Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men
True crime books will always sell. Humanity’s thirst for the macabre is quite insatiable. It has always been this way. Take for instance the fact that in the small town of La Porte, Indiana, well-respected women packed a local courtroom during the 1908 murder trial of Ray Lamphere. Lamphere, a known town drunk and rapscallion, stood accused of purposely setting fire to the farm of Belle Gunness and her two children. His trial contained several juicy details, including the fact that he was a known lover of Gunness and an elderly black woman suspected of being a voodoo priestess.
Making this case all the more salacious was the fact Gunness was a proven serial killer. After the fire gutted her farm, authorities uncovered at least eight decomposed corpses, most of which had had their heads removed. Today, many suspect that Gunnes killed a lot more than eight.
Ultimately, most investigators agreed that Gunness first incapacitated her victims with either arsenic or chloroform, then took a large hatchet to their heads and arms. Gunness, a homely Norwegian immigrant, ostensibly killed for money, but her savagery spoke to a much deeper motive.
Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess is a fast-paced look at the crimes of Belle Gunness. On top of that, Schechter, one of the grandees of true crime writing, focuses much of the book on the ordeal suffered by the hapless Lamphere.
While everyone believed that Gunness was guilty, many in La Porte suspected Lamphere of murdering Gunness and her children. Lamphere would be convicted of arson, not murder, and before he died of tuberculosis in 1909, several newspapers rushed to print highly suspect “confessions” about how Lamphere helped Gunness to murder at least one of her doomed handymen.
Hell’s Princess is an excellent, spellbinding read. Schechter is a master storyteller and a true ethnographer of the old Midwest. The one blemish here (insofar as some readers may be concerned) is that a larger portion of the book is dedicated to covering Lamphere’s trial than the shocking exploits of Gunness herself. Logically, this is due to the fact that Gunness’ crimes only came to light after her death, thus making a proper investigation and trial impossible. However, such logic may be lost on those who just want red meat.
The great revelation in Hell’s Princess is how long-lasting the Gunness case has proven to be. Since Gunness’ corpse contained no head and seemed to have shrunk a great deal, people immediately began suggesting that the infamous killer had faked her own death. Schechter concedes that this may very well have happened, although the most tantalizing case of a post-1908 sighting of Gunness has already been disproven. Still, Hell’s Princess ends on a mysterious note, suggesting that the full truth about “Lady Bluebeard” is not known and may never be known.