It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.
In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.
Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.
Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…
By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.
Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.
Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.
Or so it seemed.
The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.
Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.
Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.
We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.