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The Bloody Benders: The Family That Wasn't

Darcie spends her free time going down research rabbit holes and occasionally writing down what she finds.

Sketches of the Benders.

Sketches of the Benders.

A Gruesome Discovery

In 1873, just outside Cherryvale’s small town in Labette County, Kansas, a gruesome discovery was made. A one-room house belonging to the Bender family was found to be abandoned, and the family’s farm animals were left starving.

Curious locals began to explore the empty house and discovered a trap door in the floor that led to a blood-soaked cellar. A further search of the property would yield the discovery of the bodies that had produced that blood. The events that had unfolded in the house would be quickly pieced together by law enforcement, and a nationwide manhunt for the Bender family would begin.

The Bender Family

The Benders, consisting of John Sr. (or Pa), Ma, John Jr., and Kate, were one of a group of Spiritualist families who had moved to an area outside of Cherryvale, Kansas. The Benders were the only ones out of this group who made themselves known to the locals in town, as the other families either eventually moved away or simply kept to themselves.

Ma and Pa Bender primarily spoke German, and the English they spoke was so heavily accented as unintelligible. John Jr. and Kate could both speak English fluently, though Kate had nearly lost her accent and was the most popular and outgoing among the locals. John Jr., by contrast, was known to be social, but he would often laugh at seemingly nothing, making people perceive him as a “half-wit,” although it is now suspected this was feigned to deliberately give off this impression. Kate and John Jr. both also attended Sunday School at nearby Harmony Grove and thus were more accepted in the community than their parents.

An ad for Katie Bender's services.

An ad for Katie Bender's services.

Katie Bender’s Teachings

Kate often went by “Professor Miss Katie Bender” and was known in the region to be able to contact the dead or perform miracles of healing, provided the right price was paid. She would also conduct seances and give lectures on Spiritualism in nearby towns. In these lectures, Kate allegedly advocated for free love and gave her views on why murder was justified. The Benders would distribute circulars advertising Kate’s abilities and lectures, and despite rumors that she was satanic, she was able to make some additional money lecturing.

A sketch of the Bender's home.

A sketch of the Bender's home.

The Bender Home

Pa Bender had a 160-acre claim along the Osage Mission-Independence Trail. John Jr. had his own claim, but he never lived on it or made any improvements to the land, instead living on Pa’s claim along with the rest of the family.

The Bender family home was a one-room house that was divided in half by a curtain. The family ran an inn and store in the front half of the house, while the back half was the family living area. Travelers would often stop at the house for supplies and a meal. Many people—mostly men traveling alone—were also drawn in to use the inn by Kate, though John Jr. would also intercept travelers on occasion and convince them to come to stay a night at the inn.

The Disappearances

It wasn’t uncommon at this time for travelers in the West to disappear, but the amount of disappearances in Labette County was so much higher than the average that it became worrying. However, this likely would not have mattered if not for a man named Dr. William York.

Dr. York disappeared in March 1873 after journeying to find his former neighbor, George Newton Longcor, along with Longcor’s daughter Mary Ann, who had disappeared several months earlier. Unfortunately for Dr. York, he found his way to the Benders’ inn. And unfortunately for the Benders, Dr. York had two powerful brothers—Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York—who would not ignore his mysterious disappearance.

The Investigation

Colonel York took it upon himself to travel to Labette County and become the lead on the investigation into the area’s numerous disappearance cases. From the beginning, the Bender family behaved very suspiciously. One account of Ma Bender states that she became violent after being questioned about reports of a woman who claimed she had been threatened with weapons while staying at the inn. Ma denied the reports and claimed the woman in question was a witch. Naturally, the family also denied that Dr. York had ever stayed at their inn.

A town meeting was held to discuss the investigation, and it was decided that every local homestead would be searched in order to find any evidence that might lead to the discovery of the missing persons. Pa and John Jr. attended this meeting and presumably began to fear that if this search took place on their land, they would be immediately discovered responsible for the disappearances. Luckily for the Benders, a spate of bad weather hit the area and prevented the search from happening right away.

Once the weather was clear, and the investigation was free to continue, it was discovered that, like so many travelers who had happened upon their inn, the Benders had disappeared.

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Bodies found on the Bender property.

Bodies found on the Bender property.

A Horrifying Discovery

Though the Benders had not disposed of any bodies in their home, plenty of evidence, including the aforementioned blood-soaked cellar, had been left in the small house. Eventually, the search for bodies led to the garden, where at last, the body of Dr. York was found. His throat had been slit, and the back of his skull smashed in. Further searching turned up about a dozen more bodies in the same condition, with accounts varying on the exact number of confirmed victims. The burial site of the majority of the victims would become known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.”

How the Benders Murdered Their Guests

It wouldn’t be long before law enforcement was able to put together how the Benders committed the up to 21 murders attributed to them. After a traveler had been lured into staying at the inn through one method or another, their typical strategy would be to sit them at a seat of honor at the dinner table. This special seat would cause the guest’s back to being against the curtain that separated the house.

At some point during the meal, one family member, most likely either Pa or John Jr., would hit the guest in the back of the head with a hammer. The victim would then be dropped down the trap door, and another family member would slit their throat and steal any valuables they might be carrying. Over a dozen bullet holes were found along the house's roof and walls, suggesting that some of the Benders’ victims may have unsuccessfully put up resistance before being killed.

The crimes immediately became a sensation after being reported, drawing thousands of curious onlookers to see the house. Some visitors would even take pieces of the house as a souvenir, and eventually the entire house was disassembled due to this practice.

A drawing of the Bender house that shows the curtain and the "seat of honor" reserved for guests.

A drawing of the Bender house that shows the curtain and the "seat of honor" reserved for guests.

Who Were the Benders?

A combined reward of $3,000 would be offered for information leading to the capture of the Benders, but the search for the family would hit an early roadblock when it was discovered that they had been lying about their identities.

Though Ma and Kate were alleged to actually be mother and daughter, Pa and John Jr. were unrelated to the two women and to each other, at least by blood. Some who knew the family before they fled said that it was clear to them that Kate and John Jr. were a married couple rather than brother and sister.

Speculation Over Their Real Identities

Pa Bender was speculated to be a man named John Flickinger who had immigrated from either Germany or the Netherlands, and John Jr. was said to actually be named John Gebhardt based on an inscribed Bible which had been found in the house.

Ma had the most extensive backstory of the family. Though she supposedly went by the name Elvira Bender, she was said to actually be named Almira Hill Mark, which was occasionally also reported as Meik. She had been born somewhere in the Adirondack Mountains and first married to a man named Simon Mark, with whom she had 12 children. The fifth of those children was Kate, who had been born Sarah Eliza Mark. Simon Mark died, and Almira went on to marry a man named William Stephen Griffith, who also died. Both men allegedly were killed by hammer blows to the back of the head.

None of these stories of the “real” identities of the Bender family have ever been officially confirmed, and comes from the often conflicting reports of the time, which is why so many modern accounts, this one included, tend to vary on the details.

A reward poster for the Benders.

A reward poster for the Benders.

The Hunt

Outside of Thayer, Kansas, detectives found the abandoned wagon and now starving horses that had belonged to the Benders. In Thayer, they were able to roughly track where the group might have gone from there.

All four had bought train tickets to go to Humboldt, Kansas. Supposedly, Kate and John Jr. got off at Chanute, Kansas and switched to a train going near Denison, Texas instead. From here, it’s thought that the two traveled to an “outlaw colony.” The trail ended there, as this outlaw colony was in an area known to be deadly for law enforcement. However, supposedly one detective claimed to have tracked them down and found John Jr. dead from apoplexy.

Meanwhile, Ma and Pa had gone on to Kansas City. The investigation believed them to have bought tickets going to St. Louis, Missouri, but nothing seems to be known after this.

No person or group ever claimed any of the reward money being offered, although several vigilante groups formed to track down the Benders, and a few claimed to have found them. One story said that a group had shot Ma, Pa, and John Jr., and then burned Kate alive. A different story told of a group that lynched them and threw the bodies in the Verdigris River. Yet another story told of a group that killed them all in a gunfight and buried the bodies.

None of these stories were able to be confirmed, and the search for the Benders went on for at least the next 50 years.

A newspaper report of an apparent arrest.

A newspaper report of an apparent arrest.

The Search Continues

It wasn’t unheard of for two women traveling together to be accused of being Ma and Kate Bender, and in 1889, two women were extradited from Detroit on suspicion of just that. The women went by the names Almira Monroe and Sarah Eliza Davis. Sarah allegedly told the police that Almira was Ma Bender, but that she was one of Ma’s other children, not Kate. However, witnesses in Labette County were not able to conclusively identify the women, and the case against them never went to trial.

In 1884, a man named John Flickinger reportedly committed suicide in Lake Michigan. Some believed this man to be Pa Bender, though of course this is unconfirmed. It was even rumored that this was not a suicide, but a murder committed by Ma and Kate after Pa fled with the valuables stolen from their victims.

Also in 1884, an old man matching Pa’s description was arrested in Montana for a murder he had allegedly committed in Idaho where the victim was killed with a blow to the head from a hammer. Law enforcement requested identification, but before this could happen, the man severed his own foot in an escape attempt and ended up bleeding to death. By the time someone from Cherryvale was able to arrive, the body had decomposed so badly that identification was impossible. The skull of this man was on display in a saloon in Salmon, Idaho labeled as “Pa Bender” up until 1920, when the bar was closed due to Prohibition. After this, the skull disappeared.

A billboard advertising the Bender Museum.

A billboard advertising the Bender Museum.

The Legacy

Today, a historical marker stands at a rest area near where the house once stood. Nothing remains of the house itself, time and souvenir hunters having destroyed it.

Stories abound that the land on which the house used to be is now haunted. Visitors to the property have often reported “glowing apparitions” and moaning sounds. Some attribute these occurrences solely to the victims, but others also believe that Kate Bender herself has returned to the land, being forever forced to wander the area.

In 1961, Cherryvale, Kansas opened up the Bender Museum. For the museum, an exact replica of the Benders’ cabin was built, and it housed artifacts such as the hammers used in the killings and contemporary photos and newspaper clippings. Some Cherryvale residents weren’t happy with the museum, as they didn’t want their town to be so closely associated with the killings. In 1978, the museum was closed and a fire station was built on the land. However, the artifacts were relocated to the Cherryvale Museum and can still be seen there today.

After all this time, we’ll probably never know with any certainty who the Bloody Benders truly were or what actually became of them.

The historical marker for the site of the Bender house.

The historical marker for the site of the Bender house.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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