Hell’s Princess: A Review

I have mediated a number of dialogues between juvenile offenders and the victims of their crimes. The stated goal of such dialogues is to pursue a “restorative justice” outcome that may bring some healing to the victims and some personal transformation to the offenders. The institutional goal is to get these small-time cases off the books without using up any more law enforcement resources. But that’s another conversation.

Most of these cases involve quite random acts of vandalism or theft. Rarely is there any prior connection between victim and offender. Regardless, the most common question from victim to offender is “Why me?” Why did you choose my house to spray paint with profane graffiti? Why did you break into my van and steal my tools? Why did you drive through my yard and park your car in my swimming pool? The answer is almost always, “No particular reason. You were just in my way.”

Sometimes the offenders experience remorse and make constructive changes when they interact with the real people they have turned into crime victims. Many times not. What fascinates me at the moment is that very human question. Why? Why me? Why you? We need reasons, explanations, solutions. Without them, the world is a puzzling, random, mysterious maze we cannot navigate.

Harold Schechter subtitles his book, Hell’s Princess, “The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.” If you have a weak stomach or are triggered by graphic descriptions of violence, you might want to avoid reading this book. But if you want to wrestle a bit with what Schechter calls “the mystery of iniquity,” then take a read. The book came to me as one of the borrowing choices on Amazon Prime, and I’m glad it popped up.

Schechter specializes in the true crime genre with a particular focus on serial killers. Hell’s Princess is the story of Belle Gunness, the “Lady Blue Beard” of La Porte, Indiana. Gunness, baptized in the Trondheim area of Norway in 1859 as Brynhild Paulsdatter, came to Chicago with her parents in 1881. The early chapters sketch a brief biography that culminates in Belle’s first two murders–husband number one, Mads Sorensen, and husband number two, Peter Gunness. Each died under what appears in hindsight to be suspicious circumstances. At the time, however, each death received a relatively innocent explanation. And each estate raised Belle’s net worth.

With Peter Gunness, she had purchased a forty-eight acre farmstead here La Porte. The farmstead became the bait used to attract, hook and land another dozen or more lonely bachelors, hired men, and husbands to be (most recruited through personal ads in Norwegian-language newspapers). Each of the prospects came with cash in hand and was welcomed into the widow’s bed (more accurately, she hopped into their beds).

Ten of them (at least) were chloroformed or poisoned, dismembered, wrapped in burlap, treated with quick lime, and planted under the Gunness hog lot–but not before adding to Belle’s bottom line. A few who escaped with their lives described Belle as irresistibly seductive. Harper’s Weekly disagreed, portraying Belle Gunness as a “fat, heavy-featured woman with a big head covered with a mop of mud-colored hair, small eyes, huge hands and arms, and a gross body supported by feet grotesquely small.” the description may be overly harsh based on photographs (with which the book is well-supplied). In any event, Belle offered more than physical beauty.

Just a side note–in the Amazon product I read, many of the pictures included some degree of animation that was attractive and entertaining. I appreciated this new feature.

The book describes her methods and each victim in entertaining and excruciating detail. She was able to put off suspicions for years by simply stating that her various paramours had abandoned her with little explanation and no forwarding address. For the brother of Andrew Helgelien, that account was insufficient. Asle, the brother, boarded a South Dakota train and came looking for Andrew. Belle must have known that the jig, as they say, was up.

On April 28th, 1908, the Gunness house burned to the ground. Belle and her three children were apparently burned beyond recognition in the blaze. Joseph Maxson, the hired hand du jour, was the only survivor of the fire. It soon became apparent that the fire was an act of arson. Suspicion focused on Ray Lamphere, who had been summarily replaced by Andrew Helgelien ( and thus saved from poisoning, dismemberment, etc.). Lamphere was arrested and tried for murder and arson.

Fully half the book focuses on the discovery of the bodies and Lamphere’s trial. Belle’s history of atrocity soon became apparent. Lamphere insisted he was innocent, and that Belle herself had set the fire, murdered her own children and inserted a murdered substitute in her place. Given Belle’s history, that was a plausible scenario. Authorities could not be sure if the dead woman was indeed Belle Gunness, since the corpse was headless.

The trial was fascinating but finally inconclusive. Numbers of people were convinced that Belle had not only survived the blaze but that she had absconded with a small fortune and was living elsewhere under an assumed identity. Sightings of Belle Gunness were reported for two decades following the trial, culminating in the accusation of a California woman in 1931 as the Lady Bluebeard of La Porte, now plying her trade in sunnier climes. Read the book to find out what happened.

There it is–a mystery left hanging. Did you feel the irritation? I hope so. Belle Gunness either died in the fire or was never found. In either case there was no closure, no resolution, no answer. Schechter describes this irritation as our “basic psychological hunger, our deep-seated longing to arrive at–or be provided with–tidy solutions to vexing puzzles.”

That’s a real need, along with our desire to hold the guilty accountable, to make offenders pay for their crimes. But there is, I think, more to it.

Mystery can be something unsolved, like this “Murder Farm” mystery. It can also be something unsolvable–like the depths of human depravity. We want explanations. We seek meaning. We find loose ends irritating and even threatening. We crave certainty. We want the books to balance, the accounts to reconcile. We want to know why serial killers kill, why mass shooters shoot. It may be illness or politics or ideology. But it must, we insist, be something. Better a bad explanation than no explanation at all.

What about “the mystery of iniquity”? How can someone so utterly lack human compassion? Could that person be my neighbor? I imagine the good people of La Porte, Indiana, were not quite so trusting of their neighbors after Belle’s homicidal escapades. Could I–even I–be capable of such irrational and systematic cruelty?Let’s check in, for example, with everyday Germans in 1938. Let’s ask their Jewish neighbors. Still we wonder. What in the world was going on?

We will not find out–at least not about Belle Gunness. Take this journey into another heart of darkness. It’s worth the time. But surrender any desire for closure. Some things are just a mystery.

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