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The Bender Family: Bleeding Kansas One Body At A Time

Kansas was known for violence and bloodshed in its early history. The intense and bloody rivalry between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces earned the territory the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” even before it was granted statehood. Even after conflicts over slavery were a thing of the past, Southeast Kansas in particular was known as a rough and tumble area. One case in early Kansas history rises above all others in terms of being gruesome and bloody.

It is a tale of deception. It is a tale of greed. It is the tale of the mysterious, murdering Bender Family, of Cherryvale.

The Benders, a German family consisting of a mother, father, son, and daughter, settled just northeast of the miniscule town of Cherryvale, Kansas in 1870. They built a small inn for travelers who, while passing through, would need shelter and food for themselves and their horses.

With so many settlers making their way through the relatively young and unsettled state in those days, innkeeping was a lucrative business. But apparently it was not lucrative enough for the Benders. They decided to supplement their income through incredibly treacherous means.

When travelers would enter their home, the Benders would position them at a dinner table with their backs to a canvas curtain. While engaged in conversation, usually with the young and attractive Kate Bender, the unsuspecting traveler would be set upon by one of the two Bender men. He would emerge from behind the curtain with a hammer, raining blows down upon the skull of his victim. Then, all four of the Benders would loot any money and possessions on the victim’s person, would slit his throat and mutilate his body, then would dump him through a trap door into a well-like enclosure beneath their house. Later, under the cover of darkness, the body would be removed and buried in the Benders’ orchard out back.

Soon the Benders craved more victims, and began preying upon the townsfolk of Cherryvale. Kate Bender hung posters in town proclaiming herself “Prof. Miss Katie Bender.” She claimed to have supernatural powers that allowed her to cure blindness, deafness, and other infirmities. She also claimed to possess psychic abilities, including the power to communicate with the dead. When she would rope in those hoping to heal their diseases or contact their deceased loved ones, the Bender men would set upon these hapless victims in their usual manner.

In all, the Benders murdered 11 people. Among them was George Lochner, who was murdered in the usual fashion, as well as his daughter, who in a truly disturbing incident was buried alive with the mutilated corpse of her father by the twisted Bender clan. The Kansas City Times described the discovery of her body:

“The little girl was probably eight years of age, and had long, sunny hair, and some traces of beauty on a countenance that was not yet entirely disfigured by decay. One arm was broken. The breastbone had been driven in. The right knee had been wrenched from its socket, the leg doubled up under the body. Nothing like this sickening series of crimes had ever been recorded in the whole history of the country.”

There were others who in hindsight realized they just narrowly escaped being killed by the Benders. One man, William Pickering, refused to sit with his back to the canvas because it had stains all over it at the height of a seated man’s head. Kate Bender became angry with his protests and threatened him with a knife, at which point he fled the premises. A Catholic priest stopping at the inn told the Benders he had to tend to his horse after he saw one of the male Benders hiding a large hammer in the room out of the corner of his eye. He rode away and later realized how lucky he was.

After the disappearance of a prominent local doctor in 1873, residents began suspecting the Benders of foul play. The Benders, in turn, up and left, literally disappearing overnight. Soon after, eleven shallow graves were discovered in their orchard. The entire nature of the murders was soon uncovered. The Kansas City Times described the initial investigation of the trap door and pit beneath the Benders’ home in the following fashion:

“(The men) groped about over these splotches and held up a handful to the light. The ooze smeared itself over their palms and dribbled through their fingers. It was blood--thick, fetid, clammy, sticking blood--that they had found groping there in the void. Blood perhaps, of some poor, belated traveler who had laid himself down to dream of home and kindred, and who had died while dreaming of his loved ones.”

The Bender murders quickly became national news, and rewards totaling in the thousands of dollars were quickly offered up for their capture. Surprisingly, the fate of the Benders is unknown. Rumors quickly sprung up that a posse captured and hanged all four members of the “family” (who today are believed to have not been related at all.) Apparently this was just conjecture, and no such posse found or killed the murderers. Perhaps because of these sensationalistic and widespread claims, the Benders were able to avoid the long arm of the law. In the early 1880s two females thought to be the Bender women were brought from Illinois to Kansas, but were released after a short period, as it was impossible to prove that they were in fact part of the murderous cadre from years before. Some rumors say that the Benders were killed by other criminals. Simply put, the fate of the Benders remains entirely a mystery.

Today, little remains to remind us of these macabre incidents of Kansas’s past. The inn was destroyed soon after the discovery of the bodies as souvenir hunters combed and dismantled the building. A marker does stand on US 169, near the former site of the inn, which describes the incidents. The marker very accurately proclaims the fate of the Benders as “one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Old West.”

Weird Kansas

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