Thursday, September 22, 2011

Belle Gunness, Champion Black Widow & Homicidal Child Care Provider - 1908

METHOD: Mrs. Gunness’ method of killing her victims, Lamphere said, was to chloroform them as they slept and then if the drug did not kill to severe their heads with an axe.

[Excerpt from: “Told Gunness Farm Secrets – Roy Lamphere .Responsible for Woman's Death; Fire Accident.” The Daily Review (Decatur, Il.), Jan. 13, 1910, p. 1]



FULL TEXT (1925 article):


It seems incredible that in civilized America in Twentieth century with cities full, of police and counties full of sheriffs, 180 people could disappear without leaving a trace.

It seems even more incredible that one woman, squat, middle aged uneducated, could do away with 180 human beings without causing suspicion. Justice never did get on the job in the case of Mrs. “Belle” Gunness, the lady Bluebeard of Indiana, the arch woman criminal of modern times. Mrs. Gunness died from private vengeance rather-than the law, because the partner in a few of her crimes was afraid she would murder him if he did not kill her first. In that grim episode three guiltless children were sacrificed, and the perpetrator was never even convicted of murder.

Mrs. Belle Gunness made murder a business. She did it for a living, just as people drive taxicabs or-sell groceries.

Some women bump off a husband or two-in a moment of irritation. Quite a number obliterate lovers who lay on the way to the altar. But this feminine Bluebeard killed men with as little compunction as a good housewife steps on a cockroach. Her victims were believed to total up to 180 and the most conservative estimates place them at well over 100.

Mrs. Gunness did poison one husband and hit another over the head with a hatchet for the insurance, but this was incidental to her real business of murder. Most of her victims wore only prospective husbands, lured by matrimonial advertisements and by personals in small Scandinavian and Danish language papers. Apparently she never needed to marry them to get their money.

The large farm which served as a bait to thrifty Scandinavian wooers was death chamber and cemetery to all of them. In her house Mrs. Gunness had a soundproof, double-walled room, bars on the windows, heavy locks on the door. Here, the victims were chloroformed and given strychnine. If they rang too stubbornly to life they were dismembered with a hatchet. The farmyard was one huge cemetery. Underneath the cemented floor of the cellar was a tomb full of assorted bones.

How this squat, middle-aged woman, coarse-featured, ignorant, unattractive in every respect, could lure men to their death in such wholesale quantities is only one of the riddles of the murder farm. She weighed 220 pounds, and the picture shows what she looked like. But once they made the personal visit she insisted on she acquired their money as if by magic. Dollars which had been saved through years of toil by laborers and small farmers in the Northwest flew into her hamlike paws. Then the wooer was catapulted into eternity.

Another riddle is how Mrs. Gunness, whose victims include 21 stray infants on the baby farm she once ran in Chicago, could have been a model mother to her own brood of three. Those children – the eldest was 11 – must have been a constant menace with their prattle, their inconvenient questions and their faculty for seeing things they shouldn’t. Yet even the neighbors who disliked her, admitted that the lady Bluebeard was a good mother. The last thing she did on earth was to give a celebration for the youngsters.

If Mrs. Gunness had kept on at her nefarious trade, justice finally might have caught up with her, for the brother of her latest victim was investigating his sudden disappearance. But she died by n freak of chance. A farm hand who was in love with her did the trick. He was her employe and also her accomplice and He felt he had riot been paid well enough for his help in disposing of the bodies. Moreover, into his rum-sodden brain there undoubtedly filtered the knowledge that he would go next if the murder farm were investigated. He knew entirely too much.

~ Devil Woman. ~

LaPorte County, Indiana, disliked Mrs. Gunness, To the farmers she was not the comely widow of her matrimonial advertisements but an unpleasant neighbor who picked quarrels and discouraged visiting. Store clerks knew her as a fat old woman in a buggy who made them come out to the curb to wait on her. she was called the “devil woman.” The sudden death of Philip Gunness from a meat cleaver dropping on his head didn’t help her reputation. Laporte suspected, and rightly, that the cleaver had been dropped on Gunness’ head by design. “Mamma hit Pappa in the head with a hatchet,” lisped on of her children to a schoolfellow. Yet nothing was done about it.

So Laporte was more interested than grieved when the Gunness farm burned down one windy April night in 1908 and four charred bodies were easily identified. The woman’s body was minus a head; but it was undoubtedly that of Mrs. Gunness.

The fire was plainly incendiary. and Ray Lamphere, who had annoyed Mrs. Gunness with his attentions, was suspected. He was found the next night hiding in a hollow tree in the woods. Lamphere denied setting the fire and said that at the time the house burned he was with one Nigger Liz, about whom no more need be said. But he also admitted having seen the fire about 4 A.M., and he told such conflicting stories that the sheriff probed further.

For one thing, Lamphere said that Mrs. Gunness had tried to have him sent to an insane asylum because he knew too much. That was perfectly true. She had, and a commission had declared the farmhand sane. But what was it he knew too much about?

Just at this time there came a telegram from Asie Hegelein in Aberdeen, S. D. Hegelein had heard of the fire and he asked the police to investigate the disappearance of her brother, Andrew after he had gone courting Mrs. Gunness, Asie never did believe the widow’s story that Andrew had gone back to Norway. Even her letters explaining this had a come-on atmosphere which the suspicious Asie did not like.

“I think it would be best for you to sell the farm and creatures as soon as you can and come up here,” she wrote. “When Andrew comes up there, which he no doubt will some time, be sure and do not tell him that I told you this, and do not tell it to others.”

At Asie’s request the sheriff’s men began to look for the body of Andrew Hegelein on Mrs. Gunness’ farm. In a suspicious-looking place they started digging. What they found was not one, but five bodies, four of them in a single grave. One of these represented all that was left of the missing Andrew. Two bodies, strangely, were those of women. One of these was identified as that of Jennie Olson, a 15-year-old girl whom Mrs. Gunness had adopted and whom she said she had sent to a Lutheran school.

~ Out of the Past. ~

When the bodies were found Belle Gunness’ death farm became the tourist center for all Indiana. Thousands of people of people tramped about and struggled to view the dead as workmen grimly went on digging for more bodies. LaPorte recalled the unexplained death of Philip Gunness, Chicago, where the lady Bluebeard had lived before coming to LaPorte, recalled the equally suspicious death of Mads Sorenson, her first husband, who showed all the symptoms of poison.

It also recalled her baby farm there and the strange disappearance of 21 infants. Police found that at the very time of her death she was corresponding with Carl Peterson of Waupaca, Wis., “with a view to matrimony,” as his letters said, Peterson doubtless thanked his lucky stars he didn’t have enough money to measure up to the widow’s standard of fortunes to be joined.

Four more bodies and the scrambled bones of two others were found on the day following the first excavations. All were men. While the authorities were pondering on the dismembered state of the two skeletons, expressmen of LaPorte remembered bringing many large, heavy trunks to the widow Gunness. She had received as many as five in one day. This and other facts indicated that Mrs. Gunness had been a member of a murder syndicate and disposed of bodies sent by other criminals. Johann Hoch, one of Chicago bluebeards – the Windy City has several of them – who acquired wives with dowries and then got rid of them was one of her partners. Justina Loeffler of Elkhart, Ind., was believed to be one of the wives who he shipped to Mrs. Gunness’ private cemetery.

While Skeletons and dismembered bodies were still being dug up another new hiding place  was discovered when one of the late widow’s pigs rooted up a thigh bone and the police began throwing light on the exceedingly murky post of this mystery woman. A Norweigan by birth, she had come to this country as a young girl as soon married Mads Sorenson. After 15 years of married life she poisoned him for $8,500 life insurance he carried and bought a candy store in Chicago, which she later burned for the insurance. With the profits she bought the LaPorte farm a year after, marrying Peter Gunness.

Somewhere in her Chicago past had been the baby farm business, with the deliberate murder of 21 infants intrusted to her care. She enlarged the scope of her business greatly when she moved to LaPorte. But first she had to get rid of Gunness, who also knew too much. The meat cleaver was the means she choose.

In LaPorte, Mrs. Gunness, posing as a lone widow anxious to marry, advertising, which were all worded alike, appeared in small Scandinavian and Danish papers, in the Middle West and Northwest, where there were many of her countrymen with small hoards of money. After a few tender love letters – and the amazing thing is that this female ogre could write better love letters – the victim would be invited to visit the comely widow bringing what cash he had as an evidence of good faith. He would appear, would cash a draft at the local ban, and would then be seen no more. Mrs. Gunness easily answered questions by saying that the wooer had gone back home. If, as in the case of Helgelein, there were inquiries from his home, she said that he had gone on a visit to the old country.

~ Soundless Chamber. ~

What went on in that soundless chamber where Mrs. Gunness put her victims into their last sleep is something only to be surprised. But after being feted and fed after having their suspicions lulled, possibly after having won the grotesque woman as Lamphere had won her, the ardent suitor was choloroformed efficiently. No one could hear what went on there, and the victim had no chance of escape. In a few cases Lamphere helped her to bury the bodies. But she doubtless was quite capable of tending to this grim detail alone as well as the rest.

A few of the 37 bodies recovered in a recognizable state were identified. There was Old Budesberg of Iola, Wis., who had come with his tiny fortune. There was John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minn., one of her latest wooers, whose death had netted her $1,000. There was Henry Gurholt of Wisconsin, whom the Bluebeard woman killed for only $400. There was Charles Edman, $3,000, and George Berry, $1,500; there was some one known as “the professor” and his wife; there was Mrs. Gunness’ own infant child, strangles; there was one of Hoch’s wives, and possibly more, as far as could be ascertained. And among the cartloads of miscellaneous bones may have been the bodies of others whose last port of call was LaPorte: Armat Hantoonan, wealthy Armenian rug merchant of Binghampton, N. Y.; Lee Porter of Bartonville, Okla., who went wooing a second wife without the formality of getting rid of his first one; a crippled wooer from Medina, N. D.; a wooer from Philadelphia, Charles Neuberg, with $500; other men, other babies, women – all too numerous to mention.

~ Ghastly Myth. ~

But while Mrs. Gunness was becoming a ghastly myth to LaPorte, events were conspiring to turn this myth into reality. Lamphere, in jail, was cudgling his wits to think of a defense, and he finally hit on the idea that the burned body in the farmhouse was not that of Mrs. Gunness at all. The head was missing, so how could any be sure? The lady Bluebeard, contended Lamphere, was still alive. She wanted to seem dead because she was afraid Helgelein’s brother was coming to investigate. So she got another body, cut off the head to prevent identification, set fire to the farmhouse, and then vanished.

Though Mrs. Gunness had killed people by the score, including her own baby, the authorities did not believe she would deliberately murder those other three children, of whom she was so fond. Also, had refused $8,000 for her farm just a few days before, which made it seem unlikely that she was planning to disappear. So an experienced placer miner went to work sifting the ashes of the burned farmhouse to find other traces of Mrs. Gunness that could be recognized. He found her rings, her keys, a charred scrap of skin with her hair, and finally the jawbone full of gold fillings, which was easily identified by her dentist.

Lamphere still contended that the dead woman was really Mae O’Reilly of Rochester, N. Y. Mae was found alive in Sarasota before he went on trial, but that did not alter his defense.

~ Mrs. Gunness Everywhere. ~

Meanwhile people believed to be Mrs. Gunness were reported everywhere. One woman, Mrs. L. A. Hearen of Chicago, was actually pulled off a train in the middle of the night at Syracuse because two travelling men who liked their little joke told some one she was Mrs. Gunness. The murderess was said to be in Ogden, Utah, and just a day or two later a furor was created in these parts by the rumor that she was a Brooklyn rooming house, 323 17th Street.

One of the strangest things of all was a detailed confession by Julius G. Truelson, Jr., of New York, telling how he had been Mrs. Gunness’ accomplice for several years and had finally killed her. Truelson was the husband of Mae O’Reilly, a confessed swindler and drug addict, a nervous, overgrown boy of 22.  The local color which he incorporated into his confession the apparent veracity, amazed the police. But Truelson was proved to have been in jail at the time the Gunness farm was burned, and Mae, whom he said he had taken there and helped kill, was alive and well, as already mentioned.

Lamphere went on trial in November 1908. To aid his defense he gave still more life to the wrath of Belle Gunness by putting her name at the head of his list of witnesses and having a subpoena issued for her. And the jury believed him only for arson, not murder. Lamphere died in prison of tuberculosis after serving a year of her sentence.

After his death two ministers revealed the fact that Lamphere had confessed the quadruple murder to them. The stories he told differed somewhat. Once he admitted having been a party to all of the ogress’ crimes, while in the second confession he said he knew of only the last three. To one minister he told also of having a woman accomplice, who seems to have been Nigger Liz, since the prosecuting attorney arrested this woman as soon as the confession came public.

~ Lamphere’s Confession. ~

Lamphere had paid Mrs. Gunness back in her own coin. He, too, wanted money. He, too, used chloroform and then the hatchet. But he insisted that the house caught fire accidentally when he used a candle to look for the widow’s hidden plunder. He looked back, said Lamphere, and saw the place ablaze.

The La Porte murder farm, which had started out in life as a disorderly resort [a euphemism for bordello] before being bought by Mrs. Gunness, was sold after her death and became a boys’ school. Her personal property was auctioned off before a curious, milling mob of thousands. One morbid curiosity seeker paid 95 cents for a package of nails. But the Norweigan Children’s Home in Chicago, to which she willed her money, by some chance freak refused to accept it because it was tainted.

And the myth of Mrs. Gunness’ continued existence lived on with amazing vitality. She was reported to have been seen in Willmar, Minn., in Grand Rapids, on the east coast and the west. In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a warrant was issued for her arrest., extradition papers were signed, and a score of police were camped around the house of a woman who, of course, turned out not to be the female Bluebeard after all.

~ • ~ THE LURE ~ • ~

“Personal – Comely Widow, who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Ind., desires to make the acquaintanceship of gentleman with a view to joining fortunes. No replies by letter will be considered unless the sender is willing to follow an answer with a personal visit.”

This advertisement, appearing in the literature of matrimonial agencies and in Danish and Scandinavian newspapers in the Northwest, lured to their deaths dozens of thrifty laborers and small farmers who had saved a few hundred dollars. “Joining fortunes” was the word, but after the fortune of the unlucky wooer had been joined to that of Mrs. Belle Gunness, he was speedily wiped out of exisrtence. Indiana’s ladt Bluebird was willing to take the cash and let the husband go.

[“130 Murdered By Indiana’s Female Bluebeard - Victims Lured to Death in Matrimonial Advertisements Inserted by Plotter in Small Magazine of Far West. - Faltering Justice Always One Lap Behind This Queen Of Crime - Investigation of Strange Disappearance of Lovers Is Started But Flames Consume Monster—Gruesome Police Discoveries.” Syracuse Herald (N.Y.), Mar. 15, 1925, section 3, p. 3]

• Different Disposal of Bodies Based on Different Sex

What was left of the bodies indicated that most had been dismembered, wrapped in cloth sacks, and doused with lye. However, it also appeared that some of the remains had been fed to the farm hogs. Investigators were never able to determine the precise number of bodies that had been scattered about the property; however, it was thought that sixteen individuals were certainly murdered and possibly as many as twelve more. Indeed, many investigators now believe that the actual number of remains from at least ten male victims and two female victims were positively identified, in addition to those of the Gunness children and an unspecified quantity of human bone fragments. Many of the male remains had been discovered in the hog pen, while bodies of the female victims had been buried in a garden patch on the eventually identified as Jennie Olsen, two ranch helpers (Eric Gurhold and Olaf  Lindholm), and two suitors (John Moo and Ole Budsberg). [Excerpt from: Michael D. Kelleher & C. L. Kelleher, Murder Most Rare:” The Female Serial Killer, Praeger Pub., 1998, pp. 25-6]


EXCERPT: George Anderson – survivor’s story

“The fact that I had no money, I now believe is the only thing that saved me from being murdered by Mrs. Gunness,” said George Anderson, of Tarkio, Mo., to-night. He has come to offer his testimony, and letters written him by Mrs. Gunness, to the authorities.

“I think the woman is still alive, and that she set fire to the farm house herself. I believe the oldest girl knew of her mother’s crimes. She acted strangely. She would eye me with a pitiful look, and when I glanced at her during a meal she was white as a sheet.”

Anderson is a Swede, thirty-nine years old. Two years ago while at Montleith, Mich., he answered one of Mrs. Gunness’ advertisements, posing as a wealthy farmer. She wrote him to come on, and he did so. The second day she asked him point blank how much money had. He said he had a 320-acre farm. She told him to sell the farm and bring the money to her, and they would be married. He went away for a few days, an returned one night without notifying Mrs. Gunness. He found a man, who he now believes is Ray Lamphere, in her company. He confessed to her that he had no money. She was incensed, but told him he had no money. She was incensed, but told him to spend the night at her place. He went to bed, but was awakened, and found the woman bending over him. He spoke, and she ran from the room. Greatly frightened, he did not close up his eyes after that, and at daylight left the place. [Washington Post (D. C.), May 12, 1908, p. 1]

[“Proof of Murders – Medical Evidence on Two Gunness Farm Victims. Hair Clutched In Hand – Visitor Who Escaped Alive Tells of Night of Terror. – None of the Children Burned in Fire Which Is Supposed to Have Killed Family Was Murderess’ Own – Suitor of Slain Foster-Daughter Says Three Killings a Month Could Have Been Committed Without His Suspecting,” Washington Post (D. C.), May 12, 1908, p. 1; original is packed with typos; they have been corrected here.]


Belle Gunness was a lady fair,
In Indiana State.
She weighed about three hundred pounds,
And that is quite some weight.

That she was stronger than a man
Her neighbors all did own;
She butchered hogs right easily,
And did it all alone.

But hogs were just a sideline
She indulged in now and then;
Her favorite occupation
Was a-butchering of men…

(Note: Poem about Belle Gunness, author unknown)






More: Champion Black Widow Serial Killers


For more cases of “Baby Farmers,” professional child care providers who murdered children see The Forgotten Serial Killers.


For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.



No comments:

Post a Comment