The year was 1870. Settlers moved to the untamed West in droves. Looking for new beginnings. Working the land. It was a time when neighbors helped one another. People never hesitated to lend a hand. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.
The Bender family moved to what is now Cherryvale, Kansas in Labette County. Aside from the fact they were Spiritualists–not a common religion–they gave the impressions of a normal family, determined to settle the West. With an eye for turning a profit, John Bender Sr., ‘Pa’ claimed a 160-acre plot along the Great Osage Trail (now called the Santa Fe trail). He built and inn to accommodate travelers who were headed to points farther West. His son, John, who often went by the name Thomas, claimed an adjoining plot, though he never built a house or planted crops there. The other two members of the family were ‘Ma’ and Kate. Kate was purported to be a psychic medium and Spiritualist healer. While Ma and Pa spoke only German, the younger Benders were fluent English speakers.
The inn they built was a simple one-room cabin with a sheet hung to separate the the space into two distinct areas. In the front portion, a small mercantile and public gathering space was operated. The back of the house provided privacy for the family’s living quarters. Sounds a little crowded to me. Why Thomas didn’t build a shack on his land in the name of elbow room is a mystery in it’s own right.
Travelers were given the gold-standard of hospitality. Or, at least the best accommodations one room and a sheet can supply. Weary wanderers often stopped by the inn for a meal and replenishing of the most basic necessities at the Bender’s inn.
Kate Bender, who was reported to be a real head-turner, also encouraged visitors with her psychic and healing abilities. Most of the inn’s clientele constituted men traveling alone. The majority opted to spend the night. Hey, why sleep on the ground outside when you can stay in a house? Not to mention the many dangers on the trail posed by bandits, disease, accidents, or conflicts with the local Native Americans. No, staying with the Benders was on par with a night at the DoubleTree by Hilton . . . compared with the perils of the Osage Trail. Right?
While it wasn’t unusual for migrants to leave for points unknown never to be heard from again, a noteworthy number of men seemingly dropped off the face of the earth after visiting Labette County. It took several years before any real suspicions arose. Without modern conveniences like ‘The Nightly News with Lester Holt’ and ‘Buzzfeed,’ word traveled slowly. Letters lagged for months before reaching their intended recipients. Thus, the family and friends of those missing men believed everything was fine as a frog’s hair split four ways for quite some time before realizing something sinister may have occurred.
In March of 1873, Dr. William York, a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, disappeared after disembarking from a train in Cherryvale. His two brothers, knowing their kin would never leave so suddenly of his own volition, determined to find him. His brothers were Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York. These two boys had the ways and means to find their lost brother . . . or at least discover what happened to him.
Colonel York headed the investigation in Labette County. He questioned the Benders, but they denied any knowledge of his brother’s disappearance.
A group of helpful townspeople, along with Pa and Thomas Bender, met at the local school house. They discussed forming a search party to find the missing Dr. York. The strategy was to scour the countryside and surrounding farms and homes. Unfortunately, the weather shifted, and the folks never had a chance to search.
One day sometime later, a neighbor noticed the Benders animals wandering the farm land foraging for food. Their hungry cries alerted him that all was not well at the Bender’s inn. Upon investigating the one-room house, the neighbor found it empty. The family wagon was no where to be found. Food remained on the shelves in the kitchen. Clothes lay neatly folded in their proper place. But there was no trace of the Benders.
Everything in the house appeared normal. Until some poor unsuspecting soul opened the trapdoor behind the canvas sheet and stumbled upon a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The trapdoor led to a dank cellar. The sharp metallic scent of death hung think in the air. Blood covered the walls and saturated every surface. Stunned, the townsfolk moved the house off its foundation and dug underneath. Nothing.
The next area to investigate was the freshly plowed garden near the house. Neighbors later recalled that the garden always appeared newly worked. For all the effort the Benders lavished on their little slice of heaven, they never had a harvest. Or planted anything. Not vegetables anyway.
Volunteers worked through the night. The first body unearthed was that of Dr. William York. The back of the physician’s head had been smashed, and a slash across his throat spoke the brutality of his last moments alive. Soon, more bodies with similar injuries were found beneath the Kansas soil. Though sources are unable to find common ground as to the number of the Bender’s victims, estimated totals tend to flit around a dozen. Some believe they may have murdered up to twenty-one people. One source said a little girl was found in a grave. She’d reportedly been buried alive in a plot with her parents.
Those investigating the scene pieced together the Bender’s M.O. Inn guests were encouraged to sit against the canvas partition separating the public and private areas while dining. One of the Benders would then strike their visitor on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. The trap door was then opened, and the body dropped down to the cellar. There, another Bender would cut the poor victim’s throat before emptying his pockets of valuables. Yes, the entire family murdered somewhere between twelve and twenty people for something as petty as a few thousand dollars and some livestock.
When a man named Mr. Wetzell heard the investigator’s theory, he recalled a strange encounter he’d had with the murderous family. While dining at the inn, he declined the recommended seat before the curtain. At this possible upset of their carefully constructed plan, Ma Bender lost her cool and grew belligerent and abusive toward Mr. Wetzell. The two male Benders then emerged from their positions behind the canvas and Wetzell shrewdly beat a hasty retreat. Another traveler, William Pickering, shared a nearly identical tale.
As you can imagine, news of these heinous crimes spread like a 24-hour stomach bug. Curiosity-seekers and reporters flocked to the abandoned inn to catch a glimpse of the house where so many met a violent end. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported an estimated 3,000 people at the crime scene with more trains scheduled to arrive. The house was disassembled and carried away one piece at a time (yes, you can sing that to the tune of that one Johnny Cash song) by people seeking a memento.
Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the Benders, and the governor added a sweet $2,000 to the pot. The reward was never claimed. In the following years, women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none of them were positively identified. Though reports of sightings of Ma and Pa and then of Kate and Thomas were made in different states throughout the West, the homicidal family was never definitively seen again. What became of that fearsome foursome is still a mystery. Did they open another inn and recommence their butchery elsewhere? Maybe with a new name. It’s possible.
It was later discovered that only Ma Bender and Kate were actually related. The name ‘Bender’ may not have been the legal surname of any of the bunch. This made tracking them down virtually impossible. Pa was born John Flickinger early in the 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. It is believed Ma was originally named Almira Meik. She married a man named Griffith with whom she had twelve children before he met and untimely end. Before marrying Pa, Ma married several times. Oddly enough, each of her husbands died from mysterious blows to the head. Was Ma Bender the criminal mastermind behind all these killings? It makes me wonder.
One interesting tidbit I’ll share, though it may be completely false, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s claim to have known the Benders. While giving a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, she said, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.” One such story was her brush with the Benders whose inn was situated between the Ingalls’ home and Independence, Missouri.
According to Wilder, her family would stop at the Bender’s inn on their way to Independence. While Pa Ingalls would get water from their well to refresh the horses, he never stepped inside the tavern. Since this was the only place for travelers to stop, her father’s aversion to going inside struck her as odd. She also mentioned the fresh turned dirt in the garden, though nothing was planted or harvested from the plot.
She told the book fair attendees,
“The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa.
Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been.
For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. 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.”
Could this be why the Benders were never heard from again? Did our beloved Pa Ingalls join a mob and put an end to their killing spree once and for all? Who knows?
While Wilder’s story is intriguing, her time line is off by a few years. By the time the Bender’s investigation began, the Ingalls were reportedly no longer living in Kansas. Maybe Laura got her wires crossed on the timing of her family’s move. No matter what the case, it’s an interesting rabbit hole to fall into.
After 146 years, the only thing that’s certain in the case of America’s first serial killing family is this: We’ll never know where they went. Or if they continued killing elsewhere.
This case solidifies my notions in regards to crimes committed throughout history. Without the aid of forensics, surveillance cameras, and all the technology at our disposal, it was pretty easy to get away with murder or any crime really. Jesse James robbed over twenty banks. He didn’t die in a hangman’s noose or at the hands of a town sheriff. No. He met his end when one of his own gang members shot him. As far as I can tell, as long as you weren’t in the room when law enforcement showed up, you were golden. At least, that was the case with the Benders . . . or whoever they were. We don’t really know that either.
What do you think? Do you believe Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story is true?