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Belle Gunness’ Poisonous Pen

By Ted Hartzell
5/7/2018 • American History Magazine

A century ago, lonely hearts letters lured unsuspecting men to their deaths on an Indiana farm—and you thought meeting online was risky.

Around the turn of the 20th century, men from across the upper Midwest found their way to a small farm on the outskirts of LaPorte, Indiana. Many in the town of about 10,000 some 60 miles east of Chicago would recall seeing various men in the company of the farm’s owner, the twice-widowed Belle Gunness. But the men had a habit of vanishing at the oddest times. In 1904 Gunness told an inquiring neighbor that one of her gentleman friends had—in the middle of plowing season—headed off to visit the St. Louis World’s Fair. Curiously, these men tended to leave their possessions behind—lots of trunks and watches and clothes—and never return. The case of the disappearing suitors began to unravel with a grisly discovery in the spring of 1908 that became a national sensation, but a century later the truth of Belle Gunness’ life and death remains a mystery.

Belle Gunness had come to America from Norway in 1881 when she was in her early 20s. Now in her 40s and raising three young children, apparently none her own biologically, Gunness had been placing matrimonial ads in Scandinavian newspapers published in America. In the letters she wrote to men who answered her ads, Gunness described herself as stout and womanly, but others less generously called her manly or even of uncertain gender. She was a hog-butchering farming woman who, according to local lore, could lift 100-pound hogs in each arm. She was actively seeking a fellow Norwegian of means willing to share in the farm and to put down some cash. Her mailman claimed she wrote eight to 10 letters a day and received as many, getting cranky on the rare days when none came.

On April 27, 1908, Gunness kept her children, Myrtle Sorensen, 11, Lucy Sorensen, 9, and Philip Gunness, 5, home from school and went into LaPorte to write her will. She also bought a good quantity of kerosene. Early the next morning, the Gunness house was leveled by fire. Three charred bodies found in the cellar seemed certainly to be Gunness’ children and a fourth was apparently the 48-year-old Gunness. But something was missing—namely, Gunness’ head—and the woman’s body looked much smaller than Gunness’ strapping, heavy-set frame.

And that wasn’t all.

Asle Helgelien, a homesteading farmer from South Dakota, traveled to LaPorte in early May. He’d heard about the fire and was looking for his brother Andrew, 49, who had been corresponding with Gunness and had never returned home from a weeklong visit back in January. Asle had found 80 letters from Gunness to his brother at Andrew’s nearby house. Concerned about his brother’s whereabouts, he began writing to Gunness but never believed her replies that Andrew had simply gone away. Now in LaPorte, Asle urged farmhands to extend their digging from the ruins of the farmhouse, where they were still looking for the missing head, to the surrounding land. In short order, they found Andrew’s dismembered body—and the bodies of many others.

The remains were laid out in a red carriage shed on the farm property. On some weekends that spring, LaPorte sported a circus atmosphere as thousands of people came by foot, special excursion trains, buggies and that new contraption, the automobile, elbowing each other to get a peek at the grisly discoveries. Among the remains of various men, presumed to be Gunness’ suitors or former hired hands who had mysteriously disappeared, were those of her foster daughter Jennie Olson, the pretty blond teenager Belle had raised since infancy. In late 1906, Gunness told neighbors that Jennie had gone away to college, and most recently she said Jennie was on her wedding trip. Big-city newspapermen filed 75,000 to 100,000 words a day from LaPorte, christening Gunness with catchy names including the Mistress of Murder Hill and the Lady Bluebeard, whose repertoire apparently included bludgeoning and poisoning. The search of her property yielded cutting instruments, a book on hypnosis and pages from a text on anatomy.

Accounts vary regarding the number of bodies buried on the farm, with more than 40 being the number often cited in popular lore. Most researchers have settled on 10 to 14, while acknowledging that others were probably never found. Coroner’s inquests identified two bodies as those of Andrew Helgelien and Ole Budsberg of Iola, Wis. There were also eight “unknowns”: four adults of unknown sex; one woman; one man; one adult or adolescent male; and one adolescent of unknown sex.

After the fire, police immediately arrested Ray Lamphere, a 38-year-old former hired hand, for allegedly torching the house. Lamphere admitted to having been Gunness’ lover, but in recent months they had feuded. In the six weeks before the fire, she had initiated four legal actions against Lamphere. He was twice found guilty of trespassing, but Gunness failed to get a peace bond to protect her and her property. She also failed in an attempt to have Lamphere declared insane. One theory holds that Lamphere was Gunness’ partner in luring the men to the farm and disposing of them and that he became jealous of Andrew Helgelien, Gunness’ last-known victim.

When Lamphere was tried in November 1908 for murder by arson, many people, including the defense, claimed that Gunness was still alive. The jury acquitted Lamphere of murder on the grounds that the four people found in the cellar had died by means other than the fire. Lamphere was convicted of arson, however, and died a year later in prison of tuberculosis.

Andrea Simmons, a LaPorte native and lawyer who recently studied the Gunness case as she worked on her master’s degree in forensic anthropology, concludes that Gunness probably killed at least 25 people in a career that started in Chicago (where she was married to first husband Mads Sorensen), moved to LaPorte (where she was married to Peter Gunness) and ended in Los Angeles (where a woman some people believe was Gunness died under a different name in 1931 after she and another woman allegedly poisoned a man).

Simmons’ estimate includes Gunness’ two husbands and men from around the country legitimately reported missing and linked to her. Added to the three children found in the cellar were two infant Sorensen children who died with symptoms of acute colitis (suggesting possible poisoning), and Peter Gunness’ infant daughter Jennie, who died within a week of the couple’s wedding while alone with her new stepmother. Peter Gunness’ brother, fearing for the life of Peter’s other daughter, 5-year-old Swanhild, spirited her away to Wisconsin. Birth records, anecdotes and a published remark by Belle Gunness’ sister, Nellie Larson of Chicago, suggest that Gunness never had any children of her own, though she would at times have as many as 12 children in her care.

Gunness had been suspected of poisoning her husband Mads Sorensen in 1900, but was never charged. Sorensen died on the only day that two life insurance policies from different mutual associations overlapped, yielding $8,500. That was a better haul than the $3,500 Gunness received after her second husband’s death in 1902, about eight months after their wedding. Belle said the auger portion of a sausage grinder must have fallen on Peter Gunness’ head from a kitchen shelf, a fatal injury augmented by the crock of hot brine that “fell” on him simultaneously. She was cleared during an inquest.

Some have speculated that Gunness, feeling the heat of Asle Helgelien’s inquiries in the spring of 1908, killed and decapitated an unidentified woman she had been seen with in town shortly before the fire. She then planted the body in the cellar, along with those of her three children. Arsenic and strychnine were found in the stomachs of the woman, two of the children and Helgelien.

A coverup murder is far more plausible than a theory that surfaced immediately after the fire: Gunness committed suicide because she was afraid her crimes had been discovered. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who specializes in serial killers and who has written about the Gunness case, believes that suicide was not Gunness’ style. She called Gunness an “accomplished psychopath” who used her victims to get her heart’s desire— money—and cloaked her intentions in the respectable conventions of the day. One historian has noted that contemporary estimates for the amount of money Gunness got through all her devious schemes ranged from $2,000 to $90,000. But there is no disputing that she had only $700 in her LaPorte bank account the day after the fire, leading naturally to the question of what happened to the rest of the money.

For decades afterward, people from all 48 states sent letters to LaPorte authorities claiming to have seen Gunness. The most notorious such claim surfaced in Los Angeles in 1931, although historical research is scant. Esther Carlson, 61, was about to be tried along with a friend, Anna Erickson, 42, for the murder of August Lindstrom, 81, a wealthy man whom Carlson had lived with as a housekeeper. They were accused of poisoning Lindstrom for the $2,000 that he had placed in a joint bank account with Carlson shortly before his death. Carlson’s alleged resemblance to Gunness and the poisoning murder technique fueled local suspicion she actually was Gunness, although if Gunness were still alive, she would have been about 10 years older than Carlson’s stated age of 61.

Carlson denied that she was Gunness and cited her work record in Hartford, Conn., between 1890 and 1908 as proof. Before her trial began, however, she died of tuberculosis. Authorities then arranged for two former LaPorte residents then living in Los Angeles to view the body. The two had known Gunness back in Indiana, and they swore the body was hers. Another former LaPort resident identified pictures of three children found in Carlson’s trunk as the children found after the 1908 fire at Gunness’ house. (Erickson was acquitted in her trial.)

Local myth kept Gunness alive for many years, prob- ably well beyond her actual death, whenever and wherever that was. I discovered her power of longevity in 1974 when I became a reporter at the LaPorte Herald-Argus newspaper. Around 1990 Maxine Ford, a former colleague and LaPorte native who told many Belle Gunness stories, helped me obtain 11 of Belle’s original letters to Andrew Helgelien and two to his brother Asle, all written in Norwegian. The mint-condition letters were accompanied by typed translations prepared for Ray Lamphere’s 1908 trial. Until last year, the only publicly known original Gunness letter was in the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum. One other letter owned by a LaPorte woman surfaced during preparations for commemorative events to be held in LaPorte this spring.

It was a rudimentary trap that Gunness set. Colin Thomsen, a translator who confirmed for me the accuracy of the translations, wrote: “Her diction, spelling, composition and penmanship are shockingly poor. Her letters to Andrew Helgelien are literally too bad to be believed.” He said she seemed to have dashed off the letters hastily and compared her writing to that of a modern-day second-grader. Thomsen made this analysis without reading the remarks of the original translator, identified in a 1908 newspaper story as Mrs. Ray Turner, who in court described the letters as “extremely faulty and evidently the work of an ignorant person.”

Still, the letters had a poisonous allure. Asle Helgelien, writing on May 21, 1908, to his brother and sister in Norway to inform them of Andrew’s death, said he had read every one of the 80 letters he’d found at Andrew’s house. According to a translation provided by one of Asle’s grandsons, Duane Helgelien, Asle wrote: “The magistrates had no suspicion about her murdering before I found Andrew. But I had written to many persons there [LaPorte], and I had also read her letters to Andrew, so I was sure that something wrong had happened to him there in town.” Asle, who had worked daily with his brother Andrew for years, told their faraway siblings: “He has in a way been unhappy all his days,” but recently “I believe that Andrew was happy and pleased,” a state Asle ascribed to Andrew’s success on his South Dakota farm.

Explaining Gunness’ appeal to Andrew, Asle wrote: “She lived in a very fashionable house, and all she had was fine and this was what deceived Andrew….Nobody could think that a woman could be so falsehearted and manage this murdering so long time near the town border without the authorities knowing anything. But she went regularly to church, and she had everything fine and great.”

Asle’s grandson, who grew up on the farm his grandfather started, said there was another reason his bachelor great-uncle might have headed south to Indiana: “Women were not very plentiful in those days in that area” of South Dakota.

Through the years, people writing about Belle Gunness have often quoted two sentences from one of her letters to Andrew Helgelien: “My heart beats with wild rapture for you. Come, my Andrew, prepared to stay forever!” It’s easy to see why this passage has been so popular, given its soaring sexuality and, to the knowing reader, its fatalistic humor.

But there’s a problem: Gunness never wrote it. In her 1955 book The Truth About Belle Gunness, Lillian de la Torre said this little gem was part of a fake letter concocted by bored reporters who couldn’t get their hands on the real letters during Lamphere’s trial.

Reading Gunness’ plodding letters to Andrew, it is plain that “soaring” and “rapture” were not her style. She did have a way of implying between the lines what could happen between the sheets. But, after all, she was posing as a proper woman of means, a widow, in the first decade of the 20th century. She reportedly enjoyed a succession of men, yet in her correspondence she came at sex obliquely, tucking it between platitudes about true friends, the price of oats and corn and talk about the weather, cows, horses and chickens. Like her methods of insuring and killing, her letters showed a marked fondness for the tried and true, and they were successful in drawing men to LaPorte. Andrew was evidently a far more reluctant traveler than most, although he was no greenhorn: He had served time in a Minnesota prison several years before for robbing and torching a post office/village store. But for 16 months Gunness wooed him with her letters, and the reader can sense her impatience as time drags on and Andrew still has not left his farm.

In addition to the original letters, I found references to several others in newspapers and books, for a total of about 20. The first of these is dated August 8, 1906, when Gunness acknowledged receiving Andrew’s response to her advertisement in the Minneapolis Tidende. The last is dated December 9, 1907, when his trip to LaPorte seemed imminent. Meanwhile, Gunness was luring and disposing of other men and Jennie Olson.

One thing that immediately seizes the reader of these letters is Gunness’ constant advice to Andrew, repeated in some fashion in nearly every one of the dozen original letters, that he sell all his property, get cash, sew it in his underclothes and head for LaPorte—telling no one. He ignored much of her advice but did have his bank send money to LaPorte when he was there in January.

In her letter of November 22, 1906, she instructed Andrew: “My dear friend, have all the money changed into bills, into as large a denomination as possible, and sew them real good, first on the inside of your underwear and put a thin piece of cloth under, so it would not be noticed and sew it good. Do not say one word about it to anyone, not even your nearest relative.”

Ramsland, the professor of forensic psychology, said Gunness’ belaboring of the money theme is a technique called seeding that is used in hypnosis. By harping on money, money, money, Belle the predator would at first appeal to Andrew’s conscious mind, but by sheer repetition her messages would worm their way into his subconscious.

Ramsland evaluated the letters to Andrew and found the manipulations of a “classic psychopath.” She said Gunness seeded various ideas in Andrew’s mind by cleverly spacing out the seeding amid “comforting thoughts and plenty of rationale.” Gunness makes Andrew feel that he is one of a kind while she implies that she too is in demand. She offers a vision of a better material life and gives a rationale for him to liquidate all his possessions and come to her. But it’s “framed in the most attractive terms. That’s how she disguises her actual intent,” Ramsland said. “Then she implies that not only might they become lovers, but in that event she will yield her farm to him. Now she adds a feminine touch—she needs him.”

Asle Helgelien, testifying during the Lamphere trial, vouched for the power of the letters over his brother. Calling Andrew “something of a mystic,” he said: “He lived too much in imagination for a farmer in Dakota. He could not forget the fjords and mountains of his nativity. Anything that brought a touch of home with it moved him to melancholy. When the Gunness woman began to write him letters he was fascinated. She was a clever woman. She wrote of the things he loved. She discussed Norwegian places and Norwegian ways, and she told him she loved him and he believed it, because the poor fellow was in that mood where he would have renounced richness in America for a crust at home. The widow held him spellbound. He loved her for her letters. Of her personality he had doubts. I know that, but still he could not believe she was as he had been told. So he went to his death.”

Perhaps the truest sentence Belle Gunness ever wrote to Andrew Helgelien was this: “I do not think you will leave me after you have first come here; that I am sure of.”

 

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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