Belle Gunness: How Many Victims Did The Serial Killer Actually Have?

On April 28, 1908, a fire destroyed a family farm near La Porte, Indiana. Initially, authorities found the remains of an adult woman and three children and quickly concluded that they belonged to the homeowner, a Norwegian immigrant known as Belle Gunness and her three foster children.

However, there was a rather glaring problem with their conclusion: the body of the adult was headless — not something that generally happens in a fire. When authorities dug around the hog pens and other places on the farm, they found the mutilated remains of several more men and children. Meanwhile, a man whose brother had been in contact with Gunness believed he’d been murdered and had begun asking questions.

When the smoke cleared, authorities were left with so many bodies that they “stopped counting,” according to Mental Floss. The idea that the decapitated body belonged to Gunness was called into question, and a farmhand/accomplice claimed that the alleged murderer had taken the money she’d fleeced from her victims and vanished.

This is what is known, and what is suspected, about the number of victims serial killer Belle Gunness had.

Belle Gunness probably killed her first two husbands and her children

Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset immigrated from Norway to the United States at the age of 21, according to SyFy, in search of a better life. By 1886, she was married to a man named Mads Sorensen, had somehow wound up with an unknown number of children (although whether they were the couple’s natural children or foster children remains unclear), and the family was running a failing candy shop. Soon enough, the shop burned down, and the couple collected a nice insurance payment. Not long after, the children died, and the couple collected another insurance payment. Though the coroner ruled that the kids had died of colitis, their symptoms were also consistent with poisoning. However, by the time anyone suspected Gunness in their deaths, they’d been dead for decades and their suspected murderer had vanished. Then, Sorensen died, not at all suspiciously on the day that one life insurance policy was set to expire and another had just come into effect.

Storset then married Peter Gunness, in 1901; a week later, his infant son from a previous marriage was dead under suspicious circumstances. According to The New York Post, eight months after their marriage, Peter was dead. Belle insisted that a meat grinder had fallen on his head, crushing his skull.

Belle Gunness began murdering men, and possibly children, on her farm

By now, Gunness had purchased a farm in La Porte, Indiana. Some time after the death of her second husband, according to The New York Post, she took to placing personal letters in a Minneapolis Norwegian-language newspaper, promising men love and happiness if they would come to her farm — with their money.

Soon enough, Gunness was depositing checks brought by her suitors, while the lovelorn men were never heard from again.

In what may be a rather cruel bit of irony, some of her letters invited the men to “come prepared to stay forever,” according to SyFy. One man, George Anderson, managed to escape with his life when he realized Gunness had murder on her mind.

Over the next several years, more men, sometimes accompanied by their children, would show up, their checks would be deposited, and they’d never be heard from again.

Meanwhile, a man named Asle Helgelien had found correspondence between his brother, Andrew, and Gunness. In her letters, Gunness had asked her mark to bring all of his money and not tell anyone what he was up to. Suspicious, Asle started asking questions around town — and then came the fire.

Belle Gunness probably murdered between 11 and 42 people

The April 28, 1908, fire at Gunness’ farm seems to have shut the book on the Norwegian immigrant’s murder spree, inasmuch as she was never heard from again and was, initially at least, presumed dead.

Whether Gunness died in that fire remains unclear. Also unclear is how many victims Gunness had killed. At the time, forensics was in its infancy, and the bodies had been so mutilated that there was little hope of identifying them. Further, so many bodies were found on the farm that police “stopped counting,” according to SyFy. Then, the farm became something of a tourist attraction, with thousands of gawkers turning up and in some cases, taking souvenirs, according to The New York Post.

For these reasons and others, it’s impossible to say how many people Gunness murdered. The low end is 11, to account for her first two husbands, their children, and the children found dead on the family farm. However, The New York Post suggests that she may have killed as many as 28 people, while Mental Floss claims that she killed “at least 20.” Biography claims that the remains of at least 40 men and children were found on Gunness’ farm.

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