Thursday, April 06, 2017

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES: BELLE GUNNESS – Black Widow, Serial Killer, Gone Girl by Earl Staggs

It has been some time, but Earl is back today considering Belle Gunness and her record.


When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.

BELLE GUNNESS – Black Widow, Serial Killer, Gone Girl

by Earl Staggs

No one is sure how many people Belle killed. Most authorities estimate between 25 and 40. Among the victims were husbands, wannabe husbands and, worst of all, her own children.

She was born in Norway in 1859 as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. In 1881, she came to America, changed her name, and settled in the midwest. Now going by the name Belle, she married Mads Sorenson in 1884, and gave birth to four children. Two of their children died quite young of acute colitis, a sickness which closely resembles poisoning. Their mother had life insurance policies on the children and collected the money promptly after their deaths.

The couple opened a candy store in Chicago, but the store did not do well and mysteriously burned down within a year. Belle and Mads collected the insurance money and used it to buy a new home.

Belle's husband had two insurance policies. He passed away on July 30, 1900, which happened to be the only day the two policies overlapped. The official cause of death was ruled heart failure. His family suspected foul play, but before those charges could be pursued, Belle collected on the insurance policies the day after her husband's funeral and moved out of state.

After buying a farm near LaPorte, Indiana, Belle came across a man she had known before who was now a widower. She and Peter Gunness married in 1902. While under Belle's care, Peter's infant daughter died soon afterward. Peter himself passed away only months later under cloudy circumstances. Once again, personal tragedy lined Belle's pockets with insurance money.

Belle immediately began searching for a new mate. She placed ads in major newspapers. The ads referred to her as a "comely widow" and stated "Triflers need not apply." A man came from Minnesota with money to pay off Belle's mortgage. He and his money disappeared a week later. Another man came from Missouri. He also brought money for the mortgage, but something about the way Belle looked at him frightened him. He ran back to Missouri as fast as he could.

Ray Lamphere was the one man who stuck around. Belle hired him to help run her farm. Secretly, he longed for Belle himself and resented the other suitors she lured to the farm. Belle eventually came to realize Ray was mentally unstable and fired him.

Men continued to come as a result of Belle's ads and were never seen again.

One of them, an elderly widower named Ole B. Budsberg, from Wisconsin, was last seen alive with Belle at a bank in LaPorte. He mortgaged his Wisconsin property and received several thousand dollars in cash. Budsberg's sons, who were not aware he had gone to meet Belle, came across her name among his papers and wrote to her in the hope she might help them locate their father. Belle responded saying she had never met their father and knew nothing about him.

Andrew Helgelien, her last victim, came from South Dakota after Belle wrote in a letter to him:

My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.

Andrew arrived at Belle's farm in January, 1908, full of hope like all those before him. He brought with him a check for $2900, which he and Belle deposited in a bank a few days after his arrival. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared.

Andrew's brother did not believe the vague details Belle gave him about Andrew's disappearance and continued to make aggressive inquiries. This, apparently, unnerved Belle to the point she felt she needed to take drastic steps.

In the early morning hours of April 28, 1908, Belle's home burst into flames. Joe Maxson, the man Belle hired to replace Ray Lamphere, awoke as the fire raged and leapt from a second-floor window. The remains of Belle's children were found in the ruins of the fire.

A woman's body was also found in the burned house. Even though the head of the woman was not found, authorities assumed it was Belle.

Belle had previously reported Ray Lamphere to the police as a possible threat to her because she'd fired him. Ray was arrested and charged with murder and arson. He became gravely ill after being convicted of arson, but before passing away, told authorities all about Belle's murderous habits.

According to Ray, he had never killed anyone, but he'd helped Belle dispose of her victims. Usually, he said, she drugged them, killed them with a blow to the head, then dismembered the bodies. She'd learned the art of dissection from her second husband, Peter Gunness, who had been a butcher.

Normally, Ray helped Belle bury the bodies in the pig pen and other places, but sometimes she chopped the bodies into small pieces and fed them to the pigs. Searchers found the bones of at least a dozen men when they dug up the pen.

The remains of seven unknown victims were eventually discovered in unmarked graves in the pauper's section of a local cemetery. The bodies of another man and Jennie Olson, a girl Belle had adopted and raised, were found in another cemetery. Some neighbors reported Belle had told them Jennie was away at a finishing school in another state. Other neighbors had been told Jennie was attending college in Los Angeles.

Further investigation revealed that the female body found in the burned-out farmhouse was not Belle. Belle was a large woman weighing well over two hundred pounds. The woman found after the fire was no more than five feet three inches tall and weighed approximately 150 pounds.

Ray Lamphere told authorities Belle cleaned out her bank accounts two days before the fire. The day before the fire, he said, she drugged her maid, bashed in her head, beheaded her, tied weights to the head, and threw it into a deep swamp. Belle left the maid's body in the house to be discovered as her own. Finally, Belle rendered her three children, ages one, five and nine, unconscious with chloroform, smothered them to death, and left their bodies in the house with the decapitated maid.

According to Ray, Belle was a very wealthly woman. He estimated she had murdered at least forty-two men after taking their money, and had accumulated more than $250,000. That amount would be equivalent to more than six million in today's dollars.

Belle, he claimed, had made herself disappear. Although sightings of her were reported for many years after her disappearance, none of them were proven.

The number of murders Belle Gunness committed places her among the worst of known serial killers. She could easily be considered the worst of them all since her own children were among her victims.

Earl Staggs ©2016

Texas author Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.

He invites any comments via email at    

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


jrlindermuth said...

Talk about a black widow. And with her disappearance she could have gone on to claim other victims. Another interesting historical tale, Earl. Keep them coming.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Yikes! It's hard to believe there are really people like that on this earth. Great research and story.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Seriously disturbing.

Jan Christensen said...

Incredible tale. Too unbelievable to be made into a novel. As the saying goes, fact is often stranger than fiction. Thanks for doing all the research for us, Earl.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Earl,

This is a horrifying story. I agree with Jan, truth is often stranger than fiction.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, everyone. Belle certainly was a piece of work. She belongs at the top of the list of serial killers along with Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, et al.

Kaye George said...

What a horrific, terrifying person! There doesn't seem to have been a shred of conscience in her.

Earl Staggs said...

You're right, Kaye. No conscience at all and no ability to care about anyone or anything except herself and what she wanted. It's frightening to think there may be others like her out there right now. . .and they might be living next door to any of us.

Anonymous said...

"My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever." A lot of men stayed forever. She was obviously as good at attracting them as she was at dispatching them. Fascinating story.

Earl Staggs said...

You're so right, Kathy. If someone as bright and talented as Belle applied herself in an honest profession, she probably would have done well. Thanks foe stopping by.