Saturday, July 17, 2010
When a seriously mentally defected serial killer is arrested and put in jail for their crimes, the public can breathe a sigh of relief. With a bit of evil taken away from the world and placed behind very thick bars, people can thank God or a judge or whomever they choose that the nastiness and wickedness of another human is no longer part of society. When Dennis Rader was apprehended after thirty-one years in hiding, people rejoiced that he would never be threatening young women again. The Zodiac Killer, however, has terrorized the nation since the late 1960’s. The media has hinted that this man died many years ago. But if he hasn’t, he continues to frighten the public. Whether The Zodiac Killer is a passing thought while someone is on their way to their car, or obsessing the mind of a forensic scientist, The Zodiac Killer has had a never ending effect on everyone who has had the displeasure of hearing of his awful crimes.
In the early 1900’s, another horrendous killer was discovered, but never apprehended. Belle Gunness’ story and the fact that she was never found made every available bachelor shiver merely by hearing her name. Belle Gunness, callous and undoubtedly without conscious, murdered approximately forty-two men in nearly five years, leaving little evidence of her crimes and disappearing as soon as she believed her greed had been unearthed by concerned individuals. Greed was Belle’s greatest need in life, and her greatest folly, for eventually, she had to escape from her deadly desires.
Born in Trondheim Norway on November 11, 1859, Brynhilde Paulsdatter decided to seek her fortune in America, immigrating to Chicago at age 24. She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law and changed her name to something more fitting, something dainty and girly. Belle Paulsdatter, sometimes called Bella, emerged from Norway in high spirits, enjoying the freedoms of America and the handsome and generous men that fell at her feet to date her. It didn’t take long for one of these fine-looking men to capture Belle’s heart. By 25, she wed another Norwegian immigrant, Mads Sorenson.
Belle and Mads were a happy couple, beginning a family and opening up a small bakery shop. Unfortunately, the bakery shop burned down shortly after it was erected, as did the two homes Belle and Mads owned. To the delight of Belle, all of them were heavily insured, which meant she and her husband could move to a more affluent home on Alma Street in Chicago. Bringing up her five children, Belle had what most would call a very agreeable lifestyle. She was young, married to a man who loved her completely, and was blessed with beautiful children.
What would bring down Belle and Mads’ happy little household was the death of two of their children within two years. Caroline and Axel, suffering from acute colitis, both had sudden and painful deaths, which might have had a tremendously negative effect on Belle’s psyche afterwards. In 1900, Mads died of something very much like food poisoning, but doctors were unable to find a clear reason for his death. Some believed that arsenic was the culprit, and Belle was the one to have poisoned Mads food, but there was never any evidence of foul play when Mads Sorenson was later exhumed. Belle left the marriage with a hefty amount of insurance money.
Immediately following Mads death, Belle moved to Indiana with her three surviving daughters and married widower Peter Gunness. Settling on a farm near La Porte, Belle and Peter joyfully began moving into their new home, taking great care to assure that this would be the home the family would reside in forever. After guaranteeing that Peter had a good life insurance policy, Belle taught her little daughters how to take care of the farm in the event that something might happen to Peter. Something did happen to Peter, in the form of a heavy sausage grinder that fell from a shelf and split open his skull, killing him.
One of Belle’s daughters, her foster daughter in fact, went to the police with a wild story that Belle had been the one to kill Peter. The girl frantically told them that Belle had smashed Peter’s skull with the sausage grinder; that it had not fallen from a shelf, as Belle had said. The police did not believe the girl and she was sent home. The girl met her own death with the sausage grinder when she arrived back at the farm. Belle told neighbors and the police that the girl had gone to a finishing school for girls.
Perusing the local advertisements for a new man, Belle felt she needed a husband to take care of her; a man willing to get a life insurance policy. Belle looked in particular for Norwegian immigrants, someone she could not only talk freely with, but weren’t quite as smart with English as she was. Advertising herself as a young and beautiful thin woman with a bit of money, Belle only sought men who were willing to come directly to the farm with cash in hand. When the men did arrive, from all over the country, they met a serious looking and heavy woman with large wrinkle lines on her face and two children seemingly frightened of her. Belle showed the men the farm and fed them a large dinner, smiling and telling them all about the new life they would be sharing together. As the men went to sleep, Belle crept into their bedroom and chloroformed them. Perhaps that was her only mercy, for being such a large woman, Belle was able to carry them to the basement where she chopped them to pieces with a meat cleaver.
Belle’s occasional lover and handyman on the farm, Ray Lamphere, helped Belle dispose of the dismembered bodies all over the farm. Some pieces they buried, and some they fed to the hogs. Committing her murders on a farm and not in a big city gave Belle an excellent opportunity to get rid of bodies, putting them in the shed or hiding them in shallow graves. Without close neighbors, Belle was able to do almost anything she wanted. Belle wanted money, and lots of it. Almost every one of her beau’s brought with them enough cash to pay off her mortgage on the farm or enough spending money to buy much needed supplies for the farm.
Reading about a lovely woman in search of a man to take care of her, Andrew Helgelein of South Dakota was immediately taken by the woman he read about in an advertisement. After sending her a short letter, Andrew was surprised when he received a long and beautifully written love letter filled with promises and fairytale-like descriptions of happiness. Belle even compared their love to that of a king and a queen, telling him that the farm they would live on together would be the envy of the entire world, for no one had ever lived so wonderfully and happily as Andrew and she. Included at the bottom of the letter, without the composure of loveliness as the rest of the letter, was a reminder that Andrew bring $3,000 with him. Promptly, and possibly half in love with Belle already, Andrew travelled to Indiana to meet his beautiful young bride. Andrew arrived, and was never seen again.
Belle ran into a world of trouble when Andrew’s brother Asle Helgelein wrote to her, begging to find out where Andrew was. He had been missing for months, and Asle was sick with worry when Andrew answered not one of his posts. Belle told Asle that Andrew had come to the farm, stayed one night, and had left before she could say goodbye. She further told Asle that if he brought her some money, she would make a state-wide effort to find Andrew. Asle smartly declined and contacted his local authorities.
On April 28, 1908, the farmhouse was burned to the ground, Ray Lamphere seen fleeing from the scene. After being arrested, Ray was charged with arson. Before the crime, Ray had famously announced to locals that Belle and he had had a falling out and that Belle had unjustly fired him. It was clear to everyone, including the police, that Ray was the cause of the fire. Ray was also charged with murder after the remains of three of Belle’s children were found in the basement. Next to the bodies was that of a headless adult woman, her false teeth found near her outstretched arm. The charge of murder was dropped, for police had evidence that the woman next to the children did not belong to Belle Gunness.
Forensic experts found that the body of the woman was thin, short, and had traces of poison in her body. Belle was anything but short and thin, and the head of the burned woman was never recovered. Police believed that Belle had lured an innocent woman to the farm, cut off her head and laid her next to the bodies of her children. Leaving the farm, Belle had left evidence of another woman she believed would be thought of as hers. Now that Asle and the authorities were after her, Belle had to escape, leaving everything and everyone behind. With suspicion from the police, the entire farm was searched for more evidence. In the hog pen, police found fourteen male bodies. Uneasy and worried about what else would be found, the police uncovered an additional forty bodies in and around the farm, including the body of Andrew Helgelein. All of the people found had been killed various ways, mostly by a meat cleaver, some with their head’s smashed in, and others chloroformed to death.
On May 22, 1908, Ray Lamphere was tried for arson and murder. Ray confessed readily to burning down the farm but adamantly claimed he had nothing to do with Belle or her children’s death. Ray received twenty years for the crime of arson, but only served one year before dying of natural causes. His deathbed confession exposed the truth behind Belle Gunness. Ray admitted that he had helped Belle dispose of many bodies, but had committed no crime himself. He claimed Belle had killed more than 42 people in the span of four years, taking more than $100,000 from her victims. Ray also confessed that Belle had told him she was planning her own death just before the fire. She was supposed to meet Ray with her 3 children after he burned down the farm. Instead, she killed her own children and fled the farm without Ray. Ray claimed to have seen her leaving the farm wheeling a cart down a dirt road in the darkness of night, her shadow from the flames bobbing down the lane as she walked.