How a farm girl became the ‘butcher’ of lonely men

In 1906, 49-year-old Andrew Helgelien answered a personal ad in a Norwegian-language newspaper called the Minneapolis Tidende. The ad was placed by 46-year-old Belle Gunness, who sought a partner in her La Porte, Ind., farm. According to the ad, Gunness was seeking an investor who could potentially become something . . . more.

The pair traded letters for 18 months, and the potential business opportunity evolved into the promise of a life together.

In surviving letters, Gunness professed love for Helgelien, who expressed a desire to relocate for her, but was delayed by family matters.

“We shall be so happy when you once get here,” she wrote in one. “I place you higher in my affections than anyone on this earth,” she declared in another.

All the while, she made two desires clear: that he should bring all his money, not leaving a cent behind, and that he should tell no one, so their new life together could be a surprise for their families.

After a year and a half, on Jan. 3, 1908, Helgelien finally arrived.

Three days later, the pair went to the local bank, where Helgelien cashed three certificates of deposit totaling $2,839 — approximately $75,000 in today’s dollars. It took five days for the money to arrive, and three days after that, the couple came to collect. Helgelien was prepared to accept a check, but an agitated Gunness demanded cash.

They left, and that was the last time Helgelien was ever seen alive.

After 18 months of intense seduction, Gunness finally got her wish — to murder Andrew Helgelien and steal his money. As true-crime author Harold Schechter writes in his new book, “Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men” (Little A), out now, Helgelien was just one of the many lonely men who answered Gunness’ ads hoping for a quiet life with a salt-of-the-earth woman and instead was drained of his money, murdered, butchered and buried in pieces on Gunness’ farm.

Ray Lamphere (left) survived the spree, but Andrew Helgelien (right) did not.

Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset on Nov. 11, 1859, in Selbu, Norway. She migrated to America, taking on the name Bella (later Belle) Peterson, in 1881, and found work in Chicago doing domestic chores.

In 1884, she married a department-store night watchman named Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson. Over the next decade, they had several children, although whether Gunness gave birth to them, adopted them or took them in as foster kids is unclear.

The couple bought a candy store in 1894, but it lost money. Less than a year later, the store burned down. Arson was suspected, but the insurance company paid the couple’s claim. When their home burned down six years later, they collected insurance on that as well.

Around that time, Sorenson had a $2,000 life-insurance policy set to expire and took out a new policy for $3,000. On a single day — July 30, 1900 — both policies were in effect.

Sorenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage on that very day.

According to Gunness, he had come home from work with a terrible headache. She said she gave him quinine powder, a common remedy at the time, and went to prepare dinner. When she returned to check on him, she said, he was dead.

A doctor wondered if the druggist had mistakenly given Gunness morphine instead of quinine. He asked to see the paper it came in, but she had thrown it away. Due to Sorenson’s well-timed death, Gunness collected the entire $5,000 in life insurance — around $150,000 in today’s dollars — on the only day she could have done so.

Gunness bought her 48-acre La Porte farm in 1901, and the following year she married a Norwegian named Peter Gunness. Eight months later, Peter Gunness was dead, the back of his skull smashed in.

Belle, crying hysterically, told the doctor that a meat grinder had fallen from a shelf and smashed his head. With no evidence otherwise and an inconclusive autopsy, his death was ruled an accident.

A few years later, Gunness began placing personal ads in Norwegian-language newspapers, looking for men to live on her farm for investment and possibly more. The ploy was clearly successful, as the men kept coming. George Berry arrived from Illinois with $1,500 in cash. Christian Hilkven sold his farm for $2,000 and brought it to La Porte. Emil Tell also showed up with $2,000, while Ole Budsberg and John Moe came with $1,000 each. None of these men were ever seen again.

“Like many psychopaths, she was very shrewd in identifying potential victims,” says Schechter. “These were lonely Norwegian bachelors, many completely cut off from their families. She beguiled them with promises of down-home Norwegian cooking and painted a very seductive portrait of the kind of life they’d enjoy.”

In 1907, Gunness hired a local carpenter named Ray Lamphere to do chores, and they became lovers. But Gunness kicked him out with no warning when Helgelien arrived, leading to a bitter fight, lawsuits and Gunness alleging continued harassment by Lamphere, who was arrested and tried numerous times for trespassing.

He was acquitted, but Gunness began telling people that he threatened to burn down her farm and murder her and her children.

On April 27, 1908, Gunness’ farmhouse burned down.

Three of her children burned to death, but it was unclear whether Gunness did, since a woman’s headless torso was found in the fire. Lamphere was arrested and charged with murder and arson, while local men arrived at the farm with shovels, hoping to find the torso’s missing head.

They never found the head. What they did find shocked the nation.

A dozen corpses were found at Gunness’ farm in Indiana after it burned down.AP

On May 3, the men hit flesh, uncovering a severed human arm, followed by other body parts. They had discovered, in pieces, the corpse of Andrew Helgelien.

Continued digging turned up “a jumble of putrified body parts: naked torsos wrapped in burlap, heads, arms and legs scattered around.” One of the victims was Jennie Olsen, a girl Gunness had adopted as a toddler and raised as her own. Her bones were found on what would have been her 18th birthday. Two years earlier, Gunness told people Olsen had been sent to school in California.

By May 5, Belle Gunness was a household name, with newspapers throughout the country dubbing her “the Indiana Ogress,” “the La Porte Ghoul,” “the Mistress of the Castle of Death” and “Hell’s Princess.”

With further digging, the Gunness farm became one of the country’s most popular curiosities. Barely a week after the first bones were discovered, the farm had become a well-traveled tourist attraction.

“The Lake Erie and Western Railroad arranged for special excursion trains to bring visitors from Indianapolis and Chicago,” Schechter writes. “Every hotel room in La Porte and nearby Michigan City had been booked and extra cots set up in the hallways. According to one estimate, at least 10,000 people were expected to flock to the ‘murder farm’ on Sunday to satisfy their morbid curiosity.”

And Sunday, May 10, saw between 16,000 to 20,000 people descend on the farm, almost as many as Madison Square Garden holds at full capacity, as the murder farm was suddenly a festival, with vendors selling snacks where body parts were unearthed just days before. Some spectators even jumped into open graves scavenging for souvenirs.

“The photos of Andrew Helgelien’s dismembered body sold out within minutes,” Schechter writes, “though the ones showing the skulls of Belle’s other victims were also popular. One handsome young woman was seen with the skirt of her beautiful dress lifted up in which she carried part of the carcass of a dead dog, supposed to have been killed by Mrs. Gunness while she experimented with poisons to use on her victims.”

The ultimate number of her victims is unclear. Twelve corpses were found on her property, and Gunness was later “honored” in the Guinness Book of World Records for “the greatest number of murders ever ascribed to a modern murderess.” They estimated she killed 28 people.

Her ultimate fate is also unknown, as it was never determined whether the torso in the fire belonged to Gunness.

Lamphere was found guilty of arson but not murder — a disjointed and nonsensical verdict — and died of tuberculosis barely a year into his sentence.

Schechter hoped that in researching and writing this book, he’d solve the mystery of what happened to Belle Gunness. But on the question of whether she escaped or died in the fire, he says this may be one mystery we can never solve.

“Both possibilities seem equally plausible to me,” he says. “After spending years in this horror, I could see her finally wanting to end it. On the other hand, given what an insidious character she was, I can equally imagine her staging the whole thing. Everyone I’ve spoken to who read the book felt strongly that she got away with it. I can’t say that I do.”

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