An Astonishing Female Serial Killer Dark Story

Do female serial killers exist? If you've watched your fair share of Crime Documentaries, and you know your True Crime Stories, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the serial killing career is a purely male domain. Is it true or false? How can we prove it? So, this week we delved deep into the history books to uncover the answer, and the history books were unequivocal in their response to the question do female serial killers indeed exist?

By way of example and to make the case, let's begin by telling the true crime story of a widower(twice over) by the name of Belle Gunness, her husband(s), her male acquaintances, her children, and her mysterious ending.

It all starts innocently enough. We meet Belle in the year of her birth in 1859 in Norway. At the age of 24, she moves to the new world with her father and marries her first husband in the year 1884. In the years to come, she would give birth to four children and adopt a fifth child. At this point, her tale seems no different to anyone else of the era.

Belle Gunness

Although she did have one problem - and no, it was not her husband - at least not yet. But she was inflicted with a most unfortunate curse. Through acts of God or pure lousy luck, her properties tended to be on the extremely flammable side.

The couple owned a candy store that mysteriously burnt down to the ground, and only a few short years later, the home they had built together across 15 years also suddenly turned into ash. Her grief was considerably eased by her gradual attainment of the American Dream, by being well protected from loss in the form of lucrative insurance payouts.

Especially so, in 1900, when her first husband tragically died on a particularly inauspicious day. It was the one day in which a coincidental overlap in the dates between an expiring life insurance policy and a new life insurance policy was to take effect.

She claimed he had come home with a headache, went for a lie-down, and later found him dead. The coroner interestingly enough initially ruled a verdict of strychnine poisoning, but Gunness's doctor overruled the decision and claimed heart failure was the cause. It was a windfall for the grieving widow. The unexpected blessing from the inheritance in the form of two life insurance payouts for her husbands' life eased her pains and even put her on a sound financial footing.

It added to the fortune she had already won after the tragic deaths of two of the couple's children, Caroline and Axel. They had already died in infancy of acute colitis, which although a common way for children to die at the time, also had similar symptoms to various forms of poisoning – vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, and so on. Fortunately for Belle, both baby's lives were insured, and the insurance company dutifully paid out the handsome bounties.

After all this tragedy, somehow Belle collected her life back together, and with the aid of the growing pile of insurance money, she bought a 40-acre property. Yet the curse that she labored under was not done with her yet. Before long, that property also burnt down, leading to yet another insurance claim. Once again, fate forced her to rebuild her life and her home, but at least she could restore the property in the manner she preferred.

Onlookers

Life gradually got better, and in 1902, she met and married her 2nd husband, Peter Gunness, who brought with him two daughters from a previous marriage. Tragically only one week into the marriage, Peter's 7-month-old daughter died unexpectedly. Peter, perhaps suspecting something was not quite right about the death, sent his 2nd daughter away to live with relatives. Destiny would prove that this was the only child to live with Belle, who would survive into adulthood.

Unfortunately for her second husband, Peter, tragedy struck a cruel fate at his expense. His misfortune was to be hit in the head by a sausage grinding machine that fell from a high shelf, or so the official story went. The coroner indicated that there appeared to be some evidence of strychnine poisoning, to which Belle resorted to the ultimate feminine weapon. Not poison - but tears, which few men can resist. Again she escaped with the benefit of the doubt and received yet another lucrative life insurance payout.

In 1906 her adopted daughter Jennie mysteriously disappeared, but Belle reassured anyone who asked after her, that she had been sent away to a finishing school.

From that point onward to her mysterious ending in1908, she would go in search of a new husband, placing ads in far-off newspapers seeking to lure wealthy men with her vast fortune.

"Personal—comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."

Dozens of potential suitors would write and visit her. She received up to 8 letters a day and often went for carriage rides with well-to-do strangers. On such occasions, she would wear her most beautiful clothing, yet she never was able to settle down with any of them.

She would convince some of these men to sell their assets or give her gifts of money to discharge her debts so that they may be more wholly joined. Some of them disappeared from the face of the earth. Often the missing men were under instructions to tell no-one of their budding romance. Sometimes though, relatives would connect the dots and come looking for their lost ones at Belle's door. Generally, she would claim she either didn't know where they were, or they had returned to their home towns without so much as writing her a letter.

In December of 1907, Andrew Helgelien received a letter from Belle with the line, "Come prepared to stay forever." It was a prophecy destined to come true as he duly emptied his bank accounts, moved to Belle's farm, and his family never to see or hear from him again.

Bodies Found

In 1908, Belle's curse would strike one more time with fatal consequences for herself. Once again, her house burnt down, but in this instance, there would be no insurance claim. The victims of the fire were Belle's three remaining children and the remains of a headless woman presumed to be Belle.

It was perplexing to the authorities, who initially believed a tragedy had occurred. But further investigation of the property revealed some disturbing finds. Amongst several shallow graves, the dismembered remains of at least 11 people were discovered, including those of Jennie, Belle's adopted daughter, whom everyone believed to be in finishing school.

Ominously, numerous body parts stored in sacks appeared to re-used as food for the pigs due to their proximity to the hog pen. With the number of men reported missing in the area reaching 25-30 men, Belle's speculative kill count is considered likely to exceed forty victims.

And how is one to explain the mystery of the headless corpse? Without the head of the victim, dental records could not be called on to identify the victim as Belle. Was Belle killed in the fire? Or did she arrange for a body double to take her place? Did she successfully fake her death before the authorities caught up with her?

For many years to come, there would be numerous reports of Belle sightings; sometimes, she was hiding in the woods near her home, other times on shopping trips in Chicago, or riding in a train carriage headed to New York, but nothing ever came of these reports.

Whether she died in the fire that night or not, Belle Gunness is an obvious example that predators come in all shapes and sizes. Despite some suspicions that occasionally swirled around her, she was never directly challenged or arrested, and in the end, may have successfully orchestrated her escape from ultimate justice by faking her death.

Is she an example of how successful female serial killers can be? Are female serial killers only much better at covering their tracks than their male counterparts, and if that is true, then, therefore, we know less about them because of their high success rate?

Belle Gunness - Serial Killer

After all, many of the stories on our walking tours contain women perpetrators. The Sydney Razor Gang tour is the prime example of a tour that is almost an ode to strong women such as Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, who ran the rival gangs in Sydney throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Further analysis of the historical record reveals countless feminine serial killer examples with extremely high body counts. The stories are incredible, and we'll be sure to write further on these women in posts to come.

In the meantime, let us know if you'd like to hear more about serial killers from the past or more on Australia's Crime History specifically. Or else, join us on tour sometime and take a walk on the dark side, and return to the scenes of the crimes, on any of these true-crime walking tours:-

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Murder on the Waterfront

In the days before electrical lighting, much could go on under cover of darkness. Australia's most famous iconic waterfronts, such as the Hunter River or Sydney Harbour or the Brisbane River, under darkened nighttime skies, were dangerous places to be. Without starlight nor moonlight, the good folk of the city were at the mercy of dark creatures of the night.

In the past, rivers such as London's Thames became somewhat infamous for the not unusual sight of dead bodies to be found floating on the water from time to time. But these occasions were not just an issue limited to the Mother Country alone; in the days before the Federation of Australia, the coroner's courts often had to deal with Jane and John Doe's floating around their respective state watering holes.

But this was the least of the concerns on Mrs. Lee's mind on one bright sunny afternoon in 1873. Mrs. Lee was doing what any ordinary person might be doing on a Saturday. She was coming into the Sydney Habour to spend some with the family, partake of some food and drink and return home by ferry to her Milson's Point home on the North Shore of Sydney.

Her son-in-law ran a bar in Circular Quay, right on the edge of the Sydney Harbour shoreline. After a few hours of drinking and reminiscing, she decided to leave at 7pm, perhaps noticing that her silver coins were beginning to run low. She had just enough left to pay the ferryman to take her to the other side of the harbor - her home.

It would be a strange time on the Sydney Harbour as bright daylight turned to a darkened cloud-filled night. The visibility was low. The watches on the various vessels mostly had to listen out for danger.

An apprentice, going about his work at around 9pm, on a vessel in the harbor, reported hearing a woman's voice ring out across the water. She was shouting, "Police, police! Murder, murder!". The young boy could very faintly observe a boat in the distance with two figures in it. The woman continued yelling, "You wretch! You will murder me!". Having no means of leaving his boat, and with a degree of helplessness, he yelled out to the pair, "Let the woman alone," but there was no response, and the couple faded from sight.

Another boy on watch duty on a different vessel also heard screams and, in the dim light, shouted out, hoping to scare the attacker, "What are you doing to the woman?". Surprisingly a voice from the darkness hissed back at him, "Never you mind – you have got some colonial in you! An olden time Australian insult.

Even across the other side of the water, screams for help had been so loud that the domestic servants of a notable residence, at Kirribilli Point, reported having heard similar cries.

On alert that some dark crime was taking place on the harbor underneath the pitch black of night, there was little anyone could do. The owner of a water taxi on the Circular Quay also noticed that his boat had vanished. Even more mysteriously, it had reappeared in its usual moorings when he returned later about 2 hours later at 11pm that same night.

The owner was furious as he noticed that the sail had gone missing. On closer inspection, however, indications of foul play became apparent. Despite evidence that someone had made some attempt to clean the boat up, the timbers of the boat were quite saturated in blood with red splash marks located on the mast. There was little to do except report the news of his bloodied boat to the water police.

At 7am early the next morning, a group of boys arrived by boat into Circular Quay and reported that they had seen the body of a woman floating amongst the rocks. The body was duly recovered and conveyed to the morgue at Circular Quay.

A post-mortem examination began, and the body, despite presenting a sickening spectacle, was identified as Mrs. Lee's. There was a very long list of wounds all over the body and limbs, and in the opinion of the medical gentlemen, these were inflicted during the final moments of the poor woman's life.

The police began to trace her movements the night previous. When she left her son-in-law's company, instead of going home, it seems she was seen in company with a waterman named Thomas in the Orient Hotel enjoying brandy and beer before the two left together.

The prospect of saving some coin may have prompted her to accept an offer of passage from Thomas. The savings would allow her to enjoy another round or two of drinks before retiring for the evening. For the waterman, it was a rare chance for some paid work after experiencing some lean times.

Thomas was about 45 years of age, a seller of fruits, and a licensed waterman. He was described as a miserable and sickly looking man, with matted hair and beard, and of mean stature and appearance. He was addicted to drink and when in that condition, was said to become quarrelsome and given to fighting. Thomas was a Rocks resident, had a wife and six children, but had mostly been living on the kindness of others of late.

Still, on the same morning as when the body was found, the water police knocked on his front door and asked him to account for his whereabouts the previous evening.

He admitted to taking the boat without permission, but he had returned it to its rightful place, although no-one was about on his return.

He had taken a woman, Mrs. Lee, across the harbor the previous evening, but had landed her at Milson's Point. No-one else but himself had seen her land, and that he knew nothing about the blood in the boat. After dropping her home, he came straight back to Circular Quay.

Modern Day Water Taxi

He admitted he had shared a drink with the deceased the previous evening and had even been seen to shout her drinks at the Orient Hotel.

As the police were questioning Thomas, they were interested in the state of his white handkerchief that was wrapped around his neck, as it was spotted with blood. Furthermore, Thomas showed no apprehension concerning the clothes he was wearing. He had not changed during the night, and his vest and shirt contained spots of blood. Police did not believe his claim about having a nose bleed resulting from a fistfight the preceding afternoon, and duly arrested him for the murder.

Despite proclaiming his innocence during the trial, Thomas was found guilty. There appears no premeditation of intent to murder, and on his execution day, he seems to accept his fate having a sound night's sleep the previous night.

Thomas addressed the spectators, acknowledging the justice of his sentence and punishment and thanked the gaol authorities for their kindness to him. He expressed a hope that no one would throw any aspersion upon his wife and children, which affected him so much he burst into tears. He then stated that drink had brought him to the scaffold and bid those present goodbye.

The bolt was drawn on the gallows – and somewhat rare for an execution performed in the 1800s, he died instantly.

Mrs. Lee's night out shows that not much separates the present day from the past. One often goes to the city to enjoy the company of friends and family, over a glass of one's favorite beverage, before attempting to get home on unreliable public transport. Imagine for a moment doing so without the aid of electrical lighting to light your path, and it becomes apparent how much more dangerous the world was without electricity.

Mrs. Lee's history, though, is just one of many personal crime stories that have played out in the iconic places we know so well. We walk about the streets of our city, completely unaware of the dark stories that have taken place.

We go into a bar or a fine restaurant utterly unaware of the site's bloody past. And really this is all our Dark Stories Crime Tours are all about. Returning you to the scenes of iconic places where the lives and deaths of ordinary everyday citizens played out.

For a brief window of time, past lives and tragic tales are brought back to life in the very place where these events took place. But at least for a moment, the lives of those gone before us, get to live again. Mrs. Lee wanted to have a night out with friends and family, but fate intervened with other plans, but perhaps in some small way, by retelling her story today, she has achieved a kind of immortality in the process.

And as it is Australia Day Weekend coming up, our cities will again be filled with the sights and sounds of people enjoying food and drink in much the same light as Mrs. Lee. It's interesting to wonder what a Dark Stories True Crime Tour would have been like in 1873, however, at least you have the chance to enjoy the 2020 vintage and rediscover the events of the streets around you.

Happy Australia Day Weekend to everyone.

Australia Day Fireworks

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