When one imagines notorious serial killers in American history, names like Jeffrey Dahmer and the Zodiac Killer. We imagine sinister men, perhaps outcasts from society who didn’t draw attention to themselves and hid their dark, twisted crimes while evading capture. A search for “most evil serial killers” produces the names of hundreds of men. The heinous acts of one woman are not as well known—but her repulsive crimes put her in the same ranks as these criminal monsters.
Belle Gunness, originally Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, was a Norwegian-American killer who killed an estimated 25-40 people over the span of several decades in the late 1800s. Her victims included both of her husbands, her children, and many unsuspecting male suitors.
Little is known about Belle’s early life in Norway, before she immigrated to the United States, but most reports agree that she was born in 1859, and was the youngest of eight children. Belle worked for several years on a wealthy farm in order to make passage to America.
It was in Chicago that mysterious circumstances began to follow Belle. She married, and opened a small business with her new husband. When the business failed, the shop mysteriously burned down. The couple collected insurance on the property.
Belle’s husband died six years later under extremely suspicious circumstances. The day of his death occurred allegedly on the only day when two life insurance policies for him overlapped. Two doctors examined him post-mortem. One found that he had been poisoned with strychnine, but a second doctor claimed the death was merely natural heart failure.
This is believed to be the beginning of decades of insurance fraud and murder.
Belle remarried a man named Peter Gunness, and the pair lived as hog farmers in LaPorte, Indiana. Peter himself met with a tragically early demise. According to Belle, the only witness at the time, Peter died from a fatal head injury caused when he was struck by a heavy meat grinder that fell from high shelf in their kitchen.
Again, Belle collected insurance from a husband’s death.
In the years that followed, Belle would lure suitors to her farm, steal their money and kill them. She targeted lonely, middle aged men through personal classifieds in the papers. Men would visit her for the prospect of marriage, but few ever escaped the farm alive.
The disappearances did not go unnoticed and family members of the victims would eventually trace their last movements to the Gunness hog farm.
One fateful night, when suspicions had finally been raised to high and the brother of one of Belle’s unfortunate suitors arrived into town to search for him, a massive fire broke out on the property—undoubtedly arson.
Authorities discovered a burned, headless female corpse after the farmhouse fire was put out. An examination of the body conclude it was not that of Belle, and she was never seen or heard from again.
Inside police also discovered the bodies of three of Belle’s children. Out in the pig pens of the property, more horrific discoveries awaited police. There out beneath the earth of the farm, bodies of Belle’s numerous suitors were finally uncovered and Belle’s terrible crimes came to light.
Despite bodies of her many victims being discovered on her now-infamous and remote “murder farm,” Belle was never caught or tried for her heinous crimes.