The Bloody Benders
In October of 1870, five families of spiritualists homesteaded in and around the township of Osage in northwestern Labette County, approximately seven miles northeast of where Cherryvale would be established several months later. One of the families was that of a German-American named John Bender, Sr. and his son John Bender, Jr., who registered more than a hundred acres of land located adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, which was then the only open road for traveling further west. So, the Benders made a living on odd jobs like most everybody else. Their jobs were just a little bit odder.
After the Bender men built a cabin, a barn, and a well, in autumn of 1871, Elvira Bender and her beautiful daughter Kate finally arrived. Inside their new home, the tiny 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 the kitchen and dining table, where travelers could stop for a meal or even spend the night. When a guest would stay at the Bender bed and breakfast inn, the hosts would give the guest a seat of honor at the table which was positioned in front of a trap door that led into the cellar.
Then, America’s first family of serial killers eagerly began to murder their fellow countrymen. With the victim’s back to the curtain, Kate would use her sexuality to distract the guest, while one of the Bender men would come from behind the curtain and strike the victim on the right side of the skull with one of the three different hammers shown below. The victim’s throat was then cut with the knife, which is also shown below, by one of the women to ensure death. After that, the body was 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.
As a family of psychopaths, the Bloody Benders often killed their victims simply for the sheer thrill of it, but they also profited well from the property they got from guests. In May of 1871, the body of a man named Mr. Jones, who 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 of 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, but vigilance committees often detained people for the disappearances of humans and horses alike, only for them to be released by the authorities.
Regardless, when William Pickering refused to sit near the wagon cloth because of the stains on it, he was threatened with the knife by Kate Bender, whereupon he fled the premises. Similarly, a Catholic priest saw one of the Bender men concealing the largest hammer, at which point he became uncomfortable and quickly departed. During yet another incident, two men, having seen the ad below, traveled to the cabin to experience Kate Bender’s psychic powers and stayed on for dinner. However, they 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 toward them, and a short while later the two Bender men emerged from behind the cloth. At that point, the customers began to feel uneasy and decided to leave, which most certainly saved their lives.
In the meantime, during the winter of 1872, George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter, Mary Ann, left Independence, Kansas, to resettle in Iowa. George and his wife, Mary Jane, had been neighbors with Charles Ingalls and his family, while his wife’s parents lived two houses away. For anyone familiar with Little House on the Prairie, Charles Ingalls was “Pa” played by Michael Landon on the TV show. Regardless, following the deaths of George Longcor’s infant son from pneumonia in May of 1871 and his twenty-one-year-old wife, Mary Jane, following the birth of Mary Ann several months later, George was returning to the home of his parents, Anthony and Mary Longcor, in Lee County, Iowa. In preparation for the trip, George had purchased a team of horses from his neighbor, and fellow Civil War veteran, Dr. William Henry York.
Once he arrived at the Benders’ little slaughterhouse on the prairie, George sealed his fate. After the Benders murdered him they buried him in the apple orchard, along with Mary Ann who was still alive at the time. The baby was put in the ground fully clothed, including mittens and hood. In the spring of 1873, Longcor’s former neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, came looking for them and questioned homesteaders along the trail. Dr. York reached Fort Scott and, on March 9th, he began the return journey to Independence but never arrived home. Dr. York had two brothers, namely Colonel Ed York and Senator Alexander York. Both of these men knew of William’s travel plans and, when he failed to return home, they went in search of their brother. Colonel York, leading a company of some fifty men, questioned every traveler along the trail and visited all the area homesteads.
On March 28th of 1873, Colonel York arrived at the Benders’ cabin with Mr. Johnson, explaining to them that his brother had gone missing and asking 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. Colonel York agreed that this was possible and remained for dinner. Afterward, Colonel York 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. Then, Colonel York slipped out and went to the authorities. On April 3rd, he returned to the cabin with armed men after being informed that a woman had fled from there after being threatened with a knive by Elvira Bender.
When York repeated the claim, Elvira became enraged, 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 was let on. Before York left, Kate asked him to return alone the following Friday night, and she would use her psychic abilities to help him find his brother. The men with York were becoming convinced that 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 township in the Harmony Grove schoolhouse. The meeting was attended by seventy-five locals, including Colonel York and both John Bender, Sr. and John Bender, Jr. So, after discussing the disappearances, including that of William York, it was agreed that a search warrant would be obtained to search each and 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 no one noticed for several days that they had snuck away.
Three days after the township meeting, Billy Tole was driving cattle past the Bender property when he noticed that the cabin was abandoned and the farm animals were unfed. So, Tole reported the fact to the township trustee, but because of inclement weather, several days passed 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 cabin they found the bed and breakfast empty of food, clothing, and personal possessions. The culprits had obviously fled the scene of the crime.
Once inside, more than a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and sides of the cabin, because some of the victims had attempted to fight back after being hit with a hammer. A terrible odor was also noticed and traced to a trapdoor underneath a bed, nailed shut. After opening the trapdoor, the empty room beneath, which was six feet deep and seven feet square at the top by three feet 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 underneath it. As such, it was determined that the smell was from pints of 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, as shown below, but no bodies were found.
The search party 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 Dr. York’s body was found later that evening, buried face down with his feet barely below the surface. The probing continued until midnight, with another nine suspected gravesites marked before the men were satisfied they had found them all and retired for the night. Digging resumed the following morning, and another eight bodies were found in seven of the nine suspected graves, while one 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 the baby who had been buried alive was also found, as reported in the newspaper article below.
In yet another story, a newspaper reported that the gathered 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 cabin until becoming unconscious, revived and interrogated as to what he knew, then hanged again. After the third hanging, they released him and he staggered home. Then, State Senator Alexander York offered a $1,000 reward for the Bender family’s arrest. Then, on May 17th of 1873, Kansas Governor Thomas Osborn offered a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of all four of the Benders, as shown below. Therefore, word of the murders spread quickly, and more than three thousand people, including reporters from as far away as Chicago and New York City, visited the site.
The thing is that while there is no definitive number of victims, estimates report that the Benders killed at least a dozen travelers. By including the recovered body parts not matched to the bodies found, the finds seem to represent the remains of more than twenty victims. Of the victims who were recovered, McKenzie and York were buried in Independence. Along with this, the Longcors were buried in Montgomery County, and McCrotty was buried in Parsons, Kansas. In contrast to this, none of the other bodies were ever claimed, so they were reburied at the base of a small hill one mile southeast of the Benders’ orchard, in one of several hills at the location now known as the “Benders’ Mounds”.
Ultimately, the search of the cabin resulted in the recovery of three hammers, including a shoe hammer, a claw hammer, and a sledgehammer that matched indentations in some of the skulls of victims that had been recovered. Then, Colonel York found the blood-stained knife with a four-inch tapered blade hidden in the mantel clock. In the end, the cabin was eventually destroyed by souvenir hunters who took everything, including the bricks that lined the cellar and the stones lining the well, leaving nothing behind. Meanwhile, the Bloody Benders were never found or brought to trial, although some newspapers claimed that John Bender Sr. was caught, as shown in the articles below. One account from Little Rock even claimed that the whole family had been apprehended in Arkansas, but it’s hard to know for sure. Personally, though, I think they all got away because no one ever came to collect any of the reward money.
The thing is that, if it’s not the case that they were caught, then no one really knows what happened to the notorious outlaws. The odds are that they probably got away scot-free. Maybe they went their separate ways or maybe they stuck together. Either way, John Bender Sr., Elvira, John Jr., and Kate have gone down in history as fabled trailblazing villains. As such, their seemingly perfect crimes have been added to the annals of American atrocities and they have become the subject of countless urban legends, thus immortalizing the Bloody Benders as America’s first family of serial killers.
As was to be expected, that zeitgeist gave rise to the Kelly Family murders in 1887, and then the Staffleback Family, and so on and so forth. Much more recently, the Tarverdiyeva Family murders ended in 2013. In line with this, the spirit of horrifically homicidal households has even inspired classic genre films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and House of a 1000 Corpses. To make matters worse, these kinds of macabre sensibilities within popular culture work to normalize and romanticize extremely dysfunctional family values by inculcating the worst aspects of the archetypal Shadow in all of us. So, in that sense, the atavistic familial-based compulsion to kill that the Bloody Benders tapped into is still out there, waiting to take over yet another family, and another, and another...