Title: The Truth about Belle Gunness
Author: Lillian de la Torre
On the morning of April 27, 1908, the farmhand on a lonely property outside La Porte, Indiana, woke to the smell of smoke. He tried to rouse the lady of the house, the towering Belle Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness, and he called the names of her three children—but they didn’t answer, and the farmhand barely escaped alive. The house burned to the foundation, and in the rubble, firemen found the corpses of Belle, her two daughters, and her son. The discovery raised two chilling questions: Who started the fire, and who cut off Belle’s head?
As investigators searched the property, they uncovered something astonishing: The remains of a dozen or more men and children who had been murdered with poison or cleaver were buried beneath the hog pen. It turned out Belle Gunness was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. And when the investigation revealed that the body found in the fire might not have been hers, the people of La Porte were forced to confront the terrifying realization that Belle might have gotten out alive.
When I requested this book I expected a recently written book about Belle Gunness. It is neither new nor really about Belle. Now I don’t mind the not new part much. It’s a re-release of a book from the 1950s but considering that it’s still fine. I’ve read some older true crime books that were very sensationalist and cheerfully mixed fact and fiction. (Not that newer ones are always better, especially when it comes to sensationalism). However, that wasn’t the problem. Yes, the facts were sometimes dressed in (light) purple prose and especially at the beginning we are told a lot about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved but that gets better.
However, it’s also not really a book about Belle Gunness. It opens with her farm burning down and the discoveries of the bodies on the ground. Then it spends only a short time on Belle’s life and her crimes. I already knew more about her and my only previous contact with Belle had been my favourite true crime podcast doing an episode on her.
The book’s actual focus is Ray Lamphere’s trial. Only at the very end, it returns to Belle and the author poses her own theory about Belle’s fate. (A theory that’s plausible but also one that hasn’t any more proof than any other). Now I wasn’t that interested in that trial before I started reading and the book didn’t change that.
Mainly because the trial is mainly told via court transcripts. Just one after the other (with the occasional newspaper article thrown in) with the minimum linking narration possible. Sure, some original quotes from the time are good but this book goes beyond that. Often the information from several pages of transcripts could have been summed up in a few paragraphs. And then the next transcript just repeats the information we already got in the last one. It makes for some rather tiresome reading.
The book simply has a misleading blurb. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I had known that it focussed so heavily on the trial. If that’s your thing you might enjoy it more than I did.