While I’m on the subject of mystery stories (see yesterday’s post), there’s a true one that I hadn’t ever heard of until recently that almost defies imagination, even generations later. But that’s what true mystery stories do, isn’t it.
The story of a female immigrant serial killer/mass murderer, born in Norway but made in America, was a hideous and irreconcilable tale of horror and crime in the 19th Century and remains one today. Belle Gunness, who is believed to have killed all of her own children, two husbands and a handful of suitors, not to mention an accomplice or two of her own along the way–possibly executing as many as forty people in her lengthy crime spree–is surprisingly little known nowadays. I fear that this may be because we have so many other hideous and oversized monstrosities and real-life mystery stories handy to horrify and mesmerize us that many likely get pushed out of memory by the current ugly news. Undoubtedly the advent of World War I‘s dreadful specter was a factor in overshadowing a single murderer’s story rather immediately on its discovery.
All the same, once I knew of it, I found the woman a compellingly repellant subject for another mystery story illustration, being a subject worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe style drama or, yes, a true-crime cinematic epic. Though it was one of those news stories that ‘rocked the nation’ when uncovered a hundred years ago, the tale of Belle Gunness is relatively obscure nowadays. There have been a few generally tepid and mostly heavily fictionalized stories, books and movies based on the horrors wrought by this one woman’s apparent sociopathy and the trail of blood left in its wake, but it’s remarkable to me that such a grim, terrible story is scarcely known on a wider scale anymore.
Frightening, dark, and perhaps an indictment of the worst of human nature in general, yes–but I think perhaps part of the reason I find mystery stories so gripping is because I think they remind us–again in that somewhat ‘safe’ and detached format of past-history or fiction–that brilliance and the abyss are constantly in conflict in the human heart and only by understanding this and being willing to examine it in ourselves can we have a chance of rising to beauty and shunning the grotesque urges that we might have–and, if we’re truly fortunate, catching up the would-be wrongdoer in humane and forgiving and healing arms before she can ever fall so far. That’s my hopeful fiction, and I’m sticking to it.
Today, I present Belle Gunness, a truly fallen woman and black widow whose mystery may never be fully unraveled, for your contemplation. May we never see her like again.