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Belle Gunness: Butcher of La Porte.
Belle Gunness and county historian Bruce Johnson. Had Belle been alive, she might have whacked Bruce with a hammer.

Belle Gunness: Butcher of La Porte

Field review by the editors.

La Porte, Indiana

The La Porte County Historical Society Museum would love for people to see its large collection of classic automobiles, extensive display of antique weapons, and many rooms of vintage furniture accessorized with showroom dummies dressed in period fashions.

Belle Gunness wanted posters are popular items in the gift shop.
Belle Gunness wanted posters are popular items in the gift shop.

Most visitors, however, come for Belle Gunness.

"Hell's Belle" Gunness is La Porte's best-known resident and worst nightmare. She lived in La Porte for only a few years, but during that time she murdered as many as three dozen people. The town hoped that her disappearance would dissipate her memory, but it's been over 100 years since Belle vanished and she still draws a crowd.

"There are so many other wonderful things for people to see and learn about, but she's the number one attraction," said Bruce Johnson, the county historian and resident Belle Gunness authority. "The museum board of directors sometimes just wishes she'd go away."

Skull of an unidentified Belle victim and a vintage souvenir postcard.
Skull of an unidentified Belle victim and a vintage souvenir postcard.

Belle Gunness arrived in La Porte at the turn of the 20th century, a sturdy Norwegian-American who spent much of her time writing letters to single Norwegian-American men, inviting them to come to her farm. "She had four rules," said Bruce. "Sell everything you own. Bring only cash. Sew it into your underwear for safety. Don't tell anybody anything. This is a secret between the two of us."

Soon, holes began appearing in the ground around Belle's farmhouse. Neighbors assumed that she was just burying sacks of garbage -- a common method of rural trash disposal at the time -- but mixed in with Belle's tin cans and chicken guts were, well, other things.

Belle was a popular subject for early pulp fiction.
Belle was a popular subject for early pulp fiction.

"What she seems to have done was that she poisoned all of these men who came to visit," said Bruce. "As soon as she got their money she would clobber them over the head with a hammer or hatchet and crack their skulls to make sure they were dead. Then she would take them into her basement and cut them into parts. She would cut off their heads their arms and their legs and then put them in gunnysacks until time for burial."

"It was strange," Bruce said, lost for a moment in historical detail. "Some of the heads she put in the outhouse."

A mysterious fire swept Belle's farm on April 28, 1908, and a headless woman's corpse was found in the farmhouse basement. Other corpses were quickly discovered. "She got away, there's no doubt about that in my mind," said Bruce, voicing the popular theory that the decapitated body was just another victim, left by Belle as a decoy. "She wasn't going to cut off her own head."

What Belle left behind: a pile of human meat.
What Belle left behind: a pile of human meat.

Once the corpses began to be unearthed, thousands of people flocked to La Porte. Tours were given of the farm buildings where the body parts were stored. An enlarged photo in the museum's Belle Gunness exhibit shows a blobby pile; many visitors are unaware that it's a mound of human meat (Bruce helpfully pointed out the head of one of the victims, who happened to be Belle's stepdaughter). "There was no yellow police tape back then," said Bruce, and countless clues were lost when tourists simply took things home as grisly souvenirs.

Belle Gunness's farm shed was salvaged and made part of the museum exhibit.
Belle Gunness's farm shed was salvaged and made part of the museum exhibit.

The current Belle Gunness exhibit, Bruce said, was something that he put together for the 100th anniversary of the fire. His goal, he said, was to tell "the true story" about Belle Gunness, rather than the fantasies of hack writers and La Porte teenagers. The museum board, Bruce said, didn't want to do anything for the anniversary, so he volunteered. "They said, 'Well, you're on your own. And keep it respectable.'"

"Respectable," of course, is a relative term when it comes to Belle Gunness. Aside from the human meat photo, there's a skull of an unidentified victim that was pulled out of Belle's outhouse, a cart used to haul bodies to the burial holes, and a souvenir postcard from 1913 that reads, "If you don't soon come to La Porte, Ind., I'll come after you with an axe." There's an old street sign for "Guness Road;" its name was changed when neighbors wanted to remove themselves from any association with the town's serial killer. There are examples of Belle Gunness pulp fiction ("The Butchering Widow" "Nightmare at the Murder Farm") and one of Belle's original letters, handwritten in Norwegian, enticing a victim. "She wrote about how beautiful it was around La Porte, how the people were very friendly," said Bruce, "and how the two of them could share stories about Norway and she could fix delicious foods, Norwegian foods. It would be wonderful!"

The museum is not all Belle. Here's a 1950s store counter, with wax employee.
The museum is not all Belle. Here's a 1950s store counter, with wax employee.

Perhaps the most striking relic in the Belle Gunness exhibit is an entire wall from a shed on her farm, its surface completely covered with carved names and addresses from the ghoulish tourists of 1908. "Just this one section has names from all over the United States, as well as from England and Norway," said Bruce, who added that he'd personally hosted several tour busses packed with traveling Norwegians. "People are just fascinated," he said. "They'll say, 'She was a woman? And she killed how many people?'"

The Belle Gunness exhibit occupies only a small part of the museum basement, but Belle Gunness souvenirs take up the majority of space in the gift shop. "Wanted posters, t-shirts, magnets for the refrigerator, people love all that stuff," said Bruce.

It would be helpful, we think, if visitors would praise exhibits in the museum in addition to the Belle Gunness collection, such as its mastodon jaw, its miniature riverboat, its 1967 Amphicar, its Dick Tracy cap pistol display. After all, Belle Gunness may have been bundled into a gunnysack of an exhibit, but she's not completely buried. And although it must have been difficult, the La Porte County Historical Society Museum has resisted the urge to symbolically chop off her head.

Also see: Lizzie Borden Murderabilia

Belle Gunness: Butcher of La Porte

La Porte County Historical Society Museum

2405 Indiana Ave., La Porte, IN
South edge of town, on the east side of US-35/Indiana Ave., in the La Porte County Historical Society Museum. The museum stands by itself and is easy to spot from the road.
Tu-Sa 10-4:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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