Stories of travelers gone missing in southeastern Kansas’ Labette County started to spread from around 1871. However, it wasn’t until 1873, when a local doctor who was probably investigating the disappearances went missing himself, that the local community caught on to those responsible. Moreover, what they discovered at the inn and farm of a local family was beyond gruesome.
The post-Civil War United States was not a happy place. Indeed, lawlessness and crime persisted as men returned home from the battlefield. In some places – southeast Kansas included – Indian attacks were also common. So, it wasn’t until the local Osage Indians sold their land to the U.S. government in 1870 that white settlers began to lay claims to the area.
At the same time, many American settlers were capitalizing on the Homestead Act of 1862. This, essentially, allowed people to each take as much as 160 acres of free federal land for themselves. The Bender family were just some of these homesteaders, and they settled down in Kansas as soon as the Osage sold off their land. The family consisted of John Bender Sr., his wife Elvira and their children John Jr. and Kate.
Like many pioneers of the American West, the Benders had to work hard. In fact, they even built themselves a place to live from scratch. By the time they were done, they had constructed a log cabin, a barn, a livestock pen and a well. Later, they decided to split up the single-room cabin with a large canvas sheet in order to operate the front half as a store and inn.
The family operated the inn as a resting stop for travelers on the nearby Osage Trail that connected the towns of Independence and Fort Scott. With a sign reading “Groceries” above the door, the inn stocked general goods such as alcohol and tobacco, and it also functioned as a place at which to eat and rest for the night. But despite their apparently friendly livelihoods, the Benders were actually anything but warmhearted.
Indeed, the 60-year-old John Bender Sr., originally from Germany, was known for his unfriendly demeanor. His 55-year-old wife, meanwhile, was reportedly equally as ill-natured and was even considered a “she-devil” by the locals. In contrast, both 25-year-old John Jr. and 23-year-old Kate were apparently friendly, attractive and able to speak good English. But even in the younger half of the family there was a hint of something strange. John Jr. reportedly had an odd tendency to laugh without reason, while Kate practiced spiritualism and claimed to have psychic and healing powers.
When they first opened their inn in 1871, the Benders seemed to be doing well, with plenty of visitors paying to stay the night. However, some of these travelers – many of whom were supposedly carrying large stashes of money – began to go missing. Yet every attempt to search for the lost lodgers would only get as far as Big Hill Country of southeast Kansas. After that, all trace of them seemed to disappear.
Still, these first disappearances did not raise too much suspicion. Indeed, it was quite normal for people to continue traveling further west. But by the spring of 1873 reports of missing people seemed to increase and travelers began to steer clear of the Osage Trail. What really roused the community, however, was the disappearance of Dr. William York from Independence, who had last been seen at Fort Scott.
Apparently, York had sold a wagon and horses to one George Loncher and his daughter in the last months of 1872. But when York heard that the wagon and horses had been discovered abandoned, with no trace of the Lonchers, he decided to investigate. So, the doctor set off for Fort Scott to identify the horses and look for clues before turning back home. Yet York never got home.
It was partly Dr. York’s disappearance that prompted the local communities to call a council on the matter. About 75 people consequently arrived at Osage Township’s Harmony Grove School in March of 1873 to discuss what was to be done. And interestingly enough, both John Bender Sr. and his son were in attendance.
The locals decided to search every local property. But although most were enthusiastic about the decision, the Bender men reportedly held their tongues. Some days after, it became apparent why. One of their neighbors discovered that the Bender property was entirely abandoned, with the animals left to starve.
A search party was consequently formed, and among their number was Dr. York’s brother, a colonel from Fort Scott. Now when the group arrived at the Benders’ cabin, the first thing they picked up on was a nasty smell. What’s more, they soon found the source of the terrible odor: a trap door in the floor of the cabin.
And what lay behind that door realized their worst fears. The men had in fact discovered a 6-foot hole marked by congealing blood – the source of the disgusting smell. However, there were no bodies. So, the group decided to move the entire cabin to another patch of ground. When they still didn’t find anything, though, they continued to search the farmland attached to the property.
Soon enough, Colonel York came upon a sunken, rectangular piece of land next to a group of fruit trees. According to history.net, he reportedly shouted, “Boys! I see graves!” So, armed with shovels, the search party began digging frantically. And, not long after, they hit something solid.
It was a body. Indeed, the poor person’s skull had evidently been smashed in with a blunt instrument. Moving the head to the side, the search party also discovered a large gash on the neck of the corpse. Presumably, the head blow had rendered the victim unconscious before a knife delivered the killing injury.
What followed was the gruesome task of cutting off the head in order to wash and identify the deceased. But once this was done, Col. York was horrified to discover the face of his missing brother, Dr. William York. What’s more, further digging uncovered even more corpses – including the Lonchers – bringing the total to at least ten. And the fact that none of the Benders were among the bodies destroyed all reasonable doubt; they must have been the killers.
It seemed that the Benders would invite visitors to sit with their backs to the curtain that separated the cabin into two parts. Then, while the victim was distracted by the attractive Kate Bender, one of the men would attack the person’s head with a hammer from behind the canvas. The family would then steal all of the victim’s belongings, slit their throat in the hidden cellar and bury the corpse on the property.
The gruesome discoveries of the search party led to a concerted effort to find the murderers. Indeed, Col. York offered a $1,000 reward for information, which was matched by a $2,000 reward from the governor of Kansas. Meanwhile, numerous search groups – both official and unofficial – were set up. Yet although reported sightings of the killers were followed up as far as Texas and the Chihuahua Desert, the family apparently escaped justice.
And though rumors abounded that the murderous family had been captured or killed, none of these claims were ever confirmed. The Bender story furthermore soon provoked a slew of tales that attempted to explain who they truly were and what had really happened. For instance, some claim that John Sr. was killed by the two Bender women for trying to take the stolen money for himself. Yet another popular claim was that John Jr. was actually unrelated to the family and was in fact married to Kate.
But although newspapers continued to print stories about the family until as late as 1889, the four murderers were never officially brought to justice. Consequently, the story around the family began to take on a paranormal, legendary nature. Now, their property was believed to be haunted, with souls of the murdered, along with the ghost of Kate Bender herself, wandering the grounds at night. In subsequent years, it has been contended that the so-called “Bloody Benders” killed at least 12 victims. Today, however, all that remains of the Bender tale are the murderers’ weapons and other items, which are still on display at a museum in Cherryvale, Kansas.