I had no idea until someone mentioned it that Amazon Prime members get to buy four (I think it’s four) pre-release books for nothing throughout a year – Hell’s Princess was my first free prime e-book as well as the first kindle edition I’ve ever seen that includes moving artwork, with newspaper photos and articles that zoom in to the pertinent parts and illustrations based on some of the content. While the newspaper parts worked well for this book, I’m not sure that the illustrations added much, although it did make me hope that I can download versions of graphic novels that will do the same.
Anyway, on to the contents. I first heard about Belle Gunness through the My Favourite Murder podcast (whose merch can often be found emblazoned with her quote, which heads this review). Described as a huge and imposing woman, 6ft tall and weighing in at over 200 pounds (being English, I had to convert that into stones for it to make any sense to me, only to discover that at certain times in my life I’ve clocked in at nearly the same, and at half a foot shorter than Belle), Belle hailed originally from Norway, heading to America in 1881 where she originally worked as a servant. Quickly marrying and giving birth to a number of children, none of which would survive to adulthood, Belle and her husband opened a confectionery store which soon burned down, gifting them with a hefty insurance pay-out. And, it would seem, making Belle realise that insurance pay-outs were her ticket to material comfort, leading her to insure the lives of her husband and some of her children, whose deaths soon followed.
With her neighbours full of gossip about the suspicious timing of the deaths, Belle upped sticks and moved next to La Porte in Indiana, where she’d soon marry again and the deaths of the new husband and one of his children shortly followed. Collecting yet another pay-out, Belle decided against remarrying having come up with a plan to get her closer to the money much quicker, placing advertisements in newspapers looking for men to help to run her farm (having paid a fee for partnering with her), where they’d be swiftly dispatched, their money stolen and their bodies hacked up and buried around the property. It was the discovery of these bodies following a mysterious blaze at Belle’s farm, which supposedly killed Belle and her surviving children, that propelled Belle to national fame and the question of whether or not Belle had truly been killed, or had disguised another woman’s body as her own, has never been answered satisfactorily.
Hell’s Princess gave a good overview of Belle’s life and crimes, as well as concentrating on the furore that followed their discovery. As a frenzied media reported sightings of Belle across the country following her ‘death’, another local man stood accused of setting the fire that had supposedly claimed her life, giving the media yet more material to write fantastical accounts of. The book is at its best when looking at the media, as there isn’t quite enough information to allow us to really get into why Belle did what she did (except for obviously liking money), and I didn’t feel that I’d got much more from this book regarding Belle than I had from listening to MFM.