Book Review: Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men

I recently read Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Bell Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter and was pleasantly pleased overall with the book and the presentation of this haunting and disturbing story. I haven’t read any true crime in a while that encouraged me to set other responsibilities aside to get to the bottom of the mystery presented in this book. For those who are unfamiliar with the true story of Belle, let me summarize.

Norwegian-born Belle is considered one of America’s first female serial killers, who reportedly killed up to forty people between 1884 and 1908. During her early years, she went through a string of husbands, who died under mysterious circumstances. Sometimes even her own children died mysteriously. She quickly drew on their life insurance policies. Authorities were sometimes suspicious, but few incidents were investigated. And if they were, the investigations didn’t go far enough.

Later, as a single woman with children, her main MO was to lure single wealthy men, often through matrimonial advertisements, to her La Porte, Indiana, farm with promises of sharing in the profits and enjoying the good life. Often she lured them with romantic notions; letters from the men often revealed their matrimonial intentions. As an example, here’s an excerpt of a letter Belle wrote to one of the last men to visit her.

To the Dearest Friend in the World: No woman in the world is happier than I am. I know that you are now to come to me and be my own. I can tell from your letters that you are the man I want. It does not take one long to tell when to like a person, and you I like better than anyone in the world, I know. Think how we will enjoy each other’s company. You, the sweetest man in the whole world. We will be all alone with each other. Can you conceive of anything nicer? I think of you constantly. When I hear your name mentioned, and this is when one of the dear children speaks of you, or I hear myself humming it with the words of an old love song, it is beautiful music to my ears. My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.

Belle often pressured the men to liquidate their financial assets and join her as soon as possible, sometimes requesting secrecy from friends and family. Once the men arrived, they gave Belle their financial investments in the farm. Sometimes only weeks later, the men vanished. When family members contacted Belle and sought news of their loved one, she gave them the usual story about the man being called away or deciding to pursue interests elsewhere, but she said she didn’t know where he had gone. This pattern repeated itself over the course of many men and many years. Her last reported victim was Andrew Hegelein. When Hegelein’s brother became aggressive in investigating his brother’s disappearance, some believe Belle felt the squeeze and realized her crime spree was coming to an end. What happened next reveals the true mystery of Belle Gunness.

Bellle and her children. All the children later perished in the fire. Though a headless woman’s corpse was found with them, no one has conclusively proved to this day that Belle died in the fire.

On April 27, 1908, she went to her attorney and made her will. Then she bought special toys for her three children as well as a large quantity of kerosene. Early morning the next day, a hired man, who slept upstairs in Belle’s house, woke to find smoke filling his bedroom. He barely escaped the fire after searching the house for the children, who weren’t in their rooms. Nor was Belle.

The entire house went up in flames. Later, the remains of Belle’s three children and the corpse of a headless woman were found in the basement. For months, investigators had several avenues of inquiry. First, how had the fire started? Second, had Belle perished along with her children in the fire? Third, had Belle escaped and left the body of another woman in her place? While searching the farm after the fire, authorities uncovered human remains in shallow graves under the hog pen, and each day the list of corpses grew. Sometimes the remains belonged to women and even children. Other remains were identified as the single men who had agreed to join Belle on the farm but later vanished. Sometimes they revealed head wounds; other times they were found to be poisoned. Had Belle staged her death, killed her children, and then vanished to escape the tightening noose? She’d had a tumultuous relationship with Ray Lamphere, a previous farmhand, who had acted suspiciously on the morning of the fire. Had Ray set the fire due to his malice toward Belle?

While “Belle sightings” were coming in from all over the country, Ray was arrested and tried for murder. The jury found him guilty of setting the fire but cleared him of homicide. He later died in prison of tuberculosis, but before he did, he confessed to a minister that he had never killed any of the men who had visited Belle, but he had helped bury their bodies. He also said that Belle had killed a woman hired to be her housekeeper; it was this woman’s body investigators had found after the fire. But had his confession been accurate or only an attempt to exonerate himself?

As time passed, questions remained. Belle had been a large woman, weighing over two hundred pounds; but the female corpse had been too slender, some believed, to be Belle. Investigators reportedly found Belle’s dental bridgework in the fire’s remains. A local dentist identified it as work he had done for Belle; however, if the fire had been hot enough to consume Bell’s skull, it surely would have destroyed the dental work. Where had her skull gone? Had the dental work been planted later to convince investigators that Belle was dead when she was, in fact, still alive? If the children had died in the fire, why did the coroner find lethal levels of strychnine in their bodies?

To this day, no one knows for sure what happened to Belle and her children on that fateful morning. In recent years, investigators exhumed her reported remains and tried to match the DNA to DNA on letters Belle had sealed by licking them. Unfortunately, the DNA match was inconclusive.

Overall, this was a very good read, in spite of failing to provide full closure due to the continuing unsolved mystery. The book focuses more on the mystery of what happened to Belle rather than on her murder of so many men who arrived on her doorstep, seeking profit and love. Belle was sexually immoral, often visiting the beds of the visiting men at night, but there are no graphic descriptions of the immorality; merely the facts of her behavior are reported. The book is void of any foul language. Some details of the exhumations on the property are detailed and may be disturbing to some readers, but descriptions of her actual violent acts are restrained if not mostly missing.

The “Kindle in Motion” feature, which provides animations within the book itself, is a cool accent in the Kindle version. I enjoyed seeing photos of Belle and her children, her former husbands, and various newspaper clippings from the era. This book doesn’t read like a novel, such as parts of Erik Larson’s fictionally speculating The Devil in the White City. The authorial voice is detached and excels more in reporting information rather than in storytelling. I was fascinated by this snapshot of life in the early 1900s and the biography of a woman who sadly chose a life that profited from the demise of others. In the end, the true mystery of Belle remains exactly that. Perhaps someday someone will find the DNA to write the final chapter of this disturbing story.

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