Friday, May 31, 2013

Belle Gunness on Civil Discourse Now

While I've been on hiatus, I've still been an occasional guest on Civil Discourse Now with Mark Small and Paul Ogden to discuss current events. I will be on again tomorrow at 11:00 am EDT on Indiana Talks Network alongside attorney Andi Simmons, who is a specialist in our topic for this Saturday: the mysterious case of Indiana’s Most Famous Serial Killer and perhaps the most prolific female serial killer in US history: Belle Gunness.

Serial murderess Belle Gunness with her alleged children (left to right) Phillip, Lucy and Myrtle. The children were among the four bodies found after a fire destroyed the Gunness home in La Porte. The fourth body was purportedly Belle Gunness.
I've studied the Belle Gunness case extensively, though not to nearly the extent of Simmons, who had Gunness' purported remains exhumed for DNA tests. To make a short story long, Gunness would put "lonely hearts" ads in Chicago newspapers advertising for a husband to come and help her with her large, successful La Porte farm. Suitors would then go to her home and would never be seen again. One day Asle Helgelien, brother of one of the suitors, Andrew Helgelien, said he was going to come to La Porte to check on his brother. The night before he was to arrive, the house burned down under suspicious circumstances. Four bodies were found in the basement. Three were of her children (though they likely were not hers), the fourth was headless. It was identified as Belle Gunness, though some claimed it was to small to be the rather large Gunness. Never mind the fact that it was missing a head should have been suspicious enough.

Asle Helgelien went digging -- literally -- on the Gunness property (against the wishes of La Porte County law enforcement) and found the decomposing body of his brother. In short order, several dozen more bodies were found, along with bones from possibly dozens more.

I have always found this case haunting, as do many people. There are pictures available of the body of Andrew Helgelien as it was dug up, as well as the decomposing severed head of fellow victim Ole Budsberg, with the very visible crack in the skull from where Gunness hit him with a meat cleaver (she had been a butcher). I won't post the pictures here, because many may find them disturbing. I am someone who has studied history with all its murders and genocides, and bones as part of archaeology, and even I find the pictures of Helgelien and Budsberg gruesome and disturbing.

What is worst for me, though, is something somewhat similar to the case of Mary Jane Kelly, believed to be the fifth victim of Jack the Ripper. By far the best looking of his victims, Jack hacked her face to pieces so no one knows what she looked like. An artist's conception of her looks I saw a few years ago was for me truly haunting. To think Jack took away not just her life, but her face. As if she had never existed. A picture, real or conceptual, really is worth as thousand words.

Now, look at the picture above, with Gunness's purported children Phillip, Lucy, and Myrtle. Look at the picture below, of Gunness' foster daughter Jennie Olsen.

Jennie Olsen, Belle Gunness' foster daughter. Murdered allegdly because she knew too much. Did she know too much when this picture was taken?
Olsen was turned over to Gunness as an infant by her father, who could not take care of her after the death of his wife. As she grew up she got more and more attention from the teenage boys of La Porte. Sometime in 1906, Olsen disappeared. Gunness said she went to college or "finishing school" in California. Hers was one of the bodies found on the property with Andrew Helgelien and Ole Budsberg.
Look at Jennie Olsen's picture. Now, keep in mind that the late 1800s and early 1900s were a different time. Pictures and posing for pictures was different than it is now. What you were supposed to do in posing for a picture was different than it is now. It was a different time, a different culture. Pictures were supposed to be dignified, not necessarily happy or fun.

Still, look closely at Jennie Olsen's picture. Look at the picture of the Gunness family, especially at the children Phillip, Lucy and Myrtle. Look at Olsen.

Maybe it's just me, but do any of these children look happy to you? Or do they look ... scared?

To me, Olsen's is the worst. A gorgeous blonde just entering into adulthood, yet Olsen looks anything but excited or confident. She looks sad, full of foreboding.

I've seen what is purported to be an earlier picture of Olsen with Gunness, when Olsen was ten or so. Olsen looks scared in that picture, too.

Obviously, they all had reason to be. But some versions of the Gunness story have Jennie Olsen whispering to another child that "[her] mama killed [her] papa. She hit him with a cleaver," only to recant the story under the angry glare of Gunness.

It is now believed that Olsen either became suspicious about the men who would arrive at the Gunness house, only to suddenly vanish overnight -- leaving all their possessions and money -- or simply found out the truth.

I'm back (finally)!!!

Yes, I can begin blog posts again. Because the manuscript for Rising Sun Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II is DONE!!! Footnotes and all. So now I do not need to spend every waking hour going over torpedo specs, translating Dutch combat reports, discussing damage to the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (a story in itself), and trying to figure out if such-and-such is a picture of the destroyer USS Pope or not, all to make sure that my documentation and evidence is accurate and accurately presented. What many may find scary is that I actually enjoy doing that. A lot.

Writing a history book has been an incredible experience. It was nothing like I expected it to be, especially since I had the book written in my head years ago. Nothing like writing the "A Turn Too Far" article on which the book is partially based (and which is slightly changed in the book). A lot more work and effort than I expected it to be, but also a lot of fun. A dream come true. There is something to be said for translating Dutch combat accounts at a Taco Bell, being surrounded by dozens of open books on my couch as I cite check, or typing up a chapter at 3:00 am while listening to Candy Dulfer (appropriately a Dutch jazz saxophonist and a very good one at that), Gregg Karukas, Joyce Cooling, Marion Meadows, and Herb Alpert. To me, that is fun, but I can understand it's not for everyone.

There is still much work to be done -- more editing, getting the pictures and the maps right. But the big part is complete. Rising Sun Falling Skies is now scheduled fo a March 2014 release, so it should be available again for pre-order on Amazon and other outlets by the end of summer.

Thus I can get back to blogging on a regular basis. If you've been following me on Twitter (@JCCentCom) or Facebook you know that I haven't fully left the world of the non-World War II, even if my participation in it has been sporadic.

And I do have one other exciting announcement to make in a bit. Keep an eye here for it.