|Other names||John Bender
John Bender Jr. (son)
Span of killings
|State(s)||Labette County, Kansas|
The Bloody Benders were a family of serial killers who owned an inn and small general store in Labette County of southeastern Kansas from 1871 to 1873. The family consisted of John Bender, his wife Elvira Bender, son John, Jr., and daughter Kate. While Bender mythology holds that John and Kate were brother and sister, contemporary newspapers reported that several of the Benders' neighbors have stated that they claimed to be married, possibly a common law marriage.
They are believed to have killed at least a dozen travelers before their crimes were discovered and the family fled, with their fate uncertain. Much folklore and legend surrounds the Benders, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Following the American Civil War, the United States government moved the Osage Indians from Labette County, Kansas, to a new Indian Territory located in what would eventually be Oklahoma. The newly vacant land was then made available to homesteaders. In October 1870, 5 families of spiritualists settled in and around Osage township of western Labette County, approximately 7 mi (11 km) northeast of where Cherryvale would be established seven months later. 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 traveling further west. After a cabin, a barn with corral and a well were built, in the fall of 1871, Elvira 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" where a few dry goods were sold. The front section also contained their kitchen and dining table, where travelers could stop for a meal or even spend the night. Elvira and Kate Bender also planted a 2-acre (0.81 ha) vegetable garden and apple orchard north of the cabin.
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. Elvira Bender, who also allegedly spoke very little English, was 55 years of age and was so unfriendly that her neighbors took to calling her a "she-devil". John Bender Jr. was around 25 years old, handsome with auburn hair and mustache 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. No documentation or definitive proof of their relationships to one another or where they were born has ever been found. Pa Bender was from either Germany or the Netherlands and is believed by some to have been born John Flickinger (unproven). According to contemporary newspapers, Elvira Bender was born Almira Hill Mark (often misreported as "Meik") in the Adirondack Mountains; she married Simon Mark, with whom she claimed to have had 12 children. Later she married William Stephen Griffith and was known as Mrs. Almira Griffith. Mrs. Griffith was suspected of murdering several husbands, but none of these rumors were ever proven. Kate was believed to be Almira's fifth daughter, born Sarah Eliza Mark; she later married and was known as Sarah Eliza Davis. Based on an inscription in a Bible recovered from the Bender home, it was believed that John Jr. was born John Gebhardt, although no other proof of his identity exists. 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 become 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.
In the winter of 1872, George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter, Mary Ann, left Independence, Kansas, to resettle in Iowa, but were never seen again. In the spring of 1873, Longcor's former neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, went looking for them and questioned homesteaders along the trail. He reached Fort Scott, Kansas, 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 Alexander M. York, a member of the Kansas State Senate from Independence who, in November 1872, had been instrumental in exposing United States Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy for corruption in seeking re-election through the bribing of state legislators in return 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 fifty 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 Indians. 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 seventy-five locals, including Colonel York and both Pa and John Bender. After discussing the disappearances including that of William York, the 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 because of inclement weather, several days lapsed before the abandonment could be investigated. The township trustee called for volunteers and several hundred turned out to form a search party that included 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 (0.9 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 down 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 hanged again. After the third hanging, they released him and he staggered home "as one who was drunken or deranged." A Roman Catholic prayer book was found in the house with notes inside written in German, which were later translated. The texts read "Johannah Bender. Born July 30, 1848," "John Gebhardt came to America on July 1 18??," "big slaughter day, Jan eighth" and "hell departed."
Word of the murders spread quickly and more than three thousand 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.
State Senator Alexander York offered a $1,000 ($19,753 as of 2016) reward for the Bender family's arrest. On May 17, Kansas Governor Thomas A. Osborn offered a $2,000 ($39,506 as of 2016) reward for the apprehension of all four.
It is conjectured that when a guest would stay at the Benders' bed and breakfast inn, the hosts would give the guest a seat of honor at the table which was positioned over a trap door that led into the cellar. With the victim's 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 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. Although some of their victims had been quite wealthy, others had been carrying very little of value on them and it was surmised that the Benders had killed them simply for the sheer thrill.
Testimony from people who had stayed at the Benders' inn and had managed to escape before they could be killed appeared to support the presumed execution method of the Benders. William Pickering said that when he had refused to sit near the wagon cloth because of the stains on it, he was threatened with a knife by Kate Bender, whereupon he fled the premises. A Catholic priest claimed to have seen one of the Bender men concealing a large hammer, at which point he became uncomfortable and quickly departed. Two men who had traveled to the inn to experience Kate Bender's psychic powers stayed on for dinner but had refused to sit at the table next to the cloth, instead preferring to eat their meal at the main shop counter. Kate then became abusive towards them and a short while later the two Bender men emerged from behind the cloth. At this point, the customers began to feel uneasy and decided to leave, a move that probably saved their lives.
More than a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and sides of the cabin 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 Denison, 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 reward ($59,258 as of 2016).
The story of their escape spread, and the search continued on and off for the next fifty years. Often, two women traveling together 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 Bender's description was arrested in Montana for a murder committed near Salmon, Idaho, where the victim had been killed by a hammer blow to the head. 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. Whether or not John Flickinger was really John Bender is unknown.
Several weeks after the discovery of the bodies, Addison Roach and his son-in-law, William Buxton, were arrested as accessories. In total twelve 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 twenty-three years later for the rape and murder of his own 18-year-old daughter.
On October 31, 1889, it was reported that a Mrs. Almira Monroe (aka Mrs. Almira Griffith) 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. McCann, had reported the pair to authorities in early October after tracking them down. Mrs. McCann's story came from dreams that she had about her father's murder which she discussed with Sarah Eliza. Their identities were later confirmed by two Osage township witnesses from a tintype photograph. In mid-October, Deputy Sheriff 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 claimed that Mrs. Monroe was Ma Bender, but that she herself was not Kate, but her sister Sara; she later signed an affidavit to that effect while Monroe continued to deny the identification and in turn accused Sarah Eliza of being the real Kate Bender. Deputy Sheriff Dick, along with Mrs. McCann, escorted the pair to Oswego, Kansas, where seven members of a 13-member panel confirmed the identification and committed them for trial. Another of Mrs. Monroe's daughters, Mary Gardei, later provided an affidavit claiming that her mother (then Almira Shearer), under the name of Almira Marks, was actually serving two years in the Detroit House of Corrections in 1872 for the manslaughter of her daughter-in-law, Emily Mark. Records of the incarceration back up this affidavit. At her hearing, Mrs. Monroe denied any knowledge of Shearer or the manslaughter charge and remained incarcerated with her daughter. Originally scheduled for February 1890, the trial was held over to May. Mrs. Monroe now admitted she had married a Mr. Shearer in 1872 and claimed she had previously denied it as she did not want the court to know that her name was Shearer at that time and that she had a conviction for manslaughter. Their attorney also produced a marriage certificate indicating that Mrs. Davis had been married in Michigan in 1872, the time when several of the murders were committed. Eyewitness testimony was given that Mrs. Monroe was Ma Bender. Judge Calvin dismissed Mary Gardei's affidavit as she was a "chip off the old block"; however, he found that other affidavits supporting Gardei's were sufficient proof that the women could never be convicted and he discharged them both. The affidavits and other papers are missing from the file in LaBette County so further examination is impossible. A number of researchers question the ready acceptance of the affidavit's authenticity and suggest that the county was unwilling to accept the expense of boarding the two women for an extended period. While the two women were certainly criminals and liars, as their own defense attorney admitted, the charges were weak and many people doubted their identification as the Benders.
- 1869: Joe Sowers. Found with a crushed skull and throat cut but not believed to be a Bender victim (the Benders did not arrive in Labette County until 1870).
- 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 (2016: $51,357) missing. Buried in the apple orchard.
- 1872: W.F. McCrotty. Co D 123rd Ill Infantry. $38 (2016: $751) and a wagon with a team of horses missing.
- December, 1872: Henry McKenzie. Relocating to Independence from Hamilton County, Indiana. $36 (2016: $711) and a matched team of horses missing.
- December, 1872: Johnny Boyle. From Howard County, Kansas. $10 (2016: $198), a pacing mare and an $850 (2016: $16,790) saddle missing. Found in the Benders' well.
- December, 1872: George Newton Longcor and his 18-month-old daughter, Mary Ann. Contemporary newspapers reported his name as either "George W. Longcor" or "George Loncher" while Mary Ann is similarly reported as being either eight years old or 18 months old. According to the 1870 census, George and his wife, Mary Jane, were neighbors of Charles Ingalls and family in Independence while his wife's parents lived two houses away. Following the deaths of his infant son Robert from pneumonia in May 1871 and that of his 21-year-old wife Mary Jane (née Gilmore) following the birth of Mary Ann several months later, George was likely returning to the home of his parents, Anthony and Mary (Hughes) Longcor, in Lee County, Iowa. In preparation for his return to Iowa, George had purchased a team of horses from his neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, who later went looking for George and was also murdered; both were veterans of the Civil War. $1,900 (2016: $37,530) missing. The daughter was thought to have been buried alive, but not proven. No injuries were found on her body, and she was fully clothed, including mittens and hood. Both were buried together in the apple orchard.
- May, 1873: Dr William York. $2,000 (2016: $39,506) 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 and are believed to belong to at least three additional victims.
- 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.
By including the recovered body parts not matched to the bodies found, the finds are speculated to represent the remains of over 20 victims. With the exception of McKenzie and York who were buried in Independence, the Longcors who were buried in Montgomery Co and McCrotty who was buried in Parsons, Kansas, none of the other bodies were claimed and they were reburied at the base of a small hill 1 mile (1.6 km) south-east of the Benders orchard, one of several at the location now known as "The Benders Mounds". The search of the cabin resulted in the recovery of three hammers: a shoe hammer, a claw hammer and a sledgehammer that appeared to match indentations in some of the skulls. 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, some locals objecting to the town being known for the Bender murders. The Bender artifacts were eventually given to the Cherryvale Museum where they remain in a wall-mounted display case. A knife with a four-inch tapered blade was reportedly found hidden in a mantel clock in the Bender house by Colonel York. In 1923 it was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by York's wife but is not on display, still bearing reddish-brown stains on the blade; it can be seen upon request.
Connection to Little House on the Prairie
The Ingalls family, made famous in the books and television series Little House on the Prairie, lived near Independence, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned the Bender family in her writing and speeches. In 1937 she gave a speech at a book fair, which was later transcribed and printed in the September 1978 Saturday Evening Post, and in the 1988 book A Little House Sampler. She mentioned stopping at the Inn, as well as recounting the rumors of the murders spreading through their community. She alleged that her father "Pa Ingalls" joined in a vigilante hunt for the killers, and when he spoke of later searches for them she recalled, "At such times 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." Some have cast doubt on the story saying that Laura would have been only 4 when her family moved away from the area, and that the Benders were exposed in 1873, two years after the Ingallses left.
- Bloody Bender Family 1871-1873
- The Bloody Benders of Labette County Legends of America A Travel Site for the Nostalgic & Historic Minded
- Malice, Madness, and Mayhem: an Eclectic Collection of American Infamy pdf The Bloody Benders
- The Devils Kitchen Scanned page of The Weekly Kansas chief. (Troy, Kansas) May 22, 1873. Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, KS.
- According to one of the myths that has grown around the murders, after dinner, Colonel York was sitting in the front room when he noticed a gold locket under one of the beds. He opened it and was surprised to see images of his brother's wife and daughter. He slipped out and returned the next morning with the sheriff and several deputies, only to find that the Benders had fled. After a search of the Bender property, twelve mounds of earth were found among the trees and as many as two dozen bodies were reported to have been found.Bloody Benders: Mass Murderers Of Kansas
- Devilish Deeds Scanned page of The Weekly Kansas chief. (Troy, Kansas) May 15, 1873. Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, KS.
- Sheriff Saves the Neck of a Man Who Murdered His Own Daughter (copy of Inter Ocean newspaper November 18, 1896)
- The Bender family
- Michael Newton The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes Infobase Publishing 2004 Pg 33 - 35 ISBN 0-8160-4981-5
- Keeping a Secret Scan of Pittsburgh Dispatch November 1, 1889 Pg 5 Library of Congress
- Scan of New York Times January 12, 1890 pdf
- Scan of Chicago Daily Tribune, October 31, 1889
- Laurence J. Yadon, Dan Anderson 200 Texas Outlaws and Lawmen 1835-1935 Pelican Publishing Company 2008 Pg 55 - 56 ISBN 1-58980-514-3
- Exit the Benders Kansas Historical Society (The Iola register April 18, 1890)
- Potter, Tim (24 August 2013). "The Bloody Benders: 140-year-old crime scene still fascinates today". The Witchita Eagle. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
- Reese, Debbie (3 July 2008). "Selective Omissions, or, What Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of LITTLE HOUSE". American Indians in Children's Literature. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
- Koerth-Baker, Maggie (20 August 2012). "Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir". BoingBoing. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
- "Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Bloody Benders". 8 April 2010.[self-published source?]
- The New Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers by Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg. Headline Book Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0-7472-5361-7
- History of Labette County, Kansas, and Representative Citizens; Nelson Case; Biographical Publishing Company; 846 pages; 1901. (Download 50MB PDF eBook)