True Crime: Belle Gunness

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Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?

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.

H. H. Holmes Hits the Headlines

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Imagine my surprise when I saw a link pop up in my Facebook feed with this headline: River North hotel invites guests to spend a killer night in H.H. Holmes pop-up suite

Yep. You read that correctly.

If you’ve followed by blog for any length of time, you know that my novel is based on the murders of H.H. Holmes. He’s received some cult-level popularity via Erik Larsen’s book, The Devil in the White City, the recent History channel American Ripper docuseries, and even American Horror Story. And now, for a limited time, the Acme Hotel Company in River North is converting a hotel suite into a Holmes-lover’s dream. Or is that nightmare?

Decor included in your scare stay: old newspaper clippings, surgical tools, and Holmes’ mug staring at you. All. Night. Long.

Acme Hotel, this Holmes fanatic thinks you’ve landed on a spectacular idea.

Attached in the same Tribune article? A link to an interactive “walking tour” of the 1893 World’s Fair. Incredibly cool, and not just for a writer’s research either! 

The Devil Inside Me–snippet #3

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Photo by Nate on Pexels.com

When I asked a few weeks back what YOU would like to see on this blog, some kind souls requested more from my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me. Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite suspects, Elyse Baxter. Enjoy!


    “And your name?” Davis, lost in thought, had barely looked up when the next person walked up to him.

    “Elyse Baxter.”

    He looked more closely once the silky voice hit his ears and saw a young woman with long, dark chestnut hair and fair skin, devoid of make-up, sitting down across from him. In Davis’ mind, she didn’t need the make-up. She didn’t need much of anything.

    “And Ms. Baxter, what is it you do at the museum?”

    “I’m a preparator. I’m the preparator for the Holmes’ exhibit.” Davis raised his head again when Ms. Baxter emphasized her “the.”

    “What does that entail?”

    “I handle and prepare all manner of artifacts for our exhibits. I coordinate with others to ensure proper and timely installation of our exhibits. And I was the lead preparator and project manager for this exhibit.”

    “So you’re responsible for this display?”

    “This exhibit,” she corrected. “Yes.”

    “Uh huh.” Davis made a few scratches on his notepad. The preparator smoothed her knee-length skirt and uncrossed, then re-crossed, her legs.

    “How long have you been working here?”

    “I’ve been with the museum for three years now. Prior to that I worked at the Boston Museum of Science.”

    “Are you from Boston?”

    “Not too far from it.”

    Davis looked up from his notes, waiting for her to explain. She didn’t.

    “Where?”

    “Pennsylvania.”

    Again, Davis paused, scratching at his two day scruff, allowing for further detail. She said nothing.

    “Can you be more specific?”

    Elyse Baxter sighed. “Philadelphia.”

    “So you’re responsible for this display–how so? Start to finish?”

    “While it is unusual, yes–I was responsible for the design and implementation for this–exhibit–from start to finish. I presented my concept drawing to Mr. Panetti two years ago, before the television hype and the movie deal. He sat on it for a year until he realized there was more than just a cult following.”

    “There’s a movie deal?”

    “Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing H. H. Holmes?” she asked with the same incredulity of Chapman.

    Davis continued scratching down notes.

    “So then what? He agreed?”

    “Yes. I had two other designers who worked with me to build the concept model, and–” She waved her hand with a flourish. “This is the result.”

    “And when did you last see the disp–exhibit?”

    “About thirty minutes ago, when the docent explained what was going on.”

    “Where were you prior to that?”

    “I was working in our creative space–it’s on the lower level, where my office is.”

    “And prior to that, when was the last time you saw the exhibit?”

    “This morning, at 6am. I was giving everything one more look.”

    “One more look?”

    “Today was the opening day for this exhibit. Surely you heard it advertised, Detective. It’s on the side of eight CTA buses. This is a central piece to our museum, to Chicago.”

    He nodded. She continued.

    “It’s also our first PG-13 rated exhibit. That generated even more of an interest from the public.”

    “So you were giving everything a once-over before it opened up?”

    “Yes. I was responsible for its execution, so I had to ensure everything was perfect.”

    Interesting choice of words, thought Davis.

    “I don’t mean to be cold and unfeeling, Detective, but do you have any idea how long this…scene…will keep my exhibit closed? So many people were looking forward to it.”

The Murderous Mystery Tour…

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Murderous Mystery Tour is coming to take you away… (My apologies to Paul and John. I couldn’t help myself.)

If you’re simultaneously creeped out and fascinated by the likes of H.H. Holmes, take a trip to Chicago for two well-done tours of the good, er, bad doctor’s stomping grounds.

Weird Chicago’s bus tour takes you “on a journey back in time to not only the places where Holmes sought out and dispatched his victims, but also to take a look at the remnants of the spectacular fair” of 1893. I went on this tour in the summer of 2017, and it was phenomenal–and one of the reasons I began writing The Devil Inside Me. The tour guide was super animated and knowledgeable about all things Holmes. At the time I’m writing this, tickets are $35. Weird Chicago has other tours as well, including the Roaring 20s Speakeasy Tour (21 and up only!) and the Blood, Guns, and Valentine’s Tour.

Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, runs a walking tour in the Windy City. Selzer’s tour differs from Weird Chicago’s in that he focuses on the not-so-known locations that Holmes would have visited. I took this tour in the fall of 2017, and it too was phenomenal. Selzer is not theatrical as the other tour’s guide was; rather, he provides the details of Holmes’ life that often get lost in the legend–and he distinguishes fact from the fiction that history tends to create. Tickets are currently $20 (for his other tours as well). Selzer runs the Mysterious Chicago podcast and website, and he was a consulting producer on the History channel’s series about Holmes, American Ripper.

If you’re in the Windy City, you don’t want to miss these tours. Let me know what your experiences are!

Excerpt #2 from The Devil Inside Me

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Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!


Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.

The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.

“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.

“How’d you know?”

“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”

He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.

“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”

“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”

“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”

“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.

Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.

“Murder.”

A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for both children and adults, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. An infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life. You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother. Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.

Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed.

“Fitting,” he said.

As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead.

“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”

Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”

“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.

“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA.

“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”

“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”

“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”

“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.

“Yep.”

“Any guesses on the time of death?”

“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.

“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”

Avery tossed his head across the room.

“The tall brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”

Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.

“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”

“Do they have security tapes?”

“Working on it.”

“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.

“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.

“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.

“Burnham?” Davis asked.

“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”

“Exposition?” Davis asked again.

“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.

“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.

“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.

“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.

“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”

“No offense taken.”

“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”

“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”

“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”

Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”

“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.

What Makes a Serial Killer?

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On April 4th, Fourth and Sycamore published my short story, “Downright Devilish,” which is the first in a series of shorts to re-imagine the childhood of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, grew up in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the 1800s. (You can read more about him on this blog post.)

When I began learning about Holmes, what fascinated me the most was the eternal question of what makes a serial killer? Is it nature or nurture? Was his overbearing father enough to turn him into a quiet killer, or was he simply born without compassion and conscience? I found plenty of ideas in my research notes and the death records for Gilmanton which led to this short story series. After you read “Downright Devilish,” read “Diabolical” here!

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