Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The World’s First Serial Killer Movie: The Story of Belle Gunness, 1908

The case of Belle Gunness (The Female Bluebeard,” “Hell’s Belle”) is at the same time one of the most horrible criminal cases in US history as well as one of the nation’s greatest crime mysteries. It is still unresolved whether she died in the fire of April 28, 1908 or made an escape. Mrs. Gunness had been investigated as a probable murderess by private detectives hired by families of missing men for some time preceding the fire that drew attention to what was soon called her murder farm. She lured prospective husbands with personal ads in newspapers. Although the remains of only 13 victims were located on the murder farm, the murder death toll is often estimated to be more than 40. In earlier years she was a baby farmer and it is quite likely that she, like so many other baby farmers, committed a large number of murders of children while conducting that enterprise.


Not only is “Mrs. Gunness, the Female Bluebeard” (1908) the first movie about a serial killer, but it is problably the first move in the contemporary true crime genre.

For the separate post on the Belle Gunness case, see: Belle Gunness, Champion Black Widow & Homicidal Child Care Provider - 1908


Mrs. Gunness in Moving Pictures – Crowds in St. Louis See Film That Shows Laporte Widow “Operating Her Farm” –  Meeting Suitors at Station, Giving Them Poison and Burying Bodies Thrillingly Depicted –  Then a Hired Man Sets Fire to the House and the Audience Cheers


FULL TEXT: THE enterprise with which manufacturers of moving picture films ransack the four corners of the earth with which to amuse the insatiable public, is shown by the portrayal of the adventures of Mrs. Belle Gunness, the female Bluebeard of LaPorte, Ind., at a St. Louis dimeodeon, this week. Her career is exhibited on a half-mile of celluloid film, containing upwards of 35,000 separate photographs.

As the succeeding episodes of the story were flashed on the screen at the new Gem Theater (which is said to be one of the largest and most pretentious moving pictures showhouse in the world) an audience of 2000 persons applauded with all the enthusiasm with which the public has devoured the history of the crimes of the arch-murderess of the world.

The first scene represents Andrew H. Hegelein, Mrs. Gunness’ most conspicuous victim, reading a matrimonial advertisement, inserted in a newspaper by Mrs. Gunness. The advertisement read as follows:

“Personal – Engaging widow, two children, wishes to join fortunes with middle-aged man of repute. State financial standing, if can, come at once. I have beautiful 60-acre farm. Mrs. Belle Gunness, Laporte, Ind.”

Hegelein’s mimic is made up in close imitation of his published photographs, even to the features and bald head. Enamored by the advertisement, he draws all his money from the bank, against the protests of his relatives and friends, who warn him that there is a design against his fortune, and perhaps his life.

In the next scene, Mrs. Gunness, represented as a prepossessing woman of middle age, is shown gloating over the answer which the luckless South Dakota farmer has written to her advertisement. She follows the lines with her finger, pausing exultingly on the statement of Helgelein’s fortune, and the prophecy of his fate written on her grimacing face, causes the audience to shudder.

Immediately Mrs. Gunness, attractively gowned in the black befitting a widow, is shown pacing the platform of the railway station at LaPorte, impatiently awaiting the arrival of her suitor. When the train puffs in and he dismounts, she hastens to meet him and grasps his hand in effusive welcome. She leads him to a handsome rig, with a spirited horse. They enter, and Helgelein drives off, laughing, to his doom.

Soon afterwards, they are seen together on the lawn of Mrs. Gunness’ home, with the solid comfort of which the farmer seems deeply impressed. She coyly resists the love making of the infatuated Helgelein, until he draws a bag full of gold and silver from his pocket and shows it to her. Behind his back, she casts rapacious glances at the money and menacing ones at its possessor. Then she gives himm the kiss of Judas.

Offering him some refreshments, she hands him a poisoned cup, which he drains and instantly falls dead at her feet. She stands a minute in triumph over her victim.

The film tactfully omits the scene in which the murderess dismembers the body of Helglein in her “Chamber of Horrors,” and passes to a night scene in which Mrs. Gunness appears laboring across a moonlight field with a sack of ominous shape and size in her arms. This she casts into a grave, and with ruthless toil, buries it under big shovelfuls of earth.

Then another suitor visits her, and receives her treacherous welcome. He, too, goes the way of Helgelein. Now, for the first time, enters her hired man.

Mrs. Gunness and her employe are shown staggering across the farm to a plot where two sinister holes yawn. The man and woman each carry a bulk in sacks. There are thrown into the graves, and the two should begin shoveling the earth.


Then, suddenly, a quarrel starts. The hired man shakes his big clenched first in his mistress’s face, and he retorts with high words. He threatens to betray her. She weakens and appeals to him, laying her hand imploringly on his shoulder. He will not relent, and tramps across the field in a rage, she slowly following.

She reaches home and enters, and immediately reappears at the window of her room, wringing her hands in dread of her employe. She has scarcely retired before the furtive figure of a man, armed with a blazing faggot, sneaks up to the house. He steals to the window, looks in and turns with a grimace of satisfaction as he sees the woman sleeping.

Then, leaping about, he touches the torch to as heap of rubbish in the corner and to the vines trailing up the weatherboarding, and darting down into the cellar, soon bursts out, followed by a cloud of smoke, streaked with flames. The fire envelopes the house, and the murderess is consumed in the flames.

As one scene succeeds another the audience sit spellbound. Only when the career of the female monster was brought to a fiery end did cheers break forth.

The films had told graphically a story abbreviated from that published in the newspapers. It brought home the monstrous life of Mrs. Gunness and the terrible reparation she paid, far more vividly than writing could do.

The manager of the Wagner Film Amusement Co. of St. Louis, by whom the Gunness film is rented, was asked as to the means by which it was produced.

“In the first place, some expert,” he said, “similar to a newspaper’s city editor, picked from the newspapers the story of Mrs. Gunness as one susceptible of vitascope exposition. Another man, a sort of playwright, chose the most important and most thrilling incidents of the female Bluebeard’s life, and developed them into a pantomimic drama.


“Dialogue was provided for the use of the actors, who perform their parts more vividly if they speak as they act, and for those theaters whose moving pictures are accompanied by speeches on phonographs or from the lips of living speakers behind the scenes.

“Next, the pictures of Mrs. Gunness, Hegelein and a servant were studied, so that the actors in these parts might ‘make up’ in as close an imitation of the original as possible.

“Then actors and actresses were drilled in the parts rehearsed until they were perfect. A mistake on the part of one of the actors performing before the lens of the moving picture camera might spoil a mile of film.

“Finally, the playlet was acted before the camera, and the long string of photographs reproduced on films for distribution throughout the civilized world.”

The popularity of the Gunness story is shown by the fact that Joseph Maxson, once an employe of Mrs. Gunness and an eyewitness of the fire in which the authorities claim the murderess perished, has recently been lecturing throughout Central Gunness Mystery,” with large financial profit to himself. In country schoolhouses, at fairs and in the cities he has been describing to thrilled audiences the character of the fiendish woman as she appeared to one who knew her closely, and the conflagration which destroyed her “murder fence.” He is said to have reaped a harvest.


The moving pictures pf persons plaing the parts of Mrs. Gunness and Lamphere are thrilling, it is true, but imagine how the portrayal of the actual scenes in the Gunness house of murder and mystery would stir the feelings if they could be reproduced!

Lamphere, the hired man at the Gunness home, told that the night Helgelein was murdered he was watching through an auger hole he had secretly bored in the door casing of his room.

But suppose it had been the eye of a photographic apparatus instead of the eye of Lamphere that was applied to the secret auger hole that night of untold horrors, and suppose that all the scenes enacted behind that locked and barred door had been faithful, recorded on the sensitive film and that it, the actual reproduction of the very crime itself, instead of a mimic reproduction, should be shown, enlarged to life size, upon the canvas screen.

It is more than likely that the terror of it would shock the soul of even the most morbid. But it would be an interesting study for the psychologist and the criminologist.

No actual photograph has ever been taken of a murderer in the very act of his crime. Those expressions of passion have never been caught and preserved by the camera. And so, after all, perhaps our ideals of them are wrong, and it may be that no artist has ever reproduced the real horror of it.

And so, as a contribution to science and art, the moving pictures of actual scenes in the Gunness home would be of great value could they have been taken.

One can only imagine the look on the face of this arch murderess with sleeves rolled to the elbows, a rough apron protecting her dress from blood stains, a knife clutched in her hand, she bent over her victim and after he was dead, dragged the body to the secret chamber to dismember it.

Lamphere has only hinted to intimate friends what he saw. He has never openly told of it. When asked about it he bowed his head, covered his face with his hands and his whole body shook as with an ague.

“I daren’t think of it,” he is reported to have said.


Is Mrs. Gunness alive, and if so is she somewhere in the South-west? This question, which people have been asking all through the seven months since th8is woman of mystery disappeared, has become more pertinent since the beginning of the trial in LaPorte, Ind.

Three witnesses of undoubted good repute have sworn positively at the trial that they saw Mrs. Gunness peering and prodding amid the ruins of her burned home since that house of many murders went up in smoke.

Two other witnesses have sworn that while the house was burning they saw an automobile with a woman, darkly wrapped and with muffled face, leaving the flaming house.

A woman who bore a marked resemblance to this modern bluebeard passed through St. Louis on a train bound for the Southwest shortly after her disappearance from Laporte.

In a small town in Texas a woman who looked like Mrs. Gunness was seen, but she disappeared before the belief that it was she had crystallized into a sentiment strong enough to cause her detention.

A woman thought to have been Mrs. Gunness was reported in St. Louis more than once, and in other places of the Southwest persons declare that she has been seen.

[NOTE: The rest of the article discusses film other than the Gunness one.]


The enterprise of the moving picture film manufacturers continually surprises those who are regular attendants on the pleasures of the nickelodeon. One dealer in St. Louis has now in his safe a series of pictures representing President Roosevelt hunting lions in Africa, “held for release” until the President actually arrives on the Dark Continent.

The chief actor is made up to resemble Mr. Roosevelt, and in making the film a real lion was slain after it was the last scene the “President” is shown sitting triumphantly on the body of the king of beasts, which he has just slaughtered.

When the Thaw trial was the absorbing event in the American news, the moving picture men were not behind-hand. The main incidents in the series of events which ended in the tragic end of Stanford White were produced by actors and actresses clad and “made up” resemble the originals.

A few weeks after the American fleet received its historic welcome in the ports of Australia, the moving picture men of St. Louis were showing the entrance of Uncle Sam’s battleships into Sydney’s harbor, their reception by our cousins in the antipodes, and the pranks which the jackies [sailors] played ashore.

How the film makers keep apace with the latest developments in science is shown in a playlet now being exhibited in St. Louis under the title, “Airship Thieves.” A pair of burglars in an aeroplane are shown. It glides over a wealthy home, hovers at a window while one of the riders enters and obtains his loot, and then darts away without leaving a clew as to how entrance was gained in an upper story.


Another series, called “Burglary by Motor,” shows how thieves in several large cities have recently availed themselves of the swift automobile in order to defy pursuit.

Historical scenes, highly educational, are favorites with the film manufacturers. One house is advertising the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” showing the Revolutionary hero as he sees the lanterns hung in the belfry of the Boston church and gallops off along the road to Lexington to arouse the farmers.

“Patrick Henry” declaims (by means of the bloscope and phonograph) his “Give me liberty or give me death,” in another St. Louis theater. In another, George Washington threads his way through the ice of Delaware River and falls upon the carousing Hessians on the other side.

One of the most popular films ever exhibited her reproduced the life of Abraham Lincoln and required an hour to finish. The emancipator was first seen when a boy in Kentucky, fleeing with his family from the Indians. Then a gaunt, lanky actor, remarkably like the early pictures of Lincoln, strenuously splits rails, and, going home at night, forgot to eat in his zeal to devour a new book.

His career as a lawyer was epitomized by a court scene in which he won a difficult case, after which he wrestled with the village bully and easily flung him to earth. The Lincoln-Douglass debates were represented, the “Little Giant” being extremely lifelike.

Lincoln’s toils as President during the war and the rapid development of his character under the strain of responsibility were cleverly presented, and human interest was introduced by a scene sentenced to death at the entreaty of his little sister.

The scene in Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, was one of the triumphs of the film maker’s ingenuity, who showed a playhouse thronged with fashionable people, all cheering the grave figure of the President in his box. Then Booth stole behind him, thrust a pistol against the back of his head, fired and leaped to the stage, falling and crippling himself on the folds of a flag, but making his escape while the crowd sat benumbed with horror. Many persons left the theater with moist eyes after beholding these pictures.

It is getting common for nickelodeons to present the dramas of Shakespeare, with the lines declaimed by a phonograph. “Macbeth” is a favorite, as is also “Romeo and Juliette.”

Perhaps the most popular of the moving picture man’s triumphs are his scenes of life in foreign countries. In no other way, save by travel itself, can one obtain so graphic an idea of alien customs and pursuits. With a little exertion of the imagination, one can believe himself really in India, when the throngs of brown-skinned natives parade before him and great elephants writhe their trunks and tread ponderously across the screen.

The most beautiful effect of the vitascope is its reproduction of water in action. “Niagara Falls” is a scene watching which one can almost hear the roaring of the falling torrents.

[“Mrs. Gunness In Moving Pictures,” Sunday Post-Dispatch Magazine (Mo.), Dec. 6, 1908, p. 4]










Some later cultural artifacts based on the Gunness story:

Film and TV:
2004 – movie, Method, was inspired by and loosely based on the Belle Gunness murders.
2005 – Anne Berit Vestby directed the 50-minute documentary Belle Gunness- a serial killer from Selbu.
2015 – The series True Nightmares on Investigation Discovery, which aired October 14, 2015, profiled Belle Gunness. The episode was called "Crazy Love".
2015 – The Story of Belle Gunness, Short Film, 2015, Producer/Director, Stephen Ruminski, [duration=?]

Gunness’ story was fictionalized on the radio show Nick Harris, Detective under the name, "The Female Ogre." Her character was named "Mrs. Ruth Cooper." It was first broadcast on April 7, 1940.

Damon Runyon based a 1937 short story, "Lonely Heart", on the Gunness case, including the handyman.
E. L. Doctorow based a short story, "A House on the Plains," on the Gunness case.

1938 – “The Mistress of Murder Hill,” anonymous, 1938.
2007 – “The Ballad Of Belle Gunness,” words & music by T. J. McFarland, from the album "Howlin' Wild," 2007.
2007 – “The Mistress of Murder Hill,” (1938 song, anonymous), recorded by Izzy Cox, from album: “Love Letters from the Electric Chair.”
2007 – “Belle Gunness,” Caccius, from album “I Am Jim Jones.”
2007 – "Black Widow of La Porte," (Rob Zombie/ex-Marilyn Manson) guitarist John 5,  album “The Devil Knows My Name,” 2007.
2009 – “Belle Gunness,” recorded by Yenn, from Album: “Yenn.”
2011 – “Bella The Butcher,” by Macabre, album:Grim Scary Tales,” 2011.
2012? – “Belle Gunness,” "new song"live recording at venue:  “Kingdom 4/11,” Jaidev Jaidev Jay Mangal Murti (Lyrics), 2:57.
2013 – “Belle Gunness,” recorded by Lily & The Parlour Tricks, (Liky Cato), (featured on a BMW commercial, “No Choice”).

Backroad Brewery, a microbrewery located in La Porte, Indiana produces an Irish style dry stout named after Belle Gunness.
The Steve Alten book "Meg 4: Hell's Aquarium " features a megalodon pup name Belle after Gunness.


“The Mistress of Murder Hill,” anonymous song, circa 1938

Belle Gunness was a lady fair,
In Indiana State
She weighted 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
Is the a-butchering of men.

There’s red upon the Hoosier moon
For Belle was strong and full of doom;
And think of all the Norska men
Who’ll never see St. Paul again.


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