Labette County, Kansas, in 1870 was a rough place. Situated on the Osage Trail, emigrants would pass through it on their way out west. With so many transients, and without the protection of a permanent police force, theft and violent crime were common in this frontier area.
But one family saw an opportunity here — the Benders. Elvira and John Bender, Sr., had immigrated to the United States from Germany several years earlier — both spoke with such thick, guttural accents neighbors could scarcely understand them.
John Sr., known as “Pa Bender,” at 60 years old, was still an imposing figure: six feet tall, his face nearly obscured by his long, scraggly hair and thick beard, only his piercing black eyes showed beneath his bushy eyebrows. People described him as “wild and woolly” and “ape-like.”
Elvira, known as “Ma Bender,” was about 55 years old, heavyset, and was said to rule over the family with an iron fist. Neighbors described her as having “sinister eyes” and being so unfriendly, people called her a “she-devil.” She also claimed to be able to speak with spirits and cast spells on people.
The Benders had two adult children: a son, John, Jr., also known as Thomas, and a daughter, Kate. The two younger Benders were much more social than their parents and attended Sunday school regularly. John Jr. was tall and thin, like his father, but not as imposing. Though he spoke English fluently, he was rumored to be a little slow or “touched” — folks said that whenever he spoke, he “giggled a little.”
Kate, however, was clearly the star of the family. Not only was she a “petite, auburn-haired beauty” — she was particularly outgoing and charismatic, too. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she advertised her services as a medium, spiritual healer, and fortune-teller. This enabled her to travel a bit, giving lectures on spiritualism and hosting seances, which paid her some money. Rumor was that she also worked as a prostitute, though this can’t be confirmed.
It was here in Labette County, just a few miles outside Cherryvale, where the family built a 16-by-24-foot, one-room cabin, divided by a canvas wagon sheet. In the back was their living quarters; in front, they ran an inn and general store where travelers could stop to rest and stock up on supplies before their long trek westward.
In the days before telephones, and before even telegraphs reached much of the country, such travelers were incommunicado once they left the larger cities. Not that they had anyone to send word back to, anyway — a good number of the westward emigrants were single men with no families.
However, some were traveling along the trail with the intention of buying livestock or doing other business before returning home. When they would go missing, their families would search for them.
Such was the case of a number of travelers who had gone missing in the area of Labette County. Those who searched for them could only trace their whereabouts as far as southeast Kansas before they lost all trace of them.
At first the missing people didn’t raise any flags — many travelers lost their lives to disease, exposure, and attacks by Native Americans. But as more and more people began going missing in the area, rumors started flying, and travelers began avoiding the area. By March 1873, it was confirmed that at least 10 people had gone missing in or around Cherryvale.
One of these was Dr. William York. He was a well-connected physician from Independence, Kansas. He had been in the area investigating an earlier disappearance, that of a father and his 7- or 8-year-old daughter with the last name Loncher. The previous winter, the Lonchers had left Independence for Iowa, but were never heard from again. So in the spring of 1873, Dr. York had gone searching for them. He was known to have gotten off the train at Cherryvale, but was never seen or heard from after that.
His two brothers — one, a colonel, and the other, a state senator — went on a crusade to find him. Col. York led the investigation, and, in the course of it, questioned the Benders. They admitted the doctor had visited their inn, but left alive; they convinced the search party that he had probably been attacked by Indians after he left. Kate even attempted to “help” by using her psychic powers to try and locate the doctor.
Meanwhile, the menfolk of Labette County held a community meeting in the school auditorium to address the issue of not only the missing doctor, but all the missing people. Pa and John Jr. were, of course, in attendance. There, it was decided that each and every homestead would be searched until the doctor — or any of the other missing people — was found.
But soon afterwards, a severe storm blew in, delaying the search by several days. After the storm ended and the skies were clear again, one of the Benders’ neighbors spotted their farm animals wandering free, gaunt and unfed. He also noticed the Benders’ inn was deserted. He reported this to one of the town trustees, who organized a search party immediately.
When the search party arrived at the Benders’, they found the place deserted. Their wagon and horses were gone, along with their clothes and other possessions.
Upon entering the cabin, a “sickening stench” greeted the search party, nearly driving them out. Inside, things seemed to be in order. Nothing was out of place; only their bed linens and clothes were gone. However, they did notice a dark stain on the sheet dividing the cabin. Just behind it, they found a trap door in the floor, nailed shut. When they pried the door open, they found a small cellar, the floor drenched in blood.
Appalled, the search party actually lifted the cabin from its foundation to dig beneath the basement. But, other than the blood, they found nothing else.
Until the neighbor pointed out that the Benders’ garden was freshly plowed. As he recalled, their garden was always freshly plowed.
So investigators dug. The first body they discovered, face-down in a grave so shallow his feet were barely covered, was Dr. York. His head had been bashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear.
They continued digging. Eventually they did find the Lonchers, buried in the same hole — and although the daughter had multiple injuries, none of them were severe enough to have killed her. This led to speculation that the girl had been buried alive.
In all, they found the remains of about a dozen people, including a man thrown down a well and dismembered parts of several other victims, on the Benders’ farm as well as in surrounding areas. Each of them (except the girl) had been killed the same way: a blunt force blow to the back of the head, most likely by a hammer, then their throats slit.
Investigators pieced together the evidence, which pointed to a strange, sadistic ritual: a traveler would stop in to rent a room or simply purchase a hot meal. The unsuspecting victim would be ushered into the dining room where Ma Bender would insist they sit at the head of the table, as the guest of honor, their back to the sheet.
At the table, Kate would, in all likelihood, engage the traveler’s attention, perhaps by offering to tell their fortune. While the victim was distracted, Pa or John Jr. would creep up behind them, and from behind the sheet, bash their head in with a hammer. Ma or Kate would then open the trap door and drop their victim’s corpse into the cellar below, where Kate would slit their throat.
The family would then go through the victim’s pockets and belongings, taking anything of value. Later, Pa or John Jr. would bury the body. It’s estimated the family only netted a few thousand dollars and some horses from their grisly enterprise, which suggests that perhaps they killed not so much for profit, but because they enjoyed it. Some believe that they could have been responsible for the deaths of up to 20 people.
Once the details of their MO were published, two other men came forward to confirm that they had had similar experiences at the Benders’ inn. One man said that when he refused to sit at the head of the table, Ma Bender flew into a rage and Kate threatened him with a knife. A Catholic priest said he fled the inn when he saw Pa Bender concealing a hammer.
Predictably, once uncovered, the crimes sparked a media sensation, drawing reporters from all over the country. And it wasn’t just reporters who were drawn to the crime scene — curiosity seekers thronged to the Bender farm as well. One paper estimated that at one point, there were some 3,000 people at the scene. Morbid curiosity-seekers dismantled the Benders’ cabin, piece by piece, taking every board and nail away as souvenirs.
Meanwhile, the Bender family was in the wind. Authorities were able to trace them to the nearby town of Thayer, where they purchased a northbound train ticket to Humboldt. Their horses were found nearby, wandering loose and nearly starved.
Further investigation uncovered that John Jr. and Kate had disembarked at Chanute and then took a train bound for Dennison, Texas — the southernmost stop on the line. It was from this lead that many believe the pair fled either to Indian Country (now Oklahoma) or an outlaw colony on the Texas-New Mexico border.
As for Ma and Pa Bender, they continued northward, possibly to St. Louis.
The surviving York brothers offered a combined reward of $3,000 for the Benders’ capture — but no one could ever claim it. Several women were arrested, each accused of being either Elvira or Kate Bender, but none of them turned out to be the real suspects. Vigilantes, too, claimed to have caught and killed the family, or various members thereof. One group claimed they burned Kate alive as a witch. Another claimed to have lynched the whole family. One hopes these were only wild fables and not the fates of innocent people.
The main problem in finding the family was that everything about them was a lie, including their names. “Pa’s” real name was John Flickinger, and he was born in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands.
“Ma’s” real name was originally Almira Meik, and she had first married a man with the last name Griffith, with whom she had 12 children, including Kate. She married several more times before marrying John, but apparently all of her husbands had coincidentally died of head wounds — as did three of her older children.
Kate was actually named Eliza Griffith, but at one point went by the name Sara Eliza Davis. John Bender, Jr.’s real name was John Gebhardt, and according to people who knew them before they settled in Labette County, he was Kate’s husband, not her brother.
Some believe that after they fled, Elvira murdered John as she had her other husbands; others believe he committed suicide.
Nothing now remains of the Bender cabin other than a historical marker (the only such marker commemorating a serial killing). Legend has it that the site is haunted, the moans of the dead echoing up from the spot where the bloody cellar once was. Many experts believe there are still undiscovered graves on the property. But since it’s in private hands being cultivated as farmland, no investigations or tests are forthcoming.
In 1961, the Bender Museum was opened in Cherryvale, complete with a replica of their cabin and three of the Benders’ hammers. In its first three days, over 2,000 people visited the macabre museum, and it remained a popular, if controversial, tourist destination until it closed in 1978. Its artifacts were moved into the Cherryvale Historical Museum, where they can still be seen today.
Note: much of the research in this article came from the Legends of America website.