The Bloody Benders
We’ve talked a lot about killers on Scared Yet, and the only conclusion that we can draw is that they come in all shapes and sizes. The family known as the Benders of Cherryvale teaches us that it is never a good idea to think that you know what a killer looks like or how they do their bloody business.
In 1870, shortly after the American Civil War, the American government had ousted the local Osage nation from their homeland in Kansas. As a result, white pioneer families could come, and the area became known for the spiritualism trade. After the trauma of the Civil War, spiritualism, where mediums supposedly communed with the dead, was a brisk trade. At first, it looked like the Benders had come to take advantage of that.
In 1871, John Bender and his son, John Bender Jr came to put up their homestead. With the population in the area increasing, they decided to start an inn. A year later, Kate “Ma” Bender, John Bender’s wife, and their daughter, Kate, showed up as well.
Neither senior Bender could speak English so well, and they were widely reputed to be unkind, unpleasant folk. John Jr and his sister Kate, however, were quite attractive and social, going to church in the local community. In fairly short order, Kate became known for her medium abilities.
The area of Kansas at that time was known for a great deal of lawlessness. Between continual tensions with the Osage nation and the lack of law enforcement in the area, it was not unheard of for men to travel in the area and disappear. Perhaps this is why it took several years for the Benders to be caught at their work.
A Dr. William Henry York went missing in the area. Ironically, he had been searching for another man at the time of his disappearance. His brothers, one a Civil War veteran and military man, came looking for him, and they brought armed men with them. Suspicion quickly fell on the Benders, who had developed a reputation for hostility in the area.
When the investigation grew to be too intense, the Benders fled, taking most of their possessions and their horses. At first, it looked like a case of xenopobia. The Benders were German in an area that could be hostile to foreigners. Then, however, the York brothers started looking around the property, and what they found would shock them.
A trap door was discovered in the floor. Though it had been nailed shut, it was quickly opened to reveal a dark room underneath that stank of blood. Though the whole house was lifted, no bodies were found. A single day of searching, however, revealed the body of Dr. York, buried face down and with his feet barely covered with soil. His throat had been slashed and the back of his head was caved in as if from a hammer blow.
The next few days of searching brought to light whole bodies and and assorted body parts. The body of one girl, with no signs of injury, was discovered, and the prevalent belief was that she had been strangled or even worse, buried alive.
There were some people who came forth with their own stories. They remembered dining at the Benders’ inn where they would be invited to sit at a chair with a dirty curtain behind it. The younger Kate was quite insistent, but if they refused, they would be abused until they left. One minister remembers feeling a great deal of dread after he started to leave and the two men emerged from behind the curtain carrying hammers.
The Benders would sit their guests at the head of the table. When the guest was distracted by Kate’s talk of spiritualism, the Bender men would strike the guest with a hammer to the back of the head. Presumably after that, one of the Bender women would slit his throat before dropping the body into the pit below.
All told, the Benders murdered some 20 people, though given the area, it might have been much higher. Some of the people they robbed, but some were so obviously poor that an element of thrill killing must have been involved.
Though searches continued for the next few decades, the Benders disappeared completely. Some vigilante groups would claim credit for killing the Benders, but nothing could be verified. One group claimed to have hanged all of them except for the younger Kate, who they burned. Another suggested they had been killed by outlaws.
No matter what their eventual fate, it is clear that the Benders took their murderous intent with them to the grave.