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Crime News

Alleged Female Serial Killer Vanishes After Multiple Bodies Found On Her Property

Belle Gunness, born in 1859, has never been positively identified despite allegedly murdering multiple men and feeding their remains to animals on her farm.

By John Thrasher
Belle Gunness Ap

A Norwegian woman living in the United States went missing shortly after several bodies were found carved and buried on her property in 1908. Belle Gunness, who immigrated to Chicago when she was 21 years old, went missing in a century-old mystery involving buried bodies, suspicious life insurance policies and deaths by poisoning.

Upon arriving to the United States, Gunness married a fellow Norwegian man named Mads Sorenson when she was 24. The couple opened a confectionary store that burned down a year later under mysterious circumstances. After Mads died in 1900, Gunness collected on his multiple life insurance policies that overlapped on the same day, according to Strange Remains, a website about forensic anthropology cases. A medical doctor examining Mads' body also believed that he suffered from strychnine poisoning. Shortly after Mads' death, Belle moved to LaPorte, Indiana where she purchased a 42-acre farm. 

In Indiana, Belle met a local butcher named Peter Gunness. They married in 1902 but their relationship was also met with tragedy. Only a week after their marriage, Peter's infant daughter died while in Belle's care. And less than a year later, Peter suffered a fatal injury as a result of a sausage grinder and hot water falling onto him, according to StrangeRemains.com. The coroner reviewing Peter's injuries claimed that Peter was murdered and, like Belle's previous husband, also showed signs of strychnine poisoning. But with no evidence of her involvement, Belle went on to collect life insurance from Peter as well.

Belle eventually started placing matrimonial ads in sections of newspapers in the midwest, according to American History Magazine. These ads called for the likes of a fellow Norwegian man willing to share her farm and be willing to put down some cash. According to the IndyStar, one of the ads read "Personal — comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of 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.” Many people in the town recall various men visiting Belle at her fam, but the relationships didn't seem to go anywhere and would suddenly end, according to American History.

But on April 28, 1908, a fire broke out in the farm house where Belle worked and lived. The Chicago Tribune wrote that "Witnesses at the time said the burned farmhouse reeked of kerosene." Belle had recently purchased kerosene, according to American History. It was also reported that Belle had kept her daughters Myrtle, who was 11, Lucy, who was 9, and son Philip, 5, home from school the day before the fire and had gone to town to write her will.

In the ruins, the next day, authorities digging through the ashes found the charred remains of four bodies. The remains appeared to belong to Belle Gunness and her three children. But suspiciously, the corpse of the grown woman was missing its head, according to The Seattle Times. Authorities believed that the size and height of the corpse did not match that of Belle Gunness. However, Belle's dentist claimed to positively match her records to a piece of bridgework consisting two human teeth. It was ruled that the body was that of Belle Gunness.

During the investigation of the fire, butchered remains of 11 men were found in and around the farm property owned by Belle, though the property was not searched thoroughly and there could have been more victims that weren't discovered, according to The Seattle Times. Though Belle had been ruled as part of the deaths within the fire, many speculated that she somehow escaped and went on to create a new life for herself.

Later, a handyman named Ray Lamphere, who was closely connected to Belle Gunness, made a deathbed confession that he helped her scout a body double who was murdered and staged in the fire. He also claimed that he helped her bury some of her victims, according to The Seattle Times. According to his confession, Belle invited her guests to dinner before either poisoning them with strychnine or hitting them over the head with a meat clever. 

In May 2008, 100 years after the fire that allegedly killed Belle Gunness and her children, a team of researchers from the University of Indianapolis returned to the site to investigate again. They intended to exhume the remains of Belle Gunness to determine if she was in fact buried in her grave, according to The Chicago Tribune. Researchers were able to find sealed envelops Belle had sent to one of her suitors which contained saliva DNA. If they could match that DNA to the body, they could get a conclusive answer. However, upon testing, the saliva sample was too told and the mystery of the corpse and Belle Gunness remains.

Listen to Oxygen's Martinis & Murder cover the case of the mystery of Belle Gunness which includes discussion about a woman living in Los Angeles, who many believed could be the real Belle Gunness.