Personal — comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in LaPorte County, Indiana, desires to make the 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. Triflers need not apply.
This personal ad appeared in the Chicago daily and large Midwestern newspapers in 1907. Little did the men who answered it know that the woman who placed it was not looking for love. Of the several middle-aged, well-to-do suitors who came to meet Belle Gunness on her farm, only one got away alive.
Belle was the mother of three and anything but comely. Instead, she was a coarse farm woman, who stood 6 feet tall (although some sources put her at only 5 feet 6 inches tall) and weighed upward to 280 pounds. With the help of fashion magazines of the day and the town’s clothiers, she gussied herself up and became quite presentable with the latest hair styles and a corset and stylish dresses before her prey arrived by train.
Belle was charming to her victims. She made them feel welcome and cooked elaborate meals for them. When they weren’t looking, she drugged their coffee, and then when they were sedated, she split their heads open with a meat clever. If they didn’t drink coffee, she waited until they were in bed, then she snuck into the room after they were asleep and covered their faces with a rag doused in chloroform. Because of her size and strength, she carried them to the basement where she dismembered them. Her second husband had been a butcher, so she was handy with a meat clever. She disposed of their body parts by either burying them in the yard or feeding them to the hogs. Sometimes she dumped them into the hog-scalding vat.
Neighboring farmers who drove past her place after dark on occasion thought it peculiar that she would be out digging in the yard late at night. A delivery man thought it was odd that she received so many big trunks. Remarking about her size and strength, he said she slung the heavy trunks around “like boxes of marshmallows.”
George Anderson from Missouri was the second to answer her ad. He might have thought it was odd that she kept the curtains pulled even in the daylight, but he was eager to learn more about this giant woman. They talked over dinner and, she asked if he would be willing to pay off her mortgage. He replied that if they decided to marry, he would take care of it. Later that evening, he retired to the spare room. Deep into the night, he was awakened to find her standing over him, her face fixed in a terrifying expression. He screamed and she turned to leave the room. Fearing for his life, he dressed quickly and fled the house, leaving his belongings behind.
More than 30 other men were not so lucky. Elderly widower Ole Budsberg of Iola, Wisconsin, answered Belle’s ad and went to visit her. He apparently gave her thousands of dollars after mortgaging his home. He was never seen again. When his sons became concerned at his disappearance, they wrote to Belle, but she claimed to have never met their father.
Minnesotan John Moe brought $1000 with him when he came to meet Belle. The money was intended to pay off her mortgage after marriage. The marriage didn’t take place; the money was gone; and John never left Belle’s farm alive.
As men answered the ads, she wrote back loving letters. Andrew Helgelien from Aberdeen, South Dakota, was one who corresponded with Belle and received letters claiming: My heart beats in wild rapture for you. My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever. He did come prepared. He had a $2900 check with him. Belle promptly took him to her bank and deposited the money into her account. He did stay forever—in a grave in her yard. His brother, Asle, became alarmed when he couldn’t find Andrew, so he wrote to Belle. She wrote back and told Asle that Andrew had gone back to Norway. Asle didn’t believe her. Letters flew back and forth with Belle telling him to come to La Porte and she would help look for Andrew, but she would charge for her time. That did not put an end to Asle’s inquiries. Instead, he said he would come to LaPorte in May.
During this time, Belle had a farm hand named Ray Lamphere. In between her suitors’ visits, she and Lamphere were quite cozy. He was in love with her, so he carried out many gruesome tasks at her bidding. After watching her with man after man, he grew jealous and began to make demands. Arguments ensued, and she finally fired him and told him to leave in February of 1908. But he kept returning, so she had him arrested, claiming he was crazy and should be put away. During a sanity hearing, Lamphere was found to be perfectly sane. When that didn’t work, Belle went to an attorney and told him that her former handy man had threatened to kill her and her children and said he would burn down her house. She asked the lawyer to make out a will for her in which she left everything to her children. Then she went to the bank and paid off the loan on her property.
She wasn’t really afraid of Lamphere physically. She was afraid of what he might tell authorities. And a new threat presented itself in the form of Asle Helgelian, who had come looking for his brother.
At the end of April, her new hired man Joe Maxson awoke to the smell of smoke one night. By the time he realized what was happening, flames were raging through the house, blocking his escape. His room was on the second story, so he jumped from the window and ran to town for help. By the time fire fighters got to the house, it was in smoldering ashes.
The bodies of three children and one adult woman were found in the ruins. Authorities were puzzled as to why the woman’s body was headless.
Scores of people who knew Belle Gunness viewed what was left of the body and swore it was not her. Clothiers from the town where Belle bought dresses knew her size and told the sheriff that the body was too small to be Belle. Authorities measured the remains and concluded that the body was not that of Belle Gunness. Furthermore, the coroner took samples from internal organs and sent them away for pathology. The victim’s organ showed heavy doses of strychnine.
In the meantime, Lamphere had been arrested. “Did the Widow Gunness and the kids get out all right?”he asked. When accused of the fire, he claimed to not be in the vicinity when the fire was set, but a boy from the neighborhood claimed he saw Lamphere running down the road that night. He told the sheriff Lamphere threatened him if he told what he had seen.
By this time Asle Helgelien had come to LaPorte and talked to the sheriff about his missing brother. This triggered something in Joe Maxson’s memory of hauling wheelbarrows full of dirt to an area of the property where the hog pen was fenced off. There were depressions in the land and Belle wanted them filled in, claiming it was where she buried garbage.
The sheriff took men and shovels to this area of the land and began to dig. The first body was that of Jennie Olsson who had disappeared two years prior. Two unidentified children were unearthed and then one by one the men who had answered Belle ads were uncovered. Some of the bodies were not identifiable, but Andrew Helgelien’s body was identified by his brother and Lamphere was found wearing his coat.
Lamphere was tried for murder and arson. He was acquitted of murder, but convicted of arson and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died of tuberculosis in 1909. On his deathbed, he confessed to the minister to helping Belle dispose of the bodies. He said the headless body was that of a woman who had answered an ad for a housekeeper. Belle bashed her head in and chloroformed her own children before the fire.
Lamphere admitted that he helped her set the blaze. She was to meet him on the road afterward, but she failed to show up. Instead, she vanished into the woods, and he never saw her again. He said she had killed somewhere around 42 people and amassed a fortune of $250,000.
To this day, no one knows what happened to Belle Gunness.