Books lie on a table alongside a gun and a glass of whiskey.
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Book Review: “Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness” by Harold Schechter


Serial killers have existed as long as humanity has. People are fascinated by lurid tales of dastardly deeds performed by depraved individuals. In some cases, the gorier, the better. We’ve all heard of the famous ones: Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, and more. Furthermore, history tends to focus on male serial killers, such as those named above. Female serial killers exist in history as well. Take, for instance, Belle Gunness.

Belle Gunness deserves to be listed as among the most depraved, sadistic serial killers who ever existed. This Midwestern wife lured plenty of unsuspecting men to her farm in Indiana where she, uh, “took care of them” between 1884 and 1908. Searchers found at least thirteen bodies found on her farm. However, possibly more victims fell prey to Gunness’ machinations.

Prominent true crime author Harold Schechter pens a well-researched and riveting (if slightly sensational) biography about Belle Gunness in Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men. Belle’s story is full of enough twists and turns to satisfy both the morbidly curious and the mystery lover.

Historical Context

The Early Life of Belle Gunness

Gunness was born in Norway on November 11, 1859 to a sharecropper. She emigrated to America in the 1880s and settled in Chicago. She married the first of her two husbands, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, in 1884. In May 1900, Sorenson mysteriously perished on the one day when the two life insurance policies he took out overlapped (one was due to expire when another one began on the same day). Gunness claimed he fell sick with a headache, and when she went to check on him, Sorenson lay dead in his bed. Additionally, their two infant children also suddenly died while in the care of their mother. In an age where infant mortality was still relatively high, this may not have aroused much suspicion. But still, it’s enough to give the researcher and readers pause. 

What would cause Gunness to potentially murder her husband and her children? The answer is simple – money. Belle lived what Schechter describes as a deprived childhood in Norway where her family survived at barely a subsistent level. In America, she desired, like many others, to better herself. But, her attempts to get rich would certainly raise some eyebrows…and a few hairs. It started with insurance fraud, but it escalated into something much more sinister when she moved her remaining family to La Porte, Indiana.

Belle Gunness and her children. A baby is sitting on her lap, and two young girls  standing to her right.
Belle Gunness and her children | Public Domain

Belle Gunness in La Porte

In La Porte, she married a local man named Peter Gunness. He brought two daughters from his previous marriage, expanding their family. One of these little girls died in mysterious circumstances, and Peter followed a few months later. Belle Gunness claimed he had been accidentally struck by a sausage grinder.

Over the years in a “mail-order husband” scheme, Belle Gunness placed advertisements in Midwestern Norwegian newspapers to attract men to her farm to become a partner. Over time, however, these men disappeared. One of the men who came to call upon her was Andrew Helgelien, a Norwegian farmer who hailed from South Dakota. He visited her for a couple of weeks in January 1908, during which he transferred money from his bank account back home to a La Porte bank. He and Belle Gunness retrieved the money in cash. Helgelien disappeared the next day and was not seen again back home.

The mystery deepened when Andrew Helgelien’s brother Asle became concerned and contacted both Belle and a local after finding love letters between the pair. Gunness demurred and indicated he left town whereas the bank confirmed Andrew’s presence in La Porte. A short time later, Asle arrived in La Porte to locate his brother. What he ultimately finds, however, is horrific and tragic. I won’t spoil too much more here, but Belle Gunness’s La Porte farm contained more than just animals.


Schechter’s book on Belle Gunness offers a compelling insight into one of history’s “black widow” murderers. The author pulls from a wide range of primary sources with the intent of creating a vivid and sobering account of Gunness’ life from her origins in Norway to her supposed death in Indiana. He manages to be both engaging and informative without the dryness that often is associated with non-fiction titles. I appreciate Schechter’s use of newspaper accounts because it allows readers avenues for further research though not everyone was impressed with the amount of footnotes. 

One of the complaints I viewed on Amazon centered on the fact that a large portion of the book was comprised of footnotes. As a historian, I relish these because of the attribution to outside sources. At a glance, it’s easier to question the sources and any inherent bias that may have evolved as part of the author’s research process. In this book, however, the footnotes don’t detract from the overall experience and can be easily ignored.

Schechter manages to approaches the subject of Belle Gunness with enough detail to satisfy the morbidly curious while also providing good historical context for the historical period in which she lived. He does not shy away from her gruesome acts but also does not celebrate them or elevate them into something sensational. 

I found this book an easy and captivating read. Although not wholly academic for those interested in such a topic, keep in mind that this is written for a popular audience. It’s certainly worth a try, especially if you’re interested in serial killers.

Book Summary

Book cover of "Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men".

Title: Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men
Author: Harold Schechter
Publisher: Little A
Publication Year: 2018
Page Count: 335pp

Further Reading on Belle Gunness

For more information on Belle Gunness, check out the La Porte County Historical Society and Museum’s biography about this infamous woman.

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