Tuesday, May 25, 2021

True Crimes: The Bloody Benders

Hello, Readers! I’m continuing my (brief) series on True Crimes from history this month. And for this post, we’ll explore the serial-killing family known as The Bloody Benders, who terrorized travelers in Labette County, Kansas, between 1871 and 1872.


The Bender family was made up of husband a wife John and Elvira (or Almira) Bender (ages 60 and 55 respectively), and two adult children, John Jr. (age 25) and Kate (age 23). It’s unclear whether John Jr. and Kate were siblings or whether Kate was Jr.’s common-law wife. 


After the Civil War ended and the Osage Indians were moved from this area to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), Labette County was opened to settlers. In October of 1870, father and son registered 160 acres of land along the Great Osage Trail, along with several other families in a bit of a cult-like compound. The Bender men built a cabin, barn, and corral, and dug a well, before Elvira and Kate joined them seven months later. The four all lived in the same small home, divided into two rooms by a canvas tarp hung from the ceiling. From the front half, they sold dry goods and provided weary travelers with a warm meal and a place to rest. The back half served as their personal quarters.


The family was vile by all accounts. John Sr., a hulking, brutish, and profane man, spoke little English, and what he didspeak was mostly unintelligible. Elvira, who also rarely spoke English, was married multiple times—with unproven speculation that she killed several husbands. John Jr. was a fluent English-speaker but was labeled a half-wit because of his propensity to laugh at awkward times. And Kate, who may have been Elvira’s child from a previous marriage, claimed to be clairvoyant and often performed seances. She also gave lectures on her “spiritualist” beliefs, in which she made it very clear she subjected herself to no one’s authority and saw nothing wrong with having carnal relations with her brother (thus the confusion over whether Jr. and Kate were siblings or spouses, I’m sure!). 


In the early 1870s, the Osage Trail connected Fort Scott to points further west, and was full of horse thieves, bandits, and other rough characters. It’s easy to imagine why travelers might have been drawn to the Bender’s home and general store, where hot meals and a bit of sanctuary were offered. However, starting around May 1871 (roughly the time when Elvira and Kate came to the homestead), bodies began turning up. It was then a man named Jones was found dead in Drum Creek, his skull crushed and his throat cut. In February of the following year, two more bodies were found with the same injuries. Vigilance groups began patrolling the trail as more bodies turned up across that year. Suspects were either arrested (only to be released later) or run out of the county. By the 1873 mark, enough people had gone missing from that area that travelers were finding other ways to cross westward.


During the winter of 1872, a father and infant daughter crossed the Osage Trail, never to be heard from again. Their former neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, went searching for his friend but was wise enough to tell his two brothers—one who resided at Fort Scott, and the other who was a Civil War veteran and Kansas state senator—where he was going. So when the doctor didn’t arrive home, a search party of fifty men was mounted. They spoke to every traveler and homesteader in the area. They discovered that Dr. York had stayed with the Benders, but that he’d moved on. The ideas was floated that he’d probably met with Indian troubles after he left. The search party moved on. 


However, in the intervening days, a woman had stopped at the Bender’s place only to flee in terror with a story that Elvira had come at her with a knife. When Col. York and his search party returned and leveled that accusation in English, Elvira grew enraged and shouted (in fluent English, no less) that the woman was a witch who had cursed her coffee. She then demanded the colonel leave, and he and the others obliged.


As the body count stacked up, the residents grew upset and met together at a local schoolhouse to discuss. In attendance were both father and son Bender, as well as Colonel York, so when it was decided that a search warrant for all homesteads in the area would be obtained, the Benders quickly snagged their women and belongings and disappeared. Their disappearance wasn’t noticed for several days, due to the inclement weather.


When they did finally search the premises, they found a trap door under one bed, leading to a deep blood-soaked pit. The grounds were searched and among the vegetable garden and orchard, shallow graves containing eight bodies (including Dr. York’s) were found. A ninth body was fished from the well, and various dismembered appendages were also found strewn around the property. 


Statements from several would-be victims emerged after the news broke. Several men came forward with tales that the Benders had offered them meals, but when they chose not to sit in the seat of honor at the table, very near the tarp, the women (the only ones at the table at the time) had grown agitated. Not long after, the men appeared from behind the tarp, also agitated, leading the men to slip out quickly. In another case, a Catholic priest said he noticed one of the menfolk ate with a hammer half-concealed nearby, and at the discovery, he quickly departed from the house. The stains on the tarp near the seat in questions led investigators to presume that while the womenfolk distracted their mark, the two men would bludgeon the victim with a hammer from behind the tarp, then the women would swoop in to cut the victim’s throat. It is surmised that the body was then dropped down the trapdoor until it could be safely carried out to an unseen part of the homestead. Neighbors within the small “spiritualist” cult were later arrested for assisting in this portion of the crimes. While some of the victims were well-off with plenty of money or expensive jewels and watches, others were quite destitute, leading to the thought that the Benders killed more for the excitement than any financial gain. 

Photo of the Bender homestead with suspected victim's graves marked in pen.

So what happened to the Benders, you ask? Trackers followed their wagon’s trail for about 12 miles before the family abandoned everything due to one horse going lame. They were near Thayer, Kansas, where they sought to catch a train to parts further west. Some say they never made it, but were quietly killed and disposed of while walking to the town. Others posit that they walked to the railroad station and bought tickets to places further west. Some speculate that John Jr. and Kate parted from their parents and with all sorts of ideas on what may have become of them from there. There are suspicions that the parents were eventually tracked down and hung by vigilantes. Others say Jr. died of apoplexy near the Mexican border. Still other rumors have surfaced that the two women reconnected and eventually were jailed, or that a man thought to be Pa Bender was eventually jailed but sawed off his own foot to escape his leg irons, only to die of blood loss a few miles later on. Regardless, no one is certain of the true end of the Bender family, but it is sure that no one ever collected the reward that had been offered for their capture.


It’s Your Turn: What do you suppose happened to the Bloody Benders? What do you hope happened to them? How do you feel about stories like this one, where the ending doesn’t tie up into a neat package with the bad guy clearly getting his just desserts?


Jennifer Uhlarik
 discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


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  1. Interesting topic. We are working on a research project about the Benders. The most common theory is that they were caught and executed vigilante style by on of the Posses. The main escape theories are that they escaped to New Mexico territory or even Mexico then multiple scenarios from there. The part where Elvira understood what they were saying is commonly believed but not that she spoke plain English. That fact is important when they extradited and started to try the mother and daughter in late 1889. The mother was in prison during most of the killing spree, spoke perfect English and was not 60 yet. The real Mrs. Bender wouldve been almost 80. In a month & half treasure hunting, spectacle seeing visitors picked the Bender Inn clean leaving just 2 water holes for the cellar and well. Today only 3 artifacts remain. Hammers in Cherryvale, knife in Kansas historical society, and entrance stone at Parsons Museum.

    1. Thank you for your great response, Tim! Excellent information. There are so many possibilities of what happened to the Benders after their disappearance. It's interesting to explore them all and wonder at the "could-have-been" scenarios!

  2. Wow! That was quite a story! Real live mysteries like this are slightly unsettling but life is not tidy, loose ends often exist. I'm glad that it's not present time. It's hard not to feel badly for all of the poor travelers who suffered at this family's hands.

    1. Isn't that the truth, Connie! I feel terribly for the people who fell victim to the Benders--and applaud those who had enough discernment to realize something wasn't right and get out before they become another in the body count. Just too bad that they didn't speak up sooner about the oddities they experienced at this house!

  3. Oh my! The Benders' story is not an easy one with all that transpired. It appears there are hidden facts that one will never be able to piece together. The impact on so many other families is heartbreaking, as some many never of known what truly transpired with their loved ones while traveling. Life is full of unanswered questions at times that might cause deep soul searching for the truth here and now.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Marilyn. That has to be one of the hardest parts of such horrific tales--being one of the survivors who doesn't know what truly happened to your friend or family member.