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.