MRS. BELLE GUNNESS,
THE ARCHFIEND WHO
REQUIRED A PRIVATE GRAVEYARD
FOR HER NUMEROUS VICTIMS, BUT WHO WAS SUBSEQUENTLY MURDERED
AND CREMATED WITH HER THREE
Belle Paulsen was born in the
little town of Christiania, Norway. Her father, Peter Paulsen, was a
traveling conjurer and magician, and when Belle was a mere child she
participated in the exhibitions by dancing on the
They prospered and through their frugality they were enabled to retire when Belle was still in her
teens, and the father purchased
a little farm in their native land.
Belle then came to the United States, and about two years later she married a Swede named
Albert Sorenson. They resided
in Chicago, and in 1900 Sorenson died under most suspicious circumstances. While it
was said that he died from
heart failure, his relatives were positive that he was poisoned, and as a motive for the deed,
pointed to the fact that the
widow collected the life insurance of $8,500 as soon as possible after his death. It is stated
that an inquest was ordered,
but for some reason the body was never exhumed.
Mrs. Sorenson then moved to Austin, Illinois., and a short time afterward her home there was burned.
A question arose as to the
origin of the fire, but in the absence of proof of fraud the insurance companies were forced
to pay the insurance.
She then returned to Chicago, where she conducted a confectionery store at Grand avenue and
Elizabeth street. which was
subsequently gutted by fire. This mysterious fire resulted in another investigation by the
insurance officials, but they
were forced to pay her claim. Shortly
afterward she purchased a farm about six miles from La Porte, Indiana, and married Peter
Gunness a few months later.
In 1904, a meat chopper is said to have fallen off a shelf and split his head open, thus ending his
existence. The weeping widow
described to the coroner's jury how it fell from a shelf and struck her "poor husband's
head," and in the absence of
proof to the contrary, the statement was accepted as true.
At the time of the death of Gunness, she had three small children, named Philip, Myrtle and Lucy.
She also had an adopted
daughter named Jennie Olsen, who was fourteen years of age.
In September, 1906, this girl disappeared, and Mrs. Gunness accounted for her absence by stating
that she had sent her to Los
Angeles to complete her education.
The woman then employed a man named Ray Lamphere to do the chores about the place. In 1906
she inserted an advertisement
in the matrimonial columns of the leading papers of Chicago and other large cities, which
read as follows: "
"Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte
County, Indiana, desires to make
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." In May, 1907, Ole B. Budsburg, a rather
elderly widower residing
in Iolo, Wisconsin, saw the advertisement, and as it looked good to him he decided to make a
nice, quiet investigation without
telling his grown up sons, Oscar and Mathew, a word about it.
The poor old gentleman left his home but never returned, and the last seen of him was when he
negotiated the sale of a
mortgage at the La Porte Savings Bank and drew the money on April 6, 1907.
In December, 1907, Andrew Hegelein, a thrifty bachelor from Aberdeen, South Dakota, also
corresponded with Mrs. Gunness.
She replied that it would be advisable for him to come to the farm, and she suggested that
he might sell out his business
interests in South Dakota, as she was very favorably impressed with his letters.
As far as was convenient to do so, Hegelein, delighted with the headway he was making, complied
with her request and repaired
to her farm, arriving in January, 1908. He had been at Mrs. Gunness' place about two
weeks when he accompanied her
to the Savings Bank in La Porte and presented a check for $2,900, but as he was unknown
there and as the bankers
would not accept the endorsement of Mrs. Gunness for this amount, they left the check there
for collection. In a few days
the draft came and the money was delivered to him, which she must have obtained, for
almost immediately afterward
she deposited $500 in that bank, $700 in the State Bank, and also paid numerous large bills.
A few days later Hegelein disappeared, and Mrs. Gunness stated that he had drawn the money for the
purpose of going to Norway.
He had a brother named A. K. Hegelein in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and as the weeks
rolled by and he heard
nothing from his brother, he became alarmed and wrote to Airs. Gunness regarding his
In her reply she stated that all the information she could impart was the missing man's own statement
to the effect that he drew
his money with the intention of going to Norway, but she expressed some apprehension over
his failure to confide his
plans to his brother, and she suggested in her letter that he sell out the remainder of
his brother's stock along
with his own, and come to her farm, so that she might join him in an extensive search.
At 3:30 a.m. on April 28, 1908, Mrs. Gunness' home was burned to the ground and in the ruins the
charred remains of a woman
and three children were found. The bodies of the little ones were at once identified as the
remains of Mrs. Gunness'
children, but as the woman's head was burned or cut off, there was some question as to
whose remains they were.
Ray Lamphere, the farm hand, left her employ on February 3, 1908, because of a quarrel with
Mrs. Gunness, and procured
employment on a farm owned by John Wheatbrook, a short distance from the Gunness place.
After Lamphere left Mrs. Gunness, he frequently intimated that he could make it interesting for her
if he wanted to talk, but her
only response to this was that Lamphere was "crazy."
As it was proven conclusively that he was on the ground at the time the fire started, he was taken
into custody by Sheriff Smulzer.
The mysterious remarks made by Lamphere in regard to making trouble for Mrs. Gunness were
recalled, and a most thorough
investigation was instituted, with the result that five more mutilated and decomposed bodies
were found buried in the back
yard on May 5.
One was identified as the body of Jennie Olsen Gunness, the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of
Mrs. Gunness, who was
supposed to be in Los Angeles completing her education. It is presumed that she was murdered
because she knew too much
regarding the death of Peter Gunness in 1904.
The second body was that of Andrew Hegelein from South Dakota. The third was the
unidentified body of a man, and
the fourth and fifth were the bodies of two eight-year-old girls. On May 6, four additional bodies of
men were unearthed in the
In most instances the limbs were removed from the bodies in such a manner as to indicate that the
amputations were performed by
some one familiar with anatomy. The theory is that some of the bodies were too heavy
for the woman to handle as a
On May 9, two more bundles of bones, decayed flesh and clothing were found in the private
graveyard, but the ravages of
decomposition made identification impossible. On May 14, a few bones of one more victim were found
in the ashes in the cellar.
In view of these discoveries a serious doubt arose as to the actual fate of Mrs. Gunness. It was
suspected that in addition to
murdering her children and several others, she had invited some unsuspecting woman into her
home, and after killing her,
disfigured her remains in such a manner that they could not be recognized, and after setting
fire to the house, escaped;
believing it would be taken for granted that the charred remains of the woman were those of
herself and that no further
search would be made for her. This theory proved incorrect, for on May 16 a lower jawbone
was found in the ashes and
was taken to Dr. Morton, a dentist in La Porte, for examination. Some dentistry work was
plainly visible on the teeth
which still adhered to the jawbone, which he positively identified as work done for Mrs. Gunness a
year previously. Rings found
on the fingers of the dead woman were also identified as the property of Mrs.
There was a difference of
opinion as to how Mrs. Gunness met
her death. The theory of the prosecution was that she was burned to death, but Dr. J. Meyers
gave it as his opinion that
death was caused by contraction of the heart, probably due to strychnine poisoning, which was the
poison used in killing
Hegelein and several other victims.
Shortly after Mrs. Gunness' private graveyard was discovered, Oscar and Mathew Budsburg came to La
Porte, as they suspected that
their aged father, who had mysteriously disappeared from his home in lolo, Wis.,
in May, 1907, might have
fallen into this woman's trap. Their suspicions proved to be well founded, for they identified
one of the bodies as that of
their missing father.
Olof Lindboe of Chicago stated that his brother, Thomas, had worked for Mrs. Gunness three years
previously, and the last
letter he had received from him contained the information that Thomas intended to marry his
employer. As Olof heard nothing
more from his brother he wrote to Mrs. Gunness, who replied that Thomas had gone to St.
Louis, but Olof never heard
from him again.
On May 12, the surgical instruments with which the bodies were probably dismembered, were found in
On May 19, Miss Jennie Graham of Waukesha, Wis., arrived in La Porte to
inquire regarding her brother, who had left home to marry a rich widow in La
Porte, but who was never
heard from after that. As most of the bodies were badly mutilated and decomposed, it was
impossible to ascertain if
her brother's remains were among them.
Henry Gurholdt of Scandinavia, Wis., corresponded with Mrs. Gunness, and then took $1,500 with
him to La Porte and was never
seen again, but a watch found with one of the bodies was exactly the same in appearance
as the one he wore.
Mrs. Marie Svenherud of Christiania, Norway, made inquiry through Acting Consul Faye of Chicago for
her son Olof, who had written
her that he was about to leave Chicago for La Porte to marry a rich Norwegian
widow with whom he had become
acquainted through the agency of the matrimonial advertisement column of a newspaper. The
mother added that she never
heard from her son again.
After the disappearance of Hegelein, Lamphere was seen wearing an overcoat which belonged to the
former, and on May 18 a watch
which was in the possession of Lamphere at the time of his arrest was identified by
J. G. Ramden of Manfred, N. D., as the property of his half brother, John
Moe of Elbow Lake, Minn., who
left his home in 1907, ostensibly to marry a widow in La Porte, but was never
heard from afterward. Lamphere
stated that Mrs. Gunness had presented him with the watch.
When first interrogated as to his whereabouts on the night of the fire, Lamphere claimed that he was
in the company of a negress
named Mrs. Elizabeth Smith until 4 a. m., or one- half hour after the fire started, but he
subsequently confessed that
he burned the Gunness home but denied that he had committed murder.
Lamphere and a neighbor named Fred Brickman stated that they dug trenches for Mrs. Gunness at
different times, but that
they had no knowledge as to for what purpose they were used.
On May 22, 1908, Lamphere was indicted for the murder of the Gunness family by means of arson,
and also on the charge of
accessory in the murder of Hegelein. He pleaded guilty of arson and was sentenced to
imprisonment for an in determinate
period of from two to twenty years. Immediately after his conviction Lamphere's health
failed rapidly and he died
from consumption on December 30, 1909.
On January 14, 1910, Rev. E. A. Schell made public a confession made by Lamphere shortly after
his arrest, in which he
admitted that he helped Mrs. Gunness to bury one of the victims and saw her chloroform
another after felling him
with a hatchet. He also confessed that he chloroformed the Gunness family, but claimed that Mrs.
Smith, a negress with whom he
had spent a portion of the night, assisted him, and that it was she who set the house on
As there was no evidence to substantiate the charge against the negress she was never
prosecuted. It is the opinion of
Attorney Ralph Smith that the negress did not accompany Lamphere on this night.