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Kansas “Bloody Benders” Serial Killers Still a Mystery

Max McCoy / Kansas ReflectorOctober 31, 2021

The chain of low hills known as the Bender Mounds extends in a diagonal seven miles northeast of here, islands of limestone and scrubby trees over level fields where this time of year soybeans have just been harvested. The lonely hills meander across what is now U.S. Highway 400, where travelers whoosh by in comfort at 65 mph.

But 150 years ago, the rugged Osage Trail ran between these mounds, somewhat north of the present highway. This section of the trail ran the 47 miles from the Osage Mission at what is now St. Paul to Independence, Kansas, and food and lodging was hard to come by. Tired and hungry travelers would sometimes stop for a hot meal and a hard bed at the Bender Inn, a two-room frame cabin on the south side of the trail between the mounds.

Many of the travelers were never seen again, victims of a multiple-murdering frontier family that has gone down in history as the Bloody Benders. The Bender saga is a thoroughly American crime story, full of mystery and gore, and their story is as famous in its way as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral or the killing of Billy the Kid. But the enduring mystery behind the Benders is what happened to them. They vanished into history and became the stuff of nightmares — and books, television shows and movies.

“I bought it because I love history and would like to find out where (the killings) happened,” said Bob Miller, a Wells Fargo financial adviser from Independence, Kansas, who now owns the parcel where the Bender cabin is believed to have stood.

For 65 years, Miller said, the land was owned by a family who farmed it out and had little interest in its history. No search of the property for the location of the cabin or graves was formally conducted, at least not that anybody could remember. When the property came up for auction last year, through Indiana firm Schrader Real Estate and Auction Co., Miller knew he had to bid on it.

Miller won by purchasing a package of parcels that included the Bender site. He declined to disclose how much he paid.

“I really like history a lot,” he told me. “I’ve never had an acre of land before. Somewhere, somehow, some way, I’m going to get some kind of expert investigation going there. The whole thing is just so bizarre, and one of America’s first documented mass murders.”

Miller grew up on tales of the Benders and often visited the old historical museum in Cherryvale where a replica cabin stood and the town celebrated “Bender Days.” The story is the kind of gruesome stuff that has fascinated kids for generations, especially Kansas kids like me.

“Between 1870 and 1873 several travelers who disappeared between Independence and Osage Mission were traced to within a few miles of the Bender Mounds,” according to the WPA guide to Kansas published in 1939. “So many stories of mystery, murder, and the supernatural were associated with the area that cautious persons would go long distances to avoid it.”

By all accounts, the Benders were a strange lot. There were four of them, including an older couple named John Sr. and Kate, and a younger couple, also named John and Kate. They had come from St. Louis in 1870-71 to join a small community of Spiritualists, part of a movement that flourished after the carnage of the Civil War and maintained it was possible to talk to the dead.

Though stories of strange experiences at the inn had circulated throughout the community since its establishment, few had given them credence. After the discovery, though, such tales seemed more plausible. Neighbors reported violent behavior, strange séances, and narrowly escaping with their lives.

– Kansas Historical Society

The older Benders were described as unpleasant and spoke mostly German. But the younger Benders were different. They may have been brother and sister, or perhaps common law husband and wife. John Jr. was strong and handsome. But it was young Kate that attracted the most attention, a red-haired 20-something who was a trance medium, advertised herself in local newspapers as “Prof. Katie Bender,” and who claimed supernatural powers to heal.

By May 1873, the mystery of the missing travelers would be solved.

A search party found the Bender cabin deserted and their livestock untended. In an orchard out back they found the remains of between eight and 11 bodies —it was difficult to determine exactly how many, but at least one was a child — and a trapdoor in the floor of the cabin that led to a bloody cellar, rank with blood and gore.

“Though stories of strange experiences at the inn had circulated throughout the community since its establishment, few had given them credence,” according to the Kansas Historical Society. “After the discovery, though, such tales seemed more plausible. Neighbors reported violent behavior, strange séances, and narrowly escaping with their lives.”

It was theorized that victims were forced to sit at a table with their backs against a stained canvas curtain and, while distracted by Kate — who gets most of the blame in traditional accounts — were dispatched by a hammer blow to the back of the head. After being shoved through the trap door into the bloody cellar, they may have been finished off with a knife across the throat. The motive was robbery, as travelers often carried large amounts of cash to buy land and cattle.

But nobody knows for sure what happened in the cabin. Those who did know ended up dead or disappeared.

When the Bender site went up for auction last year, it renewed my interest in the bloody family. Stories about the upcoming auction ran in news outlets around the world. Not having the means, or frankly the will, to own such a site, I submitted no bid. But after the sale, I did contact the auction company a couple of times, asking to be put in touch with the new owners. Unsurprisingly, the auction company did not respond to my requests.

But I lucked out last weekend when I visited the Cherryvale Historical Museum. The museum used to be downtown, but it’s now in what was once a private residence and is open 1-4 p.m. on Sundays. The replica Bender cabin that used to be at the old museum is long gone. Cherryvale doesn’t celebrate Bender Days anymore, either.

 The Benders’ hammers are displayed at Cherryvale Historical Museum on Oct. 24. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)The museum still has three hammers taken from the Bender property shortly after the crimes were discovered, and I wanted to see them. They were there, in a cabinet behind bulletproof glass that has become hazy with the passage of the years. They were difficult to photograph, so I asked if the case could be opened.

No dice, I was told.

But the kind woman who was tending the museum that day suggested I contact local historian Carol Staton, who knew more about the Benders than just about anybody in town. So I did, and had a pleasant conversation with Staton about a particularly unpleasant crime. Then I asked if she knew who had bought the land at auction.

Why yes, she said. It was a friend of hers in Independence. She gave me Bob Miller’s name.

Miller told me he hasn’t done anything with the land since buying it in February because he just hasn’t had the time. He would like to investigate the site, he said. It is undoubtedly the piece of land the cabin was on, but the actual location of the cabin and the orchard have been lost over the years. Because he has a keen interest in history and a respect for doing things right, Miller said he’d like to partner with a team of professional archaeologists, perhaps from a Kansas university, to do a ground-penetrating radar study and possibly undertake excavations.

There may be more to the Bender story than we know, he said. Finding the location of the cellar abattoir or the orchard cemetery may lead to discoveries that were not possible with 1870s technology. Some of the victims were never identified.

“If we could find some stuff,” Miller said, “some bones or maybe teeth, that would allow for DNA matching with living relatives.”

The Benders were discovered when the relative of a victim went searching in 1873.

Col. Alexander York, a state senator and Civil War veteran, wanted to find his missing brother, physician William York. Dr. York, who had disappeared on the Osage Trail.

Scouting the trail with a posse of 15 or so men, Col. York called upon the Bender Inn. The Benders said yes, the doctor had been there, but he had left unharmed. Kate suggested, the story goes, that for a price she could use her clairvoyant powers to help locate the missing man. The colonel left, but suspicion lingered.

The cabin was later found deserted. The discovery of the bodies, including that of Dr. York, followed.

A wagon and team belonging to the Benders was later located abandoned near Thayer, and a clerk at the depot there said four individuals matching the family’s description had bought tickets and boarded a train to Humboldt. That’s the last real clue we have as to the murderous family’s fate, even though the governor of Kansas at the time offered a $2,000 reward for their capture.

Over the years, tales have placed the Benders in Canada, in St. Louis, and even escaping — however improbably — in a hot air balloon. These stories have continued unabated, and as recently as 2013 amateur sleuths claimed to have solved the mystery of the Benders, including one theory that young John and Katie lived the rest of their lives in Colorado and are buried in plain sight at Glenwood Springs.

None of these are convincing to me.

The two theories that seem most likely are that the Benders successfully escaped to parts unknown, or that they were lynched by locals and buried in secret. The former is more probable, as it’s been my experience that people have a hard time keeping a secret — and a secret as big as the fate of the Benders couldn’t be kept by a group for 15 minutes, much less a century and a half.

“It’s just a mystery that keeps perpetuating itself,” Staton, the local historian, said.

After the bodies were found in 1873, the cabin was ripped apart, board by board, until nothing was left. In time, all visible traces of the Bender place disappeared at the mound, just as the Benders themselves disappeared.

After the bodies were found in 1873, the cabin was ripped apart, board by board, until nothing was left. In time, all visible traces of the Bender place disappeared at the mound, just as the Benders themselves disappeared.

Staton said she has visited the site, or at least peered at it from the public road. An individual on the museum board, she said, has sometimes led private tours out to the Bender Mounds, and this persuaded the board to consider hosting day trips.

Miller said he has no plans to open the site to the public as yet, because he wants professionals to survey the location first.

On my trip to Cherryvale last weekend, I drove out to the Bender Mounds. I’m not going to reveal the precise location of the site, because like Miller I fear a loss of historical data beneath a crush of uninvited visitors. I can tell you that the roads around the site are poorly maintained, and that some are impassible in wet weather without a four-wheel drive vehicle. On one half-mile stretch of road, my Jeep was nearly up to its axles in mud.

A few miles away from the site, at the rest area where U.S. Highway 400 meets U.S. Highway 169, is a state historical marker about the Benders. It doesn’t give the location of the site, just saying it is near.

 The Bender historical marker sits at a rest area at the intersection of U.S. Highway 400 and U.S. Highway 169 near Cherryvale. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)The narrative on the marker indicates how attitudes toward the Benders have changed over the years, at least among historians.

The text on the marker, as originally provided by the state historical society, described Kate Bender as “a beautiful, voluptuous girl with tigerish grace” and “the leading spirit of the murderous family.” The description was typical of most narratives about the Benders and, in 1970, is what led Samuel Goldwyn Jr. to openly speculate whom he should cast as the beautiful and diabolical Kate in an intended major release. Jacqueline Bissett seemed a frontrunner.

While Goldwyn’s film was never made, there have been smaller films featuring the Benders. In 2016’s “Bender,” Nicole Jellen played Kate. There have also been novels and graphic novels, most notably Rick Geary’s “Saga of Bloody Benders.” There have been a mountain of nonfiction books, the latest of which is “Hell’s Half Acre” by Susan Jonusas, set for release in March 2022, which promises to tell us the “untold story.”

The current state historical marker has been edited to omit any mention of Kate as voluptuous or possessing grace, tigerish or otherwise. While Kate is an intriguing historical figure, there’s just no evidence to suggest she was the family mastermind. Murder is a dull and brutish business, no temptress required.

If there is an untold story to be told about the 1873 horror seven miles northeast of Cherryvale, chances are it won’t come from a movie or a book. But it just might emerge from the mud at the base of a mound on an otherwise featureless parcel of farmland recently purchased by a local kid who was fascinated by one of the bloodiest true stories in Kansas history.

_ _ _

Opinion Piece by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector

Copyright © Meridian Media, 2021. All Rights Reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced without Meridian Media’s express consent.

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