The Bloody Benders of Kansas

The Truth Behind
The Bloody Benders

By Stephanie Roisland

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I touched on the story of the this morbid family a bit in my movie review for Slaughter, rumored to be loosely based on The Benders, also known as "The Bloody Benders". After watching Slaughter, I had to do a piece on the family, and I really enjoyed researching and writing about them. In 1870, the same year the Ingalls family left the Labette county area to move back to Michigan, the Bender family moved in. A handful of families moved to Labette County that year, but two of them left that same year. The families that remained were quiet and stayed to themselves, except the Benders.

The family was of a foreign religion to the Kansas homesteaders living in the area as they were spiritualists, and they were making their mark in the community. They settled near the Great Osage Trail, a trail innumerable people traveled on their way to settle in the west. The family consisted of John Bender "Pa", he made a 160 acre claim in the area, his son John Jr., sometimes referred to as "Thomas", who made a claim on a smaller land parcel that adjoined the family's but he never worked it, (Some neighbors said he was a half-wit and others say it was just a ruse.), Elvira Bender "Ma", and daughter Kate Bender. Ma and Pa were, as far as anyone knew, of German decent and mostly spoke in German. They did in fact know English, but it was so accented that it was almost completely indecipherable.

The family built a one bedroom house for their residence and business. They opened an inn and general store. A curtain divided the home into two areas: the front was the public inn and store, and the back was the living quarters. Often, travelers on the Osage Trail would stop to refresh themselves with rest, food, and water. They were also able to resupply their wagons with water, liquor, tobacco, horse feed, black powder, and other supplies from the Bender store. More often than not, travelers would stay the night.

Daughter Kate was the most outgoing of the Bender family. She often referred to herself as a fortune teller and healer. It was also rumored that Kate was a prostitute. The community was often overheard talking about Kate and Ma being witches and studying witchcraft. An attractive young woman, Kate drew extra business to the Bender place when she was around. More often than not, she could found traveling to spiritualism lectures and holding her own healing services.

It was discovered some time later that none of the members of the family were actually named Bender. As a matter of fact, only two members were even related, Ma and Kate. Pa was born John Flickinger around 1810 in the Netherlands or Germany. John Jr.'s real name was John Gebhart. Ma was born Almira Meik, and her first husband was Mr. Griffith, with whom she bore 12 children. Kate was born as Ma's 5th child and was named Eliza. In fact, Ma was married several times prior to marrying Pa, and every husband Ma had died of a head wound (surprise, surprise). It was said that Ma murdered her oldest three children because they were witnesses to her murdering her husband. It was also stated that John Jr. and Kate may have been married, and neighbors recall them actually being common law to one another.

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Hundreds of men passed through Kansas seeking their fortunes in the west and were never heard from again. In those times it was quite common for adventurers and travelers to be out of reach for some time or to be found dead. So it took a great while for the many disappearances to draw attention to the Labette County area. Over the years, more and more travelers dropped off the radar after passing through the area. Some were found dead, murdered in the area, but no one knew who could be responsible. In 1872, George Loncher and his infant daughter left Independence, Kansas to settle in Iowa after his wife, the child's mother, had passed away. After some time passed and Mr. Loncher never arrived in Iowa, Dr. William York, a close friend of Loncher's, went to seek him out. He followed the Osage trail all the way to Fort Scott questioning people about Mr. Loncher and his daughter. On his way back to Independence, Dr. York himself disappeared.

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That's when the story takes a sinister turn.

Dr. York had two very powerful brothers who were hell bent on finding him, Colonel Ed York and Kansas Senator Alexander York. Colonel York led an investigation to Labette County. They questioned the Bender family because of the accusations made against Ma wherein a women claimed that Mrs. Bender had threatened her with a knife. The investigators held a township meeting at the schoolhouse and voted to search each and every homestead for evidence or any sign of murder. Colonel York and both Bender men were in attendance at the meeting. That night the weather turned, and it was several days before the individual home searches could be done. In the meantime, a neighboring family mentioned that the inn looked empty. The Benders had fled. Two days later, several hundred volunteers went to perform the search, among them was the Colonel. The Benders' wagon was gone, and it looked like they left quickly, taking only a minimal amount of belongings, mostly clothes and food. What the searcher find on the property is chilling. A trap door was located on the families side of the dividing curtain in the inn. It revealed a horrid smelling cellar, empty but covered in human blood. Their cabin was moved from the spot, and the ground was excavated to no avail.

Neighbors recalled that the garden on the property always seemed to be freshly plowed. The investigators then turned their main focus to that garden, working through the night and into the next day. What the volunteers and township uncovered was a heinous act of hate and rage.

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The first body uncovered was that of Dr. York. Seven more bodies were found that night and one the next day. The heads were bashed in and the throats cut, with the exception on Mr. Loncher's infant daughter, who was said to have been buried alive under her dead father. Another child's body was unearthed, she was estimated to be about 8 years olds and was badly mutilated. While only ten bodies were found at the farm, 21 murders have been tied to the Benders. (Imagine how many we aren't aware of and never will be.)

From what investigators can piece together, guests of the inn were persuaded into sitting in the seat of honor, strategically placed against the separating curtain. While eating, the guest was bludgeoned in the head with a hammer from behind, throat slit, and then dropped into the cellar. A Mr. Wetzell recalls his visit once at the inn, he declined to sit in the honor seat at which point Ma became very angry and abusive to him. When he saw the two male Benders appear from behind the curtain, he and his traveling companion left the inn. Mr. William Pickering told an almost parallel story to the investigators.

In all, it is estimated that the Benders only collected about $4,600 from the victims they murdered, but they also acquired a few livestock. News of the crime sent shockwaves through the newspapers and media, drawing much attention from curious people. The Benders' wagon was recovered many miles away, but there was no sign of the family. Eventually, twelve men were arrested for the receiving and selling of the stolen items. Senator York put up a reward of $1,000, and the Governor added another $2,000 for the apprehension of the family. The reward was never claimed. Many vigilante groups laid claim to the murder of the Benders, but no evidence was ever presented to confirm that. A railroad worker testified to seeing the two older Benders boarding a train to Humboldt, and the two younger members board a train to Texas or New Mexico.

Nobody ever discovered what happened to the Benders, but it was rumored that Ma murdered Pa over stolen property not long after they fled. It was also rumored that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884. After 145 years, it is likely that we will never know what truly happened to the Bender family. Their home was disassembled piece by piece and kept as souvenirs by the curious. Nothing remains today of the homestead to show the exact location of the crime. However, people claim you would know if you were in the right location, as the land is haunted by the murdered... The victims of the Bloody Benders.

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Posted by Stephanie Roisland

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