Apr 25

The Bloody Benders: A True Tale Told

The Bloody Benders

The Bloody Benders. From left, John Sr./”Pa”, “Ma”, John Jr., Kate. From The Benders of Kansas by John Towner, Kan-Okla Publishing, Wichita, KS, 1913, reprinted 1995.

The tale I am about to tell you is completely true, to the best of my knowledge. I learned about it as a young child. Some of you probably know this story, some don’t. Here it is: the story of the Bloody Benders.

In the early 1870s, a commonly used trail (part of a larger system that led west) linked present day Independence, KS, to Ft. Scott, KS. Just off that trail, a family settled in a cabin on 65 acres. The father and mother, “Pa” and “Ma” Bender, spoke mostly German and were not particularly friendly. They had two adult children who were more integrated into the community. The son John, in his mid-20s, was social, though thought by some to be a halfwit. Daughter Kate, a young, attractive woman, conducted seances, gave lectures on spiritism, and performed healings. The Benders ran a small inn out of their home where travelers from the area or passing through could stop for a meal or even a night’s rest before continuing on their way, and word of Kate’s various charms proved a successful lure to those travelers. The cabin/inn was a simple one-room affair divided in half by a curtain, the dining table being quite near the curtain. Travel was fairly robust through the area, and the Benders had many visitors.

For a while, anyway.

Between 1871 and 1872, three bodies were found in the area. Each had a crushed skull and a slit throat. Those were the only corpses found at the time, but by 1873, so many disappearances had been reported that some travelers avoided the trail. Still, many people continued to use it, some eventually arriving at their destinations, and some … not. There is no way to know how long this might have continued but for the 1873 disappearance of a prominent citizen of the area, Dr. William Henry York. (He’d actually been searching for a missing neighbor himself at the time.)

Dr. York had two brothers. One, Ed, was an Army colonel living in Ft. Scott, and the other, Alexander, was a Kansas senator. Both knew of the doctor’s plans. When Dr. York failed to reappear as scheduled, the brothers initiated a search. Colonel York actually led the efforts himself. When he came to the area and began to investigate, he learned of all the other disappearances over the previous several years. He and some others canvassed the area, going door to door asking after his brother. When he reached the Bender farmstead, he was told that yes, Dr. York had stopped into the inn while he was traveling but had gone on. The Benders suggested perhaps Indians were to blame for his disappearance. York, along with others, was suspicious of the Benders but insisted that evidence must be found before taking action.

Shortly thereafter, a town meeting was convened to discuss the disappearances. Colonel York was there, as were 75 others, including Pa and John Bender. The town leaders decided that a search warrant would be obtained and executed on all area homesteads.

Several days after the meeting, a local man driving cattle past the Bender homestead noticed that it appeared to be abandoned. He reported it, but because of bad weather, several days passed before the apparent abandonment could be investigated. When it finally was, the search party found that the Benders had indeed moved on, taking food, clothing, and personal possessions, but leaving behind their livestock–and a horrible odor emanating from a trap door. When they managed to open the trap door, which had been nailed shut, they found no bodies. The source of the stench was a great deal of clotted blood.

That day, the searchers broke up the stone floor of the cabin with sledgehammers, physically moved the cabin itself, and searched beneath it. They found nothing, so they decided to search the property. On the grounds, they found one body—Dr. York’s—and nine suspected graves. The next day, in those graves and down the well, they found nine more bodies (one a young girl), plus body parts. All except the young girl had skull fractures and slit throats. The young girl was likely either strangled or buried alive. (My guess: buried alive.)

The generally accepted theory is that victims were given a seat of honor at the table, a seat that just happened to be in front of the curtain. Either Pa or John Bender would, during the course of the meal, strike the guest in the head with a hammer or something similar from behind the curtain, and they would then dump the corpse (or not quite corpse) through the trap doorway, where someone, possibly Kate, would slit his throat to ensure his demise—hence all the blood in the cellar. They would then retrieve all the victim’s valuables and later bury him on the property.

Others in the area were eventually arrested for being complicit in the schemes, including helping the Benders (probably not a family at all, as it turns out) sell the victims’ property, but the Bloody Benders themselves? They were never found.

I hope you enjoyed this charming little story. It’s a bit different from my usual, but sometimes a change is good for the blood. If you did find it interesting, it might interest you to know that my friend Ron is working on a fictional SF treatment of it. Historical speculative novel based on the Bloody Benders. Cool, eh? I think so.

Edit: Turns out there is possibly an unintentional bit of truthiness to this. It seems that brother Ed York may or may not have been an Army colonel. And he may or may not have been the brother that led the search effort. But he was definitely a brother. And his name was definitely Ed. Thanks, Ron, for anti-clearing that up for me.


  1. Cynder

    I remember this story and learning about it from the old highway marker when visiting my grandparents. 1873 being so similar to 1973 and not yet grasping the concept of centuries and time, I always looked at the homes on the hill just up from the highway marker and wondered why, if they know all this, haven’t they been arrested.

    1. Evelyn Stice

      Oh Cynder. You are my people.

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