The Bloody Benders

This case has proven very hard to research, even still it is a case worth noting for many reasons.  The first is that it is a very interesting case. Another reason, that I will discuss late in this blog, is this case shows that when it comes to crime and people wanting publicity in some shape or form, it is not very different from what we see now.  The difference is that now we can determine more easily who is telling the truth and who is just looking to talk.  

The problem lies with the fact that this story began around 1870 in a newly settled area of Kansas and legend has followed it for over 140 years. It is simply hard to keep the fact from the fiction, but I will try the best I can.  

Here are the facts that are known, at least with a high probability....

Around October of 1870 two men settled in Labette County, Kansas, land that had been newly acquired by the government when they forced off the American Indian.  The older of the two men went by the name of John Bender and the younger, John Bender Jr. Close to a year later, after the men had built a few buildings and prepared things, two women (one older, one younger)came to the homestead with the men.  The older woman was simply known as either Mrs. Bender or Kate Bender Sr as it seems no one knew for certain her true name.  The younger woman was called Kate Bender. It seems to have all but proven however, that none of the four actually had the last name of Bender. Most references say they posed as parents and their two children, but some reports say that neighbors stated that John Jr. referred to Kate as his wife and not sister. Kate was known as the outgoing and beautiful one. She proclaimed to be a clairvoyant and marketed that ability. For most of the time they lived in the area (1870-1873)it appeared that neither of the older two Benders spoke much, if any, English. Both John Jr. and Kate spoke fluent English although John Jr. seemed to have a German accent. It was not until they were nearly caught that it was discovered that Mrs. Bender could in fact speak English well.

The Benders had a one room home that was approximately 16X24 that was divided into two sections by a canvas wagon cover or something of the like. One side was the living quarters of the "family" and the other doubled as an inn and general store. Inside the cabin just near where the cloth hung, sat a chair at a table. Under that chair was a "trap door" that led into what looked like a cellar.  The cellar was around 6-7 feet square.  

In March of 1873 a Colonel York began searching the area with about 50 men for his brother, Dr. William Henry York.  William York had gone out in search of a missing neighbor and had told his brother, The Colonel, as well as another brother who was a State Senator his plan and when he would return.  The trail he was taking had already been deemed dangerous as many people had disappeared but there was little to no evidence to anything.  To add to this, considering the American Indian had just been forced off this same land it was not unheard of that those who traveled through were attacked.  Colonel York and his posse questioned many in the area.  Soon a community meeting was called and it was determined that each of the homesteads would be searched.  Bad weather however put the search off for at least a bit and within a few days of the meeting it was determined that the Bender homestead was deserted.  After a massive search of the grounds between 9 and 10 bodies were found, including Dr. York.  

A short time later the Bender's wagon was found abandoned just north of the area.  The last thing that is for certain is that the "Benders" were never brought to justice.  

Now, on to the questionable "facts".....

First and foremost, although only 9-10 bodies were found on the farm it is believed that the Benders killed many more than that. Due to the time period the bodies that were found were discovered when men probed the ground looking for soft areas and then those areas are dug up.  Apparently the land has never been excavated since that time or any kind of equipment used to determined if there were more.  

When the Bender home was searched after their desertion there are different statements as to what was left inside.  Some reports say all food, clothing and personal items were gone.  Other reports make it appear that only their clothing were taken and yet some personal items were left. There were some hammers and knives supposedly left that have been put on display in a museum but they are unsure they were actual murder weapons and from my understanding they cannot even confirm the chain of custody to determine for sure they even came from the cabin.

It is believed, although cannot be confirmed that some of the travelers stopped on their own accord while others were lured there by Kate either simply through her charm or her claims to being a psychic and healer. The theory holds that the travelers would then be offered dinner and placed at the table in a chair that sat over a trap door, near the wagon cover.  Kate would distract the visitor while one of the men came from behind the cloth and hit the visitor on the head with a hammer and then cut their throats.  Once that was done the trap door was opened and the body dropped inside to wait for night time for burial.  At that time the bodies were stripped of possessions and those were kept and or sold.  

Although the Benders were never found and brought to justice about 12 men were arrested, mostly on possession of stolen property as they had bought the things from the Benders and they had apparently come from the victims.  One neighbor who had been interrogated and later arrested for having property by the surname of Brockman was arrested 23 yeas later for the murder and rape of his own 18 year old daughter.

There were somewhere between 9 and 10 bodies found on the property including Dr. York and his neighbor, George Longcor (have seen several different spellings) and his young toddler daughter.  It was reported that there was the body of a girl about the age of 8 or 9 and that of all the bodies hers was the only one that was not mutilated.  It is suspected that she was either strangled or buried alive. I have been unable to find if her identity was ever confirmed.

The tracks from the wagon were followed and it was found abandoned near a town close to fifteen miles away.  It was reportedly confirmed that all four Benders bought train tickets. Reportedly the younger two Benders got off the train and headed south towards Texas and New Mexico while the older two Benders headed towards St. Louis, Missouri. There were reports that it was believed that eventually the older male Bender committed suicide in Michigan but again that was unconfirmed.  At one point it was believed that the two women were found.  It was believed that Mrs. Bender was actually a woman named Almira Monroe-Griffith-Shearer and that Kate was actually her daughter, Sara Elizabeth Griffith-Davis.  They were arrested and transported back to Kansas.  Eye witnesses from the area said that this was Mrs. and Kate Bender but supposed affidavits and paperwork claimed it could not be them and the judge accepted those things. It is unclear if the paperwork was legitimate or not.  

Over the next several years the fate of the Benders was questioned.  Several different groups went out to find the Benders, whether it be for the rewards, the notoriety, or vengeance is anyone's guess. Many groups claimed to have found and murdered the Benders, yet no one ever claimed the rewards of such.  

This crime was sensational at the time.  And, lets be honest, it would be sensational even today.  When something like this happens there are always people who like to put themselves into the story. Reasons for this vary from looking to be important to giving themselves something to talk about. Depending on the person's social status depended on how much their stories were told.  This case is no different, except for the fact that those who interjected themselves or family into this story had no way of knowing how technology and things would be able to disprove their statements.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, famous for writing the Little House on the Prairie books, proved this in this case. It is true that her family was a neighbor to George Longcor (the man with the toddler) in this area in the 1870 Census records.  The Ingalls family never officially filed for a homestead there as they only lived there for less than a year before moving back to Wisconsin.  George Longcor did not go missing until late 1872, long after the Ingalls family had left.  The crimes of the Benders were not exposed until the Spring of 1873, again, long after the family had left the area. Yet, Wilder made statements that she recalls the Benders and their inn (yet she was a small child even when they did live in the area)as well as told people that her father, Charles was involved in one of the posse's that claimed to have killed the Benders.  This is not possible as they were not still in the area or even close when the crimes were exposed, nor was she old enough to remember these things had they happened when they were in the area.  It just goes to show you should really watch what you say because  you never know when your lies can be found out.


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