Book Review: Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness

Perhaps one of the best things about having Amazon Prime (free 2-day shipping aside) is First Reads. Prime members receive a free Kindle book each month. The bookworm in me adores this. One recent First Read pick was Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men. I had heard of the serial killer Belle Gunness, but her story is usually cast aside in favor of those like Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Jack the Ripper. I read this book without any expectations since I, frankly, was ignorant of her life.  

Belle Gunness deserves to be listed in the annals of history as one of the most depraved, sadistic serial killers who ever existed. I won’t delve too much into her history here – I’ll leave you to decide on if you want to read Schechter’s book for yourself. Suffice to say that Belle’s story is full of enough twists and turns to satisfy both the morbidly curious and the mystery lover.

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 had been ill with a headache. When she went to check on him, Sorenson lay dead in his bed. Additionally, their two infant children suddenly died while in the care of their mother. In an age of high infant mortality rates, 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 lived barely above subsistence level. In America, she desired 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. I will not get into any more detail here – I do not want to give away too many spoilers!

Belle and her children. | Source

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 was 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. Schechter manages to approach the subject of Belle Gunness with enough detail to satisfy the morbidly curious while also providing good historical context for the period in which she lived. He does not shy away from her gruesome acts nor does he sensationalize them.

I found this book an easy read and captivating read. Although not wholly academic for those interested in such a topic, it bears to 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.

Check the book out on Amazon if you are interested in reading it! If you get the Kindle version, you’ll receive access to the Kindle-in-Motion edition. This provides animations and other visual enhancements as you’re reading. You can always turn it off if desired.

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