ave you ever heard of a serial killer family? The Bloody Benders were the first in the United States. Over a century later, you can still find them in books, TV, and on the big screen – people never get tired of their story!
It was the 1870s. There were four Benders in the immediate family. “Pa” or John Sr. spoke with a heavy accent. He was probably born in Germany or the Netherlands. In 1870 he put in a claim on land previously occupied by the Osage Indians. The Indians had been “evicted” from their ancestral home and relocated to an area now known as Oklahoma. Pa settled his family adjacent to the Osage Trail – later known as The Santa Fe Trail.
“Ma” Bender supposedly spoke no English – although some claimed she was born Almira Meik, in the Adirondack Mountains. Ma and Pa were known to speak mostly German. Ma was wedded multiple times – remarrying after each husband mysteriously died of head trauma. She had 12 children with her first husband but it’s not clear how many children she had after that.
The Bender children were adults – John Jr and Kate. John Jr was strange, often bursting into inappropriate laughter; possibly mentally impaired. There were ongoing questions as to whether John Jr and young Kate were siblings, living together as husband and wife, or both.
Three of the Benders were homely and difficult to deal with. Kate was the exception. She was intelligent, vivacious and attractive – popular for selling her services as a Medium, Clairvoyant, and Healer. She was invited to give guest lectures that were quite successful.
In the 1870s, The Osage or Santa Fe Trail was the only road connecting Kansas to the West. Many travelers passed by. The Benders built a cabin and hung a canvas wagon cover to divide the interior into two sections. Outside, they planted a vegetable garden and an apple orchard. It was the perfect spot for an Inn and store – inviting people to stop by on their journey heading west – providing food, beds, and traveling supplies. The Benders made sure it looked like a nice place to sit down for a friendly family meal with good company – maybe even a reading by beautiful Kate.
Then strange things began to happen.
People on the Trail were disappearing in unusually high numbers. Back then, communication between civilization and the Wild West was difficult; travel was hard and dangerous, so when people lost contact not much was made of it.
Dr. William York disappeared. He had gone looking for a neighbor who had vanished, along with his young daughter, while relocating to Iowa after the death of his wife. Dr. York’s brother, Colonel Ed York, traveled west along the Trail to find his brother. The Benders admitted that Dr. York had stayed at their Inn and suggested that the Osage Indians had attacked him after he left.
The Colonel was suspicious. He left and returned several weeks later with armed men and a search warrant. The Benders were gone.
The Colonel and his men searched the homestead, uncovering a horrific story. Inside the Inn, behind the canvas curtain – the private family quarters – was a trapdoor. There was a terrible stench so the trapdoor was opened, revealing a large pit with ugly clumps of rancid clotted blood. They dug up the softened ground in the vegetable garden and apple orchard and found multiple graves, including one that contained the body of a young girl. She didn’t have any obvious injuries so they concluded that she was buried alive. Was she Dr. York’s neighbor?
The placement of the pit, the graves, the furnishings of the room, and the canvas curtain told a bloodcurdling story. The unsuspecting traveler would be seated at the table with his back to the curtain while a family member sneaked up from behind. The victim was clubbed on the back of the head, throat slashed, and the body dumped into the pit.
A total of 7-12 intact bodies were found, along with enough body parts scattered around the property to suggest at least 20 murders. Among them were the remains of Dr. William York.
Where did the Benders go? The case went cold. There were several theories – John Jr and Kate escaped to the north in a series of short train trips, moving from city to city until they reunited with Ma and Pa who had fled in a different direction. Another story claimed they were executed by a posse, but no one ever came forth to collect the reward that was being offered. On one occasion, two women were arrested on suspicion of being Ma and Kate and sent to Kansas for a trial that never took place. They were eventually released. In 1912, an elderly man reported that his neighbor had confessed to him, before she died, that she was Kate Bender.
Who knows? It’s hard to imagine that four psychopathic murderers didn’t continue killing after leaving their homestead.
Today, the Bender homestead no longer exists. The Benders were a media sensation and the site drew thousands of newsmen and sightseers. They carried off so many pieces of the house and grounds, right down to the building’s stones that it completely disappeared. Now there’s only a museum reproduction of the homestead.
If you think psychopathy has a genetic basis – where are Ma Bender’s descendants today?