On This Day in Infamy: A Serial Killer Exposed

In the predawn hours of April 28, 1908, a fire broke out in a two-story farmhouse in LaPorte. By the time the blaze was extinguished and the ruins sifted through, a serial killer would be exposed and a mystery posed which still remains unsolved to this day.

Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset Sorenson Gunness, better known as Belle Gunness, had a rather unfortunate past. Not only was the hardy hog farmer twice-widowed, but mysterious fires seemed to plague her properties. She’d lost both a candy store and a house in Chicago before purchasing a 48-acre farm on McClung Road in LaPorte, and it was her house that had erupted in flames that early April morning. When the volunteer fire department responded to the blaze, they expected to find the bodies of Belle and her children—Myrtle, 11, Lucy, 9, and Phillip, 5— but ended up finding more than they had bargained for…much more.

By the time the smoldering farm had given up its secrets, at least 13 bodies had been discovered and no one was even sure if Belle’s cadaver was among them. A subsequent investigation revealed she had been running ‘Lonely Hearts’ ads in newspapers, drawing victims to her with the lure of a prosperous farm and the promise of matrimony. The unlucky suitors who responded to her ads were instructed to bring a large cash deposit when they came to visit, in order to prove their financial solvency and worthiness to assume management of the farm. But, once they set foot on the farm, the men were never seen alive again. Belle ruthlessly robbed and killed her unsuspecting visitors before hacking their bodies to pieces and depositing them in various places around her property. The body of Jennie Olsen, Belle’s foster daughter, was also found. Belle had told everyone the girl had gone to school in California.

Ray Lamphere, Belle’s former handyman and occasional lover, was eventually convicted of arson, but he was never convicted of murder because no one was certain that the body found in the burned-down farmhouse belonged to Belle, or if it was she who had killed the children. For one thing, the corpse in question was quite a bit smaller than Belle had been in life, and there were reported sightings of her long after the fire. On his deathbed, Lamphere allegedly told at least one person that he’d taken Belle to a train station after the fire was set and she was waiting for him, living in disguise as a man, until they could be reunited.

Supposed sightings of Belle continued for years. In 1931, a California woman living under the name of Esther Carlson was accused of poisoning a man for his money. It was thought that the woman might be Belle living under an alias, but she died awaiting trail and before a definitive identification could be made. However, former LaPorte residents viewed the woman’s remains and stated that they did indeed believe the woman to be Belle.

In the end, no one knows how much money Belle made from her lethal scheme, just how many people she killed, or even the true circumstances under which she actually died. The bloody mystery of Belle Gunness, LaPorte’s murderous matron, still remains unsolved today.

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