Expert’s new book on infamous female serial killer sets records straight.
Posted Apr 02, 2018
I often show a video clip in my course on extreme offenders that comes from Dr. Michael Baden’s HBO Autopsy series. It features vintage footage of the case of Belle Gunness, with a theory that she managed to elude authorities and transform into a woman named Esther Carlson. This has long been a popular theory. An attempt was made via exhumation to disprove it, but the results were “inconclusive.” Belle, the “Female Bluebeard,” has retained her reputation as the clever killer who got away.
Appropriately, on April 1, Harold Schechter’s new book, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, was published. Schechter, a professor of American lit and popular culture, has delivered several definitive books on serial killers, ranging from Jane Toppan to Ed Gein to H. H. Holmes. When he announced his intent to take on Belle Gunness, I was thrilled. I knew he’d do a thorough job. And he did.
Gunness is a rare female serial killer-for-profit, although she seems to have had other motives as well. This Norwegian-American had insured her first husband and two of her children before killing them in the early 1900s to enrich herself and improve her status. She took her other children and bought a pig farm in Indiana, which she proceeded to turn into a graveyard, starting with her second husband, also insured.
The twice-widowed Belle, looking for new blood, published matrimonial ads, and men arrived, one after another. Most disappeared. She’d warned some not to reveal their destination, but one man did. His brother came asking questions, which ended Belle’s six-year spree.
When a fire leveled the place in 1908, investigators looked for Belle's body. A charred headless corpse was thought at first to be her, but the size and height seemed wrong. Although her remaining children were found burned, they'd also been poisoned. Officials searching for missing men soon turned up one butchered corpse after another that Belle had buried on her pig farm.
A former handyman seen running from the fire was charged with arson, and he insisted that Belle was still alive. She’d faked her death and he’d taken her to the train station. He said she'd had far more victims than the official estimates of a dozen or so. This led to gruesome speculation that she’d fed some remains to her pigs.
Over the years, “Belle sightings” were reported many times, and some women were falsely detained. Then in 1931 in Los Angeles, an elderly woman named Esther Carlson was charged with murder. Before her trial commenced, she died, and someone who’d known Belle recognized her from Carlson's photo in the newspaper. Reportedly, police found a trunk in a room where Carlson had been staying (shown in the footage) that contained photos of Belle's children.
But Schechter offers an alternative story, thanks in part to another researcher's painstaking work on Carlson's chronology in 2014. As slick as Belle was, she couldn’t be in two places at once. Although Schechter does not answer the ultimate question of whether Belle got away, he provides enough definitive detail to let readers decide for themselves. Today, the “murder farm,” where so many victims were killed, dismembered, and buried, is reputed to be haunted and has become a destination for murder tourism.
Among the most eye-opening chapters – besides what Gunness did to her victims – is the account of people converging on the farm following the discoveries to gawk. “A massive crowd of men, women, and children – whose number that day would eventually swell to the thousands – was pressed against the wire mesh fence surrounding the hog lot.” They exploited the lack of crime scene control to get their fill of the horrors. Many grabbed souvenirs.
I was also fascinated with the details of reports from mental health experts, including criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso and forensic psychologist Hugo Munsterberg. Both remarked on Belle’s absence of empathy, with emphasis on her apparent ability to overcome “natural feminine feelings.” Lombroso spotted her “super intelligence for doing evil,” making her “more terrible than any male criminal.”
Hell’s Princess takes its place among Schechter’s other true-crime classics as the definitive rendering of one of the most beguiling and brutal of all female serial killers. His gruesome page-turner, grounded in meticulous historical research, confirms his reputation as one of the top true-crime writers of our time.
Although I still play the old news footage for my class, mostly because Baden sings the infamous song about Belle from those days, I can now explain the story better.
Schechter, H. (2018). Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men. New York, NY: Little A.