Belle’s Story: The Short Version
At approximately 4 a.m. on April 28, 1908, a farm house on McClung Road caught fire. The home belonged to Belle Gunness, a woman who had lived in La Porte since 1901. Workers sifting through the debris discovered four bodies in the basement later in the day. Initially, the bodies were believed to be Belle and her children, Myrtle (age 11), Lucy (age 9), and Phillip (age 5). However, the family’s piano from the first floor was discovered on top of the bodies, which negated the first assumption that the victims were sleeping in their beds on the second floor when the fire started. Those at the scene quickly determined that the four victims had been murdered and their bodies placed in the basement before the fire. Therefore, La Porte County Sheriff Albert Smutzer launched an investigation of the fire and its surrounding events.
The day before the fire, Mrs. Gunness went into town to see her lawyer. She asked him to draw up a will leaving everything she owned first to her children and then to an orphanage in Chicago. At the meeting, she was quoted as telling her lawyer, “I’m afraid he’s going to kill me and burn the house,” referring to her ex-handyman, Ray Lamphere. Upon learning this tidbit, Sheriff Smutzer picked up Lamphere for questioning. Lamphere’s first reaction? Denial of any knowledge of the fire. Next, he wanted to know if “Belle and the kids” had gotten out. However, an eyewitness claimed to see Lamphere fleeing the scene of the fire, so Lamphere was charged with arson and four counts of murder.
A twist was added to the story once Asle Helgelein came to La Porte looking for his brother, Andrew, on May 2. Andrew had arrived in La Porte to visit Belle and hopefully marry her. He had answered her lovelorn advertisement placed in a Norwegian newspaper. They had corresponded for several months before Belle invited Andrew to visit. At her prompting, he sold his property, liquidated his assets, and came to La Porte with approximately $3000. When Asle did not hear from his brother for several months, he contacted Belle to find out about Andrew. She told him his brother had left La Porte for Norway.
Asle did not believe Belle’s story and came to talk to her personally. He contacted Smutzer shortly after his arrival and explained the situation and his suspicions that Andrew might have met with foul play. He asked the sheriff for permission to search the Gunness farm and possibly do some digging. Thus, the search of Belle’s property began. Joe Maxson, Belle’s hired hand at the time of the fire, pointed out a likely place for the men to start digging for bodies–beneath the hog pen. On May 5, four feet below ground, Andrew Helgelein’s body was uncovered. The digging continued until twelve bodies and several miscellaneous body parts were uncovered.
Meanwhile, questions arose about the identity of the adult body discovered in the fire ruins. The body was missing its head—no head, no chance of checking dental records. It was around 5′ 3″ tall and weighed approximately 75 pounds (minus one foot and the head). Belle, on the other hand, was around 5′ 9″ tall and weighed 210 to 225 pounds. Several prominent doctors felt the remains were too small to be Belle’s; which, of course, sparked questions: Did Belle really die in the fire? Did Belle kill all those people? Did she set the fire to cover her escape from La Porte?
Dr. Norton, Belle’s dentist, said that if the teeth of the corpse were found, he could identify them as Belle’s or not. Smutzer decided to sift through the ruins again in an attempt to locate the head. Louis “Klondike” Schultz, a former miner, was hired to build a sluice and begin sifting the debris. On May 19, a piece of bridgework was found consisting of two human teeth with porcelain teeth and gold crown work in between. Dr. Norton identified them as work he did for Belle. Based on this evidence, the coroner’s inquest ruled that the adult female body from the fire was Belle Gunness.
Ray Lamphere was brought to trial in November of 1908. The main defense was that the body from the fire was not Belle’s, despite the coroner’s ruling. Lamphere’s lawyer, Wirt Worden, brought forward evidence contradicting the dentist’s identification of the recovered teeth and bridgework. A local jeweler testified that while the gold in the bridgework had come through the fire almost completely unscathed, the gold plating on several pieces of gold jewelry and watches was melted away.
In a rather spectacular experiment, two local doctors produced a human jaw bone, attached a similar piece of bridgework to it, placed it in a blacksmith’s forge and burned it until the bone could easily be crushed. Remember, the head was never found, just the teeth and bridgework. The results? The teeth crumbled, the porcelain bridgework was pitted and checked, and the gold crowns were “somewhat melted.” The condition of the bridgework discovered in the fire debris was much better. The defense also produced Belle’s hired hand, Joe Maxson, who testified that he had seen Klondike Schultz pull the bridgework out of his pocket shortly before its “discovery.” This testimony was corroborated by another witness. On November 26, 1908, the jury found Ray Lamphere guilty on the charge of arson and sentenced him to 2 to 21 years at the State Prison in Michigan City. He was acquitted of the murder charges.
Belle’s background helped shed further light on the case. Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset on November 22, 1859, in the small village of Selbu, Norway to Paul Pedersen Storset and Berit Olsdatter. The family was extremely poor. At an early age, Brynhild hired out to surrounding farmers to work as a cattle girl/dairy maid. Not much is known of her early life. Sometime after 1881, she immigrated to the United States to live with her sister Nellie Larson in Chicago and changed her name to Belle.
Belle was soon employed as a house servant. The work was hard, the hours long, the pay not very good, and, of course, there were no other benefits such as vacation. Most immigrants worked hard and hoped for better for their children. Not Belle. She saw the lifestyle of her employers and wanted it. Her sister said later, “Belle was crazy for money. It was her great weakness.”
In 1884, she married a man by the name of Mads Sorenson, a department store detective. He later got a job working for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad for $12-$15 per week—hardly enough to keep Belle in the lifestyle she wanted. In 1896, Belle and Mads opened a confectioner’s shop in downtown Chicago. It was not very successful and within a year the business burned down. Belle told the insurance investigators that a kerosene lamp had exploded and set the fire. Despite the fact that no lamp was ever found in the ruins, insurance money was paid. It was probably with this money that the Sorensons bought their first home in the suburb of Austin, Texas. This home was destroyed by fire in 1898. Again, insurance was collected and another home purchased.
Belle and Mads had four children, Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy. Both were said to have died of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis include nausea, fever, diarrhea, lower abdomen pain, and cramping. These are also symptoms of poisoning. Both were insured and the insurance paid off. Caroline died in 1896 and Axel in 1898, the same years as the aforementioned fires. It appears that Belle discovered a way of making the money she was so crazy for. After the 1908 fire, Nellie told reporters that Belle had lots of money and property but she had no idea where her sister had gotten it all.
Mads died on July 30, 1900—the only day two life insurance policies on him overlapped. He showed symptoms of strychnine poisoning. However, no autopsy was deemed necessary since the Sorenson’s family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart. Belle told the doctor she gave him a powder to help him feel better. The insurance companies awarded her $8500, a large sum of money in those days. With this money, she bought the farm on the outskirts of La Porte and moved in with her two young daughters and a young ward, Jennie Olsen.
Her La Porte farm had a colorful history all its own. It was built in 1846 by one of the original founders of La Porte, John Walker, for his daughter Harriet Holcomb. The Holcombs moved to New York in 1864 because La Porte was a pro-Union town during the Civil War and they were Southern sympathizers. Twenty-eight years and six owners later, Mattie Altic, a madam from Chicago, bought the property in 1892. She built a fancy carriage house and boat pavilion. Most of her clientele came in from Chicago. When Mattie died, the house again went up for sale. Eight years and another four owners later it came into Belle’s possession. Shortly after Belle bought the property, both the carriage house and the boat pavilion burned down.
Belle married a man by the name of Peter Gunness on April 1, 1902. One week after the marriage, Peter’s infant daughter died while alone in the house with Belle. Peter died in December of 1902. Belle told the coroner at the inquest that an auger from a sausage grinder fell from a shelf and struck Peter on the head. One of Belle’s young daughters, however, was said to have told a friend that “Momma brained Papa with a meat cleaver.” This aside, authorities ruled Peter’s death accidental and Belle collected $3000 insurance. Phillip, Belle’s last child, was born in the spring of 1903. She continued to run the farm with a succession of hired farm hands. Ray Lamphere was hired for this position in 1906.
After Peter’s death, Belle began placing lovelorn ads in Scandinavian newspapers around the country looking for a husband. Her ads would read something like this: “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. Some little cash is required for which will be furnished first-class security.” It seems Belle would begin correspondence with the men who answered her ads, eventually pledging her undying love and begging them to sell all they had to come and marry her. One of her last letters to Andrew Helgelein said this, “But, my dear, do not say anything about coming here . . . Now sell all that you can get cash for, and if you have much left you can easily bring it with you as we will soon sell it here and get a good price for everything. Leave neither money or stock up there but make yourself practically free from Dakota.” Many of her correspondents appear to have done just that. Neighbors recall seeing several middle-aged male visitors come to visit but never leave. When questioned, Belle replied that each man had to leave unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
Belle’s young ward, Jennie Olsen, disappeared in late 1906. When friends asked after her, they were told that she had been sent to a Lutheran College in California. Her body was the second one discovered during the digging. Perhaps she had discovered Belle’s activities and threatened to talk. It also appears that about this time Belle had begun getting inquiries about her missing suitors.
Belle fired Ray Lamphere in early 1908. He seems to have been madly in love with Belle and probably jealous of the many male visitors she received. He began making scenes. Belle went to the courthouse and declared that Lamphere was “not in his right mind” and requested that authorities hold a sanity hearing. He was declared sane and sent on his way. He was arrested a few days later for trespassing on the Gunness property. Lamphere began making thinly veiled threats and wouldn’t leave Belle alone. It appears to have gotten so bad that Belle told her lawyer the day before the fire that she was afraid of him.
Eventually, Lamphere gave a detailed deathbed confession before he passed away of tuberculosis on December 30, 1909. He insisted that Belle was not dead; that he helped her escape by taking her to Stillwell, a small town east of La Porte, where she caught a train to Chicago. He then returned to the farm and set the house on fire to cover her escape. According to Lamphere, the headless body in the fire was a Chicago woman whom Belle had hired a few days before the fire to be her housekeeper. He went on to claim that Belle had killed the housekeeper and children, planting the bodies in the house to make the deaths look accidental. Lamphere admitted to helping Belle dispose of her victims’ bodies, but denied helping Belle extort and murder her victims. He also claimed there was at least one other accomplice but offered no name.
Despite all the investigating and confessing, there has never been a conclusive answer for the house fire and corpses—just theories. The first: Belle and her children were murdered by Lamphere in a jealous rage and placed in the basement by him prior to the fire. The second: Belle murdered her three children and an unknown woman and had Ray set the fire while she escaped. The third: Belle may have had accomplices in La Porte other than Ray Lamphere. These accomplices, perhaps highly placed, could have helped Belle cover up her crimes. Conspirators would explain why she was able to get away with her activities for so long. When inquiries about her victims became more persistent, Belle and gang may have decided to cut their losses and planned the fire to get Belle out of town. Instead of Belle escaping, her partners may have decided to kill Belle and ensure her silence about their part in her nefarious activities or for her money or both.
There were many Belle sightings in the twenty odd years after the fire. They actually started before people thought she might still be alive. Train workers claim to have seen her board trains going to Chicago on April 29, 1908. On May 8, 1908, a woman who fit Belle’s description was pulled off a train and detained until her identity was proven. Most of these sightings were investigated and discounted–except one. In 1931, in Los Angeles, a woman going by the name of Esther Carlson, was arrested for the murder of a man she was caring for, August Lindstrom, for his $2000 bank account. Mrs. Carlson died in prison before her trial and before her identity could be proven. Two former La Porteans viewed the body in the morgue and came away convinced they had just seen the body of Belle Gunness.
This abbreviated story of Belle Gunness has been culled from the various books and articles available in the library’s collection of Belle Gunness material.