Skip to comments.The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killers
Posted on 11/14/2013 5:05:51 PM PST by servo1969
In 1870, Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura Ingalls left their home in southeast Kansas, where they had lived for about a year, and headed back to Wisconsin. Their Kansas home was later the basis for Laura's book The Little House on the Prairie. That same year, a group of new families moved into the area. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was totally foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state. Two of the families moved away within a year. The others kept to themselves, with the exception of the Benders.
John Bender, Sr., and his family settled in Kansas in 1870, near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to settle the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in which is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate. Ma and Pa spoke mostly German, and their English was so heavily accented that no one understood them. The younger Benders spoke fluent English.
The family built a one-room house near the Osage Trail, with a curtain that divided the home into two areas, with a public inn and store in the front, and family quarters in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcomed to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, black powder, and food from the Bender home. And they often spent the night.
Kate was the most outgoing of the Benders, and advertised herself as a fortune teller and healer. It was rumored that she and her mother practiced witchcraft. Kate was attractive, and her psychic abilities drew extra customers to the inn, when she wasn't traveling to give lectures on Spiritualism and holding healing services.
Later investigations revealed that none of the Benders was actually named Bender, and the only ones that were related were Ma and her daughter Kate. Pa was born John Flickinger around 1810 in either Germany or the Netherlands. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik, and her first husband was named Griffith, with whom she bore 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhart, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband instead of her brother.
Hundreds of men passed through Kansas on their way to seek their fortune in the West, and some were never heard from again. It took time for such disappearances to draw attention, as there were many reasons for travelers, adventurers, and settlers to be out of touch or even dead. But over the course of a couple of years, more and more missing persons appeared to have dropped off the face of the earth about the time they passed through Labette County. Several bodies were even found in the area, murdered, but no one knew who did it.
In 1872, George Loncher and his infant daughter left Independence, Kansas, to settle in Iowa after the death of his wife. They never arrived. Dr. William York went looking for them, following the Osage Trail. He questioned people all the way to Fort Scott, but then Dr. York himself disappeared on his way back to Independence. And that was the turning point in the story. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened: Colonel Ed York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.
Colonel York led an investigation into Labette County. They questioned the Benders about a woman who claimed Ma had threatened her with a knife. The township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse in which it was decided to search every homestead for evidence of the murders. Colonel York attended the meeting, as well as both male Benders. But the weather turned bad, and it was several days before such a search could begin.
Meanwhile, a neighbor noticed the inn was empty. The Benders were gone. A couple of days later, several hundred volunteers arrived for a search, including Colonel York. The Benders' wagon was gone, but they took little from the home besides food and clothing. What the townspeople did find was chilling.
A trap door in the floor behind the separating curtain led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was was drenched with blood. The cabin was moved away from the spot, and the ground was dug up, but no bodies were found. Then the investigation turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed. Neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed. Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed the body of Dr. York. Seven more bodies were found that night, and another the next day. The throats had been cut, and the skulls were bashed in. The exception was Mr. Loucher's infant daughter, who was buried under her father. One of the bodies was that of a girl estimated to be about eight years old, whose body was badly mutilated. Ten bodies were ultimately found at the Bender farm, but 21 murders are attributed to the family.
Investigators pieced together what happened. Guests at the inn were urged to sit in the place of honor, which was against the separating curtain. While dining, the guest of honor would be hit in the head with a hammer from behind the curtain, his throat would be slit, and then his body dropped into the trap door to the cellar. One man, Mr. Wetzell, heard the story and remembered when he was at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot. His decision caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the curtain, he and his companion decided to leave. William Pickering told an almost identical story.
For all the murders, the Benders only received about $4600 and some livestock from their victims. The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, and drew journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over.
The Benders' wagon was eventually found some miles away from the homestead. Twelve men were arrested as accessories to the murders, mostly for receiving stolen goods. Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2,000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified by evidence. Several vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The official investigation notes that testimony from railroad employees placed the Benders boarding a train for Humboldt, and traced the younger Benders to trains going to Texas or New Mexico. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City. No one knows what ultimately became of them. The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers. Today, nothing remains to even indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although the property is said to be haunted by the victims.
Those are the facts as known. Rumors that surrounded the case were legion. Some said that John Gebhart was a "half-wit," while others said his behavior was a ruse. Others say that Kate was a prostitute as well as a psychic and murderer. Ma supposedly killed three of her older children because they were witnesses to the murders of her husbands (Kate was her fifth child). And another rumor says that Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled. It was also reported that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884. But after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.
I used to know some Flickingers. They used to own the funeral home in Hanover Michigan.
Wow. I thought H. H. Holmes was “America’s First Serial Killer.”
Why do these Benders remind me of Gosnell?
Perhaps this is where the saying “Going on a real Bender” came from.
Reads like the plot to a modern horror movie.
“Why do these Benders remind me of Gosnell?”
Remind me of Sibelius.
So, Satanists and serial killers. Who’d’ve guessed?
IIRC, the majority of the Little House series was based in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, not Kansas. Walnut Grove has a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and they host a large festival each year based on her books.
The Benders are a lesson in horror, but there are also several others in the Old West.
John Turnow shot quite a few men from ambush in Washington state.
In the Osage country of Oklahoma a deformed Indian man murdered several people over the years before being killed.
Then there was the Piute named Mouse who killed both Indians and whites over several years.
Also Queho and Avote who did the same.
And then there was Harry Tracy who used a new powerful rifle, the 30-30 Winchester to kill eleven lawmen in his last break from jail.
Laura, Almonzo and some other family members lived very near where I live right now in the Florida Panhandle. There is a historical marker there and also a little park.
One of their descendants still lives next to the old place.
My Great Grandfather performed the wedding for two of the family. He was a Baptist minister.
“They used to own the funeral home in Hanover Michigan.”
There’s a Flickinger that runs a business in Parma.
Was this before or after Mary went blind?
Lots of families in several area towns. Kinda like the Gilpin bunch.
Little House,O So Scary!
Warning - offtrack subject!! The Little House on the Praire show is set in the town of Walnut Grove, MN. Their original sod house was there on the banks of the creek. IIRC it is just a depression in the ground now. BEAUTIFUL area and a great place to see. Park in someone’s driveway for a small fee and walk past the newer farmhouse and down aways to the creek. And the museum is in town.
A place I would REALLY recommend is where their farmhouse, depicted in the show, really was - near De Smet in South Dakota.
Some farm family loved the Little House on the Prairie story. They ended up selling their farm in Nebraska(?) and bought the original Wilder property several years ago. They built a recreation of the house based on her books, a barn, etc. They moved a local one-room school house from the nearby town out to the far side of the property. You take a horse-drawn wagon to get out there. Guides are in period-costumes, crafts for the kids (rope making, candles, milking, etc.) Costs $10 per person!!
Lots of fun for the kids. We did it several years ago on the way to Minneapolis. (The place in SoDak and MN), then saw the play “Little House on the Prairie” in Mpls. where the young girl actress from the show played the mom in the play. My girls LOVED it!
Wow! The Ingalls family got around. I never knew they were in Florida.
Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I bet your girls will remember it always.
Laura and Almonzo only lived here just under a year.
Other family members who came here with them stayed and their descendants are still here.
Do not forget the Wilder Farm in Mansfield Missouri, where Laura lived after she married and where she wrote her books.
It’s so interesting to me that they saw so much of our country back in that day and age when transportation wasn’t exactly easy. Thanks for the info. :)
Yeah....I think it’s right next to the Sweeney Todd barbershop.