The Family That Preys Together

Enter the crazy world of the Binder family

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.

Sketch of Kate

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 Bender’s house of horrors

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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

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?

Story Inspiration? Yes, Please!

Belle Gunness with her children Lucy Sorenson, Myrtle Sorenson, and Philip Gunness.

Doesn’t Belle Gunness look so warm and nurturing in this photo with her children? Okay, she really looks like a bit of a meanie. But in this case, the picture isn’t worth a measly thousand words. This photo is stirring a hundred thousand words inside my brain that may shape into a pretty sweet story one of these days. Here’s a little tidbit I hope will keep you reading. These children here . . . they’re the ones that were left after some pretty unsettling stuff went down.

Belle Gunness married her first husband, Mads Sorenson, 1893. I used to think people were too busy building sod houses and plowing with a pair of oxen to get into any real trouble in those days. Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder, for making me believe the good ‘ole days were good. I now realize they’re just ‘ole. Trouble followed poor Belle like Short Round followed Dr. Jones in Temple of Doom. It was strange, yea verily, suspicious how often tragedy befell the Norwegian emigrant.

Houses she owned mysteriously burned to the ground . . . more than once. Insurance has been around a while, and shrewd as Belle was, she was beyond prepared for such a disaster. Greenbacks or silver dollars (not sure what she preferred) lined her pockets as one property after the next became an insurance claim looking for a place to happen. Now, I sell insurance for a living and have developed a decided mistrust for people, so I find it fascinating no one was auditing this woman.

You think insurance fraud is bad. Let’s raise the stakes a skosh, shall we? Mads Sorenson died of what the medical examiner determined to be strychnine poisoning when not one but two life insurance policies were in force. They would only simultaneously be in force for one day . . . the day one ended and the other began. Just a coincidence? I don’t believe in the kind of coincidences where people get two insurance payouts for the same claim. Oddly enough, the M.E. changed his tune and labeled poor Mr. Sorenson’s death as heart failure. Hmmm.

Not only were the men she married subject to sudden death, her children were in equal danger. After Belle’s business burned to the ground and she collected the insurance money, two of her children (not pictured above for reasons that will become obvious) died from acute colitis. The symptoms of this disease are identical to the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Well, that sounds like a familiar poison. I wonder why. Probably another coincidence. NOT!

With her fat bank roll, Belle Gunness purchased a 42-acre farm in LaPorte, Indiana where she moved with her three remaining children. This begs a serious question . . . Where was CPS? As if she hadn’t done enough damage, that farm burned down too, and she collected the insurance from the loss.

Belle married Peter Gunness in April 1902. He was a widower with two daughters. Soon after the wedding, one of the girls died mysteriously. Her new husband knew something was rotten in Denmark (or in this case, Indiana) and send his other daughter to live with relatives. Swanhild Gunness was one fortunate little girl, as she was the only child in Belle’s life to survive childhood. For reasons I will never understand, Peter stayed. Not a good choice, Pete. He died in December 1902 when a meat grinder fell off a kitchen shelf and landed directly on his head. Because that kind of thing happens all the time. Right . . .

Believe it or not, the coroner found evidence of strychnine in Peter Gunness’ blood. Real shocker. There was an inquest, but Belle could have won an Oscar for her performance. She cried the giant tears you’d expect from a brokenhearted widow who’d just lost her husband in a totally unplanned meat grinder incident and got off the hook scot-free. And I can barely cry my way out of a speeding ticket.

With her second husband cleanly out of the way, she discovered a new method of money making. Mail order grooms. She lured financially well-off men to her new farm house, telling them to bring their life savings and sink it into her thriving farm. These men were never seen again. It’s estimated forty men disappeared answering Belle’s ad for a wealthy husband. When their correspondence was later discovered, investigators learned Belle would admonish her would-be husbands to ‘not to tell anyone you are coming!’ Yeah, that wasn’t a suspicious request at all. Maybe I’ve got a distrustful mind, but if someone told me to meet them at the Chick-fil-A and keep it a secret, I’d be worried. For one, if I’m going to Chick-fil-A, I will be too excited to keep it a secret. The sauce is swoon-worthy. For two, inordinate need for secrecy is how kidnapping stories on Dateline start. PSA: If someone want to meet you and demands you keep it secret, do yourself a favor. Stay home. Binge watch Investigation Discovery shows and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Trust me on this.

Seems legit

April 28, 1908, Belle’s farm house burned to the ground. When authorities searched the barn, they discovered the charred remains of her three children, Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson and Phillip Gunness along with the corpse of a headless woman. They believed the body belonged to Belle Gunness. It looks like the story is wrapped up, doesn’t it? All tied with a neat, little bow. Belle Gunness, the woman we know as Lady Bluebeard, is dead in what feels like a stroke of poetic justice.

Hush up, Porky Pig, because this is nia-nia nia-not all folks!

A man named Asa Helgelein traveled to LaPorte in search of his brother, Andrew. Asa was dead certain Gunness had murdered his brother and pressured the authorities to scour that farm for Andrew Helgelein’s body. Investigators found eleven bodies in the hog pen. Since pigs are omnivores, it’s honestly not a bad way to dispose of bodies. It’s weird that I think this way. I need to get help. One of the bodies they discovered belonged to Jennie Olsen, Belle’s foster child. So, not only were this mad woman’s kids not being removed from her custody, the state was giving her fresh victims! Totally insane!

Findings at Gunness ‘Murder Farm’

In the barn’s ashes, investigators found bridgework belonging to Belle Gunness. Since the unidentified body was missing it’s head, the coroner decided the teeth were sufficient evidence of Belle’s murder.

With the police swarming the place like ants on a lollipop, the searchlight was honed on the farm hand, Ray Lamphere. Though he was the prime suspect, he was only charged for the arson, not the murders.

Years later, on his deathbed, he gave a shocking testimony. Belle Gunness had killed her children and faked her own death. The pair had been romantically involved, and Ray would have done anything to please Belle . . . even help her dispose of her suitor’s bodies. Days before the fire, they traveled to Chicago and brought back a housekeeper. Hers was the decapitated body in the barn. Belle had pulled out all her teeth to make it look like she’d died with her children.

Investigators had difficulty stomaching a story so bizarre. I mean really . . . who does that? In 2008, DNA tests were preformed on the headless remains, but were inconclusive.

This begs so many questions. If Belle got away, where did she go? Did she kill again? To make this even spookier, mystery swirled around a woman named Esther Larsen in Los Angeles, California in 1931. She bore a remarkable resemblance to Gunness would have been roughly Belle’s age. In her pocket she carried a picture of children who could have been the doubles of those Lady Bluebeard lost in the fire in LaPorte, Indiana. She was awaiting trial for poisoning a man.

What do you think? Could Esther Larsen and Belle Gunness be the same person?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Could Esther Larsen have been Belle Gunness in disguise?

Okay, so I have goosebumps on my arms right now. This story is so wild, that Hollywood couldn’t come up with something so full of twists. When my writer’s brain comes into play, I think of all the villains in literature who are men. So few women. That may need to change. In this day of technology, there are so many more possibilities. Online dating. Facebook. Chat rooms. So many ways to meet people you think you know . . . but do you really? I’m getting that tingly feeling. When I get around to writing my next series, echoes of Belle Gunness’ story may resound in one of those books. Stay tuned.