When most people think about female American serial killers – not that most people often do – their list begins and ends with Aileen Wuornos. Aileen was the Florida prostitute convicted of killing six men; the body of a seventh victim attributed to her was never found.
Intensified by her extraordinary courtroom outbursts, Aileen’s trial was heavily publicized. After all, it exposed her deep-seeded hatred of all men dating to her youth in Michigan, where the men in her life objectified her and some may have even raped her. Through her murders, she seemed to say that she would never be victimized again.
At the time of her death by lethal injection in 2002, Aileen was only the tenth woman to be executed in the United States since the country’s ban on capital punishment was lifted in 1976.
But the public was so gripped by Aileen’s story that it was made into countless documentaries and feature films, and earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress. That’s why we remember Aileen.
But what if I told you that, although prolific, Aileen’s exploits were paltry in comparison to an Indiana woman you’ve probably never heard of?
Meet Belle Gunness…
The story of Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth in 1859, begins in her native Norway. Her career as a killer was apparently set in motion around age 18.
According to one account, during her first pregnancy, she was attacked by a man at a country dance. The man kicked her in the abdomen, ultimately causing her to miscarry. Never prosecuted by Norwegian authorities, the man who attacked her died shortly afterwards of a reported stomach cancer.
In a more poetic version of the same story, as a 17-year old farmhand, Belle learned she was pregnant by the son of the landlord. Unwilling to marry her, the man reportedly beat her until she miscarried. And it was he who died less than a year later of an illness that resembled poisoning, though that would never be proven.
In either case, with things not working out for her in Norway, she emigrated to the United States in 1881 and assumed the more American-sounding “Belle.” She too would never be victimized again.
Within three years, Belle married a Chicago man named Mads Sorenson, and it was around this time that a foster daughter, later known as Jennie Olsen, was placed in her care. Together, the couple had four children, but sadly, two of them died in infancy, allegedly of acute colitis, the symptoms of which are also associated with many forms of poisoning. Interestingly, both lives were reportedly insured, and the insurance company made payments to the family.
In 1900, Mads himself became violently ill and died – coincidentally on the only day that two insurance policies on his life overlapped. An attending physician and subsequently the Sorensen family suspected strychnine poisoning, but the family doctor claimed he was treating Mads for an enlarged heart and that this was the cause of his death.
In either case, the insurance companies paid Belle $8,500 (roughly a quarter million in today’s dollars), and with things now heating up for her in Chicago, Belle used the money to purchase a farm in La Porte, Indiana. There, she married Peter Gunness in 1902 and became stepmother to his two daughters.
Reportedly just one week after the ceremony, Peter’s infant daughter died under dubious circumstances while alone in the house with Belle. In December of the same year, Peter met with a bizarre accident: according to Belle, part of a sausage-grinding machine fell from a high shelf, fatally striking him in the head. Belle’s adopted daughter, Jennie, apparently told a classmate that her mother had killed Peter with a meat cleaver, but denied saying anything of the sort when authorities questioned her later.
Ultimately, Peter’s death may have netted Belle another $4,000, more than $100,000 today. Amid the strange circumstances, Peter’s brother took guardianship of Peter’s older daughter, removing her from Belle’s custody and effectively saving her life.
That left Jennie and Belle’s two remaining children from her marriage to Mads Sorensen. But wait … In May, 1903, a baby boy named Phillip joined the family. Belle had been pregnant with Peter’s child when she offed him with a meat cleaver.
In 1906, Belle began telling neighbors that Jennie had gone away to a Lutheran college in Los Angeles (it’s interesting that Belle would expressly mention Los Angeles, as it comes up again in this story). In fact, Jennie’s body would later be found buried on her adoptive mother’s property.
Beginning in late 1906 or early 1907, Belle started placing personal ads in local newspapers, and a steady stream of middle-aged male suitors appeared and disappeared in brief visits to the Gunness farm over the next year and a half. They may have numbered more than 40.
Belle would take their money, kill them, dismember them, and bury them in the yard – perhaps also feeding some to her pigs. Her preferred method seems to have been poison and then hacking them to death as they slept or were otherwise incapacitated; the scale of her crimes simply leaves no time for her to have waited until they died from the effects of the poison.
Such was the carnage that in 1907, she hired a farmhand named Ray Lamphere to help with chores – like digging holes around the farm. Ray fell in love with Gunness and almost certainly was privy to her gruesome secret.
A year later, Belle went to a La Porte lawyer to make out a will. She told him she had fired Rayand that he threatened to kill her – that she feared for her life and wanted to have things in order. Within weeks, the Gunness farm suspiciously burned to the ground, and Belle Gunness disappeared from history.
In the aftermath, authorities quickly found four charred bodies – three children and a headless woman who in life was estimated to be about 5’3” tall weighing no more than 150 pounds.
Did the farmhand kill the family to avenge his termination? Or was it all a ruse, conceived by Belle, to stave off inquiries from the families of her dead suitors?