Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth in Selbu, Norway on November 11, 1859. Her family lived as tenants on a small farm owned by the Storseth family. In 1881, at the age of 21, Brynhild left Norway and settled in Chicago. She changed her name to Bella Petersen and worked for a time as a servant girl before getting married in 1884 to Mads Sorensen from Drammen, Norway.
The Sorensens had a home in Chicago which burned down. With the money they received from their fire insurance they purchased a confectionary store at the corner of Grand Avenue and Elizabeth Streets in Chicago. The business mysteriously caught on fire, and with the fire insurance they bought a new home in Austin, Illinois. It appears that they were not able to have any children of their own, so Mads and Belle took care of foster children. Two of these children died under Belle’s care. Caroline died in 1896 and Alex in 1898. They apparently died of “colitis” which could have been caused by poisoning.