Story Inspiration? Yes, Please!
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.
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.