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October 23, 2021

Serial killer Belle Gunness and her La Porte murder farm

Belle Gunness

After the discovery that she had been embarking for years in the early1900s, on one of Indiana’s most gruesome murder sprees, Belle Gunness has been considered among the most notorious female killers in U.S. history.

Many aspects of the life and crimes of Belle, a Norwegian immigrant, remain a mystery, including the total number of her victims, who included men, women and children. Experts suspect that more than 40 victims, including the dismembered bodies of Norwegian men who responded to a "lonely widow" advertisement that she placed in newspapers, were buried on her 43 – acre farm near La Porte in northern Indiana.

The still lingering mysteries include whether Belle secretly survived a massive fire in 1908 at her farmhouse, where the decapitated corpse of a woman was discovered amid the bodies. Was that Belle’s corpse? Or did she murder an innocent women and use her body as a decoy to conceal her escape as authorities and relatives of other victims were finally closing in on her?

Those questions are among the topics that will be explored when Nelson is joined by Jane Simon Ammeson, author of the new book, America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness. The book delves into little known aspects of Belle’s life, including her early, impoverished years on a farm in Norway, where she was born in 1859. She immigrated in the early 1880s to Chicago, where her spree of murders probably began, with the victims likely including her first husband.

In 1901, Belle purchased the farm near La Porte, where the Norwegian immigrant who eventually became her second husband died under suspicious circumstances. Belle began advertising in Norwegian – language newspapers as a widow seeking companionship, urging men to visit after cashing out their assets. In Jane Ammeson’s book, she describes how Belle’s victims possibly included adopted and foster children.

Gunness farm basementAfter the fire in 1908 and the discovery of multiple bodies when authorities began digging, the unsecured crime scene became tainted by throngs of onlookers. "Hordes of sightseers, sometimes 15,000 in one day, were allowed to traverse the crime scene," Jane notes in America’s Femme Fatale. "The murder farm became a carnival scene, with gawkers arriving on special trains packed to capacity."

In 2008, the headless body that may have been Belle’s corpse was taken to the University of Indianapolis for analysis by forensic pathologists. The DNA analysis apparently was inconclusive, Jane reports in her book.

Belle Gunness, who was nearly 6 feet tall, used various methods to murder her victims, including bludgeoning some with an ax and poisoning others. In America’s Femme Fatale, Jane describes how a local sheriff was probably paid by Belle to help deflect suspicions about her activities, although he likely was unaware of the extent of the gruesome crimes.

Gunness farm postcardJane AmmesonBut when a wheat farmer in South Dakota responded to one of her ads, traveled to La Porte and vanished, his brother persisted with an investigation. The inferno that ensued at the farmhouse was arson, set by pouring kerosene in the cellar. As Jane Ammeson notes in America’s Femme Fatale, speculation immediately began that Belle had used a "body double" to fake her death in the fire.

Jane has been a regular Roadtrip correspondent and a guest on previous Hoosier History Live shows, including a program in 2019 about one of her other books, Lincoln Road Trip, which explores sites in Indiana and other sites associated with Abraham Lincoln.

 

Roadtrip: Historic New Carlisle’s new museum

Guest Roadtripper and public historian Glory-June Greiff suggest a Roadtrip to northern Indiana to see the charming small town where the old Lincoln Highway and Michigan Road meet. Yes, that’s why the town is there! And she tells us that the community opened a great little museum last year.

Most of New Carlisle is listed in the National Register as a historic district, and it’s small enough for a pleasant walk around to view the many historic houses and commercial buildings that contain many interesting restaurants and shops. Glory tells us not to miss Feeney’s Hometown Goods, housed in former lawyer’s offices (for which it is named), just across the street from the museum. Its entire stock consists of the work of regional artists and artisans, a wonderful place to purchase one–of–a–kind gifts for yourself or a special someone!

Hungry? You may be surprised to find an incredible old-world restaurant, Moser’s Austrian Cafe, housed in a beautiful historic building in the heart of New Carlisle’s downtown. Yummy!

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