SPECIAL NOTE: Hell’s Princess by Harold Schechter is one of four books included in this month’s Creepy Crate. Order by February 10 to get one of these books, plus a selection of terrifying true-crime themed collectibles.
In 1908, a farmhouse burst into flames. The bodies of one woman and three children were found among the ashes. When authorities showed up to investigate the fire, they made an unexpected discovery–11 more bodies around the property. Belle Gunness’s reign of murder had come to a fiery end.
As the investigation continued, even the identity of the corpse believed to be Belle Gunness came into question. Gunness’s hired man, Ray Lamphere, claimed that she had asked him to burn down her farmhouse, children inside. After all, Gunness’s many crimes were catching up to her. The brother of her second husband, who had died in a mysterious accident, was certain that there had been no such accident. He had been murdered by Gunness herself.
Although Gunness was never technically convicted of any crimes, as she died before she could be arraigned on any charges, the deaths of her children and those found on her estate places her death count at 14. It is believed that she may have killed as many as 40 men, luring them in a lonely heart scheme.
In the below excerpt, Harold Schechter reconstructs the inquest into the death of Gunness’s second husband, Peter Gunness.
Read on for an excerpt of Hell's Princess, which you may receive in this month's Creepy Crate.
During their first decade of marriage, Belle and Mads had briefly taken in a boarder named Peter Gunness. Surviving photographs of Peter confirm one writer’s description of him as a “fine-looking blond Viking of a man with clear blue eyes and a pointed yellow beard and mustache.” An emigrant from Oslo who arrived in this country in 1885, he joined his brother, Gust, in Minneapolis before moving to Chicago in 1893—the year of the great World’s Fair—where he rented a room from the Sorensons while working in the stockyards. After a brief visit back to Norway, he returned to Minneapolis, where, in June 1895, he married a young woman named Jennie Sophia Simpson. They lived in a house on Hennepin Street while Peter worked as “an order man for a grocery house.” Their first child, a girl they christened Swanhild, was born in 1897. Four years later, Jennie Gunness died while giving birth to their second child, another girl.
During her visit to her cousin in Minnesota following Mads’s death, the widow Sorenson made it her business to take a trip to Minneapolis and become reacquainted with her handsome—and suddenly available—former boarder. The years had not been kind to Belle. Hardly a beauty to begin with, she had aged into a coarse and mannish figure, described, in the particularly harsh words of one of her contemporaries, 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.” That she had so little trouble attracting men, even one as handsome as Peter Gunness, says much about the seductive appeal of her forty-eight-acre Indiana farmstead. On April 1, 1902, the physically incongruous couple were married in the First Baptist Church of La Porte, the Reverend George C. Moor officiating.
Five days after the nuptials, Peter’s seven-month-old daughter died. “Edema of the lungs” was given as the official cause of death. Her body was shipped to Chicago, where it was interred in the Forest Home Cemetery beside the remains of the two other infants who had died in Belle’s care.
Eight months later, at around 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 16, Swan Nicholson and his family—the Gunnesses’ nearest neighbors—were startled awake by a sharp banging on the front door, as though someone were striking it with an iron rod. Hurrying downstairs in their bedclothes, they found Belle’s foster daughter, Jennie, standing on their porch, a stove poker clutched in one hand.
“Mamma wants you to come up,” said the twelve-year-old girl. “Papa’s burned himself.”
When they arrived at the Gunness farmhouse a few minutes later, Swan and his young son Albert found Belle seated in the kitchen, so overwrought that she could barely speak coherently. Her husband, dressed in his long white nightshirt, was sprawled facedown in the parlor—“laying on his nose and blood on the floor,” as Nicholson later testified. Squatting by the body, Nicholson “took hold of his arms to feel the pulse and tried to talk to him. But he wouldn’t give me no answer.”
Ordered to go fetch a physician, young Albert ran all the way into town and roused Dr. Bo Bowell, then serving as the county coroner. While the doctor got dressed, Albert hurried over to the barn where Bowell stabled his rig. Then the two quickly drove to the Gunness place.
Striding into the parlor, Bowell got to his knees and made a close examination of the body, while the others—Swan, Albert, Jennie, and a sobbing Belle— stood around in a circle. Bowell could tell at once that Gunness had been dead for some time. The body was already growing rigid. The back of his head bore an ugly wound, thickly caked with blood, and his nose was broken and bent to one side. Bowell’s immediate impression was that the man had been murdered.
Belle, whose “condition bordered on hysteria,” was led back into the kitchen and seated in a chair. Bowell did his best to find out what had happened, though the story he managed to extract from the inconsolable woman raised more questions than it answered. From what he could gather, her husband had gone into the kitchen to get his shoes, which he kept near the stove to stay warm. As he stooped to retrieve them, a meat grinder had tumbled from a shelf above his head, striking the back of his skull and overturning a bowl of hot brine that scalded his neck. Despite his injuries, he’d assured her that he was all right and had lain down to rest. A few hours later, she’d discovered him dead on the parlor floor.
Though Bowell found this story highly suspect, he decided to reserve judgment until a postmortem could be performed the next day. Young Albert Nicholson, however, harbored no such doubts. As he and his father headed back home, he “remarked that he thought Mr. Gunness had been murdered. His father cautioned him not to say anything of the sort, or there might be trouble for Mrs. Gunness.”
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Reporting on Peter Gunness’s death the following day, newspapers exhibited little of the caution that Swan Nicholson had urged on his son. “Crime of High Degree,” blared a headline in the Fort Wayne Daily News. During the past few weeks, so the paper declared, murder had been “running rampant in La Porte County.” Residents were still mourning the death of the heroic young Wesley Reynolds, killed in a shoot-out with two would-be bank robbers. The three “negro footpads” who had murdered grocer John Koonsman remained at large, despite a five-hundred-dollar reward offered for their capture by the local Retail Merchants’ Association. Police were attempting to track down the person who had sent a box of arsenic-laced bonbons to young servant girl Matilda Baker who, “unsuspecting the poison in the candy, partook freely of it.” And the mother of seventeen-year-old George Shearer barely escaped death when the youth “suddenly became demented and tried to kill [her] with a carving knife.”
This string of tragedies had culminated with the sudden death of Peter Gunness in a “mysterious manner” that gave “strong indications of foul play.” On the afternoon of December 16, Dr. Bowell, assisted by another local physician, Dr. H. H. Martin, conducted a postmortem on Gunness’s body. As detailed in his report, Bowell found “no evidence of scalds or burns on the entire body.” Gunness’s “nose was lacerated and broken, showing evidence of severe blows (or the result of falling upon a blunt article such as the edge of a board).” The most significant wound was “a laceration through the scalp and external layer of skull about an inch long, situated just above and to the left of the occipital protuberance. Upon removing the pericranium, there showed a fracture and depression of the inner plate of the skull at a point corresponding to the external laceration. There was also marked intercranial hemorrhage.” Bowell concluded that “Death was due to shock and pressure caused by fracture and said hemorrhage.”
Far from shedding light on the mysterious circumstances of Gunness’s death, as Bowell had hoped, the autopsy only exacerbated his doubts about the story he had gotten from Belle. Determined to get at the truth, he announced his intention to impanel a jury and conduct an inquest.
The inquest was held on Thursday, December 18, 1902, at the Gunness farmhouse, in the room where Peter died. Belle, the primary witness, underwent a lengthy and at times quite pointed interrogation by Dr. Bowell, while his clerk, Louis H. Oberreich, transcribed the exchange.
Asked to describe the events of that fateful night, Belle explained that, after putting her children to bed, she had gone into the kitchen to stuff sausage casings with the freshly butchered pork Peter had ground for her that afternoon. After completing the task, she had washed the meat grinder, then retired to the parlor, where Peter was reading the newspapers.
“We were sitting here looking at them, I think it was after eleven o’clock,” she recalled. “I said to him, ‘I guess it’s pretty near time to go to bed.’ He thought so, too, and he picked up his pipe and went out into the kitchen. He always used to lock the door before we went upstairs to sleep. And I heard him make some little noise out there, and he always put his shoes back on the stove to warm, and I guess he must have been back to get hold of a pair of shoes, and all at once I heard a terrible noise and I dropped my paper and went and when I came out there, he was raising up from the floor and putting both hands on his head. I had a big bowl with some brine on the back of the stove, and I was going to put it on some head cheese I left there, and the bowl was full and hot and I thought I couldn’t use it until tomorrow morning and thought I might as well leave it there until morning.”
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“Where was that?” asked Bowell. “On the stove or the shelf?”
“On the back part of the stove. I had washed the meat grinder and wiped it off and put it on a shelf of the stove to dry. I generally put my iron things up there to dry. ‘Mamma,’ he says, ‘I burned me so terrible.’ I was so scared I didn’t know what to do, all his clothes were wet. I said, ‘You had better take your clothes off.’ He said, ‘My head burns terribly.’ I heard baking soda and water was good to put on so it would not get blistered, so I put that on. I bathed a towel in it and put it on his neck.”
“Was all this brine spilt?” Bowell asked.
“Yes,” said Belle. “I think the bowl was nearly empty.”
“Was that brine boiling hot?”
“Well, it had been boiling,” said Belle, “but it had stood for some time on the stove, so it was not so warm but it was warm enough to burn. I rubbed him with Vaseline and liniment.”
When Bowell asked if she had noticed the wound on the back of his head while she was ministering to him, Belle acknowledged that she had.
“Was it bleeding?” asked Bowell.
“Not very much,” she replied. “The bleeding seemed all to be stopped.”
“Mamma wants you to come up,” said the twelve-year-old girl. “Papa’s burned himself.”
Told to continue, Belle explained that they sat in the kitchen while she rubbed Vaseline on her husband’s scalded neck. “He said he was afraid he was going to lose some of his hair on account of that burning, and he was complaining terribly.” They then returned to the parlor and “sat there a couple of hours anyway.” By then, “he was beginning to get a little better and I said, ‘Don’t you think you had better lay down?’ And he said, ‘Probably I will,’ and I said, ‘You had better not go upstairs to bed but lay down on the lounge and I will fix that up there, for it is warmer.’ He thought so, and I went and fixed the lounge for him and took out his clothes and put on his nightshirt. I told him, ‘I think I’ll go up and lay down with the girls, and if there is anything you want call me down.’ So I went up and went to sleep. I was tired.”
In dramatic terms, Belle narrated the grievous denouement. “All at once, I heard him calling. He was over by the door and calling ‘Mamma’ as fast as he could and so that the children waked up and I was trying to think and said they should keep quiet, that I had to go to Papa, that Papa was burned. I tried to put on my clothes because it was cold. I went down the steps and when I came down he was walking around the room and saying, ‘O Mamma, Mamma, my head. I don’t know what is the matter with my head.’ I asked what the matter was. ‘My head, my head,’ he says. ‘It’s like something going on in my head.’ ‘Papa,’ I said, ‘what are you talking about? Let me see what it is, I suppose you rubbed o the skin.’ ‘O my head, my head.’ ‘Well, if you think it is best, I had better send for the doctor,’ I said, and I went upstairs and I got the girl up and she went over to the Nicholsons. And when I came from upstairs he was holding his head and said, ‘O Mamma, I guess I am going to die.’ I asked him what was paining him so terrible and took him some water and he said not to touch his head. When Nicholson came to the door I was rubbing his head, and I opened the door, I think, and they come in and he then thought he was gone but I did not think he was gone before you came, I think he was only unconscious.”
“About how long do you think it was from the time that he was hurt out there before he died?” asked Bowell.
“Well, I guess it must have been after eleven o’clock he was hurt, and I didn’t think he was gone until after you come here.”
“You sat up with him two hours after he was hurt?”
“Yes,” said Belle. “Of course I wasn’t upstairs long. I said good night and went upstairs and was there a short time when he called me.”
“Did you say that he was burned bad?”
Belle nodded. “He was red on the neck and the skin was blistered by the ear here.”
“How do you think he got that hurt on his head?”
“I don’t know, Doctor. I picked up the meat grinder from the floor, and I think that must have tumbled on him one way or another, that’s what I think but I didn’t see it.”
“Did he say anything about it?” asked Bowell.
“He didn’t say anything about the hurt on his head.”
“When you found that cut, did you tell him his head was cut?”
“I asked him where he had been with his head because it was sore in the back but he didn’t tell me.”
In response to Bowell’s further inquiries, Belle averred that her husband never explained how the bowl of hot brine “came to tip over on him” beyond saying that he “must have got against it in some way.” When asked how he broke his nose, she professed ignorance. “I can’t say. I didn’t notice the nose before they told me.”
“Didn’t he complain of that?” asked Bowell. “Didn’t he bleed from the nose?”
“He didn’t bleed from the nose at all,” said Belle.
Bowell wondered if Belle “thought it possible that somebody may have come in here and killed him, hit him with that sausage grinder, and you not hear him?” She was emphatic in her denial. “If anybody had come in, I would have heard them some way or another.”
Bowell had a final question regarding Belle’s relationship with Peter, whose dreadful death in her presence just two days earlier had seemingly sent her into a wild paroxysm of grief.
“You always lived happily together, you and him?” Bowell asked. “As far as I know,” a dry-eyed Belle said with a shrug.