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The Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie

What is evil? Is it a condition, like a sickness that we catch and which spreads and festers within our being? Is it something we are born with; a defect of our very nature? Is it some sort of unseen force that compels and drives us? Or is evil merely a point of view, just one multifaceted aspect lying within the spectrum of human experience? If there is truly a force that can be known as “evil,” it most certainly existed within a family of unassuming homesteaders in the Old Wild West who would go on a ghastly, bloody spree of abduction and murder that would shock the nation and cement their reputation as the first American serial killers, before they would mysteriously vanish from the face of the earth.

Evil came to southeastern Kansas quietly and without fanfare, like a cold wind in the spring of 1871, in the form of the Bender family. This was the era of the Old West, of homesteaders heading west, trying to make a new life in a new land far from the death and destruction left in the wake of the bloody Civil War that had been ravaging the nation. The Benders were at first just another group of lost souls seeking peace in the midst of chaos, trying to strike out and forge a new life in a land of opportunity.

A typical family of homesteaders heading west

A typical family of homesteaders heading west

The Bender Family moved into 160 acres (65 ha) of registered land located between the towns of Thayer and Galesburg, in western Labette County, adjacent the Great Osage Trail, which was at the time the main passage of those looking to travel further west in their drive for a new life. This was a major passing point for those who were looking to find their dreams and fortunes in the new frontier of the west, and all manner of people went through here on their way to hopefully a better life far away from the devastation they had previously known. The Bender homestead was made up of a single room house that was then divided into two sections by a wagon canvas, with one section being devoted to the living quarters and the other being a public inn and general store selling various essential goods such as tobacco, horse feed, black powder, and alcohol. The Bender inn was also open to those in need of a place to rest during their long, arduous journeys.

The Bender family was thought to be of Germanic origin, with the mother and father only reportedly able to have a rudimentary grasp of the English language, only able to speak with a thick, barely comprehensible accent. The family was comprised of the mother, the father, John or “Pa Bender,”and their two children John Jr. and Kate. They had a few eccentricities, mainly their shaky grasp of English and the fact that their son, John Jr., was considered a half-wit due to his propensity for bursting out into giggling laughter at a moment’s notice. Additionally, the mother, “Ma Bender” was also known as somewhat of a recluse, and was thought to be so aggressive and unfriendly that many referred to her as “She Devil.” In fact, the family was in general seen as rather morose and withdrawn. However, the daughter, Kate, was known to be rather outgoing and friendly, and was also a purported spiritualist and healer, offering healings and séances to those in need. Kate conducted various seminars on spiritualism and public healings, and made bold claims that she could cure all manner of afflictions, including even blindness and deafness, but for most of the men who passed through the main draw was her alleged good looks.

One of Kate Bender's ads

One of Kate Bender’s ads

The Bender establishment, thanks in part to Kate’s charms, alleged powers, and colorful disposition, drew in numerous people who were on their way to seek their fortunes further west. They offered a peaceful place to stay and relax from their tiring journeys. It was around this time that many travelers passing through the area seemed to have the habit of disappearing, never to be heard from again. The weirdness started in May, 1871, when the body of a man only known by the name of Jones was found at Drum Creek with his head bashed in and his throat cut. The following year, two more were found with the same grievous injuries. By 1873, there were numerous missing persons in the vicinity, enough that people were starting to avoid traveling through there altogether.

At the time, no particular suspicion fell onto anyone. After all, this was the day of the Wild West, when there were numerous reasons for why someone might go missing. It didn’t help that the trail that passed the Bender homestead was known as a haunt for thieves and robbers. It was somewhat expected that some people who started their wayward journey west would inevitably go missing. As the mysterious vanishings continued, blame was aimed at the local Native American tribe, which was seen as harboring malevolence towards the onward westward trek of the white man, but this would change when one mysterious disappearance in particular would raise awareness of the bizarre situation, and would shine a light straight at the previously relatively unassuming Bender family.

Ma and Pa Bender

Ma and Pa Bender

In the winter of 1872, a man by the name of George Loncher and his infant daughter went missing on their way to resettle in Iowa after the death of Loncher’s wife. In the spring of 1873, a concerned Dr. William York, who was a neighbor of Loncher, went on a quest to try and locate what had become of them, but he too ended up joining the ranks of those who had disappeared without a trace. It just so happened that York was rather well connected, with two brothers by the names of Colonel Ed York and Senator Alexander York. Both were well aware of William’s travel plans, so when he failed to reach his destination, they were immediately ready to launch a thorough investigation into the matter. A massive search was mounted for their missing brother involving over 50 men, and every traveler and homestead along the trail was questioned, yet no one seemed to have any knowledge of where the doctor had gone.

It was on March 28, 1873 that the search came to the Bender homestead. York, accompanied by a Mr. Johnson, arrived at the inn and were greeted warmly by the Bender family, who admitted that doctor York had indeed stayed with them but had left and been on his way without incident. When told about the unfortunate disappearance of the doctor, the Benders suggested that perhaps he had been attacked by aggressive Native American tribes along the way. The men questioning them believed the story and even graciously stayed for dinner, after which they continued on their quest for their missing brother with no further suspicion placed on the Benders.

Things changed on April 3, 1873, when it came to York’s attention that a distressed, bedraggled woman had reported visiting the Bender inn only to be ominously threatened with knives by Ma Bender, after which the woman had made a desperate escape. York got together a band of armed men and descended upon the inn. When confronted, Ma Bender vehemently denied the woman’s reports, and made the bizarre claim that the woman had been a witch who had cursed her coffee. She then commanded the men to leave her property at once. The men, as well as several neighboring families, were all convinced that the Benders were guilty, but there was no hard evidence to pin anything on them and so they left without further incident.

The Bender cabin

The Bender cabin

In the ensuing weeks, there would be more inexplicable disappearances, and rumors began to spread that the Bender inn was responsible. A town meeting was called to discuss the matter, which was attended by over 75 locals, including none other than Pa Bender and his son, John Jr.. At the meeting, it was decided that search warrants would be obtained to search every single homestead in the vicinity between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek in the Osage community. At the time, the Benders in attendance made no particular objection to the idea and they went home peacefully after the meeting had convened.

Three days later, a cattle hand by the name of Billy Tole was driving cattle past the Bender property when he noticed that the inn seemed to be abandoned, with unfed animals milling about their pastures and no sign of any human activity. Due to bad weather, no immediate investigation was launched, but several days later, a group of volunteers was drawn together by the Township Trustee in order to mount a search of the apparently abandoned Bender inn. Several hundred volunteers converged upon the inn to find that indeed it appeared to be empty. A search of the interior of the home confirmed this, and it was found that all of the food, clothes, and family possessions were gone. The whole family had just up and gone. As the men searched the home, a foul odor was noticed wafting from somewhere in the home, and it was soon found to be emanating from what seemed to be a trap door under a bed. It was here that the gruesome reality of the situation would begin to sink in.

The bed was moved aside and it was found that the trap door had been nailed firmly shut. When it was pried open, the party discovered an underground room that reeked of a foul smelling, fetid stench. Although the room itself was empty, the stone slab floor was found to be covered with a copious amount of clotted, festering blood. The men smashed open the stone floor with sledge hammers, fully expecting to find rotting corpses lurking beneath, but none were found. Sensing that dead bodies had to be on the premises somewhere, the search party dug underneath the cabin and men went about the property probing the ground with metal rods in the search for buried corpses.

graves on the property

Graves on the Bender property

It was out in the vegetable garden where they would find the first one, the missing Dr. York himself, laying face down just below the surface of a mound of disturbed soil with his head smashed in and his throat cut. The horrified men continued the search and made the gruesome discovery of another nine bodies buried haphazardly around the property, as well as various body parts that did not seem to match up with those that were found, suggesting more bodies awaiting discovery. Most of the corpses had had their heads similarly bashed in with some sort of blunt object like a hammer, and their throats had been viciously cut wide open. Among the bodies was the infant daughter of the missing Mr. Loucher, buried under the body of her father, as well as the mutilated body of an 8 year old child. Some of the bodies had been mutilated in what was described as an “indecent manner.” Only one body, that of a very young woman, had remained mostly intact, and it was thought that she had been killed by strangulation or perhaps even buried alive, although it was unknown as to why this should be the case. The discovery of so many shallowly buried, brutally murdered corpses was so horrifying that the area was nicknamed “Hell’s Half-Acre,” and the family itself came to be known as the “Bloody Benders.” In addition to the bodies and body parts, several types of hammers, including a claw hammer and sledgehammer, as well as knives, were found in the house.

In the aftermath of this macabre discovery, investigators started to paint a picture of the grim story behind the Bender inn. It was thought that visitors to the inn would sit down for dinner at a seat near the curtain that separated the house into two sections, after which the unsuspecting victim would be bludgeoned to death with a hammer from behind the curtain, their throat slit, and their body would be dumped down the trap door into the secret room. It was also thought that Kate Bender would hold her seances in the house, during which guests would be encouraged to sit with their backs against the canvas curtain. While Kate kept them preoccupied, one of the other Benders, most likely Pa or John Bender Jr., would smash open their heads with a hammer. The bodies were then stripped of all belongings and valuables and kept in the hidden cellar until they were able to be buried somewhere on the property, with a favorite place being a nearby orchard. Oddly, around a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and walls of the inn, seeming to suggest that some of the killings did not go entirely according to plan, with the guests fighting back. It was believed that Kate Bender in particular was responsible for bringing in clients to the inn, who she seduced and then distracted with her charming disposition and good looks. It was also thought that John Jr.’s half-wit persona was carefully cultivated, and that he went out bringing customers in with the perfect, calculated coldness of an efficient killer.

The Bloody Bender inn

The Bloody Bender inn

Testimony from various eyewitnesses seemed to support the theories as to what had happened at the Bender inn. One guest who lived to tell the tale by the name of William Pickering reported that he had been attacked by a knife wielding Kate Bender after he had refused to sit at a “seat of honor” near the canvas curtain. Another man, a Catholic priest, relayed the story of becoming unnerved when he noticed Pa Bender trying to suspiciously conceal a large hammer under his clothes, after which the creeped out priest had left the inn and went on his way. Numerous guests remembered being harassed into sitting at the “seat of honor” and verbally abused or even kicked out if they refused to do so. One man named Mr. Wetzell, along with his travel companions, reported being yelled at by Ma Bender and kicked out for not sitting where they were told, after which both Pa and John Bender had emerged from behind the curtain as they left. Still others reported hearing strange sounds from behind the curtains, and even hearing “otherworldy whispers” from there.

Other odd details about the family emerged during the ongoing investigation that further increased the bizareness of the whole incident. It was discovered that the family was not even really called the Benders, and that only the mother and daughter had any family relation at all. “Pa Bender” was in fact born John Flickinger, while John Bender Jr. was really John Gebhart and “Ma Bender” was in reality Almira Meik, and was thought to have had around 12 children over the years. Ma Bender was also found to have been married on several occasions and that each husband had met an untimely end, dying from blunt force trauma to the head. It was also speculated that John Jr. and Kate, who was actually born Eliza Griffith, were not really siblings, but rather husband and wife. Another weird rumor that surrounded the family was that Ma Bender had killed her other children because they had been witnesses to her pervious husbands’ murders, leaving only Kate, her fifth born. It seemed increasingly clear that no one had really known who these people were at all.

It was thought that the main motive for the killings was mostly robbery, pure and simple. In those days, most travelers carried all of their money and wordly possessions with them. The system that the Benders had in place worked out perfectly for them, as the trail west was a perilous one from which some were expected to never return, and the mail service was slow and unreliable. A person could be missing for weeks before anyone realized it, and by that time it could be attributed to any number of dangers lying along the route west. The location of the Bender inn, located right on the only trail heading west, also made it a very attractive stopping off point for wary travelers, especially when they were being actively pulled in by Kate Bender. Although the victims are surmised to have been killed for the purpose of robbing them, some of the victims had had very little money on them, and it was supposed that the Benders were not above slaughtering people for the sheer demented thrill of it. Although only 10 bodies were found on the Bender property, it was believed that they were responsible for at least two dozen killings during the time the inn was in operation, between 1871 and 1873.

The discovery of the Bender charnel house of horrors caused a media sensation at the time, and a massive manhunt was launched in search of the missing family. There was also a reward offered for information leading to their arrest, which quickly skyrocketed from $1,000 to $3,000, a healthy sum of money in those days. Authorities found the Benders’ abandoned wagon on the outskirts of the city of Thayer, along with a starving team of horses that had just been left behind. Investigators believed that the family of murderers had then boarded a train and headed to a colony of outlaws in the border region between Texas and Mexico. It was a lawless, rugged place that law enforcement officers avoided due to the high number of police who had gone into the region and never returned. From there, what truly happened to the Benders remains murky and littered with rumors, tall tales, and hearsay.

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Some claimed that a group of vigilantes hellbent on vengeance had tracked the family down and gunned them down. Several other groups of vigilantes made similar claims, with one saying that they had lynched the family and thrown their decapitated bodies into the Verdigris River, and another saying that they had tied Kate Bender up and burned her alive at the stake, but for all of these claims no one ever collected the large reward that was being offered for their arrest. Others claimed that Ma Bender had actually killed her husband before the family had fled, or that he had died of pneumonia shortly after their departure. Another persistent rumor was that he committed suicide at Lake Michigan in 1884. In the end, despite all of the theories and rumors, no one knew what had become of them, a mystery that persists to this day.

Over the ensuing years, the family was allegedly sighted from time to time, and on October 31, 1889, arrests were made in Niles, Michigan, of two women who were thought to be Ma and Kate Bender, but they were never positively identified as such and with very little evidence to keep them they were released. 12 people were eventually arrested as accomplices or accessories to the crimes, including helping disposing of or receiving stolen goods, but none of them offered any insight into where the family had gone off to. Countless leads and tips were followed up on by investigators, and numerous search parties were launched, but none of these led anywhere. In the meantime, the Bender house was ransacked by thrill seekers and was little more than a hole in the ground by 1886, with many of the artifacts collected there winding up in museums over the years. No further evidence has ever been found for what truly became of the Bloody Bender family, and it has turned into one of the greatest unsolved murder mysteries of the Old West, indeed one of the most perplexing crimes in history.

The Bender home

The Bender home

The Benders are perhaps best known today for being mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the books Little House on the Prairie, who claimed to have been to the inn and even that her father had been involved in the manhunt for the fugitive family. Although the story has been seen with skepticism over the years, the testimony of such a famous author did help put the story into the public consciousness. Ingalls famously said of her father’s search for the Benders:

Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

The bizarre tale of the Bloody Benders has spawned all manner of weirdness over the years. It has long been claimed that the vicinity of the house is haunted by the victims of the crimes. Especially the cellar which once held the bodies of the slaughtered guests is said to produce inexplicable wailing and moaning noises, and various apparitions are routinely spotted on the property. There are even stories that Kate Bender herself is among the specters that lurk here. The area where the house once stood and its decrepit cellar have perhaps not surprisingly become a favorite of ghost hunters. If only those ghosts could tell us the answer to the mystery of where the Benders went.

What is the source of evil? Is it a force unto itself, driving us to commit atrocities? Joseph Conrad once said “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” This is a sentiment that seems to fit in with the mysterious case of the Bloody Bender family, who were no doubt capable of great wickedness and driven by some sinister drive to perpetrate it. Whatever it is that truly happened to them, their grim deeds continue to make their mark on the history of unsolved murders to this day.