emigrated from Germany. Both had worked menial jobs (Louise was a domestic servant) and pulled themselves out of poverty by their proverbial boot straps. The couple had four children together, though only two lived past the age of two.
In 1893, the sausage business reached its apex when A.L. Luetgert Sausage and Packing Company supplied weenies for the Colombian Exhibition in Chicago. A high honor, indeed. At the conclusion of the World’s Fair, Chicago’s economy took a serious hit from the depression embroiling the rest of the nation. Sausage orders nose-dived, and Luetgert found his customers unable to pay in full for orders he’d already shipped. In an effort to recoup his losses, Adolph tried to sell the sausage business, but a potential buyer swindled him, binding him tighter in his financial straight jacket.
Though born into poverty, Louisa had grown accustomed to a posh lifestyle. Hey, it’s easy to get spoiled. One day off work turns me into a lady of leisure. Adolph kept the unhappy truth of their financial predicament from her as long as possible. When Louise learned how the bank roll had shrunk, she began having heated ‘discussions’ with her hubby. Money was at the heart of each argument. Neighbors reported that the altercations were loud and often violent, and some recalled hearing Louise’s threats to leave her husband. Poor Adolph, right? Dude can’t catch a break. First the economy, then a snake in the grass, now Louise.
Well, the rumor mill churned out a few tales of Adolph’s infidelity. It was true, he kept a bed in his private office at sausage factory and slept away from home most nights. That could easily be explained. Why go home when Louise met him at the door with her claws out, ready to nag him to death about their finances–or lack thereof? The gossip took a more believable turn when Adolph and his housekeeper, Mary Siemering, were caught kissing at the factory. Later, a wealthy widow, Christine Fields, alleged Luetgert had courted her. If this was true, I’m sure Adolph saw her as a nice big dollar sign.
May 1, 1987, Louise Luetgert disappeared, never to be heard from again. Adolph claimed she’d made good on her threat to leave him. He guessed she’d returned to Germany, no doubt with another man.
The night before his wife’s disappearance, Adolph had worked late in the basement of the sausage factory. The night watchman helped him turn on the steam , then Luetgert sent him to the drug store for some patent medicine. When his employees arrived for work the next morning, they found foul-smelling reddish sludge in and around a large vat in the plant. Similar looking scum was discovered on the basement floor. When the watchman saw this, he grew suspicious and alerted the police.
Investigators drained the vat and found bone fragments, metal corset stays, and a pair of rings–one engraved with the initials ‘L.L.’
Police also learned that Luetgert had recently purchased a large amount of arsenic and potash, a powerful alkali used in soap-making. The next morning, Adolph Luetgert was arrested for Louise’s murder. Authorities believed he’d poisoned his wife and dissolved her body in a vat of boiling potash.
To say the trial was a spectacle would be a gross understatement. People flocked from all over the region to catch a glimpse of the accused killer. The absence of a body was a major monkey-wrench for the prosecution. How could it be proved the bone fragments belonged to Louise Luetgert? Forensic science wasn’t even an inkling in investigative minds at this point in history. Talk about a problem. The prosecution found an expert to testify that the bone fragments in the vat belonged to a petite woman. On the other end of the spectrum, the defense’s bone analyst claimed there was no way to determine the fragments were even human, let alone the bones of Mrs. Luetgert. Each side experimented by boiling cadavers in potash. Each side proved it’s claims.
After closing arguments, the prosecution failed to convince twelve honest men that Luetgert killed his wife. The jury was hung.
During the second trial in 1897, Adolph testified on his own behalf for a total of 18 1/2 hours. He claimed the potash was used to make the soap that cleaned the factory. He said the bones were not human, but animal. He also stated that Louise had gone insane and ran away. This new jury didn’t need as much convincing as the first. Verdict: guilty.
Adolph spent the remainder of his life in Joliet Prison. He died in 1899 of natural causes. He claimed innocence until the day he died.
Many myths surround the death of Louise Luetgert. Before the trial began, she was spotted in twelve different states but never found. One famous tale was that she was seen boarding a ship bound for Europe. Adolph believed this sighting confirmed his suspicion that she’d fled back to Germany. Unfortunately for him, his beloved wife was never seen or heard from again.
What do you think? Did the Sausage King poison his wife and dissolve her body in a vat of potash? Is it possible Louise got a little tired of her husband’s philandering and decided to cut bait? It’s easy to explain away bones at a sausage factory. But what about the engraved ring and corset stays? Could Louise have planted those items in the vat to incriminate her husband?
We may never know the full story of the Sausage King of Chicago. One thing I know for sure, the one on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a lot more fun.
The year was 1870. Settlers moved to the untamed West in droves. Looking for new beginnings. Working the land. It was a time when neighbors helped one another. People never hesitated to lend a hand. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.
The Bender family moved to what is now Cherryvale, Kansas in Labette County. Aside from the fact they were Spiritualists–not a common religion–they gave the impressions of a normal family, determined to settle the West. With an eye for turning a profit, John Bender Sr., ‘Pa’ claimed a 160-acre plot along the Great Osage Trail (now called the Santa Fe trail). He built and inn to accommodate travelers who were headed to points farther West. His son, John, who often went by the name Thomas, claimed an adjoining plot, though he never built a house or planted crops there. The other two members of the family were ‘Ma’ and Kate. Kate was purported to be a psychic medium and Spiritualist healer. While Ma and Pa spoke only German, the younger Benders were fluent English speakers.
The inn they built was a simple one-room cabin with a sheet hung to separate the the space into two distinct areas. In the front portion, a small mercantile and public gathering space was operated. The back of the house provided privacy for the family’s living quarters. Sounds a little crowded to me. Why Thomas didn’t build a shack on his land in the name of elbow room is a mystery in it’s own right.
Travelers were given the gold-standard of hospitality. Or, at least the best accommodations one room and a sheet can supply. Weary wanderers often stopped by the inn for a meal and replenishing of the most basic necessities at the Bender’s inn.
Kate Bender, who was reported to be a real head-turner, also encouraged visitors with her psychic and healing abilities. Most of the inn’s clientele constituted men traveling alone. The majority opted to spend the night. Hey, why sleep on the ground outside when you can stay in a house? Not to mention the many dangers on the trail posed by bandits, disease, accidents, or conflicts with the local Native Americans. No, staying with the Benders was on par with a night at the DoubleTree by Hilton . . . compared with the perils of the Osage Trail. Right?
While it wasn’t unusual for migrants to leave for points unknown never to be heard from again, a noteworthy number of men seemingly dropped off the face of the earth after visiting Labette County. It took several years before any real suspicions arose. Without modern conveniences like ‘The Nightly News with Lester Holt’ and ‘Buzzfeed,’ word traveled slowly. Letters lagged for months before reaching their intended recipients. Thus, the family and friends of those missing men believed everything was fine as a frog’s hair split four ways for quite some time before realizing something sinister may have occurred.
In March of 1873, Dr. William York, a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, disappeared after disembarking from a train in Cherryvale. His two brothers, knowing their kin would never leave so suddenly of his own volition, determined to find him. His brothers were Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York. These two boys had the ways and means to find their lost brother . . . or at least discover what happened to him.
Colonel York headed the investigation in Labette County. He questioned the Benders, but they denied any knowledge of his brother’s disappearance.
A group of helpful townspeople, along with Pa and Thomas Bender, met at the local school house. They discussed forming a search party to find the missing Dr. York. The strategy was to scour the countryside and surrounding farms and homes. Unfortunately, the weather shifted, and the folks never had a chance to search.
One day sometime later, a neighbor noticed the Benders animals wandering the farm land foraging for food. Their hungry cries alerted him that all was not well at the Bender’s inn. Upon investigating the one-room house, the neighbor found it empty. The family wagon was no where to be found. Food remained on the shelves in the kitchen. Clothes lay neatly folded in their proper place. But there was no trace of the Benders.
Everything in the house appeared normal. Until some poor unsuspecting soul opened the trapdoor behind the canvas sheet and stumbled upon a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The trapdoor led to a dank cellar. The sharp metallic scent of death hung think in the air. Blood covered the walls and saturated every surface. Stunned, the townsfolk moved the house off its foundation and dug underneath. Nothing.
The next area to investigate was the freshly plowed garden near the house. Neighbors later recalled that the garden always appeared newly worked. For all the effort the Benders lavished on their little slice of heaven, they never had a harvest. Or planted anything. Not vegetables anyway.
Volunteers worked through the night. The first body unearthed was that of Dr. William York. The back of the physician’s head had been smashed, and a slash across his throat spoke the brutality of his last moments alive. Soon, more bodies with similar injuries were found beneath the Kansas soil. Though sources are unable to find common ground as to the number of the Bender’s victims, estimated totals tend to flit around a dozen. Some believe they may have murdered up to twenty-one people. One source said a little girl was found in a grave. She’d reportedly been buried alive in a plot with her parents.
Those investigating the scene pieced together the Bender’s M.O. Inn guests were encouraged to sit against the canvas partition separating the public and private areas while dining. One of the Benders would then strike their visitor on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. The trap door was then opened, and the body dropped down to the cellar. There, another Bender would cut the poor victim’s throat before emptying his pockets of valuables. Yes, the entire family murdered somewhere between twelve and twenty people for something as petty as a few thousand dollars and some livestock.
When a man named Mr. Wetzell heard the investigator’s theory, he recalled a strange encounter he’d had with the murderous family. While dining at the inn, he declined the recommended seat before the curtain. At this possible upset of their carefully constructed plan, Ma Bender lost her cool and grew belligerent and abusive toward Mr. Wetzell. The two male Benders then emerged from their positions behind the canvas and Wetzell shrewdly beat a hasty retreat. Another traveler, William Pickering, shared a nearly identical tale.
As you can imagine, news of these heinous crimes spread like a 24-hour stomach bug. Curiosity-seekers and reporters flocked to the abandoned inn to catch a glimpse of the house where so many met a violent end. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported an estimated 3,000 people at the crime scene with more trains scheduled to arrive. The house was disassembled and carried away one piece at a time (yes, you can sing that to the tune of that one Johnny Cash song) by people seeking a memento.
Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the Benders, and the governor added a sweet $2,000 to the pot. The reward was never claimed. In the following years, women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none of them were positively identified. Though reports of sightings of Ma and Pa and then of Kate and Thomas were made in different states throughout the West, the homicidal family was never definitively seen again. What became of that fearsome foursome is still a mystery. Did they open another inn and recommence their butchery elsewhere? Maybe with a new name. It’s possible.
It was later discovered that only Ma Bender and Kate were actually related. The name ‘Bender’ may not have been the legal surname of any of the bunch. This made tracking them down virtually impossible. Pa was born John Flickinger early in the 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. It is believed Ma was originally named Almira Meik. She married a man named Griffith with whom she had twelve children before he met and untimely end. Before marrying Pa, Ma married several times. Oddly enough, each of her husbands died from mysterious blows to the head. Was Ma Bender the criminal mastermind behind all these killings? It makes me wonder.
One interesting tidbit I’ll share, though it may be completely false, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s claim to have known the Benders. While giving a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, she said, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.” One such story was her brush with the Benders whose inn was situated between the Ingalls’ home and Independence, Missouri.
According to Wilder, her family would stop at the Bender’s inn on their way to Independence. While Pa Ingalls would get water from their well to refresh the horses, he never stepped inside the tavern. Since this was the only place for travelers to stop, her father’s aversion to going inside struck her as odd. She also mentioned the fresh turned dirt in the garden, though nothing was planted or harvested from the plot.
She told the book fair attendees,
“The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa.
Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been.
For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found, and later I formed my own conclusions why.”
Could this be why the Benders were never heard from again? Did our beloved Pa Ingalls join a mob and put an end to their killing spree once and for all? Who knows?
While Wilder’s story is intriguing, her time line is off by a few years. By the time the Bender’s investigation began, the Ingalls were reportedly no longer living in Kansas. Maybe Laura got her wires crossed on the timing of her family’s move. No matter what the case, it’s an interesting rabbit hole to fall into.
After 146 years, the only thing that’s certain in the case of America’s first serial killing family is this: We’ll never know where they went. Or if they continued killing elsewhere.
This case solidifies my notions in regards to crimes committed throughout history. Without the aid of forensics, surveillance cameras, and all the technology at our disposal, it was pretty easy to get away with murder or any crime really. Jesse James robbed over twenty banks. He didn’t die in a hangman’s noose or at the hands of a town sheriff. No. He met his end when one of his own gang members shot him. As far as I can tell, as long as you weren’t in the room when law enforcement showed up, you were golden. At least, that was the case with the Benders . . . or whoever they were. We don’t really know that either.
What do you think? Do you believe Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story is true?
Doesn’t Belle Gunness look so warm and nurturing in this photo with her children? Okay, she really looks like a bit of a meanie. But in this case, the picture isn’t worth a measly thousand words. This photo is stirring a hundred thousand words inside my brain that may shape into a pretty sweet story one of these days. Here’s a little tidbit I hope will keep you reading. These children here . . . they’re the ones that were left after some pretty unsettling stuff went down.
Belle Gunness married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, 1893. I used to think people were too busy building sod houses and plowing with a pair of oxen to get into any real trouble in those days. Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder, for making me believe the good ‘ole days were good. I now realize they’re just ‘ole. Trouble followed poor Belle like Short Round followed Dr. Jones in Temple of Doom. It was strange, yea verily, suspicious how often tragedy befell the Norwegian emigrant.
Houses she owned mysteriously burned to the ground . . . more than once. Insurance has been around a while, and shrewd as Belle was, she was beyond prepared for such a disaster. Greenbacks or silver dollars (not sure what she preferred) lined her pockets as one property after the next became an insurance claim looking for a place to happen. Now, I sell insurance for a living and have developed a decided mistrust for people, so I find it fascinating no one was auditing this woman.
You think insurance fraud is bad. Let’s raise the stakes a skosh, shall we? Mads Sorenson died of what the medical examiner determined to be strychnine poisoning when not one but two life insurance policies were in force. They would only simultaneously be in force for one day . . . the day one ended and the other began. Just a coincidence? I don’t believe in the kind of coincidences where people get two insurance payouts for the same claim. Oddly enough, the M.E. changed his tune and labeled poor Mr. Sorenson’s death as heart failure. Hmmm.
Not only were the men she married subject to sudden death, her children were in equal danger. After Belle’s business burned to the ground and she collected the insurance money, two of her children (not pictured above for reasons that will become obvious) died from acute colitis. The symptoms of this disease are identical to the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Well, that sounds like a familiar poison. I wonder why. Probably another coincidence. NOT!
With her fat bank roll, Belle Gunness purchased a 42-acre farm in LaPorte, Indiana where she moved with her three remaining children. This begs a serious question . . . Where was CPS? As if she hadn’t done enough damage, that farm burned down too, and she collected the insurance from the loss.
Belle married Peter Gunness in April 1902. He was a widower with two daughters. Soon after the wedding, one of the girls died mysteriously. Her new husband knew something was rotten in Denmark (or in this case, Indiana) and send his other daughter to live with relatives. Swanhild Gunness was one fortunate little girl, as she was the only child in Belle’s life to survive childhood. For reasons I will never understand, Peter stayed. Not a good choice, Pete. He died in December 1902 when a meat grinder fell off a kitchen shelf and landed directly on his head. Because that kind of thing happens all the time. Right . . .
Believe it or not, the coroner found evidence of strychnine in Peter Gunness’ blood. Real shocker. There was an inquest, but Belle could have won an Oscar for her performance. She cried the giant tears you’d expect from a brokenhearted widow who’d just lost her husband in a totally unplanned meat grinder incident and got off the hook scot-free. And I can barely cry my way out of a speeding ticket.
With her second husband cleanly out of the way, she discovered a new method of money making. Mail order grooms. She lured financially well-off men to her new farm house, telling them to bring their life savings and sink it into her thriving farm. These men were never seen again. It’s estimated forty men disappeared answering Belle’s ad for a wealthy husband. When their correspondence was later discovered, investigators learned Belle would admonish her would-be husbands to ‘not to tell anyone you are coming!’ Yeah, that wasn’t a suspicious request at all. Maybe I’ve got a distrustful mind, but if someone told me to meet them at the Chick-fil-A and keep it a secret, I’d be worried. For one, if I’m going to Chick-fil-A, I will be too excited to keep it a secret. The sauce is swoon-worthy. For two, inordinate need for secrecy is how kidnapping stories on Dateline start. PSA: If someone want to meet you and demands you keep it secret, do yourself a favor. Stay home. Binge watch Investigation Discovery shows and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Trust me on this.
April 28, 1908, Belle’s farm house burned to the ground. When authorities searched the barn, they discovered the charred remains of her three children, Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson and Phillip Gunness along with the corpse of a headless woman. They believed the body belonged to Belle Gunness. It looks like the story is wrapped up, doesn’t it? All tied with a neat, little bow. Belle Gunness, the woman we know as Lady Bluebeard, is dead in what feels like a stroke of poetic justice.
Hush up, Porky Pig, because this is nia-nia nia-not all folks!
A man named Asa Helgelein traveled to LaPorte in search of his brother, Andrew. Asa was dead certain Gunness had murdered his brother and pressured the authorities to scour that farm for Andrew Helgelein’s body. Investigators found eleven bodies in the hog pen. Since pigs are omnivores, it’s honestly not a bad way to dispose of bodies. It’s weird that I think this way. I need to get help. One of the bodies they discovered belonged to Jennie Olsen, Belle’s foster child. So, not only were this mad woman’s kids not being removed from her custody, the state was giving her fresh victims! Totally insane!
In the barn’s ashes, investigators found bridgework belonging to Belle Gunness. Since the unidentified body was missing it’s head, the coroner decided the teeth were sufficient evidence of Belle’s murder.
With the police swarming the place like ants on a lollipop, the searchlight was honed on the farm hand, Ray Lamphere. Though he was the prime suspect, he was only charged for the arson, not the murders.
Years later, on his deathbed, he gave a shocking testimony. Belle Gunness had killed her children and faked her own death. The pair had been romantically involved, and Ray would have done anything to please Belle . . . even help her dispose of her suitor’s bodies. Days before the fire, they traveled to Chicago and brought back a housekeeper. Hers was the decapitated body in the barn. Belle had pulled out all her teeth to make it look like she’d died with her children.
Investigators had difficulty stomaching a story so bizarre. I mean really . . . who does that? In 2008, DNA tests were preformed on the headless remains, but were inconclusive.
This begs so many questions. If Belle got away, where did she go? Did she kill again? To make this even spookier, mystery swirled around a woman named Esther Larsen in Los Angeles, California in 1931. She bore a remarkable resemblance to Gunness would have been roughly Belle’s age. In her pocket she carried a picture of children who could have been the doubles of those Lady Bluebeard lost in the fire in LaPorte, Indiana. She was awaiting trial for poisoning a man.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Could Esther Larsen have been Belle Gunness in disguise?
Okay, so I have goosebumps on my arms right now. This story is so wild, that Hollywood couldn’t come up with something so full of twists. When my writer’s brain comes into play, I think of all the villains in literature who are men. So few women. That may need to change. In this day of technology, there are so many more possibilities. Online dating. Facebook. Chat rooms. So many ways to meet people you think you know . . . but do you really? I’m getting that tingly feeling. When I get around to writing my next series, echoes of Belle Gunness’ story may resound in one of those books. Stay tuned.