5/5/1871 - Still recovering from the dark Jayhawker/Bushwhacker days of "Bleeding Kansas," and then the American Civil War, the state of Kansas reels with additional horror when the discovery is made that a family of serial killers has been operating in Labette County, in the southeastern part of the state, vanishing travelers through the area for three years.
House Of Death
Freshly opened up to settlement after the United States government moves the Osage Indians out of the area, the German-American Benders (a mystery, no one is certain of the group's history before they become infamous in Kansas) are one of five families that decide to homestead the land ... father Joe "Pa" Bender (60), mother Elvira (55), son Joe Jr. (25), and daughter Kate (23). Joe Sr. can bare speak English, Elvira is known as a "she devil" to neighbors for her violent temper, Joe Jr. is thought to be a "half-wit" for often laughing about nothing, and Kate is a young beauty that claims to be a healer, gives lectures on spiritualism, conducts seances, and advocates free love. In October of 1870, the family settles on 160 acres of land adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, at the time, the only open road for travelers moving further west.
The Benders - Joe Sr., Elvira, Joe Jr., and Kate
Intent on adding to the meager revenue their farm brings in, in 1871 the family opens their cabin for business. With a canvas wagon cover dividing the space into two rooms, in the front room of the simple wooden structure the family sells a limited selection of dry goods, serves hungry travelers hot meals, and offers sleeping space to the weary if necessary. It is also the area where the killer family begins murdering strangers that pass their way.
Inside Layout Of The Bender Home
Cutaway Of The Bender House
Whether for a meal or a seance, the family gets sole visitors to sit at a table with their back to the curtain wall, and then when distracted by either Elvira's cooking or Kate's beauty, one of the Joes brains the unfortunate with a hammer, then the body is taken to the back room, dropped through a trap door into a secret basement, has its throat cut to insure death, and later buried after being searched for valuables (or dropped elsewhere on the open plains).
Something not quite right, the area quickly gains a nasty reputation by 1871, when travelers begin disappearing and random bodies are discovered with their skulls crushed in and their throats cut. The family's lucrative murder trade however begins unraveling in 1872, when George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter, vanish while passing through the area. Alarmed that his former neighbor has gone missing, Dr. William Henry York goes looking for them, questioning homesteaders along the trail ... until he vanishes too! Not the type of person to vanish without setting off alarms, York's brothers, Colonel Ed York, and Alexander M. York, a member of the Kansas State Senate, go looking for their brother. Leading a company of 50 men, the colonel talk to travelers and stops at every homestead, including the home of the Benders, who admit to Dr. York having stopped there, and suggest that maybe Indians got the man.
Satisfied for the moment, the group leaves, but soon makes a return visit when word reaches them that a woman has fled the Bender home after Ma Bender threatened her with knives. Masks slipping, Ma's rantings about the threatened woman being a witch that has cursed the store's coffee and her orders that everyone leave her house immediately, coupled with Kate inviting the colonel back for a private seance that might uncover his brother's whereabouts, convince the men that the Benders must be involved in the many disappearances in the area ... convinced to the extent that the group has to be talked out of stringing up the whole family right there and then by York, who demands hard evidence be obtained first.
The Seductive Kate Bender
Spiritualist Performance By Kate
Hustling For Victims
Upset with what has been taking place, seeking hard evidence themselves, in April of 1873, the locals call a town meeting on the topic that seventy-five people attend, including the two male Benders and the colonel. At the meeting it is decided that a search warrant will be obtained to look at every farm, ranch, and home in the area between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Still in the process of putting a plan for that search into effect, three days after the meeting while driving cattle past the Bender property, a local named Billy Tole notices the home seems abandoned and the livestock unfed, observations he relays on to the trustees of the nearby town of Harmony Grove (a misnamed locale if ever there was one!). Inclement weather prevents an investigation from taking place for several days, but on 5/5/1871, a search party arrives of over 100 people at the property and the murder mischief the Benders had been up to is soon exposed.
Inside the Bender home, following the foul smell his nose has found, York discovers the secret basement, its soil soaked in blood, while outside, graves are discovered in the vegetable garden and apple orchard just to the north of the house (a site that will be dubbed, "Hell's Half-Acre"). In all (no one ever comes up with an actual count of all the killings the Benders might have committed), eleven bodies will be pulled from the ground (the first body discovered in the orchard, planted face down in barely enough soil to cover the body, is Dr. York!), most bearing bashed in skulls and knife cut marks at their throats, one differs however, and shows the motivation of the Benders beyond money might be just for the fun of meting out death on their own whims ... bearing no killing marks, the corpse of young girl is found that was apparently buried alive (outraged, a group of locals will turn on one of the members of its own search party, a friend of the Benders named Brockman, and will "string up" the man into unconsciousness three times to extract information from him about the killers, before letting the poor man stumble home with a very bad sore throat).
Discovering The Basement
Mayhem discovered and culprits identified (stories start surfacing from people that didn't sit next to the curtain, and of the bizarre behaviors of the Benders when they didn't), a reward of $1,000 is offered up by Senator York for the arrest of the Benders, a sum Kansas Governor Thomas A. Osborn increases by $2,000 for all members of the missing family being placed behind bars. Despite the money though, with a three day lead on authorities, pre-planned for just such an eventuality, the entire family disappears without a trace and is never seen again (though rumors of their whereabouts will surface for years and years, with a false arrest of a couple of a pair of unlucky innocents even occurring once).
A murder mystery over 100 years old, despite the passage of time, a traveler might still hesitate spending an evening in the area ... pick your spook, the site of the house and orchard are said to be haunted by either the Bender Family, the family's many victims, or some unholy combination of soul shadows ... you've been warned!
Don't Camp Here!