The period of this case is the early 1870s in Southeast Kansas. Kansas had the moniker of “Bleeding Kansas” due to how violent this region had been for decades. The question of Kansas’ statehood was one of the final catalysts for the Civil War. The question was whether Kansas would be a slave state or not when it became a state. When the Civil War began, some bloody battles happened in Kansas, especially after it sided with the Union.
Even after the Civil War, it continued to be a violent place. As many historians point out, the promise of Manifest Destiny had driven many to head out West to begin anew, especially after the horror of the Civil War. However, this also meant that many people could completely remake themselves, sometimes for nefarious reasons. Even though Kansas was a state, it was still a very lawless place. Vigilante justice was commonplace. Horse thieves and highwaymen could commit crimes and then hide in nearby Indian Territory, as local law enforcement did not have jurisdiction in tribal lands. The tribes barely had the resources to survive, let alone aid in capturing criminals.
Native removal is another issue affecting this area during this time. With the Indian Removal Act, many Eastern tribes were forced out West to modern-day Oklahoma. However, what many don’t realize is that this further displaced the tribes that had been living in the Mideast for centuries. Many tribes would fight against this removal and were often not friendly with the white settlers moving out West. Maybe I’m being biased here, but fair. With the 1862 Homestead Act, the government would give men 160 acres of land out in Kansas for a small fee so that the land could be worked and developed. Many white settlers from the East took advantage of this, squeezing out the tribes further.
In the wake of the Civil War, Spiritualism became popular and “trendy” for people to participate in. So many died during the war that people were desperate to connect to lost loved ones. Seances conducted by mediums captivated participants as they claimed to share messages from the other side. Many psychics, mediums, and “folk healers” were proven to be frauds (thanks Houdini), but that didn’t deter everyone from paying good money for their wares. Women were often the ones in the role of medium or healer, which would have been empowering in strict Victorian society. Many of these women could make money for themselves through seances and lectures. Within the Spiritualism movement, you also had a lot of proto-feminist activism.
In this case, I had to do a little additional research on the concept of “Free Love.” When I heard this, I immediately went to the 1960s idea of Free Love; however, it was slightly different in the late 19th century. Free Love advocates felt that women should be able to freely choose a monogamous sexual partner and freely end a relationship when love ended. Some women felt marriages were often based on legal and economic bonds rather than chosen commitment. Some even saw marriage as enslavement and forced prostitution. “Voluntary Motherhood” was also advocated, with many wanting birth control methods to be allowed for women. That being said, some icky ideas were tied into this, as some of these women also supported eugenics. This was all considered controversial, especially amongst more conservative communities.
In 1870, the Bender family claimed 160 acres of land in Southeast Kansas on the Osage (OH-sage) Mission Trail not far from the unincorporated town of Cherryvale. They quickly built a small cabin, barn, and corral and dug a well. Not long after, a sign advertising “Groceries” was hung outside the place. The Benders were open for business.
The Benders were a bit of an enigma to the neighbors. “Pa,” or John Sr, 60, was known for “a perpetual look of contempt” and spoke with a thick German accent that many could not understand. “Ma,” or Almira, 50+, was just as foreboding; she was called a “she-devil,” always gruff and scowling. Some sources also state that Ma spoke with a thick accent.
While the elder Benders seemed more distant and aloof, the younger Benders were more accessible. John Jr, 25, was considered by many to be a “simpleton” due to his awkward manner, laughing at inappropriate times. Kate, 23, on the other hand, had much more charisma and was known for being very open with neighbors and customers. Although, many considered her to be too loose as she was called either a minx or “hollow-eyed shrew.”
Many were confused about the exact relationship between these four people. The common assumption was that John Jr and Kate were the children of Ma and Pa. However, rumors swirled as John Jr and Kate seemed more close than siblings should be, causing people to speculate that they were a married couple or in some sort of incestuous relationship. John Jr and Kate did not isolate themselves and were often seen at Sunday School, but always seemed to act more like lovers than siblings. Kate had a young man who courted her during this time, so no one could figure out what was happening there.
It didn’t help that Kate was a self-proclaimed medium and folk healer. She would perform seances and provide herbal remedies to locals and travelers for a price, of course. She gave many talks concerning Spiritualism and was an advocate for things like Free Love. Some claimed she even said there was justification for murder. This only added to the mistrust that some had for her, especially for those who saw her as being a promiscuous woman. However, many still sought her out as they tried to make sense of the extreme loss that occurred as a result of the Civil War, as well as the widespread violence of the frontier.
Despite the odd reputation of the Benders, they were successful with their small grocery and inn as well as Kate’s clients. The Osage Mission Trail was a dangerous trail for those traveling West. Some highwaymen would rob and kill travelers, as well as Native people who were fighting against the loss of their homes. A place like the Benders would be considered a safe place to stay the night in an area that was anything but.
The Benders divided the small cabin by a large canvas curtain. One side was the living space for the family, and the other was the grocery and inn, such as they were. A strange addition to the cabin was a “root cellar” accessed through a trap door on the side of the grocery and inn.
Reportedly, Kate conducted much of the business. She was shrewd and knew how to use her charm and sex appeal to milk their primarily male clientele for more money. There were some claims that she was also doing sex work for these travelers, but I didn’t see many sources to support that. Kate had a knack for figuring out which men were the most wealthy and were perhaps carrying large sums of money, which wasn’t uncommon for the time. Things seemed to be going well until the locals started noticing more and more reports of missing people in their area.
In 1872, three men were each found robbed and murdered off the trail. In each case, their heads had been crushed, and throats slit. These deaths were attributed to the highwaymen who roamed the area. People disappeared out West often, so getting a report was common. However, by Spring 1873, there were ten reported missing men in the area, which alarmed the small community as this was not normal.
One of the more prominent men amongst the missing was Dr. William York of Independence, KS. He searched for a missing friend: George Loncor and Loncor’s young daughter, Mary Ann. Dr. York had let Loncor borrow his wagon, but when he found out that the wagon had been found abandoned, he went looking for Loncor to figure out what had happened but was not heard from again.
Dr. York’s brothers, one of which being a politician and lawyer, sent people out to find out what happened to their brother, but when they did not get the answers they needed, they went looking themselves. This led Alexander and Ed York to Cherryvale and right to the door of Bender’s Grocery and Inn.
When one of the York brothers went to question the Benders, he was greeted by Kate and John Jr. They admitted that Dr. York had stopped by previously but had just stayed for a meal and then was on his way. Kate invited the York brother into the house, saying she could conduct a seance to see if they could locate his brother. However, York declined. After further pressing, John Jr came up with a story about a highway attack and took the York brothers to a supposed site where Dr. York may have been attacked, but nothing was adding up, and they were suspicious.
Leeroy Dick was the town trustee of Cherryvale, the closest thing to a mayor in that area. He had been concerned about the rising number of missing men and agreed with the York brothers that something was off about the Bender family but was afraid to act as they didn’t want the Bender family to suspect that they were onto them. So they devised a plan to get into the Bender home to figure out what was happening. At a town meeting, it was suggested that to clear up as much mystery as possible surrounding the missing men each homestead should be searched to ensure they were not hiding or lying dead. Those who lived in the area wanted to figure out what was happening, so they readily agreed that this was the best idea. Everyone, that is, but Pa and John Jr, who were also in attendance. They remained quiet throughout the meeting.
Time elapsed. I don’t know precisely how long; some say days, and other sources say a whole month. I also don’t know if the search was started or not. But, at some point, Silas Tole, one of the neighbors of the Benders, noticed that some of the Bender animals were loose and went to check on his neighbors to see if they needed help. He found the Bender homestead was abandoned, with many animals in awful states, some dead. He felt that something was off and went into town to get Leeroy.
When Leeroy arrived, he agreed that something was wrong and decided to enter the small, abandoned cabin. Inside he was met with signs of a quick departure, with necessities gone but other items left. Leaflets advertising Kate’s abilities were scattered across the floor, almost as if someone had knocked them over and didn’t bother to pick them up. Leeroy found a homemade mallet and two claw foot hammers hidden behind a stove and another knife hidden in an 8-day clock. But most importantly, Leeroy smelled something he had not smelled since his time-fighting in the Civil War: death. The next day, Leeroy came back to the Bender’s place with men and shovels so they could investigate what would come to be known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.”
The men, including at least one of the York brothers, began searching the property to find exactly what happened. They started with the house and the trap door, where the scent of death was emanating. They found a small space coated in blood in varying stages of decay. However, there were no bodies in the cellar. The men ended up shifting the house over completely to ensure that nothing was under the house, but no bodies were found. One of the York brothers found a fragment of Dr. York’s spectacles. Some jewelry and other items were also attributed to other missing people.
They began to search the overall property and were drawn to the small grove that had recently been started. Amongst the young saplings were the signs of fresh digging– grave-shaped and sized signs of digging. What they found next was horrifying.
In the first grave, they found a man’s body with his head crushed in, face down. The body was severely degraded and very dirty, but they were able to move the body enough to find that the throat had been slit. Grotesquely, they decided to sever the head of the body so they could clean it enough to make an ID, as trying to turn over the decaying body was impossible. They washed the face up enough to confirm that the first body was that of Dr. William York.
They found more of the same as they worked their way through the rest of the graves. Primarily men, although one source included a woman who had their heads crushed in and throats slit. The body of John Broyle was found sitting upright in an old well. A cousin of Leeroy’s wife, Hank McKenzie, was also found amongst the dead. Leeroy did not know he was missing. McKenzie’s body had evidence of postmortem stab wounds and head and throat wounds. Dr. York’s friend, George Loncor, was also found amongst the dead. Loncor’s daughter, Mary Ann, was buried next to him. However, she did not have the same injuries as the other victims. Her body was severely injured, and a scarf was around her neck. Those who examined the grave and body said that Mary Ann might have still been alive when she was buried.
The exact number of victims isn’t entirely known. Not all victims were found in the small apple orchard; some were found elsewhere on the property or in the area. Besides the intact bodies, there were also body parts that could not be identified. The initial investigation resulted in 8 confirmed victims; however, when the area’s missing travelers and other mysterious deaths and disappearances are taken into account, the number is likely closer to 20—especially the deaths of people who were found with crushed skulls and slit throats.
The cry for justice was loud and swift, but the exact location of the Benders was unknown. They had a head start, after all. In sending out word to look for the Benders, national news media picked up on the story, and soon reporters and morbid onlookers swarmed the homestead of “The Bloody Benders.” Soon, these “tourists” began taking bits and pieces of the Bender’s cabin and other buildings until the homestead was dismantled. At the time, having morbid souvenirs or relics from these horrific crimes was popular. Leeroy could preserve the murder weapons, but almost everything else was carried off. This case happened before H.H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Belle Gunness, and Lizzie Borden were known worldwide, so it was a precursor for the media circus that occurred in those instances.
The governor of Kansas offered a $2,000 reward ($500 for each member of the family) for the capture of the Benders, with the York brothers providing an additional $1000. (That’s about 73k in today’s money) Many rumors swirled about the possible location and identities of the now infamous Bender family.
Being the frontier, vigilante groups, as well as law enforcement, began looking for the Bender family. Many leads were followed, and claims that they had been found or sighted were abundant. However, the best tips led investigators to the train station, where they found that it was likely they boarded a train and then split up at the next stop. Ma and Pa went Northeast to St. Louis, where Ma had a sister. They went to the sister’s house; however, the couple had already slipped away. John Jr and Kate went South and were likely in Denison, TX, where John Jr was posing as a railroad worker, and Kate was introduced as his wife. However, the Governor of KS was unwilling (or able, who knows) to fund a trip down to Denison to investigate. The Texas Rangers were too busy fighting the Apache and Comanche to care about some outlaws from Kansas.
After that, the Benders were sighted throughout the years. However, they were never officially caught. At some point, it would appear that they moved into modern-day Oklahoma, which was still Indian Territory at the time. Local authorities had no jurisdiction in tribal land and had to have convinced the government to send in the army after fugitives, so sometimes criminals would try and hide out in the territory to elude capture. A Pinkerton Detective claimed that he had tracked the Benders to the Wichita Mountains of OK and was close to capturing them; however, he was not heard from again. A similar incident happened with a TX bounty hunter who was also hot on their trail, but again, he was not heard from after that.
Method and Motive
Nobody knows how or why, or who in the Bender family was involved in the commissions of their crimes. Still, the evidence found, and stories about the family told afterward gave authorities a pretty good idea about the method and motive for their murders.
The Benders had been accused of theft by someone who stayed with them at one point. However, that case never went anywhere, and people continued to frequent the inn despite the accusation.
In 1872, a woman named Julia Hestler visited Kate Bender to have her perform a seance. A stagecoach dropped Julia off, and almost immediately, Julia felt uneasy about her decision. She said the cabin was decrepit, and when she was shown inside, she immediately noticed the buzzing flies and a terrible stench. Despite this, Julia sat where Kate instructed her, and they held hands as Kate began the seance. Kate told Julia to close her eyes, which she uneasily did, as Kate began to call on the spirits. Feeling strange, Julia opens her eyes to find the other members of the Bender family standing silently behind Kate, looking down at Julia. Julia claims that Pa had a hammer in his hands. In a panic, Julia lept up from the table and ran out of the house and into the dark prairie. When she came upon a house and later returned to town, she shared her strange experience, and while many thought it was a creepy story, there wasn’t anything criminal about the incident.
William Pickering also came forward with his story, saying he had stopped at the Bender’s place for a meal and some rest. He was asked to sit in a chair at the head of the table, which would have had him sitting with his back to the canvas curtain that divided the room. However, he refused to sit next to the curtain due to the nasty stains. When Pickering didn’t do as Kate asked, she angrily threatened him with a knife. He left quickly and dismissed the incident until he later learned of Bender’s crimes.
This led investigators to hypothesize that Kate likely lured the men into the inn and had them sit at the table, with his back to the curtain, to enjoy a meal cooked by herself and Ma. Being characterized as a flirt, Kate likely kept the men at ease and perhaps talked to them to get an idea of whether they had any money or possessions. She would then signal one of the men standing behind the curtain waiting and ready with a hammer. The men would strike the traveler in the back of the head, perhaps just stunning them or killing them outright. Then, Kate would take her knife and slit the victim’s throat. After removing anything of value from the body, they would drop the body through the trap door and allow the body to drain blood in the cellar before they disposed of it.
There is a lot of speculation here as we don’t know who did what, but this was the most popular theory and seemed to line up with the evidence. Due to the characterization of Kate, she was pointed to as the mastermind of this operation and the most cunning and ruthless of the family. Many assumed that money was the primary motive for these crimes. Many men traveling out West brought large sums of money to help them get started in their new life. Many traveled alone, so they were easy targets for a group of 4 people. However, some also believe that not all murders were committed because of money but blood lust. Not all of the men who were murdered had money or valuables on them. Perhaps there was a desire to murder for the sake of murder, but it could have also been that the men were suspicious, and the Benders didn’t want to take chances. Henry McKenzie, the man found with post-mortem stab wounds, would have only had a pocket change on him, causing people to speculate that Kate stabbed him in frustration after realizing he had nothing to steal.
So, Who Were the Benders and What Happened to Them?
One of the most interesting things about this case is that we don’t even know for sure who the Benders were or if they were even a family.
When the 160-acre claim was purchased, Pa listed himself as John Bender. However, John Jr. put his name down as John Gebhardt. The relationship between the two men wasn’t explained, but it was implied that they were related by blood or marriage. There were reports that John Gebhardt was not simple-minded and used that as a ruse. One detective claimed that when the Benders thought they would be found in Denison, TX they moved further south to El Paso, where there is a report of a John Gebhardt dying of apoplexy (stroke).
Immigration records suggest that John Bender (Sr.) was John Flickger from Germany or Holland. There are reports that he died of suicide in 1884 in the Lake Michigan area, although some say Ma and Kate killed him. It was also out of Michigan that two women were accused of being Ma and Kate and were brought to Kansas to be identified and charged. However, this was nearly a decade after the murders, and the locals were split on whether they recognized the two women as Ma and Kate. Leeroy was convinced that it was them, but as they had no objective evidence to prove that, the women were released.
Ma was allegedly born Almira Meik in the Adirondacks and married as a teen. She had 12 children before her husband died, reportedly from a “dent in the head.” Almira supposedly remarried several times and killed each husband. She was also accused of killing 3 of her oldest children to keep them from testifying against her. There were no records to prove that Ma and Pa were married nor that either of the children was related to Pa. Some think either one or both of the adult children were Ma’s from previous marriages.
Kate’s identity and fate are probably the most interesting. Evidence suggests that Kate was born Eliza Griffith and was Ma’s 5th child. At some point, it would seem she married and went by Sara Eliza Davis. However, how she came to be known as Kate Bender is a mystery. Her connection to John Jr. is also a mystery. Many said they acted more like husband and wife than siblings, and when they were in Denison, they posed as husband and wife. Because Kate believed in Free Love, they may have been romantically involved but didn’t marry officially. Or, as icky as it is, perhaps this was an incestuous relationship, and John Jr. was another of Ma’s 12 children.
Not much is heard about the Benders until May 5, 1910. The Montrose Daily Press in Colorado ran a headline stating, “San Francisco Woman Says She Has Lived Double Life For The Past 30 Years – Declares Her Identity on Death Bed.”
It turns out, on May 4, a woman known as either Mrs. Calvin or Peters died, but before she did, she claimed that she was the infamous Kate Bender. This raised interest in the case again; however, it was never proven whether this woman’s statement was true or plausible. It’s just another mysterious layer in this story.
Many felt that the family got away scot-free. However, one group of vigilantes claimed they found the Benders and killed them, going so far as to burn Kate alive. However, it was never confirmed if this indeed happened.
Being such an infamous crime, there are references to the Benders in Kansas and even pop culture. Supernatural references the Benders in one of their episodes, naming a family of serial killers after the real-life family.
From 1961-1978 there was a Bender Museum in Cherryvale, which kept the murder weapons on display and other items related to the crime. A recreation of the Bender cabin was on display, complete with figures representing the Bender family and a poor, unsuspecting victim.
And, of course, local folklore abounds with a case like this. Some claimed that family members provided them with first-hand accounts proving that a vigilante group found and killed the Benders. Others told stories of supposed run-ins with the Benders. Laura Ingles Wilder even claimed a connection to the case, saying that her father was one of the men who went looking for the Benders. However, this was proven to be all made up, likely for publicity.
Today, the land where the Bender’s lived is considered haunted. The old cellar is the only part of the house that remains, and it is said that the spirits of the murdered will scare off anyone who tries to investigate the area or otherwise disturb it. Some of the unidentified bodies were buried on the land, as they were unsure what else to do, so they say their ghosts are tied to the land. Others claim that you can see Kate roaming the land, doomed to remain attached to the land where she helped murder so many people.
Evil Kin S2E2 “The Bloody Benders,” NY Post, Kansas Historical Society, HistoryNet, Slate, Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection, Legends of America, Murderpedia, plus ThoughtCo and my brain for historical context.