The Bloody Benders
A family of serial killers from Labette County, Kansas from 1871 to 1873. The family comprised John, his wife Elvira, son John Jr and daughter Kate. While Bender mythology states that John Jr and Kate were brother and sister, newspapers reported that several of the family’s neighbours claimed they were married – possibly a common law marriage.
After the American Civil War, the US government moved Osage Indians from Labette County, Kansas to a new ‘Indian Territory’ – the area that would eventually become Oklahoma. Vacant land was then made available to homesteaders and in October 1870, five families of spiritualists moved in and around the township. John Bender Sr and John Bender Jr registered 160 acres (65 hectares) of land adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, which at the time was the only open road for travelling further west. Once the barn (including a corral), cabin and well were completed in autumn 1871, Elvira and Kate arrived and the cabin was split in two with a canvas wagon-cover. They used the smaller room at the back as living quarters, while the front room was converted into a general store to sell a few dry goods. The front section also contained the kitchen and dining table used by travellers, who could stop for a meal or even spend the night. Mother and daughter also planted a two-acre (0.81 hectare) vegetable garden and apple orchard north of the cabin.
John Bender Sr was approximately 60 years old and spoke little English – when he did speak it, it was so guttural that it was totally unintelligible. According to ‘The Emporia News’ on May 23, 1873, he was William Bender. Elvira (55) also allegedly spoke very little English and was so unfriendly that neighbours gave her the nickname ‘she-devil’. John Bender Jr was around 25 years old, handsome with auburn hair and a moustache. Although he spoke English fluently, it was with a German accent and since he was prone to laughing at nothing, many eventually deemed him a half-wit. Kate (23) was cultivated, attractive and spoke English very well – with hardly any accent. A self-proclaimed healer and psychic, she distributed flyers advertising her supernatural powers and her ability to cure illnesses. She also conducted séances and gave lectures on spiritualism and gained notoriety for advocating free love. Her popularity became a large attraction for people to visit Benders’ Inn. The Bender parents kept to themselves and never socialised, but Kate and her brother regularly attended Sunday school in nearby Harmony Grove.
The family were believed to be German immigrants – only the males were born overseas – and they were not actually a family! No documentation or definitive proof of their kinship to each other or where they were born has ever been found. John Bender Sr originated from either Germany or The Netherlands and rumour had it that he had been born John Flickinger. According to newspapers, Elvira was really Almira Hill Mark (sometimes misreported as ‘Meik’) in the Adirondack Mountains. She married a man called Simon Mark and claimed to have had 12 children with him. She subsequently married William Stephen Griffith and although she was suspected of murdering several husbands, nothing was ever proven. Kate was believed to be Elvira’s fifth daughter, born Sarah Eliza Mark. After she married, she was known as Sarah Eliza Davis. According to an inscription in a Bible recovered from the family home, John Jr was actually born John Gebhardt, although no other proof of this identity was ever found.
The body of a man named Jones with his skull crushed and his throat cut was discovered in Drum Creek in May 1871. In February 1872, the bodies of two men were found with the same injuries as Jones. By 1873, reports of missing people who had passed through the area had become so common that travellers began to avoid the trail. The area already had a bad reputation for being riddled with ‘horse thieves and villains’. Vigilance committees often arrested suspects for the disappearances, but they were all later released by authorities. Sadly, many honest men were run out of the county by these committees after being falsely accused.
A man called George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter Mary Ann left Independence, Kansas, in the winter of 1872 to resettle in Iowa and they were never seen again. In early 1873, Longcor’s former neighbour Dr. William Henry York went to search for them, questioning homesteaders along the trail. Dr. York reached Fort Scott, and on March 9 began the return journey to Independence, but mysteriously never arrived home. The doctor’s two brothers Colonel Ed York (living in Fort Scott) and Alexander M York (a member of the Kansas State Senate from Independence) knew of William’s travel plans and when he failed to return home, an extensive search began. Leading a company of some fifty men, Colonel York questioned every traveller along the trail and visited all homesteads in the area.
On March 28, 1873, Colonel York arrived at Benders’ Inn with a ‘Mr Johnson’ and explained that his brother had gone missing. He asked whether the Benders had seen him and even though they admitted the doctor had stayed with them, they suggested that there was a possibility that the good doctor had run into trouble with Indians. His brother agreed that this could be possible and stayed for dinner. However, on April 3, Colonel York returned with armed men to the inn after being told that a woman had recently fled the inn when Elvira Bender threatened her with knives. Elvira said she could not understand English and the younger Benders denied all claims. Elvira became enraged and said the woman was a witch who had cursed her coffee, ordering the men to leave her house, revealing for the first time that ‘her sense of the English language’ was much better than she let on. Before York left, Kate asked him to come back on his own the following Friday night and she would use her clairvoyant abilities to help locate his brother. The men with York were convinced the Benders and a neighbouring family, the Roaches, were guilty and wanted to hang them all, but York insisted on evidence being found.
Around the same time, surrounding communities began to accusations the Osage community of being responsible for the disappearances and a meeting was arranged by the town in the Harmony Grove schoolhouse. Seventy-five locals, including Colonel York and both Bender men attended the meeting. After discussing the disappearances at length (including William York’s) it was agreed that a search warrant be obtained to conduct searches at every home between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Despite York’s strong suspicions regarding the Benders since his earlier visit, no one had been keeping tabs on them, so it was several days before anyone noticed that the family had fled.
Three days after the meeting, Billy Tole was driving cattle past the Bender property when he noticed that the inn was abandoned and the farm animals had not been fed. He immediately reported it to the township trustee, but because of bad weather, it was several days before and investigation could be undertaken. The trustee called for volunteers and several hundred, including Colonel York, turned out to form a search party. When the search party arrived at the inn, they found the cabin empty, stripped of all food, clothing and personal possessions. A bad odour led to a trap door nailed shut, underneath one of the beds. When the trap was finally opened, the empty room underneath (6ft deep and 7ft) revealed a floor full of clotted blood. The stone slab floor was broken up with sledgehammers, but no bodies were found. It was later determined that the smell must have emanated from blood that had soaked into the soil. The men then physically lifted the cabin and moved it to the side so they could dig under, but no bodies were found. They then began to probe the ground around the cabin with a metal rod, especially in the disturbed soil of the vegetable garden and orchard, where Dr York’s body was found later that evening, buried face down with his feet barely below the surface.
The search continued until midnight and another nine suspected gravesites were marked. When the men were satisfied they had found them all, they retired for the night. When excavation resumed the next morning, eight bodies were found in seven of the nine suspected graves. One body was found in the well with a number of dismembered body parts. All but one victim had their heads bashed in with a hammer and their throats cut. It was reported in newspapers that all had been ‘indecently mutilated’. When a body of a young girl was found with no fatal injuries, it was speculated that she had either been strangled or buried alive. A Kansas newspaper reported that the crowd was so incensed after finding the bodies that a friend of the Benders (named Brockman) found amongst the onlookers, was hung from a beam in the inn until unconscious, revived and interrogated to find out what he knew. When he failed to satisfactorily answer, he was hanged again, but after the third unsuccessful hanging, they released him. A Roman Catholic prayer book found in the house contained notes written in German, which were later translated.
The texts read ‘Johannah Bender. Born July 30, 1848’, ‘John Gebhardt came to America on July 1 18??’, ‘big slaughter day, Jan eighth’ and ‘hell departed’.
Word of the murders spread quickly and more than three thousand people, including reporters from New York City and Chicago visited the site. The Bender cabin was destroyed – souvenir hunters took everything, including the bricks that lined the cellar and the stones lining the well. State Senator Alexander York offered a $1 000 ($20 914 as of 2019) reward for the Bender family’s arrest. On May 17, Kansas Governor Thomas A Osborn offered a $2 000 ($41 828 in 2019) reward for the apprehension of all four.
It is assumed that when a guest stayed at the Benders’ bed and breakfast inn, the hosts would offer the guest a seat of honour at the table, conveniently positioned over a trap door that led to the cellar. With the victim’s back to the curtain, Kate would distract the guest and John Sr or Jr would come from behind and strike the right side of the guest’s skull with a hammer. One of the women would then cut the victim’s throat to ensure they were dead. The body was then dropped through the trap door and once in the cellar, it would be stripped for later burial somewhere on the property, more than likely in the orchard. Although some of the victims were quite wealthy, others carried little of value on them, so it was concluded the family had killed people simply for the thrill.
Testimony from people who had stayed at the Benders’ inn and had managed to escape before they could be killed appeared to support the presumed execution method. William Pickering said when he refused to sit near the wagon cloth because it was filthy, he was threatened with a knife by Kate. He fled the premises. A Catholic priest claimed to have seen one of the Bender men concealing a large hammer before he became uncomfortable and quickly departed. Two men who visited the inn to experience Kate’s psychic powers stayed for dinner but refused to sit next to the cloth, choosing to eat their meal at the main shop counter. Kate became abusive and a little later the two Bender men emerged from behind the cloth. It was then that the customers began to feel uneasy and decided to leave – a move that almost certainly spared their lives.
More than a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and sides of the cabin and the media speculated that some victims must have attempted to fight back after being struck with a hammer.
Detectives followed wagon tracks and discovered the Benders’ wagon abandoned – with a team of starving horses and one lame mare, just 12 miles north of the inn. It was confirmed that the family had bought tickets on the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad for Humboldt. At Chanute, John Jr and Kate left the train and caught the MK&T train south to Red River County and from there they travelled to an outlaw colony thought to be in the border region between Texas and New Mexico. They were not pursued because some lawmen who were brave enough to follow outlaws into the region more never returned. One detective later claimed that he had traced the pair to the border, where he discovered that John Jr had apparently died of apoplexy. Ma and Pa Bender reportedly did not leave the train at Humboldt but continued on to Kansas City, where it is rumoured they bought tickets for St Louis, Missouri.
Several vigilantes groups were formed specifically to search for the Benders. One rumour purports that one of these vigilante groups actually caught the Benders and shot all, except Kate, whom they apparently burned alive. Another group claimed they caught the Benders and lynched them before throwing their bodies into the Verdigris River. And yet another group claimed to have killed the Benders during a gunfight and buried their bodies on the prairie. No one ever claimed the $3 000 reward ($62 742 in 2019).
The story of the Benders’ escape spread and the search continued on and off over the next fifty years. More often than not, any two women travelling together were accused of being Kate Bender and her mother Elvira.
In 1884, it was reported that John Flickinger had committed suicide in Lake Michigan. Also in 1884, an elderly man matching Pa Bender’s description was arrested in Montana for a murder committed near Salmon, Idaho, where the victim had been killed by a hammer blow to the head. A message requesting positive identification was sent to Cherryvale, but the suspect severed his foot to escape the leg irons and bled to death. By the time a deputy from Cherryvale arrived, identification was impossible due to decomposition. Despite the lack of identification, the man’s skull was displayed as that of ‘Pa Bender’ in a Salmon saloon until prohibition forced its closure in 1920 and the skull disappeared. Whether John Flickinger was really John Bender is unknown.
Several weeks after the discovery of the bodies, Addison Roach and his son-in-law William Buxton were arrested as accessories. In total twelve men ‘of bad repute in general’ were arrested, including Brockman. All were involved in disposing of victims’ stolen goods – including Mit Cherry, a vigilance committee member, implicated for forging a letter from one of the victims – informing the man’s wife that he had arrived safely at his destination in Illinois. Incredibly Brockman would be arrested again 23 years later for the rape and murder of his own 18-year-old daughter.
On October 31, 1889, it was reported that a Mrs Almira Monroe (aka Mrs Almira Griffith) and Mrs Sarah Eliza Davis had been arrested in Niles, Michigan (sometimes misreported as Detroit) for larceny. They were released after being found not guilty but were immediately rearrested for the Bender murders. According to the ‘Pittsburgh Dispatch’, the daughter of one of the Benders’ victims, Mrs Frances E McCann, had reported the women to authorities in early October after tracking them down. Mrs McCann’s story came from dreams that she had about her father’s murder, which she discussed with Sarah Eliza. The women’s identities were later confirmed by two Osage township witnesses from a tintype photograph. In mid-October, Deputy Sheriff Leroy Dick (the Osage Township trustee who had headed up the search of the Bender property) arrived in Michigan and arrested the pair on October 30, following their release on the larceny charges. Mrs Monroe resisted, declaring she would not be taken alive, but was subdued by local deputies.
Mrs Davis claimed that Mrs Monroe was ‘Ma Bender’ but that she herself was not Kate – she was the sister Sara. She later signed an affidavit to that effect, while Monroe continued to deny the identification and in turn accused Sarah Eliza of being the real Kate Bender. Deputy Sheriff Dick, along with Mrs McCann, escorted both women to Oswego, Kansas, where seven members of a 13-member panel confirmed the identification and committed them for trial. Another of Mrs Monroe’s daughters, Mary Gardei, later provided an affidavit claiming that her mother (then Almira Shearer), under the name of Almira Marks, was actually serving two years in the Detroit House of Corrections in 1872 for the manslaughter of her daughter-in-law Emily Mark. Records of the incarceration support this affidavit. At her hearing, Mrs Monroe denied any knowledge of Shearer or the manslaughter charge and remained incarcerated with Kate. Originally scheduled for February 1890, the trial was held over to May where Mrs Monroe now admitted she had married a Mr. Shearer in 1872. She claimed she had previously denied it because she didn’t want the court to know her name was Shearer at that time or that she had a conviction for manslaughter. Their attorney also produced a marriage certificate indicating that Mrs Davis had been married in Michigan in 1872, the time when several of the murders were committed. Eyewitness testimony was given that Mrs Monroe was Ma Bender, but Judge Calvin dismissed Mary Gardei’s affidavit because she was a ‘chip off the old block’. He found that other affidavits supporting Gardei’s were sufficient proof that the women could never be convicted, however, and he discharged both. Affidavits and other papers are missing from the file in LaBette County, so further examination was impossible. A number of researchers question the ready acceptance of the affidavit’s authenticity and suggest the county was not willing to accept the expense of boarding the two for an extended period. While the pair were certainly criminals and liars, as their own defence attorney admitted, charges were weak and many people still doubted their identification as the Benders.
- May 1871: Mr Jones. Body found in Drum Creek with a crushed skull and throat cut;
- Winter 1871/1872: Two unidentified men found on the prairie in February 1872 with crushed skulls and throats cut;
- 1872: Ben Brown. From Howard County, Kansas. $2 600 (2019: $54 376) missing. Buried in the apple orchard;
- 1872: WF McCrotty. Co D 123rd Ill Infantry. $38 (2019: $795) and a wagon with a team of horses missing;
- December 1872: Henry McKenzie. Relocated to Independence from Hamilton County, Indiana. $36 (2019: $753) and a matched team of horses missing;
- December 1872: Johnny Boyle. From Howard County, Kansas. $10 (2019: $209), a pacing mare and an $850 (2019: $17 777) saddle missing. Found in the Benders’ well;
- December 1872: George Newton Longcor and his 18-month-old daughter, Mary Ann. Newspapers reported his name as either ‘George W. Longcor’ or ‘George Loncher’, while Mary Ann is similarly reported as being either 8 years old or 18 months old. According to the 1870 census, George and his wife, Mary Jane, were neighbours of Charles Ingalls and familyin Independence, while his wife’s parents lived two houses away. Following the deaths of his infant son, Robert (from pneumonia in May 1871) and his 21-year-old wife, Mary Jane (née Gilmore), following the birth of Mary Ann several months later, George was likely returning to the home of his parents Anthony and Mary (Hughes) Longcor in Lee County, Iowa. In preparation for his return to Iowa, George had bought a team of horses from neighbour Dr William Henry York, who later went searching for George and was also murdered; both were veterans of the Civil War. $1 900 (2019: $39 736) missing. The daughter was thought to have been buried alive, but this was never proven. No injuries were found on her body and she was fully clothed, including mittens and hood. Both were buried together in the apple orchard;
- May 1873: Dr William York. $2 000 (2019: $41 828) missing. Buried in the apple orchard;
- ?: John Greary. Buried in the apple orchard;
- ?: Unidentified male. Buried in the apple orchard;
- ?: Unidentified female. Buried in the apple orchard;
- ?: Various body parts. The parts did not belong to any of the other victims found and are believed to belong to at least three additional victims;
- 1873: During the search, the bodies of four unidentified males were found in Drum Creek and surrounds. All four had crushed skulls and throats cut. One might have been Jack Bogart, whose horse was purchased from a friend of the Benders after he went missing in 1872.
By including recovered body parts not matched to bodies found, the finds are speculated to represent the remains of more than 20 victims. With the exception of McKenzie and York, who were buried in Independence; the Longcors, who were buried in Montgomery County; and McCrotty, who was buried in Parsons, Kansas, none of the other bodies were ever claimed and they were reburied at the base of a small hill one mile southeast of the Benders’ orchard, one of several at the location now known as ‘The Benders Mounds’. The search of the cabin resulted in the recovery of three hammers: a shoe hammer, a claw hammer, and a sledgehammer – that appeared to match indentations in some of the skulls. The hammers were donated to the Bender Museum in 1967 by the son of Leroy Dick, the Osage Township trustee who headed the Bender property search. The hammers were displayed at the Bender Museum in Cherryvale, Kansas from 1967 to 1978, until the site was acquired for a fire station. Attempts made to relocate the museum became a point of controversy because some locals objected to the town being known for the family’s murders. The Bender artefacts were eventually donated to the Cherryvale Museum, where they remain in a wall-mounted display case. A knife with a four-inch tapered blade was reportedly found hidden in a mantel clock in the Bender house by Colonel York. In 1923 it was given to the Kansas Museum of History by York’s wife, but is not on display. It still bears reddish-brown stains on the blade and can be seen upon request.
A historical marker describing the Benders’ crimes is located in the rest area at the junction of US Route 400 and US Route 169 north of Cherryvale.
Connection to ‘Little House on the Prairie’
The Ingalls family, made famous in the books and television series ‘Little House on the Prairie’, lived near Independence and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned the Bender family in her writing and speeches. In 1937 she gave a speech at a book fair, which was later transcribed and printed in the September 1978 Saturday Evening Post and in the 1988 book A Little House Sampler. She mentioned stopping at the inn, as well as the rumours of the murders spreading through the community. She alleged that her father ‘Pa Ingalls’ joined a vigilante hunt for the killers and spoke of later searches for them.
“At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality – ‘They will never be found.’ They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.’ Some have cast doubt on the story saying that Laura would have been only four when her family moved away from the area, and that the Benders were exposed in 1873, two years after the Ingallses left.
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