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Wicked Wednesday: Searching for Belle Gunnes

April 17th, 2013

It was a fine day in October:  the sun was high, the sky was blue – and Belladonna Publishing climbed the steep path leading up to the long gone miniscule farm called Størsetjarde, where notorious arch killer Belle Gunnes was born and raised.

 

The young Belle Gunnes

The search began the same day with out local accomplice in the small town of Selbu, Norway, making a few phone calls to associates, trying to figure out the location of the farm. There are no road maps or signs pointing in the right direction, Belle’s origins have only recently been acknowledged by the townspeople whom traditionally have regarded the whole ordeal a shameful secret best not spoken of.

Had we not had a well-connected friend in the area, we probably never would have found it.

Following directions we’re driving fifteen minutes from the town center, mostly upwards. The landscape is littered with red barns and white farmhouses; fields in squares of green or yellow. The backdrop is lush woods and blue mountains, some of them capped with snow.
We reach the road’s end and must walk the last metres, climb a fence and cross a field. We find a narrow path, mostly used by animals. We’re in the woods now, and the trail is steep. The last few meters we must climb, and then – suddenly – it’s there: the turf that once housed Størsetjarde, now just a clearing in the woods, flooded with bright sun light. A wooden sign reads: Størsetjarde, Brynhild P Størseth (Belle Gunnes), Homestead/fødested.

The houses are gone, but the view is the same. We’re standing where she once stood, seeing what she once saw. Not the Belle Gunnes of the horror flicks or turn-of-the-century tabloids, but the young Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth; untainted, with lily white hands…

 The place is ridiculously beautiful – and peaceful – it is hard to comprehend that this spot of earth saw the dawn of USA’s maybe most notorious female serial killer. Some of her past she brought with her: even as a widow (and having ditched her birth name: Brynhild) she signed her letters “Bella P. S. Gunnes”. P. S. probably signifying her father’s name and her gender (Paul’s daughter) and her family name (Størseth). The rings found after the fire who might or might not have taken her life, where engraved with To P. S. She also almost exclusively dated – and married – Norwegian immigrants in the US, which of course in turn mean that a fair share of her victims happened to be Norwegian males.

She might have brought more with her from Norway and Selbu as well: the unverified story goes that Belle, or Brynhild, the youngest of a tenant farmer’s eight children, got pregnant at 17. The father of her unborn child was the son of a wealthy farmer. After a social gathering in Selbu the young man bid her to walk with him by the lake, and on this walk he abused her and kicked her in the stomach, causing a miscarriage. Some said that she changed after that, became quiet and hostile. The father of her child died a few months later, the cause of death was stomach cancer – though some suggest that the real cause was Belle…

After the miscarriage, Belle worked hard on a large farm in Selbu for three years to save up for her ticket to America. She might also have gotten some financial aid from her sister who already lived in Chicago. Belle left Selbu to join her sister in 1881.

Given that Belle most likely was barren, and her three children adopted, the incident by the lake might have caused her lasting physical harm, it might even have been the seed that would later bloom into the bloodbath in La Porte.

Most know the story of Belle’s career in USA: how she married Mads Sorenson, another member of the Norwegian community in Chicago, and how he died of an “enlarged” heart. How their store burned down shortly after, enabling Belle to collect insurance money. How she married a second time, another Norwegian: Peter Gunness, and settled down in La Porte, Indiana with her new husband and the two daughters she had with Mads Sorenson. How Peter Gunness died after just a few years, when a meat grinder accidentally fell down on his head when he and Belle were alone in the kitchen… Later came the “lonely hearts” ads in a Norwegian-American newspaper: “Respectable and well off widow with property seeks…” She no longer bothered to marry her suitors. She made them come to her in secret, sell their belongings and bring the cash –so better to surprise their relatives when they were wed and settled, she wrote – and they came, heart in hand and pockets full of money – never to be seen again…

Farm help disappeared, and then her seventeen year old foster daughter, Jennie. Belle always had an explanation; they had moved on… Jennie went to school in California… In truth they were all buried around the property; neatly dismembered and tucked into bags.
Belles career ended after the nosy brother of one of her victims, Asle Helgelein, came to call, and discovered that his brother was missing. Belle stalled him with promises of financial aid in the search, but he was expected to come back and call on her to organize the search in May 1908. On April 28th Belle’s house burns down. In the ruins the authorities finds four bodies: An adult female and three children, assumed to be Belle, her two daughters with Mads Sorenson on the son she had with Peter Gunness.
In the aftermath of the fire, Asle Helgelein reappeared, as promised. On a hunch he had the idea to dig into soft spots found scattered around the ruins of the farmhouse. It was a good hunch: not only did he find his own brother’s decomposed body, but there were others. Many, many more…

No one knows how many people Belle killed. Some say 14, others more than 40. Due to the bodies’ poor condition, and the amount of bone fragments found in the pig pen, it’s impossible to know exactly how many were buried on the farm. In addition she might have had more victims before she came to La Porte. Several of the bodies that were discovered were never indentified; among them were two children, about twelve years of age.

That Belle was a murderer, who killed for money – mostly – but certainly also for other reasons, is beyond a shadow of a doubt. She was opportunistic; she killed with force (hammer), but also with cunning (poison) – whatever did the job… The question that has puzzled the world is whether she actually killed herself and the children because the law closed in on her, or if someone else did it (Ray Lamphere, a farm help she fired got convicted for arson), or if she actually staged her own death, leaving her children to burn with an unidentified female – and ran off to continue her “affairs” somewhere else…  The opinions were divided in 1908, with huge headlines and numerous “Belle sightings”. The debate still goes on…

 

Størsetjarde, October 2012 We are exploring the place in silence, feeling somehow sad. You don’t need much knowledge of Norwegian history to know that life was hard for a tenant farmer’s family in the 19th century. Poverty was something you were born into, and hardly ever left. Options were few. Resources scarce. In winter, the main house must have been more or less covered in snow… It must have been cold, dark (you hardly see the sun during the Norwegian winter) – and sometimes there was hunger.
It’s not hard to imagine Belle making herself a promise: Never to go hungry again!
Neither is it hard to imagine her traumatized and heartbroken; mourning the loss of her unborn child, growing bitter and cold from the unfairness of the treatment she received from someone richer, more powerful: a man – and making herself another promise…

“We should go back in the summer and see if we can find any four-leaves clovers,” one of the Belladonna-girls says. “Belle sent a dry one to a suitor once. It would have been neat to have a four-leaf clover from Belle’s homestead…”
Our local friend steps over the broken down fence surrounding the wooden sign and starts combing through the grass with her fingers.

“A clover like this one?” She asks and triumphantly holds a perfect four-leaf clover up in the air.

Within a few minutes she finds two more. There are three of us, one for each. We only find those three, there are no more. An eerie keepsake from Størsetjarde.

 

 

More Belle Gunnes:
The Enigmatic Death of Belle Gunnes
Wikipedia

We also recomend:
Mistress of Murder Hill, an excellent book by Sylvia Shepherd

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