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America’s First Serial Killer Family: The Bloody Benders


            Following the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. Under this act, any person who was at least 21 years old or the head of the household was eligible to claim 160 acres of federal property under certain conditions. The claimant could be a woman, a previously enslaved person, or a recent immigrant to the country, so long as they could prove they had never fought against the American government. This was unprecedented at the time, and many took advantage. Those taking advantage were required to live on the homestead for a minimum of five years, planting crops and keeping livestock. Over 1.6 million deeds were issued under the Homestead Act of 1862 before it was repealed in 1976. One of those taking advantage of this offer was the Bender Family. This is their story.

            John “Pa” Bender Sr. and John Bender Jr., who was also known as John Gebardt, arrived in Labette County, Kansas in 1860 along with four other families. The pair of men, known to be father and son, claimed 160 acres of land adjacent to the Great Osage Trail. At this time, travelers moving west utilized the Great Osage Trail, as this was before roads and highways covered the land. Those traveling west passed the land owned by the Benders. Taking advantage of this, John Sr. and John Jr. built a 14-foot by 16-foot cabin and hung a wagon cover inside, dividing the cabin into two parts. The front was to be used as a general store for travelers and the back was used as living quarters.

            The men build the cabin, barn, and well on the property before Elvira “Ma” Bender and Kate Bender, her daughter arrived in 1871. The family were most likely immigrants of Germany as many people witnessed the family speaking and writing in German. John Sr. and Elvira were married and around sixty years old. Elvira claimed to be the mother of twelve children, including Kate. Kate and John Jr. were in their mid-twenties. There is speculation that Kate and John Jr. were not siblings, but common law husband and wife. The two were known to be intimate with each other. Kate, however, believed in “free love” and even wrote that even if a pair are brother and sister, their carnal instincts are normal and should not be ignored.



            The Benders were a strange family indeed. Ma and Pa were known to be very unfriendly and spoke mostly German. John Jr. and Kate were fluent in the English language and were friendlier than their parents. The two often attended Sunday school at a local church. John Jr. was known as a “half-wit” because he would often laugh inappropriately. Kate, on the other hand, was a self-proclaimed “healer” who claimed to be a spiritualist and psychic. She was beautiful and friendly, often attracting male visitors to the cabin.

(Kate Bender, pictured below)



            As Americans headed west through Kansas, they had to pass the Bender cabin. In 1871, relatives of those traveling started to notice their loved ones going missing. At this point in time, before the modern conveniences of cell phones and automobiles, families traveled via wagon and horses. Traveling west was treacherous and cholera was prevalent. It was not unheard of for individuals to disappear or even die during their travels. However, it seemed that many travelers were disappearing from the Great Osage Trail after passing through Labette County and the Bender cabin.

            Through 1871 and early 1872, at least three individuals disappeared after staying at the Bender cabin for the night. Because of the conditions during travel and lack of communication tools, they went largely unnoticed. In fact, we still don’t know their exact names. In December of 1872, Ben Brown from Howard County, Kansas went missing while traveling west. A $2,600 reward was offered for information about his whereabouts. That same month, W.F. McCrotty, a soldier in the union army, disappeared along with his wagon and horses. Henry McKenzie was relocating from Indiana to Independence, Kansas. However, he and his horses disappeared along the Great Osage Trail that same December. The same month, Johnny Boyle disappeared along with his horse and saddle.

Probably the most devastating of cases, George Longcor and his wife were Kansas residents. In fact, they lived next to the Ingalls family, which is the basis for Little House on the Prairie. In May of 1871, George and his wife Mary Jane lost their infant son Robert to pneumonia. The devastation continued when Mary Jane herself, only twenty-one years old, also died while giving birth to the couple’s daughter, Mary Ann, the following year. Devastated, George and Mary Ann, still an infant, headed towards Iowa to be near his parents in the winter of 1872. They were never seen again.

Before leaving for Iowa, George shared his travel plans with his neighbor, Dr. William Henry York. Dr. York was concerned about George and the baby, so he headed out on the trail to find his neighbor and his baby girl. He questioned homesteaders along the way, hoping to track George’s last movements. The last people known to see George and Mary Ann were the Bender family. They claimed to have seen the man and baby, but said they left to continue their travels west. Unfortunately, after staying at the Bender cabin, Dr. York disappeared.

Dr. York had two brothers, both of whom knew his travel plans. One of his brothers was Colonel Alexander York. Alexander York was a civil war veteran, lawyer, and member of the Kansas State Senate. Colonel York gathered an army of fifty men and headed along the trail to find his brother. The group questioned every traveler and homesteader they came across. On March 28th, 1873, Colonel York arrived at the Bender cabin. According to the Bender family, Dr. York had stayed with them in the cabin for a night before continuing his travels. The family suggested that perhaps Dr. York ran into trouble with Native Americans.

Native Americans were being forcefully relocated to reservations by the United States of America’s government so that European immigrants could settle the land. Due to this, it was not uncommon for Native Americans to become violent with travelers headed west. Colonel York considered this a real possibility, but then he talked to townspeople in Cherryvale, Kansas. One woman shared a story that sent chills down his spine.

The woman stated that she had once been at the Bender cabin, but she felt uneasy. She said that Elvira Bender had threatened her with a knife, so she fled the cabin. Hearing this, Colonel York and a group of armed men headed back towards the Bender cabin. They arrived at the cabin on April 3rd. Colonel York, believing Elvira could not speak or understand English, repeated the claim to the younger two Benders, John Jr. and Kate. Upon hearing this, Elvira became enraged and told the men that the woman was a witch.  She then ordered them to leave the property. Obviously, she understood and spoke English much better than she was letting on.

As Colonel York was leaving, Kate Bender stopped him. She asked that he return the following evening and she would use her psychic powers to help him find his brother. The group of men were convinced that the Bender family and their neighbors, the Roach family, were responsible for Dr. York’s disappearance and suggested to the Colonel that both families should be hanged. Colonel York insisted that evidence be found before anyone is put to death.

Around this time, the surrounding communities had noticed the large number of missing people including the previously mentioned individuals as well as John Geary, Red Smith, Abigail Rodgers, and of course Dr. York. The community had a meeting at a local schoolhouse to discuss the issue. In attendance was Colonel York, John Bender Sr., John Bender Jr., and several other citizens. It was discussed that the missing travelers went missing along the Great Osage Trail in a specific mile radius that included the Bender cabin as well as a few others. The community agreed that a search warrant would be obtained for all the homes in the radius in which the travelers had disappeared.



Three days after the meeting, local man Billy Tole was driving cattle past the Bender cabin. He noticed that the cabin appeared to be abandoned and the livestock were starving. He reported this to the authorities, but harsh weather delayed the investigation. Several officials and volunteers including Colonel York went to the Bender property to investigate, finding the cabin virtually empty and abandoned. They noticed a foul odor inside the cabin. They traced the odor to a trap door leading to a underground bunker. Inside the bunker, they found congealed blood. They searched the room as well as the cabin, tearing apart the flooring, but found nothing else.

The cabin itself was moved and the men searched underneath. Again, nothing was found. They started to probe the property, looking for possible burial sites. Nine sights were identified, and seven of them did, in fact, have human remains buried inside. Multiple bodies were found in a nearby creek and several body parts were found in the well the Bender men had built. Buried in the apple orchard that the female Bender’s planted were the remains of Ben Brown, John Geary, Red Smith, Abigail Roberts, Dr. William York. George Longcor and his infant daughter Mary Ann were found buried together in the apple orchard. While most of the victims had blunt force injuries to the skull and their throats were slit, the baby had not met such a fate. It is believed that after killing George, the Benders buried the infant alive with her father. Several body parts and corpses were found on the property and remain unidentified to this day.

A search of the property and cabin revealed three hammers that matched the indentation in the victims’ skulls. A knife with blood on it was also found. The hammers are on display at the Cherryvale Museum. The knife, found inside a clock, was donated to the Kansas Museum of History. To this day, it still shows reddish brownish stains. The knife is not on display, but interested patrons can see it by request. The officials had found the missing people, but where were the Benders?

Several individuals told stories about visiting the Bender cabin. Most said they were instructed to sit at the dinner table in a spot near the wagon cover curtain, which happened to also be right on top of the trap door. Several individuals stated that they fled the cabin when the Bender’s insisted they sit there and started acting strangely. It is believed that the family would have a traveler stay for dinner, during which they would ask them to sit in the special seat next to the curtain. The male Benders would then hit the traveler in the head with a hammer, after which the female Benders would slit his or her throat. Soon after, the bodies were buried on the property. The motive was believed to be greed, as many personal items of their victims were found in the store part of the cabin.

Wagon tracks believed to be from the Bender’s wagon were traced for twelve miles north, near Thayer, Illinois. Their wagon was found there with their horses starving and one of them injured. Authorities confirmed that they then purchased tickets on the railroad for Humbolt, Kansas. Following that, Kate and John Jr. bought tickets and headed towards Denison, Texas. From there, they ventured into the land between Texas and New Mexico, which at this time was unsettled and lawless. Authorities did not even follow them there as often times people going to this area never return.



The elder Benders were suspected of taking the train towards St. Louis, Missouri. The authorities lost track of the Bender family after that. One detective believed that Kate and John Jr. were headed towards Mexico, but that John Jr. died of internal organ damage during the trip. This has not been proven. There was a $3,000 reward for the capture of the Bender family, but it was never claimed. Several vigilante groups claimed they had killed the Bender family, but they did not claim the reward. One group stated they shot all the Benders except Kate, whom they buried alive. Another group said they found them, lynched them all, and through their bodies in a river. Another group claimed to have shot the family and buried them in the prairie. There is significant doubt about all these claims as the reward was never claimed and the bodies have never been found.

In 1884, a man named John Flickinger committed suicide in Lake Michigan. It is suspected that John Flickinger may have been John Bender Jr. The same year, a man was arrested in Montana for a murder that occurred in Idaho. The elderly man fit the description of John Bender Sr., and the murder was caused by a hammer to the head. Authorities contacted Cherryvale, Kansas authorities and asked them to come make a positive identification. However, the elderly man chopped off his foot to escape his ankle shackle, dying of blood loss. By the time authorities arrived in Montana, the body was too badly decomposed to be identified. The skull of the man, however, was displayed in a saloon as “Pa Bender” until prohibition started in 1920. The skull then disappeared.

Several of the neighbors of the Bender family, including the Roach family, were arrested as accessories to the murders. It was proven that some helped dispose of bodies while another wrote a false letter to the family of one of the victims claiming to be the victim, stating he arrived at his destination safely. One of these was men was arrested again decades later for the rape and murder of his own daughter.

In October of 1889, Mrs. Almira Moore and her daughter Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth Davis were arrested in Michigan for larceny. The two were suspected of being Elvira and Kate Bender. They were “positively identified” as the Bender women, although it was later made known that those identifying the women had never met the Bender family. The elder woman resisted arrest, proclaiming she would not be taken alive. The younger woman claimed that the older woman was Elvira Bender, but that she was another daughter and not Kate. The older woman, in turn, pointed the finger at the young woman claiming she was Kate. Eventually, a daughter of Almira Moore provided evidence that the woman was in prison for manslaughter in Michigan in 1872 and could not be Elvira Bender. A marriage certificate for Mrs. Moore was also found and dated 1872. Upon discovery of this evidence, the women were released.

No one knows what really happened to the Bender family. They got away with several murders, becoming America’s first serial killer family. There is a historical marker at the sight where the Bender cabin was in 1872, but quickly after the murders the cabin and property were torn apart brick by brick by people wanting a souvenir, leaving no sign of the cabin behind. The property has been sold several times since 1872, but none of the owners have chosen to live on the property and a house was never built again. The sight will forever be known as the home of the Bloody Benders.

 

References

Jonusas, Susan. (2022) Hell’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier.

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