Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter

‘Come prepared to stay forever.’

Until I picked up this book, I’d not heard of Belle Gunness. So, who was she? Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset was born in Inngbya in Norway on 11 November 1859. She emigrated to America as a young adult and adopted a more American name: Bella Peterson. Bella worked as a domestic servant until marrying Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in March 1884. Mr Sorenson died on 30 July 1900. Bella collected insurance of $8500 and bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana. And it is here, between 1902 and 1908, that she murdered between 25 and 40 victims.

Mr Schechter provides an abundance of footnotes and sources for his account of Belle Gunness and her murders. It’s an uncomfortable read: Belle Gunness poisoned and butchered her victims. Because she never faced court we can speculate (but never be certain) about how many people she killed and why in each case.

‘She’s entitled to be known to future generations as the arch fiend of the twentieth century.’

But while part of the book focusses on the murders committed by Belle Gunness, a large part of the book is devoted to the mystery surrounding Belle Gunness’s own death. Was she murdered? Was Ray Lamphere guilty?

While I found this book interesting, there were a couple of aspects that irritated. First, I’m not sure what Belle Gunness’s looks had to do with her criminal activity. I understand that she was tall and powerful. Was she attractive or unattractive? Does it matter? I was also not sure why Elizabeth (Lizzie) Smith needed to be referred to as ‘Nigger Liz’ ten times in the text, especially given contemporary sensitivities to the use of the word ‘Nigger’.

Irritations aside, while Mr Schechter provides a wealth of detail in his search for answers about the woman who came to be known as Lady Bluebeard, there are still elements of the story that are uncertain. That adds to the mystery, and to the frustration.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith