‘Hell’s Princess,’ by Harold Schechter

Hell's Princess

How they resisted the temptation to title this book, “Hell’s Belle,” I will never understand.

We Norwegian-Americans are generally reconciled to the fact that we occupy a secondary (at best) tier in American culture. But we take pride in our notabale sons and daughters: Politicians like Hubert Humphrey, scientists like Norman Borlaug, actors like Harry Morgan.

There is one prominent Norwegian American, though, whom most of us had never heard of (I had, but I’m fairly remarkable): Belle Gunness of LaPorte, Indiana, one of America’s first known serial killers and one of her few female serial killers. She also scores pretty high in the body count tallies.

Hell’s Princess, by true crime author Harold Schechter, tells her grisly story in a scholarly and judicious manner. Though the ending (as he admits) is kind of anticlimactic.

Belle Gunness was born in Norway in 1859; she was a large, unlovely woman and the victim of rape. She immigrated to America, worked hard, and had a reputation for kindness to children. But somewhere along the line she determined to be rich, and chose an easy road to wealth.

Having poisoned her husband, she took the insurance money and bought a nice farm in LaPorte, Indiana. She started placing “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers, advertising for a husband with money. Her main inducement was not her person, but the quality of her farm. Once she began corresponding with suitors, she would convince them to keep their relationship secret, to liquidate their resources, and to bring the cash with them when they came to marry her. Then she would poison them, put them out of their misery with an ax, dismember their bodies, and bury them in the hog pen. There was a room in the house where the men’s traveling trunks were stored, and they piled up, according to her hired men. Estimates of her murders begin at 25 and escalate from there.

Then one night in 1908 her house went up in flames. Controversy rages to this day whether the adult female body found badly burned and headless in the ashes (along with the bodies of her three children) was hers, or that of another victim whom she did away with to cover her escape.

Author Schechter admits he just doesn’t know. Belle’s hired man was convicted of arson and died in prison, but reasonable questions remain about his guilt, or the extent of his guilt. Reports of Belle sightings continued to come in for years and years. It’s likely we’ll never know for certain.

An interesting crime study lacking a satisfying resolution, Hell’s Princess is a well-written and researched book. Cautions for deeply disturbing material.

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