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Bloody Benders

Family of serial killers who operated an inn in Labette County, Kansas, in the early 1870s. They killed over a dozen travelers who stopped for a meal or the night, robbing them and burying their bodies on their land. Their crimes were discovered when a widespread search was conducted in the area, ending at the Bender farm.

Since the formation of the union, nothing of so foul and revolting a nature has occurred as the murders committed by the Bender family, in Kansas… – June 6, 1873.

     
May 17, 1873, a proclamation was issued:

Whereas, several atrocious murders have been recently committed in Labette County, Kansas, under circumstances which fasten, beyond doubt, the commissions of these crimes upon a family known as the “Bender family” consisting of:

JOHN BENDER, about 60 years of age, five feet eight or nine inches in height, German, speaks but little English, dark complexion, no whiskers, and sparely build:

MRS. BENDER, about 50 years years of age, rather heavy set, blue eyes, brown hair, German, speaks broken English:

JOHN BENDER JR., alias John Gebardt, five feet eight or nine inches in height, slightly built, gray eyes with brownish tint, brown hair, light moustache, no whiskers, about 27 years of age, speaks English with a German accent: and

KATE BENDER, about 24 years of age, dark hair and eyes, good looking, well formed, rather bold in appearance, fluent talker, speaks good English with very little German accent,

And, whereas, said persons are at large, and fugitives from justice. Now, therefore, I, Thomas A. Osborn, governor of the state of Kansas, in pursuance to law, do hereby offer a reward of five hundred dollars for the apprehension and delivery, to the sheriff of Labette county, Kansas, of each of the above persons named.

     
The reward was never collected.

Although not included in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, Rose Wilder Lane included the story in the versions she typed and submitted to agents George Bye and Carl Brandt. After having Charles Ingalls tell the Bender story quite familiar to Little House fans and researchers, the manuscripts continue:

I was a woman grown before I ever spoke to Pa about the Benders. He used to listen when other men told about the roadhouse Kate Bender kept between Independence Kansas and Indian territory, and the travelers who were murdered there. The roadhouse was curtained across to make two rooms, and when a man sat eating, on a bench against the curtain, one of the Benders would come stealthily behind the curtain and kill him by a blow on the head with the blunt end of an ax. All that country was so far beyond the reach of postal service that no one was troubled when no word came back from men who went into it.

When at last the eastern relatives of a man who had disappeared began to make careful inquiries, and aroused some suspicion of the Benders, more than forty bodies of men, women and children were dug up in the cellar and around the house.

Just before the alarm was raised, the Bender family got away across the prairie, and though the Vigilantes followed them, it was never known what had become of them. From time to time we would hear a rumor that Kate Bender had been found living somewhere. Pa would listen, and never say a word.

One day when we were alone I asked him if he had not stopped once to water his horse at the Benders, but had refused to stay all night when Kate Bender asked him. Wasn’t he one of the Vigilantes who went after the Benders, and didn’t they catch them?

He only said, “We thought you were too little to understand.” As for what became of the Benders, he would not answer. He said, “Don’t worry. They’ll never find Kate Bender anywhere…” -manuscript submitted to George Bye, pages 10-11

     
The hunt for the Bender family was two years after the Ingallses had left Kansas and returned to Wisconsin, so is it even remotely possible that the family ever came in contact with them, or even knew about them? Turns out it’s possible. They may have encountered the family on the way into Indian Territory, not going out of it. The map shows the location of the Ingallses’ cabin in relation to the Bender farm. It’s hard to imagine Pa passing by the Benders on his way to Independence, or even if he went to Oswego, known to have better prices than Independence. But if the family read newspaper reports about the victims after they had return to Wisconsin, they may have identified their near neighbors in Montgomery County, George Longcor, his wife and son, and another neighbor, Dr. York. Longcor’s wife’s family–the Gilmours– also lived nearby. Longcor’s son died after the Ingallses were in the area, and his wife gave birth to a daughter in 1871, dying soon after. Longcor and the young daughter (often reported as being 8 years old, not 18 months old) were killed by the Benders, with young Mary Ann most likely having been buried alive. Dr. York went looking for Longcor and was also killed; his body was identified by his brother.

The Bender story is all over the internet and in newspaper stories (such as THIS ONE from a South Dakota paper in 1889). There are also numerous books and online articles about the crimes, and Laura included the Bender story in her Detroit book speech. Rose Wilder Lane apparently told a variation of the tale over and over; in May 1936, her short story, “The Dreadful House,” was published in Country Gentleman magazine. In this tale, the murdering family is the “Bendons.” Their house is beside a river, and murdered victims are often tossed through a trap door in the wall, to the water below. Rose’s friend, Norma Lee Browning, also wrote a similar short story which she tried to have published, but with no success. After Roger Lea MacBride also failed to find a publisher for one of Rose’s versions, he printed it in booklet form as FACES AT THE WINDOW. MacBride noted in the margin of a rejection letter from one publisher – who had stated that Rose Wilder Lane had not been a well known figure in American Literature so such a manuscript would have limited sales potential – “My God, who is this dimwit?” The tale can also be found in A LITTLE HOUSE SAMPLER, edited by William T. Anderson.

It’s interesting to note that what Browning proposed was not merely the publication of Rose’s “Bender Story,” but an entire volume to be titled Rose Wilder Lane’s Spirit World, containing a dozen or more stories as told to Browning by Lane between 1937 and Rose’s death in 1968. These “spirit stories” would not offer any “scientific research, investigation, or confirmation of life after death,” but would be “ghost stories” as told by Rose and always received with “wide-eyed wonder” by her audience. According to Norma Lee, Rose didn’t believe in ghosts, and she was said to have always felt a little foolish telling the stories, which is why she never wrote them out for publication herself.

Even so, Rose used to consult her ouija board about stories she was writing. In one letter to Norma Lee, Rose recounted how the ouija board had even once written a poem for her, a poem which had been ordered by an editor of McCall’s magazine. Is this the poem?
     

“To the Unknown” – by Rose Wilder Lane

Where are you wandering? By what windy hollow
Did I miss your footprints in the morning dew?
Where have you gone that I may never follow
Down all the world’s bewildering ways to you?
All men but you are empty faces
All my life without you, empty hours.
There is no rest for me in quiet places,
There is no honey in the flowers.
Where are you wandering? Shall my seeking never
Disclose your unseen face, hidden and apart?
Still I must search for you, lonely forever,
Hearing your silent voice always in my heart.

From my September 8, 2008 blog:

As we have the average morbid taste for reading about crime, we read Enter Murderers by Edward Hale Bierstadt, and found it satisfactory except for the omission of the Bender family… They are, on the whole, the most memorable of all American specialists in homicide, to our mind… May Lamberton Becker says they were too sordid; but it’s their technique that strikes our imagination… They used to induce their victims to sit down to dinner in a tent and then one of the Benders – there were a log of them, so the temporary absence of one was not noticed – went around outside the tent with a mallet… You can easily figure out the subsequent proceedings… – Oakland (California) Tribune, October 14, 1934

“Rose Wilder Lane writes to correct us on the habits of the celebrated Bender family… Someone else also gave us the facts, but we lost the letter.

“‘I beg your pardon,’ she says, ‘the Bender family did not commit their murders in a tent. Or at least did not earn their deserved reputation in that way. Kate Bender lived in an ordinary house of the times, midway between Independence, Kan., and my grandfather’s log cabin on the Verdigris in Indian Territory. My grandfather often stopped there, but though he had a good team, a wagon and (on the return trip) a load of supplies amply justifying his murder, he never could afford to buy a meal from the Benders, but frugally ate by his own campfire.

“‘The Bender house, completely conventional, had a canvas curtain across the middle dividing sleeping and living quarters. A bench stood against this curtain, and a table before the bench. Prosperous travelers who could afford to pay for Kate Bender’s good home cooking sat on the bench to eat it… My grandfather was one of the volunteer posse that pursued the fleeing Benders. Darkly, he said little about what happened… The ultimate fate of the Bender family is usually reported as shrouded in mystery… But there really was no tent. Kate Bender was the dominant force in that family, and was there ever a woman who could live in a tent if she could help it?'” – January 6, 1935

Rose finished working on her mother’s High Prairie manuscript in June 1934. Little House on the Prairie was released prior to the holiday season the following year.

     

Bender family