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12 Terrifying Facts About Belle Gunness, One Of The Most Disturbing Killers Ever

Updated April 28, 2020 697.5k views12 items

Who was Belle Gunness? She was a serial killer who lived in both Illinois and Indiana around the turn of the 20th century. Her original name was Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth and she was born in Norway in 1859. She immigrated to the US in 1881 and married her first husband a mere three years later.

After this, the crimes of Belle Gunness began. She committed insurance fraud, killed upwards of 40 people - including her own family members - and possibly faked her own death. Among the known facts about Belle Gunness is that she was an imposing woman, very tall and 250 pounds and that only one child - her second husband's daughter Swanhild - survived her clutches. At the time of her supposed death in 1908, Gunness lived on a farm in LaPorte, IN. If you're curious to learn more about her, read on to discover the truly gruesome crimes of Belle Gunness.

  • She May Have Killed Three Of Her Children In A House Fire

    She May Have Killed Three Of Her Children In A House Fire
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The LaPorte, IN, farmhouse owned by Belle Gunness caught fire and burned to the ground on the night of April 27, 1908. When authorities sifted through the rubble the next day, they found the bodies of three children - presumably those of her daughters Myrtle and Lucy from her first husband, Mads Sorenson, and her son Phillip, from her second husband, Peter Gunness - were found in the basement. A fourth body, thought to be Gunness herself, was also found. The latter body was headless, and considerably shorter than Gunness, leading people to theorize that it really wasn't hers. 

    Ray Lamphere, a hired hand who worked on the farm, was later charged with setting the fire. This was never proven, and some people at the time believed that Gunness set the fire in order to fake her own death.

  • She May Have Killed More Than 40 People

    While sifting through the wreckage of the farm house, several men came forward and voiced their suspicions of Belle Gunness. They claimed they had relatives go to her farm and never return. This, along with the news that hired farmhand Joe Maxson covered up large holes in the ground near the farm's hog pen, led authorities to begin digging. They unearthed numerous bodies from various places on the farm. At the time, DNA evidence and other modern forms of identification were not yet available, so investigators had to guess the identity of each body. In all, there were more than 40 bodies found on the property.

  • She Poisoned Two Of Her Children And One Of Her Husbands

    She Poisoned Two Of Her Children And One Of Her Husbands
    Photo: The Helena Independent / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Belle Gunness married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, in 1884. During their marriage, they had four children: Myrtle, Lucy, Caroline, and Axel, and took in orphans. While they were infants, both Caroline and Axel died of what medical doctors claimed was "acute colitis." The symptoms of this disease include nausea, cramping, and abdominal pain, all of which are consistent with arsenic poisoning.

    Sorenson died in a similar manner. However, his actual cause of death - heart failure - was proceeded by symptoms similar to those of strychnine poisoning, and he conveniently died on the exact day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped, allowing Gunness to receive both of them.

  • Her Second Husband Died In A Meat Grinder 'Accident'

    Her Second Husband Died In A Meat Grinder 'Accident'
    Photo: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 NL

    When she married him, Belle Gunness's second husband, Peter Gunness, was a widower with two young children. The youngest, an infant daughter, died suddenly one week after the two were married in April, 1902. It is suspected Belle poisoned her. Peter's oldest child, a girl named Swanhild, went to live with relatives and escaped relatively unscathed.

    In December 1902, Belle became a widow once again when Peter died under suspicious circumstances. Supposedly a meat grinder fell off of a shelf and hit him on the head, killing him instantly. However, Jennie Olsen told her classmates, "My mama killed my papa. She hit him with a meat cleaver and he died. Don't tell a soul." Other people suspected murder as well, and Belle, pregnant with the couple's son, Philip, went before a coroner's jury but managed to convince everyone Peter's death was nothing but a tragic accident. In the end, she wound up with his life insurance payout.