Monday, April 9, 2018

Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men: Guest Post by Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter:
Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men

In the weeks since the publication of my book, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, I’ve been asked a number of times how I first learned of its subject, the notorious “Lady Bluebeard” of La Porte, Indiana. Given my rapidly deteriorating memory, I’m not exactly sure, but I believe I first encountered her name in one of my favorite books, Olive Wooley Burt’s 1958 classic, American Murder Ballads and Their Stories. Among the scores of priceless ditties collected in that indispensable volume was one that began:

In old Indiana, not far from La Porte 
There once lived a woman, a home-loving sort. 
Belle wanted a husband, she wanted one bad. 
She placed in the papers a lonely-hearts ad. 

So big, mean, and ugly, she stayed to herself. 
A sharp cleaver lay on her slaughter-pen shelf. 
She was a hog-raiser, she started from scratch 
And planted each suitor in her ‘tater-patch. 

In church every Sunday you’d see pious Belle, 
The Devil’s own daughter, the Princess of Hell. 
Belle Gunness’s heaven was her slaughter-pen 
For she lived in the glory of butchering men. 

I was, of course, immediately intrigued.

My subsequent research into the Belle Gunness saga led me to conclude that she was that rarest of all psychopaths: a woman who engaged in wholesale slaughter, partly out of greed but mostly for the sheer joy of it. What made her even more unusual was the extreme savagery of her crimes. There were other female “murder fiends” in our country before Belle--Lydia Sherman, Sarah Jane Robinson, Jane Toppan. But they had all shared the traditional m.o. of female serial killers--poisoning their victims, then pretending that the deaths were due to natural causes.

Belle Gunness was different. Frighteningly different. True, most of her victims had apparently been dosed with arsenic (then readily available in the form of the popular vermicide, “Rough on Rats.”) But the corpses that were dug up on her Indiana “murder farm” hadn’t simply been dispatched with poison. They had been butchered.

A forty-two-year-old Norwegian emigrant, Belle had purchased the farm in 1902 with the insurance money she came into when her first husband, Mads Sorenson, died suddenly in convulsive agony. Moving to the small town of La Porte, she set herself up on what she liked to call “the prettiest and happiest country home in northern Indiana.” Shortly thereafter, she married a young widower, Peter Gunness. Just nine months after the nuptials, he was killed when a cast-iron sausage grinder fell from the stove top and struck him directly between the eyes while he was reaching for a shoe. At least that was Belle’s explanation. So bizarre was this story that neighbors talked openly of murder. The insurance company, however, declared her husband’s death an accident, and Belle collected another hefty payment.

That was when her homicidal career began in earnest. Over the course of the next six years, a succession of men found their way to Belle Gunness’s happy country home. Some were hired hands, brought in to help with the farm work. Others were well-to-do bachelors, lured to the farm by the classified matrimonial ads that Belle regularly took out in Norwegian newspapers throughout the Midwest.

All of them vanished without a trace.

Then, in the early morning hours of April 27, 1908, the Gunness farmhouse burned to the ground. When the blaze was finally extinguished, firemen were aghast to discover the remains of four people--three children and an adult woman--stacked like cordwood in the cellar of the incinerated house. Though badly charred, the murdered children were recognizable as the youngest of Belle’s six offspring. The fourth corpse was assumed to be that of Belle herself. Positive identification was impossible, however. The woman had been decapitated, and her head was nowhere to be found.

Suspicion immediately fell on a disgruntled farmhand named Ray Lamphere, who was charged with murder. In the meantime, searchers continued to sift through the ashes in a search for the missing head. They never found it. What they did unearth sent shockwaves throughout the nation--and earned Belle Gunness everlasting infamy as one of the most terrifying sociopaths in the annals of American crime.

A dozen butchered corpses lay buried around the property: in a rubbish pit, a privy vault, a hog lot. Most of the bodies had been carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey--head hacked off, arms removed from the shoulder sockets, legs sawed off at mid-thigh. The various pieces of each body--limbs, head, trunk--had been stuffed into separate grain sacks, sprinkled with lime, then buried.

The discovery of these atrocities turned the Gunness farmstead into an instant, macabre tourist attraction. On the Sunday following the discovery of the chopped-up corpses, an estimated sixteen thousand curiosity seekers descended on the property, some from as far away as Chicago. Whole families strolled about the place like vacationing sightseers, while hawkers did a booming business in hot dogs, lemonade, and souvenir postcards of the “murder farm.”

As to her fate, questions linger to this day. Did Lamphere--her suspected accomplice--kill her and her children for unknown reasons, then set fire to the farmhouse in an attempt to cover up his crimes? Many people believed so.

Others, however, had doubts that the charred, decapitated woman in the cellar was Belle. For one thing, the body weighed just seventy-three pounds--inordinately small, even allowing for the shrinkage that results when meat is roasted at high temperatures. Lamphere himself claimed that Belle had staged her own death, then absconded with a fortune in ill-gotten gains. For many years, sightings of the infamous “Lady Bluebeard” were reported in places across America. In the popular mind, she continued to live on, a legendary monster immortalized in story and song.

Harold Schechter is an American true crime writer who specializes in serial killers. He attended the State University of New York in Buffalo where his PhD director was Leslie Fiedler. He is professor of American literature and popular culture at Queens College of the City University of New York. 

In HELL’S PRINCESS: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men (Little A; 4/01), the two-time Edgar Award finalist, Harold Schechter brings to life one of the strangest and most gruesome serial killings in the history of the United States. 

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