Life of Belle Gunness


This paper will review the life of Belle Gunness, a woman serial killer. It will look at her development of personality based on Alfred Adler’s theory and Karen Horney’s theory.

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Belle Gunness

Belle Paulsdatter Sorenson Gunness was born in Norway in 1859. Her officially recorded death was in 1908. The Guinness Book of World Records named her the “Most Prolific Murderess” (Langloish, 1985). With sixteen confirmed and possibly twelve other victims she was given this title. She has the most murders ever ascribed to a modern murderess. Some sources say she had up to forty victims (Langloish, 1985).

There is not a lot known about Belle before she came to America in 1881. The few interviews that have survived have had very mixed descriptions. On one spectrum, she was described as an “exemplary child” (Langloish, 1985, pg. 8). On the other end of the spectrum, she was stated to be “a very bad human being, capricious, and extremely malicious…un-pretty habits, always in the mood for dirty tricks, talked little and was a liar” (Langloish, 1985, pg. 5). Belle came from a poor family, where she was picked on constantly. She was the youngest of eight children. It was stated that her “indigence and humiliation made her childhood a difficult one” (Langloish, 1985, pg. 9). In 1877, Belle was pregnant; a boy from a wealthy family kicked her in the stomach and made her loose the baby. Neighbors reported that after this her personality completely changed (Langloish, 1985).

Belle married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, a Norwegian, in 1884 at the age of twenty-five. She enjoyed living a luxurious lifestyle with him and insisted on nice things. Her sister often stated of Belle that she cared to much about luxuries in life and should focus more on what she has rather than what she does not have (Langloish, 1985). While married to him, two stores and one house that they owned burned to the ground. She collected insurance money on all three locations. In 1896, Mads’ daughter Caroline died from acute colitis, poisoning. In 1898 Mads’ son died, also of acute colitis (Langloish, 1985). Belle collected insurance on both deaths. On July 30, 1900 Mads himself passed away. The doctor stated that he died a natural death of heart complications (Langloish, 1985). He never completed an autopsy because Mads really was being treated for a heart complication at the time of death and the doctor had no suspicion that there was foul play. Oddly enough, Mads died on the only day that his two insurances overlapped, which left Belle with an $8,500 pay out (Langloish, 1985).

Belle’s second husband was Peter Gunness. They were married for almost a year. A week after they were married, Peter’s infant daughter died of uncertain causes while in the care of Belle. She received $3,000 from the insurance company (Langloish, 1985). In December of 1902 Peter was pronounced dead. Belle stated in the police report that he was butchering a pig and something fell on his head (Langloish, 1985). Jennie an adopted daughter from Belle’s first marriage was heard saying at school that her Mama killed her Papa. The coroner even said that it was murder. Belle denied all allegations and since Belle was pregnant at the time they let her go (Langloish, 1985).

Belle then started putting advertisements in the local paper Lonely Hearts for a husband. One person that answered was Andrew Helgelien, a rancher from Aberdeen. He gave her $2,900 before he was killed (Langloish, 1985). Other victims of Belle were Jennie Olsen, four unidentified men and one unidentified woman, Eric Gurhold and Olaf Lindbolm, who were hired hands and John Moo, another man that answered her ads (Langloish, 1985).

In hindsight, many people questioned Belle’s femininity, wondering if she was really a man. She was said to have dressed and acted masculine. There was never anyone in her room when she gave birth to her children (Langloish, 1985). She also was up and moving around the day after supposedly giving birth. Neighbors reported that her children always looked older than newborn, indicating that she may have stolen them. She was also seen lifting very heavy objects and butchered her own hogs, which normally took several men (Langloish, 1985). Other neighbors stated that she loved children and animals. She would bring food to children in the neighborhood with chicken pox. She was also said to have been spotted crying when Jennie “left” (Langloish, 1985).

Belle like most women serial killers, practiced over kill. She would drug, bludgeon and dismember her victims, often using a meat cleaver (Langloish, 1985). A paper reported “Some arsenic a little chloral, a battle of chloroform, a few keen-edged scalpels and dissecting knives and Belle was prepared to enter the wholesale murder business” (Langloish, 1985, pg. 17).

Belle buried her victims in a garden 150 feet behind her house. It is believed by some that Belle died in 1908 in a house fire (Langloish, 1985). When the town officials went to investigate the fire, they found all of Belle’s victims in the death garden. They found a female body in the ruins of the house. Officials announced that it was the body of Belle Gunness. Reports came out later that the body they found could not be that of Belle Gunness because the body was significantly shorter and skinnier than Belle (Langloish, 1985). The head was also cut off the body and was never found. There are speculations that because Belle was really a man, she moved to a big city and lived there as a man (Langloish, 1985). No one was ever prosecuted for the murders and Belle was never heard from again.

There are several things one must begin to look at to be able to understand the motives behind Belle’s murders. Adler would be most concerned with her style of life, birth order, quest for superiority and her parents parenting style. According to Adler, every person is born feeling inferior, insufficient and helpless (Allen, 2003). Our goal in life then becomes the search for superiority. He called this struggle striving for superiority (Allen, 2003). Unlike Freud, Adler saw personality as a reflection of interpersonal relationships and a creation of societal influences rather than psychosexual and biological drives. Adler believed that striving for superiority was the “driving force behind all human thoughts, emotions and behaviors” (Heffner, 2004, pg. 1). When people become successful, such as “accomplished writers, powerful business people or influential politicians, it is because of the feelings of inferiority” (Heffner, 2004, pg. 1). There becomes an urge to try to overcome the negative feelings within themselves and become superior (Heffner, 2004). When a person is unable to conform to the rules of society to overcome these feelings of inferiority, Adler considers this person to be neurotic (Allen, 2003). Excessive feelings of inferiority can “have the opposite effect;as it becomes overwhelming and without the needed successes, a person can develop an inferiority complex. This belief leaves the person feeling incredibly less important and deserving than others, helpless, hopeless and unmotivated to strive for the superiority that would make them complete” (Heffner, 2003, pg. 1).

In the case of Belle, she showed a complete lack of being superior. She had a severe inferiority complex. Since childhood Belle was constantly picked on and considered the weakest of her family. She was pushed and kicked around by a wealthier boy when she was pregnant. She was unable to protect her child or herself from him. She lacked superiority in relation to her neighbors because she was poor. She had to take a job as a house maid when she was very young. She found this to be degrading and below her. As Belle grew up, she realized that she did not want to be the poor girl. She wanted to live a more superior and luxurious lifestyle. Her own sister even stated that Belle was very concerned with the wealth that she could accumulate.

Another way Belle tried to be superior was by convincing her husbands to not only trust her enough to marry them, but she was able to get men who were not her husbands to give her money. She was able to prove to herself that she was more powerful than these men. She felt good about herself when she was in control. She was able to exert her power and superiority by killing them. This made her feel as though she was mastering her environment (Ellis, 2009). Belle was a prime example of someone who tries to compensate for her inferiority in self-destructive ways. Adler would further conclude that Belle was acting from an overaggressive style of life.

Adler also saw parenting styles as having a significant impact on the development of people. He had two distinct categories of parenting styles. The first was parental overindulgence. This was when a parent tended to be overprotective; giving the child too much attention, and sheltering the child from the negative realities of life (Allen, 2003). As the child grows up, he/she will “find it difficult to deal with realities, may doubt his/her own abilities and decision making skills” (Heffner, 2004, pg. 1) have superficial feelings of superiority and may seek out others to replace the safety he/she once enjoyed as a child (Allen, 2003).

On the other extreme of the spectrum is what Adler called parental neglect or the unwanted or hated child (Heffner, 2004). Adler saw the “neglected child as one who is not protected at all from the world and is forced to face life’s struggles alone. This child may grow up to fear the world, have a strong sense of mistrust for others and he/she may have a difficult time forming intimate relationships” (Heffner, 2004, pg. 1). Neglected children are sometimes described as “cold, suspicious, untrusting, hard, envious and hateful” (Allen, 2003, pg 82).

Belle would fall into the category of the neglected child. She was pushed into adult life as a child. She was expected to work and support the family. She was shown the fear of the world when she was kicked by the wealthy boy and he went unpunished. Obviously Belle showed a grave mistrust for people. There was not one person of significance in her life. Her closest ally would be considered Jennie, her adopted daughter. She allowed Jennie to live longer than any other person in her life. She only killed her when Jennie wanted to start dating and be married. She was not willing to let Jennie leave on her own. Jennie also began questioning why all the people in her life were disappearing, so Belle felt obligated to get rid of her.

Adler also believed that birth order affects your personality.Belle was the youngest of eight children. The youngest child is more likely to experience personality problems and setbacks later in life (Allen, 2003). This child grows up knowing that he/she has the least amount of power in the family, thus having a strong start to their feelings of inferiority. The youngest child sees his/her older siblings as having more freedom and more superiority (Allen, 2003). This child is often considered the problem child and a manipulator. Often time the youngest feels neglected by the parents because the parents tend not to acknowledge small developmental milestones in the last child’s life (Allen, 2003).

As with Belle, the parents had seen all seven other children reach developmental milestone and neglected to give her enough attention for the small things in life. Belle fits all the descriptors of the youngest child. She suffered from an inferiority complex and was considered the problem child. Obviously she was a great manipulator because she was able to convince so many men in her advertisement to not only move to where she was but to clean out their bank accounts for her.

Another perspective to look at Belle would be through Karen Horney’s perspective. Horney viewed personality on more of a social scale. She would say that Belle suffered from a neuroses or personality disturbance because of troubled social relationships (Ellis, 2009). She saw neuroses as a controlling technique to help make life better.

Horney believed that there were two things that a parent must provide for their child when they are growing up, safety and satisfaction (Ellis, 2009). Belle’s parents were unable to give her either. She was not nurtured as a child and was made to deal with adult issues. Horney would consider the treatment of Belle the basic evil (Ellis, 2009).

Horney categorized three life strategies that people would experience if they grew up in a family filled with anxiety: moving toward people (needs approval and a partner who will solve their problems), moving against people (aggressive, needs power and to feel superior) and moving away from people (needs to feel completely independent from others, withdrawn) (Ellis, 2009). Belle would be in the moving against people category. She was unable to form committed relationships and as we saw with Adler, she needed to feel superior. Belle felt as though she needed to force her power onto others in hopes of feeling good about herself (Heffner, 2004). People in the moving against “personality style come across as bossy, demanding, selfish, and even cruel. Horney argued that these people project their own hostilities (which she called externalization) onto others and therefore use this as a justification to ‘get them before they get me’” (Heffner, 2004, pg. 1). Again, Belle would fit into all of these descriptors. She was unquestionably cruel, as shown by her having no remorse when killing a child. She was very selfish as well. She was only looking out for her own good and not the good of those around her.

In conclusion, it is very obvious from either perspective that Belle had intense issues with society and following societal norms. She was unable to successfully reach her goal of feeling superior in a constructive way. Belle’s main focus in life was the quest for power, whether it was in her relationship with her family or in her quest for wealth status. Belle was never able to form a significant bond with anyone. Many people believe that Belle did not die in that fire and continued to live a normal life after her murdering spree. It can be assumed then that Belle found a way to deal with her inferiority complex or neuroses in a constructive way, since there were never any other bodies found that could be traced back to her.

Allen, B.P. (2003). Personality theories: Development, growth and diversity (5th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Ellis, A. & Abrams, M. (2009). Personality theories: A critical perspective. Los Angeles: Sage.
Heffner, C. (2004). Personality synopsis. Florida: Heffner Media Group.
Langloish, J.L. (1985). Belle Gunness: The lady bluebeard. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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