Normally we start these stories knowing just where someone’s grave is. But in the case of Belle Gunness, it's not even sure what happened to one of the first American female serial killers…..except an unsettled suspicion she could have escaped death to come to New Zealand.
In 1908, when the full horror of what Gunness had been up to came to light, it was initially believed she had burned to death. But later, with scanty proof, speculation turned to questions in American newspapers about whether she fled to our small country.
It was a story picked up by several New Zealand newspapers.
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth on November 11, 1859, in Selbu, Norway to Paul and Berit Storset, the youngest of eight children. By 14, she was working on farms to save money to move to New York, arriving in 1881 where she changed her first name to Belle then moved on to Chicago. She had several jobs including at a butcher’s shop cutting up animal carcasses until she married Mads Sorenson. They owned a candy store which burned to the ground. Not long after their home also burned down. They received insurance payouts for both.
It would become a familiar theme in Belle’s life.
Not long after two babies in their home died from inflammation of the large intestine - something that caused gossip because Belle had not been noticeably pregnant.
In 1890, Sorenson took out two life insurance policies, one that would take over when the first expired. There was one day only when both policies were active. Sorenson died of a cerebral haemorrhage on that day. Belle had given him quinine powder for a headache. She collected $5000, moved to La Porte, Indiana and bought a 42-acre pig farm.
Belle married again in 1902, to Peter Gunness - who had an infant daughter. A week after the wedding the baby died in Belle’s care.
Peter died eight months later due to a skull injury. Belle explained that Peter reached for something on a high shelf and a meat grinder fell on him, smashing his skull. The district coroner convened a coroner's jury, suspecting murder, but nothing came of the case. Belle collected $3000 insurance money for Peter's death.
Gunness’ next step was to put marriage ads in newspapers. At least two men, Henry Gurholt and John Moe answered. Both went to her farm and were never seen again.
In 1908 it came to an end, when her farmhouse burnt down. The investigation led to the discovery of the body of a woman and three children in the house. The body - which was headless - was believed to be Belle.
Then Ashe Helgelien contacted the police about his missing brother Andrew who had been corresponding with Belle.
Found on the farm were sacks of body parts. The bodies had been butchered.
Five bodies were found on the first day, and an additional six on the second, after that the police stopped counting.
Belle’s lover Ray Lamphere was convicted of arson in connection with the fire. He later confessed that she had placed advertisements seeking male companionship, only to murder and rob the men who responded and subsequently visited her on the farm. Lamphere stated that Gunness asked him to burn down the farmhouse with her children inside.
Lamphere also asserted that the body thought to be Gunness' was in fact a murder victim, chosen and planted to mislead investigators.
Indeed the doctor who performed Belle’s postmortem testified that the headless body was five inches shorter and about fifty pounds lighter. No explanation was provided for what happened to the body's head.
All of this led to speculation, including whether she might have fled her.
In more modern times there was an attempt to answer the question - with DNA tests run on the exhumed body. They proved inconclusive.
Belle was supposed to have been buried in Forest Home Cemetery but was she?
And if she escaped and came to New Zealand there was never any sign of her old activities.
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