Under the guise of an inn and a rest stop, the Bender family murdered 7 men and a baby in turn to steal money.
One evening in Kansas in 1872, Julia Hestler rode a carriage to visit the Benders at their dilapidated little cottage, which lay alone on the prairie. When “self-proclaimed psychic” Kate Bender invited Julia inside, she was immediately nauseous by a strong smell and buzzing flies. Julia endured sitting across from Kate, holding hands to begin the necromancy ritual.
When she closed her eyes, Julia suddenly felt dizzy. She looked up and saw three Bender family members suddenly appear quietly behind Kate. Pa Bender held a heavy instrument that shone in the candlelight. Terrified, Julia jumped up and ran away. She tumbled down the front steps before continuing to run through the dark area.
Julia is lucky to have survived. Neighbors who heard her recount were just horrified but did not think this was a crime. But the following spring, Julia’s fears were confirmed when eight bodies were found buried under the Benders’ apple trees.
The Bender family became the most notorious serial killer family in American history.
In the mid-1800s, Kansas was a lawless place, known as “Bloody Kansas” because of the horrific battles between the pro- and anti-slavery factions. Becoming a state in 1861, Kansas is part of the United States but largely unregulated, controlled by corrupt sheriffs or judges. Legal disputes are often resolved by violence.
But Kansas is also a promised land for refugees. The Migrant Lands Act of 1862 authorized the grant of 160 acres to any man who paid a small fee. As a result, many refugees from East Coast cities or Europe come to build new lives on the border. The Benders were German immigrants who arrived in southeastern Kansas in 1870 and settled near the town of Cherryvale.
No one knows anything about the Bender family’s past. Pa Bender and his wife, known as Ma Bender, are middle-aged, do not speak English well and have a thick German accent. Kate and John Bender are about 25-27 years old, speak pretty good American English. Locals do not know if the two are husband and wife or brothers.
The Benders put up a “Grocery Store” sign, turning the house into a rest stop and inn. In the midst of popular spiritualism, Kate also claimed to be able to converse with the dead to earn money from passersby. Even when Bender was accused of stealing money and jewelry from a guest, many people still stopped by.
In 1872, three men were found dead on the road, carriage and stolen items. They all lost their lives due to serious injuries.
Locals attributed the murders to a roving gang of horse thieves. Traveling alone in the West was dangerous, so when the travelers began to disappear for the next six months, people didn’t consider it a big deal. When the number reached about 10 people in the spring of 1873, including a famous doctor, the new authorities took notice.
When Dr. William York disappeared, his brother Alexander, a lawyer and politician with money and connections, recruited 75 information-hunting men across the state. Alexander went to Bender’s house because they had been accused of theft. But when he was greeted politely by John and Kate, Alexander quickly removed them from the list of potential suspects, referring to them as “dumb villagers”.
After Alexander left, the Benders hurriedly loaded up their carriages and fled, starting a wandering life. Their absence went unnoticed for a month, until neighbor Billy Tole noticed their pets were starving. Examining the abandoned house, Billy nearly fainted from the smell of death. He drove into town to notify curator Leroy Dick. Leroy found a homemade mallet and two hammers hidden behind the house’s wood stove, guessing it was the murder weapon.
Local men flooded the house, searching for the body. The blood cellar was empty. But under Bender’s lush apple orchard, eight bodies were found in the mud, seven men and a one-year-old girl.
Leroy assumed that Kate played a role of entertaining the traveler, the other three attacked the victim when they were not paying attention.
Their motive is said to be money. Travelers often carried all their cash, valuables with them, and anything – from horses to equipment – could be sold for money on the steppe.
As news of the murders spread across the plains, the governor of Kansas announced a $2,000 bounty to track down the Bender family. The amount was deemed too small and the pursuit was too late. They had a whole month to run away.
The Benders traveled south of Kansas, through tribal lands – where whites were not prosecuted – to Denison, Texas. The place is even more lawless, populated mainly by horse thieves, herders and prostitutes. Denison was under the jurisdiction of the Western District Court of Arkansas, under a judge who was notoriously corrupt and had few resources to track down criminals, so the Benders felt safe.
At first, Kate and Ma dress as men and use aliases, but they quickly don’t bother to hide themselves as “Kansas devils” cursed by the nation, because the Denisons don’t care.
In the decades that followed, the Benders were seen throughout the Southwest, in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. They lived on tribal lands, in outlaw camps, in barren gorges and faraway places only daredevils dare. They were always armed with heavy weapons, each carrying a rifle capable of taking down a buffalo.
In Oklahoma, a detective with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency tracks the Bender family into the Wichita Mountains and then disappears, never to be heard from again. A bounty hunter in Texas suffered the same fate, chasing the Bender family to Red River station and then disappearing without a trace.
The Benders were never brought to justice, nor is their ultimate fate known.
This notorious crime family story was written in the book by author Susan Jonusas Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on American Frontier.
Tue Anh (Follow Nypost)