Publication Date: March 1, 2018
In Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness by Harold Schechter, Belle Gunness was a serial killer who operated between 1884 and 1908. She killed at least 14 people (including her own adopted daughter) but possibly as many as 40. Detected in 1908, she apparently died in a house fire with her remaining three adopted children, and though a man went to trial for the arson and murder, not everyone was convinced.
Let me say right from the start, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. Not a generally well-known serial killer today, Belle Gunness was a Norwegian-American who operated out of La Porte, Indiana. Her victims appear to have been exclusively her fellow Norwegian immigrants. She’d advertised in the Norwegian papers located in Chicago for a handyman and then would operate a love scam quite a lot like we see today online.
Belle Gunness build a rapport telling her prospect that she was a wealthy widow and he could marry her if he had enough money and they would live happily together. He would be instructed to liquidate assets and tell no one of his plans. When he arrived, he meets a nasty fate and anyone inquiring would be told that the person had simply moved on … often having returned to Norway. Once the crimes were discovered and Gunness was presumed dead, the public feeding frenzy for information and the spike to La Porte of macabre tourism was fascinating as was the purple prose of the media, leading in some cases to wild speculation and outright fallacies.
Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness features Kindle in Motion which allows for animated graphics (which can be turned off) and the animated images really annoyed me at first. When on a page with text, it took a moment to refocus on the story. A picture of an empty room fills with trunks. We get it, Gunness killed a lot of people. Once the story started rolling in earnest, I must admit, I didn’t notice the animations except when they featured slideshows of historic pictures of the excavation of the Gunness farm and that aspect was kind of cool as was seeing known pictures of the victims as they appeared in the narrative instead of having to turn to the center of the book. This was just that kind of story. There were simply a lot of people to keep track of and the visuals helped greatly.
The story of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness follows not only the crimes of Belle Gunness but also her former handyman Ray Lamphere who was accused of having killed her and her children by arson. Schechter is a consummate professional in the liner presentation of fact. For the most part, the story is chronological though thoroughly conferred. In retrospect, I’m surprised to not having seen a book about this particular serial killer before as there was simply so much information that the 336 pages left nothing out and kept rolling right up to the surprising end.
Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness is a tough book to recommend for holiday reading. It’s not light or forthy, but it’s so interesting that if you have time off, it would be well spent curled up with cocoa, at a fireplace with this amazingly well-written true crime read. Pick it up today. Trust me. This may be my top recommendation of the year and at $4.95 for the US Kindle copy, how can you lose?
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