When asked to name the Norwegian-American who put Northern Indiana on the map, most would probably guess legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. In a neighboring county, however, a different Scandinavian immigrant is remembered as one of the most monstrous figures in American criminal history.
Born Brynhild Storset in Norway in 1859, the woman who came to be known as Belle Gunness arrived in the U.S. in 1881. She settled in Chicago and married countryman Mads Sorenson, with whom she set up a confectionery business. When the shop mysteriously burned to the ground, Belle and her husband collected enough insurance money to purchase a new home.
That home too was consumed by flames, and, in a matter of time, Belle’s husband dropped dead the day his two life insurance policies overlapped. Fraud had given way to murder, and by 1902, Belle was plying a macabre money-making scheme from a home base in LaPorte, Indiana. From her farmstead on McClung Road, Belle lured lonely hearts from across the Midwest by way of personal ads placed in the matrimonial columns of Chicago dailies and Norwegian language newspapers.
A steady stream of suitors responded to her offer of wifely companionship in exchange for a sum needed to pay off a mortgage. One by one the gentleman callers arrived and promptly disappeared.
In the spring of 1908, as one vanished suitor’s brother was making persistent inquiries and threatening to investigate, Belle’s farmhouse went up in flames. The bodies of her three children, and one presumed to be Belle’s, were found. The woman’s charred and decapitated remains were considerably smaller than Belle’s, however. Records showed Belle was a portly woman standing five feet eight and weighing 200 pounds. Furthermore, dental evidence positively identifying the corpse as Belle’s was later judged to have been planted at the scene.
Further excavation revealed a gruesome enterprise: body parts belonging to more than forty men and children were buried in the hog pen. A lovesick handyman named Ray Lamphere was charged with arson and murder. Though he admitted to having set the blaze, he denied having murdered his employer and her children, or anyone else for that matter. Before he died in prison, Lamphere revealed Belle’s technique, which involved chloroform and a meat cleaver, and his own assistance in burying the bodies.
The dying man also described how his Svengali-like boss had murdered her own children along with a female drifter, left their bodies in the house, and convinced Lamphere to set it on fire while she waited for him. The duped accessory reported that Belle had murdered 42 men altogether, and had accumulated 250,000 dollars.
Frequent sightings of Belle were reported over the next couple of decades, and legends flourished. One story placed her in a Mississippi town, where she lived as a grande dame. In 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson was arrested in Los Angeles for having poisoned a man for his money. Several of those who knew her recognized Esther as Belle. The identity was never proven, however, and Esther Carlson died awaiting trial.
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