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 Benders 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 (Pa) Bender Sr. was around sixty years old and spoke very little English. When he did speak it, 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, but 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 English well with very little accent. A self-proclaimed healer and psychic, she distributed flyers advertising her supernatural powers and her ability to cure illnesses. She also conducted séances and gave lectures on spiritualism, for which she gained notoriety for advocating free love. Kate’s 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; only the male Benders, however, were born overseas and they were not actually a family. Pa Bender was from either Germany or Holland and had been 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, Eliza went by the name of Sara Eliza Davis. It is believed that 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 had his skull crushed and his throat cut, was discovered in Drum Creek. The owner of the Drum Creek claim 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 “villains” 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 State Senator Alexander M. York who lived in Independence. State Senator Alexander M. York had been instrumental (in November 1872) in exposing United States Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of corruption in seeking re-election by bribing state legisilators (who then elected U. S. Senators) for their votes. 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 after the township meeting, 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. A bad odor was noticed and traced to a trap door underneath a bed, 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. 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 grave sites marked before the men were satisfied they had found them all and retired for the night. Digging resumed the following morning with another eight bodies being found in seven of the nine suspected graves while another was found in the well, along with a number of body parts. All but one had had their heads bashed with a hammer and their throats cut, and it was reported in newspapers 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 were later translated. The text read “Johannah Bender. Born July 30, 1848” and “John Gebhardt came to America on July 1 18xx.”
Word of 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.
One 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.
Several weeks after the discovery of the bodies, Addison Roach and his son in law William Buxton were arrested as accessories. In total 12 men “of bad repute in general” would be arrested including Brockman. All had been involved in disposing of the victims’ stolen goods with Mit Cherry, a member of the vigilance committee, implicated for forging a letter from one of the victims, informing the man’s wife that he had arrived safely at his destination in Illinois. Brockman would be arrested again 23 years later, for the rape and murder of his 18 year old daughter.
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 and the media speculated 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. Also in 1884 an elderly man matching Pa Benders description was arrested in Montana for a murder where the victim had been killed by a hammer blow to the head committed near Salmon, Idaho. A message requesting positive identification was sent to Cherryvale but the suspect severed his foot to escape his leg irons and bled to death. By the time a deputy from Cherryvale arrived, identification was impossible due to decomposition. Despite the lack of identification, the man’s skull was displayed as that of “Pa Bender” in a Salmon saloon until prohibition forced its closure in 1920 and the skull disappeared.
On October 31, 1889 it was reported that a Mrs Almira Monroe and Mrs Sarah Eliza Davis had been arrested in Niles, Michigan (often misreported as Detroit) several weeks earlier for larceny. They were released after being found not guilty but were then immediately re-arrested for the Bender murders. According to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the daughter of one of the Benders victims Mrs Frances E. McCaun, had reported the pair to authorities in early October after tracking them down. Their identities were later confirmed by two Osage township witnesses from a tintype photograph. In mid October, Deputy Sherriff LeRoy Dick, the Osage Township Trustee who had headed the search of the Bender property, arrived in Michigan and arrested the couple on October 30 following their release on the larceny charges. Mrs Monroe resisted, declaring that she would not be taken alive but was subdued by local deputies. Mrs Davis admitted that Mrs Monroe was Ma Bender but claimed that she herself was not Kate but her sister Sarah, she later signed an affidavit to that effect while Monroe continued to deny the identification. Deputy Sherriff Dick, along with Mrs McCaun, escorted the pair to Oswego, Kansas where seven members of a 13 member panel confirmed the identification and committed them for trial. Originally scheduled for February 1890, the trial was held over to May and the county subsequently dropped the charges and released both after their attorney produced a marriage certificate indicating that Mrs Davis had been married in Michigan in 1872, the time when several of the murders were committed. A number of researchers question the ready acceptance of the certificates authenticity and suggest that the county was unwilling to accept the expense of boarding the two women for an extended period.
- 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 (2009:$14,875) 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. Thought to have been buried alive, but not proved. 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 (1.6 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 Bender Museum in Cherryvale, Kansas 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. An episodes of the 1954 television series Stories of the Century named “Kate Bender” focused on only the son and daughter. 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.