In Chicago, the stout young Belle (above) had buried two of her children - not an unusual tragedy in the nineteenth century. But then, in 1900, her husband Anton Sorenson, had died of heart disease. With the proceeds from Anton’s two life insurance policies, Belle and her three daughters had purchesed a farm on the northeast outskirts of La Porte Indiana, out on McClung Road past Pine and Fish Trap lakes.
By noon the heat had retreated enough for workers to shift the ashes. There they found the pitiful bodies of Belle’s three children, Myrtle and Lucy Sorensen, and Philip Gunness, aged 5, as well as the blackened, headless corpse of a woman presumed to be Belle. And when the cops arrested Ray Lamphere, he blurted out, “Did widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?” It seemed an open and shut case. Except... when told of the bodies, and of the charges Belle had made against him the day before, Ray was heard to ruefully say, “After all, she wanted me killed because I knew too much..” Was this the foundation for an insanity plea, or even self defense - from a woman? But it did cause the police to think.
While the police were still mulling over this perplexing development, a man named Ray Helgelien arrived in town, looking for his brother. Andrew Helgelien (above) had responded to a notice in a South Dakota lonely hearts column. “Wanted — a woman who owns a beautifully located and valuable farm in first class condition, wants a good and reliable man as partner in the same”. The lady needed help paying off the farm's mortgage, and offered matrimony and love in return. After exchanging several letters, Andrew had left home with $300 cash in his pocket. Ray had not heard from his brother for several weeks, and finally opened the last last letter, post marked from La Porte. It read, “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew. I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.” Having seen newspaper stories about the grisly finds in the La Porte burned out farm house, Ray suspected that Andrew may have done just that. Had Belle placed that notice? The local post office confirmed that Belle had mailed and received 8 to 10 letters a day, for years. The searchers spread out across the farm and started digging.
Included among these remains was a body identified as being that of Andrew (above). In his corpse, as is in many of the others, the medical examiner found cyanide. The police were now more than willing to think the worst.
How many victims had been fed to Belle’s hogs, or buried in undiscovered graves elsewhere on the farm? When finally added up the list of known and suspected victims reached forty. Belle Gunness could well have been the most prolific, and one of the most hard working serial murderess in American history.
For the next decade, sightings of Belle (above) were reported from all over America and Scandinavia. But the most intriguing story was that of Esther Carlson, who in 1931 was arrested in Los Angeles, the location of Jennie's supposed finishing school. Esther was charged with the murder of a Norwegian immigrant, which matched Belle's preferred victims. Like Belle, Esther's motive was alleged to be theft of the victim's money. Also like Belle, Esther's weapon of choice had been cyanide. But nothing was ever proved, and Esther died in jail while awaiting trial.
But two expatriates from La Porte identified photos of Esther Carlson (above) as Belle Gunness. The ages were a close, Belle would have been 71 years old in 1931, and if Belle had lost weight,... Could they have been the same person? Did Belle slaughter every human being close to her, pin it on a simpleton fall guy, and escape to California, where she went on making a living by killing? If that seems far fetched a tale, remember that it is the nature of most people, that when they hear of a tragedy, their first thought is sympathy, and almost never of evil - even though sometimes that is exactly what a tragedy is.
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