Photo Of The Day

A photograph showing a large group of men looking at the graves of those murdered by the Bender family, Labette County, Kansas.

A photograph showing a large group of men looking at the graves of those murdered by the Bender family, Labette County, Kansas.

The Family That Murders Together

In 1870, Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura Ingalls left their home in southeast Kansas, where they had lived for about a year, and headed back to Wisconsin. Their Kansas home was later the basis for Laura’s book The Little House on the Prairie. That same year, a group of new families moved into the area. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was totally foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state. Two of the families moved away within a year. The others kept to themselves, with the exception of the Benders.

John Bender, Sr., and his family settled in Kansas in 1870, near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travellers passed on their way to settle the West. The older Bender, called “Pa,” made a claim for 160 acres in which is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa’s land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included “Ma” and a daughter named Kate. Ma and Pa spoke mostly German, and their English was so heavily accented that no one understood them. The younger Benders spoke fluent English

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 travellers. 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 travelled to the Bender’s hotel to see her again.

They, like many luckless travellers 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 travellers 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 travellers 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 favourite 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 travellers 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.

Further investigations revealed 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.

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!

Although much time has passed, the Benders have not been forgotten. A Bender museum opened in Cherryvale in May 1961, during Kansas’ statehood centennial celebration, and operated there until 1978. Present-day Cherryvale Museum, which has limited visiting hours from April to October, displays the murder hammers and other memorabilia of the Bloody Benders. “Going on a bender” makes most people think of a drinking spree, but that expression will always have a slightly different meaning in South-Eastern Kansas, onetime home of the deadly sober Bender family.


Bloody Bender Family

The Bloody Benders’ Grim Harvest


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