Belle Sorenson Gunness (November 11, 1859 – April 28, 1908) left her native Norway in 1881, at the age of 21, to travel to Chicago. She married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, three years later in 1884. The couple opened an unsuccessful confectionery store that burned down under strange circumstances almost a year later. Belle and Mads collected the insurance on the business to pay for a new home. They had two biological children that survived infancy, Myrtle (b. 1897) and Lucy (b. 1899), and one foster child, Jennie Olsen.
Mads died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally, on the only day his two life insurance policies overlapped. The first doctor to examine Mads’ body believed he suffered from strychnine poisoning. But the Sorensons’ family doctor, who had been treating him for an enlarged heart, overruled the first doctor and determined that Mads died of heart failure. Shortly after Mad’s death, Belle moved to LaPorte, Indiana, where she purchased the 42-acre farm at the end of McClung road.
She soon met a local butcher, Peter Gunness, and they married in April 1902. One week after the marriage, Peter’s infant daughter died while Belle was watching her. Peter died less than a year later, when a sausage grinder and jar of hot water allegedly fell on him. In this case the coroner believed Peter had been murdered (the body showed symptoms of strychnine poisoning), and so he ordered an inquest.
Because Belle played a convincing widow in mourning, and there was no hard evidence to convict her, she walked away a free woman and collected on Gunness’ life insurance policy.