Female Serial Killer Belle Gunness
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
Belle Paulsen was born in the little town of Christiania, Norway. Her father, Peter Paulsen, was a traveling conjurer and magician, and when Belle was a mere child she participated in the exhibitions by dancing on the tight-rope.
They prospered and through their frugality they were enabled to retire when Belle was still in her teens, and the father purchased a little farm in their native land.
Belle then came to the United States, and about two years later she married a Swede named Albert Sorenson. They resided in Chicago, and in 1900 Sorenson died under most suspicious circumstances. While it was said that he died from heart failure, his relatives were positive that he was poisoned, and as a motive for the deed, pointed to the fact that the widow collected the life insurance of $8,500 as soon as possible after his death. It is stated that an inquest was ordered, but for some reason the body was never exhumed.
Mrs. Sorenson then moved to Austin, Ill., and a short time afterward her home there was burned. A question arose as to the origin of the fire, but in the absence of proof of fraud the insurance companies were forced to pay the insurance.
She then returned to Chicago, where she conducted a confectionery store at Grand Avenue and Elizabeth Street, which was subsequently gutted by fire. This mysterious fire resulted in another investigation by the insurance officials, but they were forced to pay her claim.
Shortly afterward she purchased a farm about six miles from La Porte, Indiana, and married Peter Gunness a few months later.
In 1904, a meat chopper is said to have fallen off a shelf and split his (Peter Gunness) head open, thus ending his existence. The weeping widow described to the coroner’s jury how it fell from a shelf and struck her “poor husband’s head,” and in the absence of proof to the contrary, the statement was accepted as true.
At the time of the death of Gunness, she had three small children, named Philip, Myrtle and Lucy. She also had an adopted daughter named Jennie Olsen, who was fourteen years of age.
In September 1906, this girl disappeared, and Mrs. Gunness accounted for her absence by stating that she had sent her to Los Angeles to complete her education.
The woman then employed a man named Ray Lamphere to do the chores about the place. In 1906 she inserted an advertisement in the matrimonial columns of the leading papers of Chicago and other large cities, which read as follows:
“Personal—Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit.”
In May 1907, Ole B. Budsburg, a rather elderly widower residing in Iolo, Wisconsin, saw the advertisement, and as it looked good to him he decided to make a nice, quiet investigation without telling his grown up sons, Oscar and Mathew, a word about it.
The poor old gentleman left his home but never returned, and the last seen of him was when he negotiated the sale of a mortgage at the La Porte Savings Bank and drew the money on April 6, 1907.
In December 1907, Andrew Hegelein, a thrifty batchelor from Aberdeen, South Dakota, also corresponded with Mrs. Gunness. She replied that it would be advisable for him to come to the farm, and she suggested that he might sell out his business interests in South Dakota, as she was very favorably impressed with his letters.
As far as was convenient to do so, Hegelein, delighted with the headway he was making, complied with her request and repaired to her farm, arriving in January, 1908. He had been at Mrs. Gunness’ place about two weeks when he accompanied her to the Savings Bank in La Porte and presented a check for $2,900, but as he was unknown there and as the bankers would not accept the endorsement of Mrs. Gunness for this amount, they left the check there for collection. In a few days the draft came and the money was delivered to him, which she must have obtained, for almost immediately afterward she deposited $500 in that bank, $700 in the State Bank, and also paid numerous large bills.
A few days later, Hegelein disappeared, and Mrs. Gunness stated that he had drawn the money for the purpose of going to Norway. He had a brother named A. K. Hegelein in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and as the weeks rolled by and he heard nothing from his brother, he became alarmed and wrote to Mrs. Gunness regarding his whereabouts.
In her reply she stated that all the information she could impart was the missing man’s own statement to the effect that he drew his money with the intention of going to Norway, but she expressed some apprehension over his failure to confide his plans to his brother, and she suggested in her letter that he sell out the remainder of his brother’s stock along with his own, and come to her farm, so that she might join him in an extensive search.
At 3:30 a. m. on April 28, 1908, Mrs. Gunness’ home was burned to the ground and in the ruins the charred remains of a woman and three children were found. The bodies of the little ones were at once identified as the remains of Mrs. Gunness’ children, but as the woman’s head was burned or cut off, there was some question as to whose remains they were.
Ray Lamphere, the farm hand, left her employ on February 3, 1908, because of a quarrel with Mrs. Gunness, and procured employment on a farm owned by John Wheatbrook, a short distance from the Gunness place.
After Lamphere left Mrs. Gunness, he frequently intimated that he could make it interesting for her if he wanted to talk, but her only response to this was that Lamphere was “crazy.”
As it was proven conclusively that he was on the ground at the time the fire started, he was taken into custody by Sheriff Smulzer.
The mysterious remarks made by Lamphere in regard to making trouble for Mrs. Gunness were recalled, and a most thorough investigation was instituted, with the result that five more mutilated and decomposed bodies were found buried in the back yard on May 5.
One was identified as the body of Jennie Olsen Gunness, the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of Mrs. Gunness, who was supposed to be in Los Angeles completing her education. It is presumed that she was murdered because she knew too much regarding the death of Peter Gunness in 1904.
The second body was that of Andrew Hegelein from South Dakota. The third was the unidentified body of a man, and the fourth and fifth were the bodies of two eight-year-old girls. On May 6, four additional bodies of men were un-earthed in the back yard.
In most instances the limbs were removed from the bodies in such a manner as to indicate that the amputations were performed by some one familiar with anatomy. The theory is that some of the bodies were too heavy for the woman to handle as a whole.
On May 9, two more bundles of bones, decayed flesh and clothing were found in the private graveyard, but the ravages of decomposition made identification impossible. On May 14, a few bones of one more victim were found in the ashes in the cellar.
In view of these discoveries, a serious doubt arose as to the actual fate of Mrs. Gunness. It was suspected that in addition to murdering her children and several others, she had enveigled some unsuspecting woman into her home, and after killing her, disfigured her remains in such a manner that they could not be recognized, and after setting fire to the house, escaped ; believing it would be taken for granted that the charred remains of the woman were those of herself and that no further search would be made for her. This theory proved incorrect, for on May 16 a lower jawbone was found in the ashes and was taken to Dr. Morton, a dentist hi La Porte, for examination. Some dentistry work was plainly visible on the teeth which still adhered to the jawbone, which he positively identified as work done for Mrs. Gunness a year previously. Rings found on the fingers of the dead woman were also identified as the property of Mrs. Gunness.
There was a difference of opinion as to how Mrs. Gunness met her death. The theory of the prosecution was that she was burned to death, but Dr. J. Meyers gave it as his opinion that death was caused by contraction of the heart, probably due to strychnine poisoning, which was the poison used in killing Hegelein and several other victims.
Shortly after Mrs. Gunness’ private graveyard was discovered, Oscar and Mathew Budsburg came to La Porte, as they suspected that their aged father, who had mysteriously disappeared from his home in Iolo, Wis., in May, 1907, might have fallen into this woman’s trap. Their suspicions proved to be well founded, for they identified one of the bodies as that of their missing father.
Olof Lindboe of Chicago stated that his brother, Thomas, had worked for Mrs. Gunness three years previously, and the last letter he had received from him contained the information that Thomas intended to marry his employer. As Olof heard nothing more from his brother he wrote to Mrs. Gunness, who replied that Thomas had gone to St. Louis, but Olof never heard from him again.
On May 12, the surgical instruments with which the bodies were probably dismembered, were found in the ashes.
On May 19, Miss Jennie Graham of Waukesha, Wis., arrived in La Porte to inquire regarding her brother, who had left home to marry a rich widow in La Porte, but who was never heard from after that. As most of the bodies were badly mutilated and decomposed, it was impossible to ascertain if her brother’s remains were among them.
Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wis., corresponded with Mrs. Gunness, and then took $1,500 with him to La Porte and was never seen again, but a watch found with one of the bodies was exactly the same in appearance as the one he wore.
Mrs. Marie Svenherud of Christiania, Norway, made inquiry through Acting Consul Faye of Chicago for her son Olof, who had written her that he was about to leave Chicago for La Porte to marry a rich Norwegian widow with whom he had become acquainted through the agency of the matrimonial advertisement column of a newspaper. The mother added that she never heard from her son again.
After the disappearance of Hegelein, Lamphere was seen wearing an overcoat which belonged to the former, and on May 18 a watch which was in the possession of Lamphere at the time of his arrest was identified by J. G. Ramden of Manfred, N. D., as the property of his half brother, John Moe of Elbow Lake, Minn., who left his home in 1907, ostensibly to marry a widow in La Porte, but was never heard from afterward. Lamphere stated that Mrs. Gunness had presented him with the watch.
When first interrogated as to his whereabouts on the night of the fire, Lamphere claimed that he was in the company of an [African-American woman] named Mrs. Elizabeth Smith until 4 a.m., or one-half hour after the fire started, but he subsequently confessed that he burned the Gunness home but denied that he had committed murder.
Lamphere and a neighbor named Fred Briclanan stated that they dug trenches for Mrs. Gunness at different times, but that they had no knowledge as to for what purpose they were used.
On May 22, 1908, Lamphere was indicted for the murder of the Gunness family by means of arson, and also on the charge of accessory in the murder of Hegelein. He pleaded guilty of arson and was sentenced to imprisonment for an indeterminate period of from two to twenty years.
Immediately after his conviction Lamphere’s health failed rapidly and he died from consumption on December 30, 1909.
On January 14, 1910, Rev. E. A. Schell made public a confession made by Lamphere shortly after his arrest, in which he admitted that he helped Mrs. Gunness to bury one of the victims and saw her chloroform another after felling him with a hatchet. He also confessed that he chloroformed the Gunness family, but claimed that Mrs. Smith, a Negress with whom he had spent a portion of the night, assisted him, and that it was she who set the house on fire.
As there was no evidence to substantiate the charge against the Negress she was never prosecuted. It is the opinion of Attorney Ralph Smith that the Negress did not accompany Lamphere on this night.