For Whom the Belle Tolls

Hell’s Princess by Harold Schechter is the well-researched story of the mystery of Belle Gunness, a butcher of men. I note that she was “a” butcher of men, not “the” butcher of men or even the title without an article. Belle was a serial killer, one of many in history and to date. She was notable for several reasons. She was “she;” female serial killers were and are disproportionately few compared to males. Women nurtured; they did not “knock people off.” Second, Belle was unusually cruel in her kill methods and selection of targets. They were not strangers; her victims were husbands, lovers, and included her own children. Finally, she operated in a time and environment that we look back upon from the present day as a time of innocence, a closely interactive environment where people trusted the common good in each other, where such things just didn’t happen.

She arrived from Norway to visit and stay with her sister. Employed as a domestic, she saw little difference from the harsh life she had lived in Norway. She saw there was money to be made and by the time she married in 1884 to the father of her children, she found a way to get large infusions of cash quickly. Insurance payouts paid well. This did not bode well for husbands, partners, and lovers who had to die to trigger the payouts. Belle was versatile; she could see that frequent insurance payoffs would appear suspicious. After a few insurance scams, she purchased a farm remotely located from town and began to offer management partnerships to men. They had to make short-term investments of a few thousand dollars. The investment was short-term because the men would soon die. To the surrounding communities, the men would just disappear. For the inquisitive, the men changed their minds or had family emergencies. Their belongings and luggage remained with Belle to be forwarded later.

Many men who answered Belle’s ads had families. Some relatives began to question their inability to follow up the fate of their relatives once the brothers or fathers had relocated to LaPorte, Indiana to help Belle. Thus, started the unraveling of some of Belle’s schemes. As with so many cover-ups of criminal activities, attempts at concealment had to become ever more complex. Things rushed forward as if a large bubble grew ever faster. The bursting of the bubble was almost inevitable. This is the story of how Belle’s life of murder and deception fell apart. Almost.

This is crime non-fiction. There are no surprises or spoilers. Schechter goes to great lengths to assure readers this is not fake news. Twenty-five pages of footnotes are referenced to the forty-three chapters. There are eight pages of bibliography and twenty helpful index pages. Still, in the end, there are questions and Schechter does a very good job of revealing unanswered questions and describing the situations that surround uncertainty.

This book is not for everyone. Academics will like it both for its sourcing and the way the author tries to bring in all possibilities and perspectives even when some of them border on the absurd. It is slow reading due to this writing process. Descriptions of how some of the murders took place, based on forensic evidence, will provide readers with an idea of how horror and thriller writers get their inspiration. Non-fiction can be scarier than fiction.

I gave this work five Amazon stars just for the careful, balanced presentation. After I post this, I will look at other reviews. I expect them to be all over the range of ratings. There will be disagreements because of the careful research methodology Schechter used. Academics love to argue. That is how they justify their incomes. I just rate the book based on my enjoyment of it. I liked this one.

This is available on Kindle Unlimited.

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