In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

In the Garden of Spite: A Novel of the Black Widow of La Porte by Camilla Bruce was bound to catch my attention. I’ve provided a map below with a marker on South Bend, where I live, and McClung Road in La Porte county, where the serial killer Belle Gunness buried most of her victims in the first decade of 1900. (Sadly, a little girl was just murdered and found in the woods in New Carlisle, which you’ll see is the city between the two points). South Bend and McClung road are 30 miles apart.

The novel begins in Norway, where Belle lives in extreme poverty. She has just discovered she is pregnant by the local farm boy, who refuses to agree that they should get married and “make it right.” Camilla Bruce describes a sort of caste system, with families like Belle’s living in a shed at the bottom and farm owners, who are in higher esteem, at the top. The farm boy laughs, asking Belle what made her think someone like her could ever marry someone like him, so she threatens to tell their priest. In response, he asks Belle on a date out at a lake at night. Your warning bells are going off, as they should.

At the lake he breaks Belle’s jaw and beats her until she miscarries. Crawling home and nearly dead, Belle must face her alcoholic father, who believes she should die. Instead, Belle lays in a pile of hay for weeks as she continues to bleed, but does eventually recover. Months go by, long enough that Belle feels safe to slowly administer poison into the farm boy’s nightly glass of whisky, which she is tasked with fetching. Eventually, he is so ill that she is told to care for him — apparently, his parents have forgotten all the rumors about what transpired between the two teens — which makes it much easier to add poison to his water until he is dead. The doctor declares it stomach cancer.

Quietly plotting how to escape squalor and constant hunger, Belle writes her sister Nellie in Chicago about the possibility of Belle living there, too. Nellie and her husband don’t have much money, but the little saved for their own house is sent to Belle over the years, and our main character makes it to Chicago and eventually La Porte County, Indiana. Click here to see a newspaper article about the death of Belle and her three children when her farm burned down. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see their photo.

Camilla Bruce admits In the Garden of Spite is a heavily fictionalized version of the real Belle Gunness’s story. Based on local history I’ve read, the “plot” is correct once Belle arrives in the U.S., but the history of being beaten and left unable to have children appears to be a work of fiction. Also, though Nellie was real, the two rarely interacted or communicated. In the novel Nellie has her own chapters, narrating her worries after Belle arrives in Chicago that she won’t stay in the house and do chores, as Nellie expected she would do. Poor Nellie suffers frequent miscarriages, so as one pregnancy lasts longer than usual, Belle’s assistance was expected to prevent another loss by taking some of the hard labor away from her sister. Overall, Nellie is a difficult, frustrating character, with a fabricated personality that adds little to the full picture of Belle. Bruce said she wrote Nellie so we would empathize with Belle, who is presumed to kill so many men because she’s mad about her lost child and the pregnancies that never come after the assault. All men must pay for what was done to her. However, Nellie has enough evidence that her sister is a serial killer but denies it to herself because family and never contacts the police.

Despite my frustrations with Nellie, I could see the setting in which Nellie lived clearly. Chicago circa 1900 still had outhouses, overcrowding, and poverty. What children of Nellie’s do live have to steer clear of dangerous garbage, and structural fires are not uncommon daily. Bruce deftly depicts a Norwegian community around Nellie and Belle in Chicago, describing Belle’s pursuits to learn English while Nellie and others never try, suggesting Belle is smart. Later, Belle marries husband #1, whose three-bedroom house is easy to visualize, but after she murders him, Belle takes money she’s gathered with some strategic insurance policy fiddling and buys her own farm (and, in her head, prestige) in La Porte, Indiana where she marries again. The farm I could also picture, and for a time it seems happy there. Through a connection, Belle has, over time, secured children and pretended with pillows up her dress that she birthed them. (Local history newspapers suggest she birthed children, some of whom died, so I wonder which is true). Husband #2 is good to her children his own two that he brought to the marriage, but eventually Belle grows tired of his strong personality (and one of his kids; Belle is not beyond overdosing a child with laudanum). Which is ironic, because she killed husband #1 for having a weak personality.

Bruce fabricates Belle’s connection, making him into a slippery snake, a man who loves to kill, who makes his living taking people out quietly. He’s madly in love with Belle, but she refuses him, saying she wants to live a good Christian life. Ha! Together, they continue to murder men who come calling to Belle’s farm to meet her. She places an ad asking for a $1,000 deposit, because no widow with a farm can trust a man who shows up penniless, and generally these men don’t leave. Whack whack with the cleaver. I do wish Bruce has been more crafty with her descriptions of the murders. I’m not a fan of gore but writing “whack whack” to me is more funny than brutal, and we are talking about a real-life serial killer. Perhaps Belle spent time scrubbing her clothes because they had blood on them, or describes the deceased’s face after death — something. Basically, I want a balance of gore off the page, but also making the murders violent enough that they register with me as dead humans.

In general, a quick historical fiction read with an immersive setting that could have been crafted a bit more carefully in some regards. For a read-alike, check out my review of The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes.

24 comments

  1. “Whack whack” to describe a murder would probably make me laugh too. This reminds me a little of a graphic novel I read last year based on the true story of a woman who ran a boarding house during the gold rush in Canada and murdered the men who came to stay there. It seems like there are a few stories like this, of women willing to take power in whatever way they could at the time to escape poverty and abuse.

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    • I’ve been emailing back and forth with a person whose PhD was on American true crime novels, and we were just writing about how women aren’t taken seriously as serial killers, and may not even be labeled serial killers, because the patriarchy has a hard time imaginig it. Okay, I’m being a little sarcastic, but, but the PhD was saying there are theories that Jack the Ripper was a woman, but that’s hard for people to stomach, I guess.

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      • There is an infamous Canadian murder case where a husband and wife were convicted as serial killers but she got a much lighter sentence than he did, largely for this reason. In fact, he’s still in prison while she was released a few years ago, despite there being some evidence that she was more of the instigator in the murders. Stories about female serial killers often seem to feel the need to include a backstory involving a man too. A woman goes on a murder spree because she’s been spurned or abused by a man. Whereas a man can just decide to murder without anyone looking for a jilted love story.

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          • That was a Canadian case too! And the other story that your review reminded me of was a graphic novel I read last year about a woman who kept a boarding house in northern Canada during the gold rush and murdered men who came to stay there. I guess female murderers are not so uncommon in my country…

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  2. I always enjoy stories where I know the geography (as long as the author gets it right!). Loved the map, I had no idea you were so close to Chicago. There was a famous serial killer in the suburb I live in (I know one of his sons) who is always popping up in fiction. I sometimes think he is just a base to be touched to establish you are in the 1950s. My third wife who knew the family quite well, was fascinated by a book in which the serial killer used to drop around at the author’s house to see his father.

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    • Lots of professors who teach at the University of Notre Dame right here actually live in Chicago and ride the South Shore line to commute every day. If they can work on a laptop and not get motion sick, it’s a good use of time. Nick used to regularly go out to Chicago because Notre Dame has a business school out there, and he manages all the classroom technology for the business school at ND.

      Biscuit and I were talking about how people probably like true crime because we always connect it back to ourselves. If the serial killer was born the same year as you, or if you’ve been to the same area, or if you lived down the block, all of it feels just as close and “exciting.” Nick went to elementary school with one of the Columbine shooters.

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  3. Interesting! It definitely sounds like there are some ups and downs to the execution here (no pun intended), but Belle’s character sounds fascinating and this is an author I’ve already had on my radar so perhaps someday I will pick this one up. It must be an interesting (if frightening) reminder that crime can happen anywhere, to read something set so close to home! I’ve always counted myself lucky not to have any grisly stories in my local history, as living in the middle of nowhere can be creepy enough on its own.

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    • Heh, you’re pun was fantastic, even if not intended. I think Bruce’s writing would leave you feeling a bit “meh” as it needs some love. Perhaps you’d get on with the nonfiction book about Gunness better?

      When someone in the middle of no where gets violent, everyone wonders what went wrong. When a person gets violent in a city, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. That’s city stuff.” It cracks me up that such a difference exists.

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      • Thanks. 🙂 I’ve seen some great reviews of other titles from Bruce, so maybe her writing is better in different stories. I don’t think I would start with this one since I have others on my radar already, but if I like her work I’d consider picking this one up. I’m not sure I’m personally invested in Gunness enough at this point to go for nonfiction, but I won’t rule it out.

        I think the difference is that there are more opportunities for violence in a city, and more anonymity. In the country, people are spread out more and mostly know each other, so you’d have to go out of your way and target someone specific to commit an act of violence. Opportunity vs. effort. That’s definitely part of the reason I’ve felt safe leaving my doors unlocked in the middle of nowhere- who the heck is going to come out here on a murder spree? Then again, that’s probably a dangerous assumption to make!

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  4. I do like the sounds of this one, but I’ve always wanted to read The Lodger too! Interesting that this murder is so close to home to you…and terribly sad about the news of that little girl. Ugh, this world!

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  5. This does sounds interesting, though your comment about treating the murders a bit too flippantly would rankle with me as well, I think – given that they are real people who died!

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    • It could be that the author is trying to avoid too much gore, or that she believes that’s how Gunness would think about murder (or at least her character Gunness). There are moments of more vivid death, but for the most part, it’s gone over quickly . . . almost like the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme.

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