Lady Bluebeard’s Baby
When I was little, lying in the dark, struggling to sleep, an image followed me — not quite a dream. When I was fighting to lose consciousness with eyes clenched closed, when I tried to think about anything but the thing that terrified me, she appeared.
She had a messy bun, a long skirt with ruffles at the bottom, and a white, buttoned blouse. She was old enough to have lived, too young to be dying, and her face appeared in sepia tones that made her wrinkles look like scars. And she would carry a gun, a long musket. She stalked across my eyelids as if she owned them.
It didn’t matter that I never had an actual dream; the image was enough. Her eyes were piercing, and her face held no remorse. The only thing she had in mind was death. And I couldn’t close my eyes when I was scared in the dark, because she lurked just past consciousness. Her name was Belle.
She was not the yellow-dressed Belle from the Disney fantasy I swooned over; she was more akin to the witch who tried to lure Gretel into the oven. But she was more terrifying than fairy tale villains because she had been real. She was long dead, but knowing she’d existed was enough. Belle was my first tangible example of evil, a serial killer who had lived and killed in my hometown. I had walked over the remnants of her footsteps and seen her face replicated in contorted papier mâché at the county museum. My maternal grandparents are buried at Pine Lake Cemetery, the same place where seven of her victims lie.
Despite my childhood visions, I’m not afraid of many things.
I’m not afraid of snakes or spiders, shark attacks or jellyfish. I am not afraid of roller coasters or amusement park rides that drop you from hundreds of feet. I am not afraid of unlikely natural disasters or drowning or falling down sewers.
I am afraid of my husband dying. Of my parents passing without warning. Of my addict brother overdosing. Of my sister being hit by a stray bullet at the gun range where she shoots with her friend. Of driving on icy roads with my nephew in the backseat. Of getting pregnant and miscarrying. More than anything, I’m afraid of loss.
I was born more than a century after Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth, but I know her story well. The woman who would be called Hell’s Belle or Lady Bluebeard was born in Norway in 1859, and immigrated to America near the turn of the century. There, she became Belle Gunness. For a few years she lurked in the Chicago suburbs — her stay there overlapping with a Dr. Holmes, with whom she shared certain qualities. Before people caught on to her misdeeds, multiple properties burned and two husbands died in so-called accidents — all with sizeable insurance pay-offs. With the sudden influx of money she bought a farmhouse in my hometown of La Porte, Indiana, arriving there in 1901.
While she lived in the farmhouse she wrote letters — countless adoring letters — to Norwegian men who had also emigrated from her homeland. She lured them with hope of love — of a new life with a wealthy widow, but she always asked them to bring money. And before her secrets became bold-lettered headlines, several of her money-laden suitors disappeared. When truth about Belle Gunness trickled out, she became more than a name: she was myth, legend, terrifying campfire tale. Some think she died when her farmhouse went up in flames in 1908, but many believe she faked her death, acquired a new identity, and kept killing. I am one of those believers. In my mind she is still alive, still plotting murder, years after she should have died.
My mother miscarried a baby before I was born. My sibling would have been named Patrick, or Patricia, if it had lived outside my mother’s stomach. My mother has five grown children now, but when she talks about that lost pregnancy she still calls the baby Pat. I like to imagine her as Pattie, a sister who is on my side during the battle for the TV remote. A sister who teaches me to blow-dry my hair and use eyeliner.
My mother likes to tell me how she saw me before I was born. In the early months of her pregnancy, she dreamed of a little girl with brown curls and dark eyes, and she woke knowing it was her child. No doctor had confirmed the sex, but she knew she was having a girl. My mother is a practical woman, not prone to delusions or hippy dippy things. She never had premonitions about my other siblings, but she swears this is true: I am the living version of the brown-haired baby from her sleep.
And I wonder if that dream was a lighthouse amidst worry she might lose another child, a message that this time, everything would be okay. I imagine her trying to remember the face from her dream, silently willing her little girl into existence. I want to hug my mother close, to tell her I am sorry for what we lost.
The details of Belle Gunness’s early life are uncertain. Some say she came from a farming family, other accounts say she was the child of a tightrope walker and a sword swallower. There is a version of her childhood story that tells us she was a pregnant teenager who lost her baby. At a dance, she was kicked hard in the stomach, the tiny being within becoming a momentary flutter instead of a person. The attacker was not prosecuted, but died soon after, supposedly from stomach cancer. Later they would wonder if this had been her first murder.
Part of me wants to believe this unconfirmed history. I want to believe she wasn’t born evil, but was transformed into a monster by grief. I want to believe her wickedness was rooted in something outside of her instead of a seed that grew from birth. I want to clutch this fact to temper my fear of her, but instead it makes me fear for myself. What would I become if I knew that kind of loss?
When my brother found out there was a pool at my apartment complex, he showed up with my nephew a few weeks later. It was a humid Midwestern summer day, the sun high in the sky — only slightly guarded by clouds. My brother didn’t have floaties for my nephew, but we figured it was fine because there were two of us and only one three-year-old to watch. We stayed in the shallow end for a while, me trying to help Edward move his arms in a windmill motion, trying to show him how to propel himself with the kicking of his legs. He wasn’t very successful, but he’d have time to learn. But Edward — constantly thrill-seeking — wanted to go deeper. So we swam out farther with him latched on to us.
When that wasn’t exciting enough, he wanted to be thrown into the water, so as he and my brother climbed out of the pool and onto the cement, I grounded myself, ready to catch my floundering nephew. At first we threw him in where the water was four-feet deep. But again he wanted to go deeper, and my brother moved along the edge a few feet, and then a few more. My nephew was tossed into the pool a dozen times, me always watching carefully to catch him before his body became fully submerged. We got to the point in the pool where my five feet and five inches left me only able to stay above water on tiptoes, but still Edward wanted to be tossed into the water. And I thought I was ready. I braced myself, but in the split-second it took for his body to go under, my hands slipped on his wet little torso, and he was underwater. I groped the churning blue in front of me, hoping to touch the limbs that had disappeared.
When my hands found an arm, and I pulled him to the surface, he emerged still smiling. He had only been under a few seconds, not long enough for fear to be birthed. But for me, it had felt like years. I felt like I failed him — like I wasn’t fit to care for any child.
When Belle’s farmhouse became engulfed in flames one Spring morning, some of her secrets emerged from the ashes. They found four bodies pinned under a piano in what used to be the basement. Three children and one woman, supposed to be Belle, but minus a head and significantly less girthy than her corpse should have been. Everyone blamed the fire on the former hired hand, Ray Lamphere, because Belle had gone round town saying she feared him. But the framing was perhaps too obvious, and circumstances changed when a man came looking for his brother: Asle Helgelien had gone to La Porte to court Belle and never returned. His disappearance ignited further investigation.
In the end, approximately twelve bodies were dug from the dirt on the Gunness farm. The grainy sepia photographs at the county museum I saw as a kid show dismembered limbs carted across the farm in wheelbarrows, suitors whose lime-covered bodies were garbage into gunny sacks. Belle’s past was examined with a new severity. How many other suitors had come to the Gunness farm? And what of her two husbands, her prior children? Had their deaths been accidents or pay-off opportunities? It seemed she had dragged loss around like a tired old dog on a leash.
I had just put two loaves of pumpkin bread into the oven when I saw the text from my brother. “Mike Olson was murdered,” it said. He was killed in a sidewalk robbery. One shot to the head. He died within minutes, atop a pile of cans on the ground near a dumpster. It was nearly dark, so the ones who saw the scuffle were unsure how to describe the assailant.
When I heard the news I thought about Mike for an instant, his small frame and gentle smirk, and then of my brother, the one who had texted, the one who had been his best friend when they were both spindly-limbed teens with unnaturally colored hair, stale cigarettes, and Smashing Pumpkins t-shirts.
But then I thought of his mother, and I think of her still: the short-haired lady who had been my high school literature teacher. I didn’t want to picture her finding out, sitting in stunned silence on the phone somewhere. I stared at her Facebook page, a place that usually transmitted pictures of knitting projects or grammar jokes, wondering when she’d found out, how long it would be before she would share with the world what to many was still unknown. Death brings clichés to the back of the throat, ready to emerge onto Hallmark cards or Facebook pages. Only the good die young. He’s in a better place. He’s at peace. Time heals all. There’s another angel in heaven. I knew I had no words to soothe her.
In the week that followed I compulsively scanned news stories fruitlessly to see if they had caught his killer. In one article they had interviewed his mom. She talked about how he’d been planning to fly from Oregon to his parent’s house only a few days after his death. I kept staring at his mom’s Facebook page, feeling useless. I tried to piece together my memories of him – hoping I could offer up some wonderful image, but everything was blurry. I wished I could make him real again, instead of someone I’d met once in a dream. Instead of a son who would miss his flight home to his parents. To his mother.
When I looked at her Facebook page months later, I wondered how she was able to smile. I wondered if she ever stopped herself when her lips begin to curve upward. I wondered if she ever woke up hoping his death was just a night haunting.
Belle’s past was unburied along with the bodies in her yard — a past that read like a grocery list, homes and loved ones crossed off, one by one. Belle’s Chicago confectionary shop, her first home in the suburbs, and her farmhouse in La Porte county, all lost to flames. Two babies died in infancy of symptoms that could have been poisoning. Her first husband died on the only day two life insurance policies overlapped. Her second husband supposedly died when a meat cleaver fell on him. His infant daughter had died in Belle’s care six month prior. Her foster daughter Jennie, who she’d said went off to finishing school, was found buried in the dirt of Belle’s hog pen. They identified the remains of seven hopeful souls who’d gone to court Belle, but countless other suitors remained missing, likely victims of the murderess. Belle was adept at losing people.
But losing is too nice a word. Losing implies lack of intent. She made people disappear. Evidence points to Belle being a psychopath. She had gotten rich from insurance money, but kept on slaughtering. But still, part of me wonders if Belle killed the things she held dear. Perhaps she decided killing something was better than losing it — that controlling death was better than falling victim to its whims. Perhaps her murders weren’t motivated by evil, but selfishness. Perhaps her need to fight fate overtook her.
At the end of the summer, my period didn’t arrive when it should have. I recalled the split-second decision not to use a condom a few weeks prior and the fact I wasn’t on birth control. I shook my head, thinking my husband and I should never make decisions when we are already naked. I had grad school to finish, we had plans to move cross-country afterward. We were saving money for a house and a new car, but not for a baby.
I googled things like “early signs of pregnancy” and “when can you take a pregnancy test?” and told myself to wait a few days. I tried to breathe deeply and pretend I wasn’t terrified. I thought of how exhausted I felt after a long day with my niece or nephew, how freeing it was to be alone when they left. I thought of all the things I would miss when I was burdened with a baby. When a co-worker asked when my husband and I were going to have kids I blurted out, “Maybe sooner than later” and gave her a worried look. For four days I lived in suspense every time I pulled down my pants, but finally, a small stain.
And when I saw it, most of what I felt was disappointment.
When I was five, I won a gift card at a holiday party, and my mother took me to the store to pick something out. As the fourth of five children, I wasn’t used to getting my choice, so I walked carefully down each aisle. When I reached the last aisle of toys, across from the pet supplies, I found her, my perfect baby doll. She was soft in the middle with realistic plastic limbs attached to the pillow of her torso. She had a pink dress and a little pink headband around her bald, plastic head. She didn’t come with stickers or neon clothes or have hair the color of unicorn vomit. She didn’t say “I love you” or make burping noises. She was just a baby, with life-size fingers and toes, and she was mine. I took her home and swaddled her in blankets. I rocked her in a wooden cradle, imagining that one day I would be as good a mother as my own.
Some part of me has always wanted to be a mother. I have imagined myself with miniature hands clasped in mine. When my nephew was born, I visited him every day for a week, terrified of missing a single moment. He is not my child, but the love I have for him terrifies me. I cannot imagine the love I will have for my own child; I only imagine it could destroy me.
And so I am equal parts terrified and envious of Belle Gunness. She was a sociopath, but part of me envies her heartlessness, the way she took fate into her own hands. She made existence crumble so inconsequentially. She could ignore the constant rumble of anxiety that plagues us all, the knowledge that things can be lost so easily.
I am afraid of the love I will have for my child. I am afraid I will be crippled by it. So I put things off. I give myself every reason not to have a child. I’m afraid to utter the words “I want a baby” aloud because the words will make me vulnerable to a kind of pain I’ve never experienced. A child would be the part of me most easily broken — a part of myself that I would have to let the world touch. And I know the world is so imperfect.
I am afraid of losing my future child, but I cannot lose what doesn’t exist.
There was a time when I almost didn’t exist — when my car careened carefree across the interstate and into the side of an Oldsmobile — when my mother didn’t know which way fate would lean. There was a time when I was almost another child my mother lost. What separated my mother from Mike’s? Why had fate spared one and not the other?
My memory of the accident is missing, but the moments I cannot remember are ones my mother tries to forget. I wonder how many minutes passed between the call saying I’d been in an accident and the call saying I was okay. There were minutes when the only people who knew whether I was alive or dead were the crew of a helicopter flying toward a hospital. My mother was three hours away, rendered helpless. And these are the minutes that scare me the most — these missing minutes — the moments when I was a question whose face haunted the insides of my own mother’s eyelids.
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