Female Serial Killer Belle Gunness

Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness. Family Photo

Serial killer Belle Gunness (1896-1908) was suspected of murdering between 25 to 49 people on her small farm in La Porte, Indiana, just outside of Chicago. Her victims included ranch workers, vagrant females, her children, her adopted children and her many husbands.

The Search for Wealth

The early life of Belle Gunness is somewhat of a mystery. Most historians believe that Gunness  (born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset) was born on November 11, 1959, in Selbu, Norway to Paul Pedersen Størset (a stonemason) and Berit Olsdatter.  She was the youngest of eight children. 

According to a common, but an unverified story, Gunness was pregnant at the age of 18 and while attending a country dance, a man attacked her, kicked her in the stomach and she miscarried. The man was a wealthy Norwegian and he was not arrested for the crime.Gunness, who had always lived in poverty, became embittered by the incident and her personality changed. She became cold and distanced herself from concerned friends and family.

As for the man that caused her to lose her child, he died shortly afterwards from stomach cancer.

Three years later, the six-foot tall, 280 pound Belle, followed in her sister's steps and immigrated to America in search of wealth. What followed was a series of insurance frauds and ruthless murders.

Mads Albert Sorenson

It did not take Gunness but a couple of years in the U.S. to find her first husband. Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson and Gunness married in 1884 in Chicago. Shortly afterwards the couple's new home and a store that they owned burned to the ground. Fortunately, both structures were insured and the Sorensons were able to build a new home for themselves and their four children and their one adopted child.

Tragedy struck again two more times when the two infants died within months of each other, but like the house and the store, Gunness had insurance policies on both children. Then in July 1900, Mads had a heart attack and Gunness, again, cashed in his life insurance policy and used the money to buy a farm near La Porte, Indiana.

An Accident In the Kitchen

By April 1902, Gunness had married again, this time to Peter Gunness who was a widower with a young girl and an infant daughter. During the same week that the couple exchanged vows, the infant died while under Belle's care. Then, in a freak accident, Peter Gunness was struck and killed by a meat grinder which fell off a kitchen shelf. Again, Gunness was able to collect on Peter's life insurance policy.

Friends and members of Peter's family did not believe that he died by accident and an investigation was launched. Somehow Belle Gunness managed to convince the authorities that she had done nothing wrong.

Gunness did not mourn the loss of her second husband for long. She had been five months pregnant when Peter died and in May 1903 she gave birth to a son who she named Phillip. About that same time, her adopted daughter vanished, but Gunness provided a reason to inquiring neighbors. She told them that the young girl had gone away to finishing school.

Personal Ads

After giving birth, Gunness took up with various men she met through personal ads. They would visit her at her farm, but they never seemed to stay around long, Each one mysteriously vanished without a trace.

There was one exception, however. Ranchhand Ray Lamphere who became Belle's lover and helped her fake her own death after relatives of some of the missing men began questioning their disappearance.

Bodies Unearthed

Belle's small brick farmhouse was set on fire and in ashes authorities found the body of a woman they believed to be Belle. The fact that the woman seemed to weigh no more than 150 pounds and was headless seemed of no consequence. Various teeth, bones and parts of bodies were also found in the ashes, along with men's watches and other personal belongings of various men who had entered Belle's door. Also, the body of her adopted daughter who was supposed to be at finishing school was unearthed.

Love Till the End

Lamphere was arrested for arson and for the murder of Belle Gunness, but as more bodies were unearthed around the farmhouse, each cut up and wrapped in oil cloth, the murder case against Lamphere fell apart and he was found guilty of arson only. He later died in prison, but confessed to his prison cellmate beforehand, admitting to his love for Belle and his involvement in faking her death.

Authorities later determined that Belle's victims died mostly of poison and collectively contributed $30,000 to Belle's pocketbook. Belle was never caught for the murders and what happened to her was never known. On the record, her death is listed as April 1908, the last time she was seen alive.


Murder Most Rare The Female Serial Killer by Michael D. Kelleher and C.L. Kelleher
The A To Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Harold Schechter and David Everitt
Deadly Women - Discovery Channel