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The Bloody Benders

October 15, 2011
Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum

The Bender family was from Labetter County, Kansas, settling there in the years of 1870 or 1871. They appeared quietly, not appearing to be anything special, just another immigrant family that had escaped the confines of eastern cities to try their hand out west. Like so many others, they wanted to make new lives and fortunes in the untamed west; however their methods for obtaining such fortunes differed greatly from most of the other homesteaders. The Bender family settled on a plot of land that sat directly on the Osage Mission-Independence Trail. It was the only trail open for travel at that time. They built a one-room cabin between the towns of Thayer and Galesburg. It was not a fancy place. The house was made up of one large room that was divided by a canvas curtain, with the family's living quarters in the back and a small inn and general store in the front. Travelers would stop in to buy provisions, grab a hot meal, or bed down for the night. Some of these travelers would be carrying large amounts of cash or brought horses to trade for supplies or land. It was not long before travelers started turning up missing, along with all their personal possessions.

The family consisted of John Bender, his wife, son and daughter Kate. Old man Bender, his wife and their dull-witted son spoke little to the strangers who passed through. Old man Bender and his raw boned wife were thought to have been immigrants from Germany, but they spoke with such guttural accents that no one could be certain. On the other hand, their beautiful daughter Kate was outgoing, and aggressive. Men were immediately drawn to the tall fair haired beauty, and she became quite a draw for the Bender's establishment. Kate also became well known as a psychic medium, who appeared in a number of small Kansas towns giving public sances and entertaining crowds. She as very popular, especially with the male members of the audience, and some of these men traveled to the Bender's hotel so see her again. They, like many other luckless travelers who passed through, were never seen again.

The danger of dining with the Benders came when seated with your back to the canvas wall. Kate would distract the men by flirting, while John Bender or his son would come from behind the curtain and strike the guest on the skull with a hammer. They would then slit his throat to make sure he was dead, strip his body of money and valuables and then drop the body down a trap door to a pit below the cabin. During the night the bodies were drug out to the orchard behind the house and buried.

This system of murder worked well for 18 months, until when they were visited by Dr. William York. He of course was killed; however he had informed his brother that he would be staying with the Benders. When he never returned home, his brother, Colonel York arrived at the Bender home asking questions. The Benders replied that he might have had trouble with the Indians. Later York spied a locket under one of the beds. He opened it to see the faces of his brother's wife and daughter. York slipped out the front door of the inn, road to the nearest town to notify the authorities. York returned to the Bender property the next morning with the sheriff and local men from town. The Benders, apparently aware that York had disappeared the night before had packed up and left. When they inspected the cellar, they noted that the dirt floor was coated with dried blood. In the orchard they found 11 mounds of oddly shaped earth, several appearing to be fresh. More than two dozen bodies were allegedly found, but how many went undiscovered remains unknown to this day. The Benders were never found, and the case remains one of America's great unsolved mysteries.



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