Belle Gunness: The Black Widow of LaPorte

Posted on: June 14, 2019, by :
Brynhild Storset, better known as Belle Gunness.

“Personal—Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the largest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.”

With this ad, placed in Scandinavian-language newspapers in the Midwestern United States, Belle Gunness lured a great many unsuspecting men to her farmhouse in La Porte, Indiana. She would subsequently murder them and rob them of whatever money or valuables they’d brought with them to earn her affections.

At almost six feet tall and weighing well over two hundred pounds, Belle had quite a physical presence. She would also go on to earn the “distinction” of being the first identified “modern” female serial killer in this country’s history. She employed a myriad of different techniques for killing her victims, poisoning, bludgeoning, chloroforming, to name a few. And she would be known as one of the few serial murderers to successfully evade law enforcement.

Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset on November 11, 1859 in the Norwegian fishing village of Selbu. Most accountings of her early life describe how she grew up in poverty. In 1881 she was invited to Chicago by her older sister, at which point she left Norway for the U.S. In 1884 she married her first husband, Mads Sorenson. The two had four children, two of whom died in infancy. Strangely, the two infants both displayed symptoms of poisoning, it was reported.

On June 30, 1900, Mads Sorenson died. The day of his death just happened to be the date his two life insurance policies overlapped, one ending, a new one taking effect. So Belle collected both insurance payments. One doctor believed Sorenson had died of poisoning. Another family doctor however insisted the cause of death was heart failure, for which he had been treating him. With $8,500 from both insurance payouts, Belle moved to La Porte, Indiana, where she purchased a large farm.

It was here that she became reacquainted with a Norwegian immigrant named Peter Gunness, a butcher. The two married in 1902. He died in 1903. It was reported that a sausage grinder mysteriously fell on his head. Those who saw his body however stated that the fatal blow resembled one from a hammer. Nonetheless, the insurance company suspected nothing, and awarded Belle $3,000.

After Peter’s death, Belle started putting out personal ads. Men of means then began coming to La Porte to meet Belle, all of whom would disappear within a week (only one man managed to escape, fleeing before Belle could kill him). One man remained a fixture in her life, Ray Lamphere, a handyman who worked at Belle’s farm. He was reputed to be in love with her, though the steady stream of suitors seemed to put a strain on their relationship. But Belle was having problems also. The brother of one of the men who’d come to visit her began writing to her, demanding to know the whereabouts of his brother. The walls were beginning to close in. According to legendsofAmerica.com, Belle sensed this and set up a meeting with a lawyer. She told him that Ray Lamphere had threatened to burn down her house, that she was afraid for her life, and that she wanted to amend her will, leaving everything she had to her children.

On April 30, 1908, a fire engulfed Belle’s quaint farmhouse. In the rubble were discovered a headless woman’s corpse and the bodies of three children, believed to be Belle’s children. Ray Lamphere was arrested, as it was known by law enforcement he had threatened to burn down Belle’s home. Sheriff’s deputies began digging around the site of the fire in an effort to find the corpse’s head. Instead they turned up other human remains. Deputies then began digging in the pigpen, where they found the body of Gunness’ other daughter as well as those of several of the suitors and some unidentified children. In total, fourteen definitive bodies were found. The remains of many however could not be identified.

Right away, there was doubt that the headless body was even that of Belle Gunness. Her false teeth were found on the scene, but the fact that the headless corpse was of a woman of considerably less weight and size brought this into question. Also, Belle’s bank accounts had been almost completely emptied prior to the blaze. To many it appeared that Belle Gunness had managed to escape justice.

Ray Lamphere was put on trial for arson and murder. He was acquitted of murder charges but found guilty of arson and sentenced to twenty years in the Indiana State Prison. He died in December 1909. It was reported that he made a deathbed confession to a prison chaplain and another prisoner in which he revealed the true extent of Belle’s savagery and callous disregard for human life.

Lamphere said that he was an accomplice in Belle’s crimes, though denied actually killing anyone. He did dispose of some of the corpses however and was privy to her murderous secrets. According to him, Belle would serve the victim a large meal,(sometimes drugging their coffee) then usually kill them with a meat cleaver or other implement. She would sometimes wait for the victim to go to sleep and simply chloroform them. Next, she’d butcher their bodies, was apparently quite skilled at doing so. Then she’d dispose of them by either burying them in the pigpen, or, in some cases, by feeding them to her pigs. Lamphere estimated Belle’s total number of victims at forty-two, according to multiple sources.

He also revealed what happened the night of April 30, 1908, the night of the fire. The headless corpse, he claimed, wasn’t Belle’s, but that of a woman who’d come to Belle’s farm from Chicago to inquire about a housekeeping position. The children were chloroformed and placed in their beds, where Belle smothered them. She then set the house aflame. Lamphere was supposed to meet up with her afterwards, but she never showed. He maintained that Belle was very much alive and that the only reason she burned down her house was that she feared authorities were closing in on her.

So what happened to Belle Gunness? If Lamphere is to be believed, then she clearly did not die in the fire. Scattered sightings were reported in the years following her death. A prominent woman in a small Mississippi town was rumored to be Belle. Then there was the interesting case of a Los Angeles woman who had been arrested for poisoning her Norwegian-American husband. The woman died while awaiting trial, though some who saw her picture were convinced it was Belle. A positive identification was never established.

And the true fate of Belle Gunness remains unknown.

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