The BENDER family
A.K.A.: "The Bloody Benders"
The alleged family consisted of John Bender, his wife Kate, son John Jr., and daughter Kate
Classification: Serial killers
Characteristics: Owned a small general store and inn
Number of victims: 11 +
Date of murder: 1872 - 1873
Age: John Bender Sr., 60 - Ma Bender, 42 - John Bender Jr., 25 - Kate Bender, 22
Victim profile: Travelers
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer - Cutting their throats
Location: Labette County, Kansas, USA
Status: Some claimed that a small band of riders did catch up with the bloodthirsty family and killed them. Others thought that the Benders had managed to escape out on the trackless prairie or had slipped aboard a train in Thayer.
The Bloody Benders were a family of serial killers who owned a small general store and inn in Osage township, Labette County, Kansas from 1872 to 1873. The inn was a dingy place called the Wayside Inn.
The alleged family consisted of John Bender, his wife Kate, son John Jr. and daughter Kate. While most people believe John and Kate were brother and sister, the two were known to have had a more intimate relationship and some people said that they claimed to be man and wife.
Following the American Civil War, the United States government moved the Osage Indians from Labette County to a new Indian Territory located in what would eventually be Oklahoma. The "vacant" land was then made available to homesteaders.
In October 1870, five families of spiritualists settled in western Labette County, around 7 mi (11 km) northeast of where Cherryvale would be established seven months later and 17 mi (27 km) from Independence. One of the families was John Bender Sr. and John Bender Jr. who registered 160 acres (65 ha) of land located adjacent the Great Osage Trail which was then the only open road for travelling further west. After building a cabin, a barn with corral and a well, in the fall of 1871, Kate (Ma) Bender and her daughter Kate arrived and the cabin was divided into two rooms by a canvas wagon-cover. The Bender's used the smaller room at the rear for living quarters while the front room was converted into a "general store" and inn. Ma and Kate Bender also planted a 2 acres (0.81 ha) vegetable garden and apple tree orchard north of the cabin.
The Bender family
John Bender Sr. (Pa) was around sixty years old and spoke very little English. When he did speak it was so guttural that it was usually unintelligible. Ma Bender, who also allegedly spoke very little English, was 42 years of age and was so unfriendly that her neighbors took to calling her a "she-devil." Shortly before the Benders fled it was discovered that Ma spoke English fluently.
John Bender Jr. was around 25 years old, handsome with auburn hair and moustache and spoke English fluently with a German accent. John was prone to laughing aimlessly which led many to consider him a "half-wit."
Kate Bender who was around 23, was cultivated and attractive and she spoke good English with very little accent. A self-proclaimed healer and psychic, she distributed flyers advertising her supernatural powers and her ability to cure illnesses, conducted séances and also gave lectures on spiritualism for which she gained notoriety for advocating free love. Kates' popularity became a large attraction for the Benders' inn. Although the elder Benders kept to themselves, Kate and her brother regularly attended Sunday school in nearby Harmony Grove.
The Benders were widely believed to be German immigrants, however only the male Benders were born overseas and they were not actually the Bender family. Pa Bender was from either Germany or Holland and was born John Flickinger. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik in the Adirondack Mountains and had married George Griffith with whom she had 12 children. Ma allegedly married several times, each time following the death of her previous husband from head injuries. Kate was the fifth child of Ma Bender and was born as Eliza Griffith. Following her marriage, Kate went by the name of Sara Eliza Davis. John Jr. was born John Gebhardt. Some of the Benders' neighbors claimed that John and Kate were not brother and sister but actually husband and wife.
Deaths and disappearances
In May 1871, the body of a man named Jones, who had his skull crushed and throat cut, was discovered in Drum Creek. The owner of the Drum Creek claim where the body was found was suspected but no action was taken. In February 1872, the bodies of two men were found who had the same injuries as Jones. By 1873, reports of missing people who had passed through the area had became so common that travelers began to avoid the trail. The area was already widely known for horse thieves and "villians" and vigilance committees often "arrested" some for the disappearances only for them to be later released by the authorities. Many "honest" men under suspicion were also run out of the country by these committees.
The downfall of the Benders
In the winter of 1872, following the funeral of his wife, George Loncher and his daughter left Independence to resettle in Iowa, but were never seen again. In the spring of 1873, a neighbor, Dr William York went looking for them, questioning homesteads along the trail. He reached Fort Scott and on March 9 began the return journey to Independence but never arrived home. Dr York had two brothers, Colonel Ed York living in Fort Scott, and Kansas Senator Alexander York who lived in Independence. Both knew of his travel plans and when he failed to return home an all out search began for the missing doctor. Colonel York, leading a company of some 50 men, questioned every traveler along the trail and visited all the area homesteads. On March 28, 1873 Colonel York arrived at the Bender inn with a Mr Johnson, explaining to the Benders that his brother had gone missing and asked if they had seen him. They admitted Dr York had stayed with them and suggested the possibility that he had run into trouble with Native Americans after leaving. Colonel York agreed that this was possible and remained for dinner.
On April 3, Colonel York returned to the inn with armed men after being informed that a woman had fled from the inn after being threatened with knives by Ma Bender. Ma allegedly could not understand English while the younger Benders denied the claim. When York repeated the claim, Ma became enraged and said the woman was a witch who had cursed her coffee and ordered the men to leave her house, revealing for the first time that "her sense of the English language" was much better than had been thought. Before York left Kate asked him to return alone the following Friday night and she would use her clairvoyant abilities to help him find his brother. The men with York were convinced the Benders, and a neighboring family the Roaches, were guilty and wanted to hang them all but York insisted that evidence must be found.
Around the same time, neighboring communities began to make accusations that the Osage community was responsible for the disappearances and a meeting was arranged by the Osage township in the Harmony Grove schoolhouse. The meeting was attended by 75 locals, including Colonel York and both Pa and John Bender. After discussing the disappearances including that of William York who was a prominent doctor for whom a search had recently been completed, it was agreed that a search warrant would be obtained to search every homestead between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Despite York's strong suspicions regarding the Benders since his visit several weeks earlier, no one had watched them and it was not noticed for several days that they had fled.
Three days later, Billy Tole was driving cattle past the Bender property when he noticed that the Inn was abandoned and the farm animals were unfed. Tole reported the fact to the Township Trustee, but due to bad weather it was several days before the abandonment could be investigated. The Township Trustee called for volunteers and several hundred turned out to form a search party that included Dr York’s brother, Colonel York. When the party arrived at the Bender inn they found the cabin empty of food, clothing and personal possessions. Noticing a bad odour it was traced to a trap door underneath a bed that was found to be nailed shut. After opening the trap, the empty room beneath, 6 feet (1.8 m) deep and 7 feet (2.1 m) square at the top by 3 feet (0.91 m) square at the bottom, was found to have clotted blood on the floor. The stone slab floor was broken up with sledgehammers but no bodies were found and it was determined that the smell was from blood that had soaked into the soil. The men then physically lifted the cabin and moved it to the side so they could dig under it but no bodies were found there either. They then began to probe the ground around the cabin with a metal rod, especially in the disturbed soil of the vegetable garden and orchard where the first body was found later that evening, that of Dr York, buried face downwards with his feet barely below the surface. The probing continued until midnight with another nine suspected graves marked. Digging continued the following morning and another nine bodies were found in eight graves, plus a large number of body parts. All but one had had their heads bashed with a hammer and their throats cut, and it was reported that all had been "indecently mutilated." The body of a young girl was found with no injuries sufficient to cause death and it was speculated that she had been strangled or buried alive.
A Kansas newspaper reported that the crowd was so incensed after finding the bodies, that a friend of the Benders named Brockman, who was among the onlookers, was hung from a beam in the Bender inn until unconscious, revived and interrogated as to what he knew then hung again. After the third hanging, they released him and he staggered home "as one who was drunken or deranged." A Catholic prayer book was found in the house with notes inside written in German, which was later translated. The text read "Johannah Bender. Born July 30 1848" and "John Gebhardt came to America on July 1 18xx." Several weeks later, Addison Roach and his son in law William Buxton were arrested as accessories. In total 12 men were arrested. All had been involved in disposing of the stolen goods with one, a member of the vigilance committee, implicated for forging a letter from one of the victims informing the mans wife that he had arrived safely at his destination in Illinois.
Word the murders spread quickly and more than 3,000 people, including reporters from as far away as New York and Chicago visited the site. The Bender cabin was destroyed by souvenir hunters who took everything, including the bricks that lined the cellar and the stones lining the well.
Another of Dr York’s brothers, Kansas Senator Alexander York, offered a $1,000 reward for the Bender family's arrest. On May 17, Governor Thomas A. Osborn offered a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of all four.
The Bender killing method
It was speculated that if a guest appeared to be wealthy, the Benders would give him a seat of honor at the table which was positioned over a trap door that led down into the cellar, with his back to the curtain. Kate would distract the guest, while John Bender or his son would come from behind the curtain and strike the guest on the right hand side of the skull with a hammer. The victim's throat was then cut by one of the women to ensure his death. The body was then dropped through the trap door. Once in the cellar, the body would be stripped and later buried somewhere on the property, often in the orchard. More than a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and sides of the room, possibly indicating that some of the victims had attempted to fight back after being hit with the hammer.
Detectives following wagon tracks discovered the Benders' wagon, abandoned with a starving team of horses with one of the mares lame, just outside the city limits of Thayer, 12 mi (19 km) north of the inn. It was confirmed that in Thayer the family bought tickets on the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad for Humboldt. At Chanute, John Jr. and Kate left the train and caught the MK&T train south to the terminus in Red River County near Dennison, Texas.
From there they traveled to an outlaw colony thought to be in the border region between Texas and New Mexico. They were not pursued as lawmen following outlaws into this region often never returned. One detective did claim later that he had traced the pair to the border where he had found that John Jr. had died of apoplexy. Ma and Pa Bender did not leave the train at Humboldt, but instead continued north to Kansas City where it is believed they purchased tickets for St. Louis, Missouri.
Several groups of vigilantes were formed to search for the Benders. Many stories say that one vigilante group actually caught the Benders and shot all of them but Kate, whom they burned alive. Another group claimed they had caught the Benders and lynched them before throwing their bodies into the Verdigris River. Yet another claimed to have killed the Benders during a gunfight and buried their bodies on the prairie. However, no one ever claimed the $3,000 (2009: $53,000) reward.
The story of their escape spread, and the search continued on and off for the next fifty years. Often, groups of two traveling women were accused of being Kate Bender and her mother.
In 1884, it was reported that John Flickinger had committed suicide in Lake Michigan.
On October 31, 1889 it was reported that a Mrs Almira Monroe and Mrs Eliza Davis had been arrested in Niles, Michigan (often reported as Detroit) several weeks earlier and that their identities had now been confirmed by two witnesses from a tintype photograph. Mrs Davis also signed an affidavit admitting that Mrs Monroe was Ma Bender and they were both extradited to Oswego, Kansas for trial. Originally scheduled for February 1890, the trial was held over to May and, unwilling to accept the expense of boarding the two women for three months, the county released both.
1869: Joe Sowers. Found with a crushed skull and throat cut but not believed to be a Bender victim.
May 1871: Mr Jones. Body found in Drum Creek with a crushed skull and throat cut.
Winter 1871/1872: Two unidentified men found on the prairie in February 1872 with crushed skulls and throats cut.
1872: Ben Brown. From Howard County, Kansas. $2,600 (2009:$46,000) missing. Buried in the apple orchard.
1872: W.F. McCrotty. Co D 123rd Ill Infantry. $38 and a wagon with a team of horses missing.
December, 1872: Henry McKenzie. Relocating to Independence from Hamilton County, Indiana. $36 and a matched team of horses missing.
December, 1872: Johnny Boyle. From Howard County, Kansas. $10, a pacing mare and an $850 saddle missing. Found in the Benders well.
December, 1872: George Loncher and his daughter (contemporary newspapers variously reported her age as either eight years old or 18 months old with the younger age more likely). $1,900 (2009:$33,600) missing. Buried together in the apple orchard.
May, 1873: Dr William York. $2,000 (2009:$35,000) missing. Buried in the apple orchard.
?: John Greary. Buried in the apple orchard.
?: Unidentified male. Buried in the apple orchard.
?: Unidentified female. Buried in the apple orchard.
?: Various body parts. The parts did not belong to any of the other victims found.
1873: During the search, the bodies of four unidentified males were found in Drum Creek and the surrounds. All four had crushed skulls and throats cut. One may be Jack Bogart, whose horse was purchased from a friend of the Benders after he went missing in 1872.
With the exception of McKenzie, York and the Lonchers who were buried in Independence, none of the other bodies were claimed and they were reburied at the base of a mound 1 mi (2 km) south-east of the Benders orchard.
The search of the cabin resulted in the recovery of three hammers that had been used as murder weapons. These hammers were given to the Bender museum in 1967 by the son of LeRoy Dick, the Osage Township Trustee who headed the search of the Bender property. The hammers were displayed at the Museum in Cherryvale from 1967 to 1978 when the site was acquired for a fire station. When attempts were made to relocate the museum it became a point of controversy with locals objecting to the town being known for the Bender murders. The Bender artifacts were eventually given to the Cherryvale Museum.
Appearances in fiction
The Bender Family is the subject of the Western novel The Hell Benders (1999) by Ken Hodgson. In Lyle Brandt's novel Massacre Trail (2009) the Benders are responsible for several homestead killings, and are brought down by Marshal Jack Slade.
The novel Cottonwood (2004), by Scott Phillips, features Kate Bender in a supporting role; the second half of the book takes place during the trial of two alleged surviving members of the Bender Family.
They are also the subject of the historical novel Candle of the Wicked (1960) by Manly Wade Wellman and play a role in the short story "They Bite" (1943) by Anthony Boucher. A nonfiction graphic adaptation of their history is part of Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series.
The Benders are also mentioned, though not by name, in Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel American Gods, as a cult apocryphally said to worship the Slavic god Czernobog. In the first season of the television series Supernatural, there is a murderous family who are named Bender as a reference to the historical family.
THE BLOODY BENDERS
Mass Murderers from the History of Kansas
The infamous Bender family appeared quietly in southeastern Kansas in the spring of 1872. They didn’t appear to be anything special, just another immigrant family that had escaped the confines of the eastern cities to try their hand out west. Like so many others, they merely wanted to make new lives and fortunes in the untamed west. However, their methods for obtaining such fortunes differed greatly from most of the other homesteaders.
The Bender’s constructed a home between the towns of Thayer and Galesburg in Neosho County. It was not a fancy place, but was a general store and a wayside inn that could provide both food and a bed for travelers. The house was made up of one large room that was divided by a canvas curtain. This separated the grocery store and inn from the family’s living quarters in the back.
Old man Bender, his wife and their dull-witted son spoke little to the strangers who passed through, save for an occasional greeting along the local roads or to sell them canned goods and coffee. Old man Bender and his raw-boned wife, aged between 50 and 60, were thought to have been immigrants from Germany but they spoke with such guttural accents that no one could be certain.
On the other hand, their beautiful daughter Kate was outgoing and aggressive. Men were immediately attracted to the tall, fair-haired beauty and she became quite a draw for the Bender’s establishment. She also became well-known in the region as a psychic medium, who could contact the spirits of the dead and even cure sickness and maladies for a generous donation. Kate appeared in a number of small Kansas towns with her spiritualistic show. As "Professor Miss Kate Bender", she gave public séances and entertained crowds. She was very popular with the male members of the audience and some of these men traveled to the Bender’s hotel to see her again.
They, like many luckless travelers who passed through, were never seen again.
The danger of dining with the Bender’s came when seated with your back to the canvas wall. Some travelers complained of hearing strange sounds from behind the curtain while they ate. They didn’t realize what might be coming their way for dessert. Kate would also place her spiritualist clients with their backs to the curtain.
In the darkened room, she made all sorts of strange manifestations appear, usually with her family’s earthly assistance, and managed to keep the sitter transfixed in place for an extended period of time. However, some of the sitters became unnerved with their backs against the canvas wall. One man was so scared that he insisted on being moved to another seat. Kate became so angry with him that he stayed put. Finally though, after hearing what he believed were otherworldly whispers on the other side of the sheet, he jumped up and ran from the inn.
Many travelers were not so discerning though. If a diner, overnight guest or séance participant appeared to be wealthy, he was given a seat of honor with his back to the curtain. While Kate distracted him, Old Man Bender or his son would sneak up to the curtain with a sledgehammer. They would then strike a savage blow to the top of the man’s head, killing him instantly.
The body was then dragged back beneath the canvas and stripped. A trap door that led to an earthen cellar was opened and the body was dumped below until it could be buried somewhere on the prairie. A favorite burying ground was apparently an orchard that was located on the property.
This system of murder worked well for more than 18 months. Kate drew a number of victims to their door with her offers of spirit communication and her brother often accosted travelers on nearby roads. He would strike up a conversation with them and convince them that spending the night at the inn was preferable to journeying on.
One victim who was persuaded to enjoy the Bender’s hospitality (on a permanent basis) was Dr. William York. He was actually returning to visit the inn, and most likely to see Kate again, in the spring of 1873. He had stayed there once before on his trip west and informed his brother, Colonel York of Fort Scott, that he would be staying with the Bender’s again on his return journey. Not surprisingly, Dr. York never returned home.
A short time after his brother’s disappearance, on May 4, 1873, Colonel York arrived at the Bender home. York explained that his brother had disappeared and he asked the family about whether or not he had passed through the area. He thought that the doctor had planned to stay with them. Had they seen him?
They answered that they hadn’t and suggested that perhaps he was delayed, or had run into trouble with Indians. York agreed that all of this was possible and ate a hearty dinner. Later on that night, while sitting alone in the front room, he happened to notice something glittering underneath one of the beds. He pulled the object out and saw that it was a locket on a gold chain. He opened it and was startled to see the faces of his brother’s wife and daughter inside! He recognized the locket then as a trinket that his brother wore on his watch chain. He quickly realized that the inn might have been the last place that his brother had ever been seen alive.
York was in the front part of the inn by himself and so quietly, he slipped out the front door. He would ride to the nearest town and notify the authorities, he decided. Using his clout as a military officer, they would get to the bottom of what was going on at the Bender house. He walked across the dirt yard to the stable and out of the corner of his eye, spotted a lantern swinging back and forth in the dark orchard. York walked in the direction of the light and as he got closer, he crept up on it. In the trees, he saw Old Man Bender and his son digging a hole in the ground. Nearby was a large object wrapped in canvas that looked suspiciously like a body.
York returned to the Bender property the next morning, shortly after sunrise. He did not come alone though. He had convinced the sheriff to send a contingent of deputies and local men from town. The posse planned to investigate the inn and the surrounding area, especially the orchard.
When they arrived however, they found that the house was empty. The Bender’s, apparently aware that York had disappeared the night before, had packed up and left the place. The men searched the building but almost everything was gone. York inspected the cellar and noted with alarm that the dirt floor was coated with dried blood. The stench of the place was overpowering.
The men set to work searching the fields and the orchard around the house. Among the trees, they found 11 mounds of oddly shaped earth. Several of them appeared to be fresh. The posse began to dig and tragically, the body of Colonel York’s brother was found in the first grave that was opened. More graves were found by walking about the edge of the prairie and taking end gate rods from wagons and sticking them in the ground. Here and there, they would strike a soft place and in every instance, these places proved to be graves. More than two dozen bodies were allegedly found but how many went undiscovered remains unknown.
The news soon spread about the "Bloody Benders" deadly deeds and curiosity-seekers flocked to the house. Vengeful groups of riders were formed and began searching throughout Kansas for any trace of the family. They had vanished completely but authorities would go on searching for more than fifty years without success. Officially, the Bender’s were gone forever.
But of course, there were the legends.
Some claimed that a small band of riders did catch up with the bloodthirsty family and killed them. The Bender’s were all shot down and their bodies burned to obliterate their existence. Only Kate was spared being shot and instead she was burned alive for her crimes. The killers swore each other to silence and because of this, the story has never been confirmed.
Others thought that the Benders had managed to escape out on the trackless prairie or had slipped aboard a train in Thayer. The search for the Benders continued sporadically for the next 50 years, with infrequent pairs of female travelers being identified as Ma Bender and Miss Kate. In 1889, two women were actually extradited from Detroit on this charge. The county was torn apart with some residents identifying the pair, while others could not. The evidence became so confused that the case never went to trial and eventually faded away.
By 1886, the house in which the Bender’s had lived was reduced to nothing more than an empty hole that had once been the cellar. Relic seekers carried away every last remnant of the building, even taking the stones that lined the cellar walls. Only memories of the dark deeds of the Bender family remained to provide evidence that they had ever existed. Memories -- and the ghosts.
The stories claimed that the ghosts of the Bender’s victims haunted the ruins of the house and later, the earthen hole that remained. Those who wandered out to the site of the house, hoping to bring back some gruesome souvenir, were often frightened off by the strange, glowing apparitions and the moaning and keening sounds that came from the darkness. Some of these spirits still reportedly wander the area today.
And if they do, they may not walk alone. Some legends say that Kate Bender has returned to haunt the lonely land where she took so many lives. She is, perhaps, doomed to roam the earth in some sort of black penance for her horrific crimes. Of course, this may be only the grim folklore of the region, but few dare to walk these roadways at night to find out!
The Bender Family
The family offered tired travelers a long rest
Shortly after the Civil War, the United States government moved the Osage Indians southwest from Labette County, Kansas, into the new Indian Territory making new lands available for homesteading. This newly opened section in Labette County was settled by earnest, hard-working men and women who were trying to wrest a living from the droughty, windswept plain. The constant struggle, the fierce contest with the land to obtain food and shelter dulled their interest and curiosity concerning the world at large and even their own local vicinity. They accepted all newcomers at their face value.
In 1870, five families of spiritualists settled in Labette County just north and east of what later became the township of Cherryvale (originally named Cherry Vale). Spiritualists were unknown in the Old West at that time and their presence caused no alarm among the hard working settlers. The Benders were members of that cult. After a few months of life on the prairie with its high temperatures, hot winds and hardships, two of the families moved away. But the Bender family had other plans then just farming the land.
In late 1870, John Bender, Sr. and his alleged son, John Jr., traveled along the Osage Trail. Tying their horses at Ern Brockman Trading Post, they spent the night.
The next morning Ern took them to see the claims available on this treeless and wind-swept prairie and by night fall they had chosen and filed for their land. Platting records show that the two settled on the western slopes of the mounds that have come to bear their infamous name.
Pa, as the senior Bender was called, chose the usual 160 acres in the north-east quarter of Section 13, Township 31, Range 17, in the Osage township. The Brockmann claim was the South-west quarter of Section 13 and touched John, Sr. claim at the corners. That made them near neighbors.
His “son” chose a long narrow piece of ground just north of his "Pa" on the South-east quarter of Section 12, in the same Township and Range, which would keep other settlers from being very close to them. John, Jr. did not live on his claim nor make any improvement upon it.
The location was in the western part of Labette County, east of Montgomery and south of the Neosho County lines. The only water supply was Big Hill Creek, two miles or so away. They bought a load of rocks from neighbor Mr. Hieronymus, including a huge rock seven feet square and three inches thick. This slab was to be used for the floor of the planned cellar under the house.
They brought hay from another neighbor to thatch their shed-like barn. Lumber was brought from Fort Scott, 78-miles northeast, for a framed one-room cabin.
Hard workers, they shortly had built the 16 x 24 foot shell of the cabin, a three-sided stone and sod barn with a corral from sapling poles, and dug the first of two wells. In fall of 1871, when the house was about finished, word was sent to Ma Bender and Kate to come to Ottawa by train, 108-miles north of their new homestead.
In Ottawa, household furniture and supplies were purchased and loaded into their heavy Army surplus lumber wagon for the return trip. After they settled in, a wagon-cover canvas partition, tightly drawn over upright scantlings, was erected dividing the house into two rooms.
The smaller divided area concealed the Bender's living quarters in the rear half of the Inn. Kate placed a crudely lettered sign “Groceries” above the front door. Just north of the house, Kate and Ma planted a combined garden and fruit trees in what was to be an orchard. It was carefully cultivated furnishing an excuse for constant harrowing and digging.
The prairie Bender "store" was said to be only 100 yards south of the Osage Trail. That location also made the homestead a good overnight resting spot for travelers.According to published records, the Benders operated this lonely little inn and store, surrounded by wide-open prairie land, between the winter of 1871 and spring of 1873.
The well-traveled Osage Trail came from Fort Scott through the Osage Mission via Saint Paul (12-miles west of the "Bender flats"), down through the mounds to Cherryvale (7-miles north-east), and on to Independence. Thayer was 10-miles north of the Inn. This trail was sometimes referred to as the Osage Mission-Fort Scott Road. It was the only road open for travel at that time.
Many weary cross-country travelers would buy provisions and/or stop for a meal. Sometimes they would bed down for a "safe" overnight stay. Feed was also provided for the traveler's horses. During this period, lone travelers mostly from the east, were traced as far as Big Hill Country and then just disappeared along with their horses, wagons and personal property.
Many of these men, as they were going with the intention of settling, of buying machinery, cattle and horses, frequently carried large sums of money upon their persons. Other would-be settlers traded horses as part payment for their claims. As most of the travelers were going to a new and far-away country or county to settle, it was an easy matter to cover their disappearance. Mails at that time were uncertain and infrequent.
As time passed, reports of lost persons became more frequent. In the late spring of 1873, much bitterness was directed to this southeast Kansas area. The Osage township called a meeting to see what should be done.
About 75 people from surrounding areas come to the meeting at the Harmony Grove school house in District No. 30. Indignation was running high because of the slanderous insinuations that had been circulated by the neighboring communities against this township due to the supposed disappearance of travelers in that area.
Tension at the meeting reached the breaking point when the widely-known Independence physician named Dr. William H. York was reported to have disappeared on the Osage Trail in their area while returning from a trip to Fort Scott.
A decision was made to search, under the sanction of a search warrant, every farmstead in the area between the headwaters of Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Old man Bender and young John were at this meeting.
Three days after the meeting, neighbor Billy Tole was driving his cows past the Bender Inn when he noticed the starving condition of the farm animals roaming about the promises and discovered a starved calf in the pen. Upon further investigation, he found the inn was abandoned. He reported the news, which quickly spread.
Several days elapsed, because of fowl weather, before a search party directed by LeRoy Dick, the elected township officer, was fully organized with men coming from Montgomery and Labette counties. They descended onto the Bender property and found the place was deserted and the Benders’ food, clothing and possessions greatly disturbed or removed.
Upon entering the cabin, Mr. Dick was met by a sickening stench. A trap door, nailed shut, was discovered in the floor of the cabin. Pried open and lifted by its leather hinges, it was learned that it covered a hole or cellar that was filled with clotted blood which produced the horrid odor. In desperation, the cabin was completely lifted and moved aside.
A search was made under the house, but nothing was found. The search was about to be called off when Dr. William York’s brother, Colonel Ed York, seating in his buggy, saw against the setting sun, the outline of a strange depression. Silently, digging began and Dr. York’s body was found buried, head downward, his feet scarcely covered. His skull had been bludgeoned from behind with a hammer and his throat had been cut.
The next day, with spades, shovels and plows, the search revealed nine other bodies with smashed skulls and slit throats along with dismembered parts of other bodies. One man and his little daughter were found buried together in one grave.
It was determined that the child had apparently been buried alive for no marks of violence were found on her body. One of the men that day christened the orchard "Hell's Half-Acre."
Another of Dr. York’s brothers, Alexander M. York, a lawyer and State Senator residing in Independence, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the ghastly family's arrest.
On May 17, Gov Thomas Osborn put up a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of all four. No one ever stepped forward to collected the reward offered.
On May 15, 1873, the Wilson County Free Press printed a story beginning, “The Cherryvale Tragedy: The Most Diabolical On Record. Over 3,000 persons visited the scene of horrors on Sunday. All kinds of rumors afloat.”
The discovery caused an absolute sensation. Newsmen and news artists flocked into this wide open prairie, now called "Hell's Acre", from as far away as New York and Chicago.
Order of Disappearances of Victims:
1869 Joe Sowers - not proven as victim #
1871 Mr. Jones - body found in Drum Creek #
1872 2 unknown men - found on prairie #
1872 Henry McKenzie - body mutilated *
1872 Ben Brown *
1872 W.F. McCrotty *
1873 George Loncher & little girl *
1873 Johnny Boyle * - found in well
1873 Dr. William York *
? John Greary *
? Unknown female *
? Unidentified man *
? Dismembered parts of several victims *
* Discovered in Bender’s apple orchard
# Found with crushed skulls and slit throats
Thus, Pa, Ma, John Jr. and Kate became notorieties in 1873 when the family quickly left Labette County after a murderous spree at the family's "prairie slaughterhouse for travelers".
They became this Nation's first recorded mass murders or "serial killers" when the 10 bodies were recovered at the inn. Many believe the Benders killed over 21 people.
When the Benders fled, they left a legendary trail of rumors, half-truth stories, and eye witness accounts about their demise. A number of posses claimed to have found the family and killed them.
One posse of citizens stated they caught the Benders while escaping to the south, lynched them, then threw their disembodied bodies into the Verdigris River. The Verdigris River has never revealed this amazing fact.
Another vengeful posse claims they killed the Benders during a gun fight chase and unceremoniously buried them on the prairie. Still another claim they killed the Benders while they were camping overnight, burned their bodies and took their wagon and team to Thayer, 13-miles north, as a diversion. This way nobody would know who they were.
Countless and fruitless trips were made by law enforcement officers to many towns to look at persons identified as the Benders. There seems to be no facts in these stories. Detectives did discovered the Benders' abandon lumber wagon and tied-up starving team of horses, one of the mares lame, just outside the city limits of Thayer.
Those detectives who attempted to follow the Benders became satisfied with the following facts: The passenger train conductor, Captain James B. Ransom, on the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad verified the descriptions of the family and stated they had brought tickets for the north-bound train to Humboldt.
At Chanute, John, Jr. and Kate detrained and took the MK&T train south to the Red River country of Texas, which was then the terminus of the railroad. From there the young Benders traveled to an outlaw colony considered to be either in Texas or New Mexico. Everyone considered this area to be the toughest, most lawless region in the United States.
Many lawmen pursuing outlaws into this region never returned. Ma and Pa did not detrain at Humboldt, but continued north to Kansas City. It is believed they purchased tickets for St. Louis. Many tales could possibly be dismissed as self-serving speculation and sensationalism. Still their flight would become the grist for detective stories and rumors well into the 20th century. Their story remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Old West.
Further investigations reveled that the only relationship between the four was Ma and Kate, who were actually mother and daughter. Ma chose to go with the name of her first husband and father of her 12 children, George Griffith. John Sr. or "Pa's" real last name was Flickinger and young John's last name was Gebhardt.
Three of the Bender hammers, remaining artifacts from the Bloody Bender Inn, were gifted to the Cherryvale museum by the Dick family in 1967. They are displayed in the Museum along with a certified Notary by Cornelius P. Dick, son of LeRoy Dick.
© 2000-2005 Wayne Hallowell