Sunday 21 October 2018

Hell's Princess

Finished October 2
Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter

This biography looks at a woman serial killer who operated in small town Indiana in the early twentieth century. Born in 1859 a small town near Trondheim, Norway, she was known in her early life as Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset. She followed her older sister Nellie to Chicago around 1880, soon adopted a new American name, Bella Peterson. Bella took a job as a laundress and sewer, and began looking for a husband. From the beginning she was more interested in material goods than companionship. Her first husband, whom she married in 1884, was Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, a night watchman for one of the large department stores. She seemed to have a maternal instinct, taking an interest in children who were orphaned or otherwise underprivileged. After trying, unsuccessfully, to take custody of one of her sister's children, she adopted an infant in 1891. It is unclear whether the children that followed this one were her own or also adopted.
They managed to invest and make enough to move out to a middle class suburb, but it was an investment in the Yukon Mining & Trading Company, a scam, that caused them to lose much of their hope for the future. Soon after this a fire in their home resulted in another loss, although this time the loss was insured. Mads was a member of an association that provided him with a life insurance policy, and on the day that a new policy took effect (a single day of overlap) Mads died from an apparent illness at home.
After receiving the insurance money, Bella moved to La Porte, Indiana and bought a house and attached farmland. It was this property that Bella used to attract her victims. First among them was a former boarder, Peter Gunness, whom she married in early 1902.
In December of that year, Peter died from a head wound, seemingly from an object falling from a shelf, but some neighbours were suspicious. Soon after Bella began advertising in the Norwegian newspapers read by many immigrants from that country in the U.S. She had correspondences with several men, that indicated partnership and/or matrimony. and many men came to visit, disappearing with no one seeing them leave. Bella's oldest daughter also was said to have left suddenly, to go to a college in California, but none of her friends heard from her.
It was only with the suspicions of two brothers who tracked their third, missing brother's trail, that Bella came to be looked at. Right around then, a terrible fire took her home in the middle of the night, and it was some time before the authorities were able to find the remains of all who had been in the house. As they also began to dig up suspicious looking areas around the property, they found the remains of many bodies, and her notoriety began to form.
A fascinating and scary tale of one woman's greed and daring that took many lives.

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