There’s nothing like a good black widow, is there not? We all recall Joan Cusack’s memorable stint as Debbie, a homicidal maniac who murders her husbands for their money, in the hit film The Addams Family Values. As much as we enjoy a fun, fictitious black widow, nothing compares to the real thing.
In the lengthy history of mariticide, a few notable names pop up: Amy Archer-Gilligan, Evelyn Dick, Mary Elizabeth Wilson, Betty Lou Beets, Katherine Knight, Betty Neumar, and Stacey Castor, just to name a few. These are all some of the world’s most famous black widows, all having committed varying levels of atrocity.
But none hold a candle to Hell’s Belle, Lady Bluebeard: Belle Gunness.
Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Støreth, Gunness emigrated to the United States in 1881, where she found work as a servant. Just three years later, she moved to Chicago with her new husband Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, where they opened a confectionary store. The store was unsuccessful and later burned down mysteriously. Luckily, the couple collected insurance on the damage and used that money to pay for another home. The couple reportedly had four children.
On July 30th, 1900, Sorenson died, coincidentally on the very day on which two life insurance policies on him overlapped. While the family doctor had treated him for an enlarged heart, and concluded that he had died from heart failure, some doctors believed that Sorenson was suffering from strychnine poisoning due to “medicinal powders” given to him by Gunness.
An autopsy on Sorenson was deemed unnecessary. His death wasn’t viewed as suspicious. Gunness did, however, apply for the insurance money the day after her husband’s funeral. That action led Sorenson’s family to believe that he was murdered by his wife for the money.
Over the years, Gunness had may suitors and boyfriends, some who met with “tragic accidents” or never appeared again after arriving on the Gunness farm. Another unexplained death included the infant daughter of one of her new husbands, Peter Gunness, followed by Peter Gunness himself. Even her adopted daughter, Jennie Olson, would be found dead on the Gunness property.
One hired hand, Ray Lamphere, fell deeply in love with Gunness; he performed any chore she asked of him, no matter how gruesome or degrading. He let his affections be known quite clear to Gunness, often expressing his jealousy openly whenever a suitor for Ms. Gunness arrived on the property. These outburst led Gunness to fire Lamphere. Gunness made a trip to the La Porte County courthouse to inform the court that her former employee was not of his right mind and was a menace to the public. But it didn’t end there.
Lamphere would return again and again to convey his adoration of Gunness, only to be driven off by her each time. His frustration would lead him to make veiled threats about and to Gunness herself. Gunness had shared that she feared for her life and her children, sharing that Lamphere had threatened to kill her and burn her house down.
On April 28th, 1908, the Gunness property was on fire. Joe Maxon, the hired hand who replaced Lamphere, awoke in the early hours to the smell of smoke in his room. He left his room to find the entire house alight. He called out to Gunness and her children, but got no response. He escaped with this life.
After the fire was put out, the bodies of Gunness’ children were discovered, charred. Also found was the headless body of an adult woman, believed to be Gunness. After initial disputes over the body’s identity, it was concluded that the headless adult female was, in fact, Gunness.
As the police scoured the Gunness property, they made a truly gruesome discovery. Maxon came forward to police with prudent information: Gunness had ordered him to bring wheelbarrows filled with dirt to a large area surrounded by a high wire fence where the hogs were fed. Maxon shared that there were “many deep depressions in the ground” that had been covered by dirt. Gunness told him that those depressions contained garbage, so he made the ground level.
Investigators went to that area and began to dig. The first discovery made was the body of Jennie Olson. Soon after they discovered the bodies of two unidentified children. One body after another was discovered in the Gunness hog pen: Andrew Helgelian, Ole B. Budsberg, Thomas Lindboe, Henry Gurholdt, Olaf Svenherud, John Moe, and Olaf Lindbloom.
There were many more unidentified remains discovered on the farm, but due to crude recovery methods, the exact number is unclear. It is believed that there had been the remains of 12 victims in total, but Gunness is suspected to have killed as many as 45 people.
Lamphere was eventually arrested and tried for murder and arson, where he found guilty of the latter and sentenced to 20 years in state prison. He died of tuberculosis in 1909.
The body believed to be Gunness was buried next to her first husband in Forest Park, Illinois. In 2007, her headless body was exhumed to confirm her identity. Unfortunately, not enough DNA had been recovered to make a conclusive determination.