I, like millions of Americans, am completely obsessed with serial killers. I find something about the idea of people psychologically detaching themselves in ways to commit atrocities fascinating. Especially when the person committing said atrocities is a woman. Society still views females as soft and nurturing, so when one is labelled a serial killer people want to know why. What made her turn to killing? Why in such a brutal fashion? That’s where this novel comes into play.
As seems to be the story of most serial killers Belle Gunness, originally named Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset before moving to the United States, was assumed to have had a bit of a difficult upbringing. She had to work hard as a farm hand and was regarded as an unattractive woman. Although much of her background is unknown, there were rumors of how the townspeople thought of her. The rumor that stood out most to me was that Brynhild became pregnant at a young age by a wealthy landowners son. Deciding that he would not marry this ‘unlovely’ woman he supposedly lured her to a secluded spot and beat her so severely that she miscarried. However, a few weeks later that same landowner’s son turned up dead due to symptoms that very much resembled arsenic poisoning. Now, the author makes it clear that there is no documented proof that these events took place but it does sensationalize Belle’s story.
Upon arriving in Chicago and being mesmerized by the ‘American Dream’, Belle became extremely money hungry. Anytime she was in a financial bind, she would commit arson and get an insurance check. However, the perfect opportunity arose for her first official murder when her husband had a one day overlap in life insurance coverage. Instead of receiving $2,000 from the old policy or just $3,000 from the new, a ‘happy’ circumstance arose when her husband came home feeling ill that day and died an hour later. Belle received $5,000 in life insurance payout. This was the only the beginning of Belle’s killing spree.
Hordes of unsuspecting men were brought to the farm under the guise of Belle needing help (with the possibility of marriage) but none were ever seen from again. Until one morning, Belle’s house was set on fire. The fire burned so severely that nothing was left of the farmhouse. Once investigators were able to enter the grounds, the bodies of the children and who they presumed to be Belle Gunness were discovered. I say presumed to be Belle because the head was missing and the body was badly burned. This kicked off a search in the remains of the barn to find the missing head.
The search for the missing head led the people of La Porte to find several dead bodies, including those of the men that came to town to work for Belle as well as her daughter – the same daughter that everyone in town had believed was in California. Ensues one of the great mysteries of the time: Is Belle Gunness truly dead or did she go into hiding?
Harold Schecter was able to create an informative, yet somehow entertaining novel to read. At times it did feel a bit too long for me, as the author would go into explicit details of not only Belle but several other murderers of the time. Although those other killers were interesting to read about, it caused the story to feel choppy at times. I did appreciate the complete picture of the times and would definitely recommend this novel to anyone that enjoys true crime.