Back In Black: Indiana Serial Killer Belle Gunness Resurfaces

Mike Ramsey
July 03, 2018 - 11:30 am
Categories: 

LA PORTE, Ind. (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Once a household name, Indiana serial killer Belle Gunness was relegated in recent years to a downstairs exhibit at the La Porte, Ind. history museum.

Lately, she seems to be making a comeback.

True-crime author Harold Shechter has joined the ranks of writers who have chronicled the exploits of the Norwegian immigrant known as "Lady Bluebeard," who duped, murdered and planted several men on her northwest Indiana farm in the early-1900s. A television adaptation of that book, Hell's Princess, reportedly is in development. Meantime, La Porte historian Bruce Johnson is preparing a revised version of the documentary DVD he produced a decade ago. 

"It's really strange because the story seemed to die away over the years," said Johnson, president of the La Porte County Historical Society Museum, which has several artifacts on display. "Lizzie Borden was famous, mainly because of a poem about her parents. Why Belle Gunness died away I don't know."

In her day, Gunness captured the popular imagination. She moved from Chicago's Austin neighborhood to La Porte following the suspicious death of her husband and began placing personal ads in Norwegian-language newspapers to find suitors. Through passionate letters, she convinced men to quietly liquidate their assets and join her in comfort in Indiana.

"She preyed mostly upon men who were separated from their families," said Chicago's Richard C. Lindberg, who penned a 2011 book about murder for profit, Heartland Serial Killersthat includes the Gunness case. "They had money that they would earn through their wayfaring journeys, and when they reached a certain age they looked to settle down. It all sounded very promising to them."

Woe to them who fell into the trap. The "Indiana Ogress" probably poisoned and bludgeoned several would-be companions before putting their hacked body parts in gunnysacks and burying the disguised bundles as garbage. And so it went, until the persistent brother of one of her victims began investigating. Fearing the game was up, the 48-year-old Gunness may have taken drastic action.

Her farm house burned to the ground overnight on April 28, 1908. It's possible she killed herself and her foster children while setting her farmhouse on fire. Or, she may have just killed the children and faked her own death. A charred woman's body was found in the ashes, but the female's head was missing. 

Dismembered human remains were found elsewhere on the property, and it quickly became apparent what Gunness had been up to. Newspaper correspondents from around the country swarmed the scene. So did curious visitors. 

"People came from all over just to watch during those weeks of the digging," Johnson said. "It was entertainment, it was fascinating, it was a woman -- you didn't hear of women serial killers."

A former farm hand named Ray Lamphere who had a well-known feud with Gunness was convicted of setting the fire, though he publicly proclaimed his innocence. He died in prison of natural causes in 1909.

The macabre saga refused to entirely fade. For years afterward, there were purported sightings of Gunness across the country. Nothing stuck.

Did "Hell's Belle" escape justice? Schechter, the true-crime author, effectively throws up his hands and says several scenarios are equally plausible. Johnson, the La Porte historian, thinks Gunness faked her own death, fled and lived out the rest of her life in anonymity. 

"She definitely got away with it," he said.

The former Gunness farm property, today: a modern house sits on the brick foundation of the home that burned down in 1908. (WBBM Newsradio)

 

In 2007, remains of the burned woman who may have been Gunness were exhumed from Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, as part of a forensic study.

The bones have not been re-interred, said a cemetery manager who declined to provide further information.

"She's not here," the manager said.