Live-Read: Bloody Benders

Editor's Note: This was previously posted on Twitter on July 2022. (I think.)

Do y'all remember my #PrairieFires live-read tweets?

There was mention of a prairie serial-killing family who was contemporary to Laura Ingalls Wilder's time period, the "Bloody Benders". Laura and her family almost certainly never met the Benders, but her daughter Rose kept pushing her to include them in her Prairie books until Rose seemed to gaslight Laura into believing that Pa met them. There's now a book about the Benders out by a crime author I like, called Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie. I am trying to read it (I'm still having trouble with my eyes) and it is a TRIP.

Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie by Harold Schechter

Back when the US government stole land from the Osage Nation and parceled it out to white people to settle via the 1862 Homestead Act in Kansas, a family called the Benders took a parcel of land located close to the main road from Fort Scott to Independence to open an inn. Because of the way the land was parceled out, they were neighbors to the local trading post but still miles away from anything resembling "other humans". So you have to understand that this "inn" wasn't inside a town. It was a solitary building sitting on the prairie.

This "inn" didn't have quaint things like multiple floors and guest rooms and such, unlike whatever Dodge City saloon hall you might imagine. It was a 16x24 foot rectangle with a cellar. That had a trapdoor. The trapdoor will be important later.

The best and most frustrating thing about researching the Benders is that NO ONE AGREES ON ANYTHING ABOUT THEM. The mom may have been named Kate or Elvira (REALLY). The dad might have been John or William. Their son may not have been related to the family at all. Their daughter was either hotter than hot or uglier than sin, but no one could agree which one it was.

Here's a great quote: "You may read that she was “a large, masculine red-faced woman”; that she was a rather good-looking red-haired girl; or that she was a siren of such extraordinary charms that one has to call on every famous beauty, from Cleopatra to [Lily] Langtry". We pause to process our complete and total surprise that contemporary writers were obsessed with the daughter, Katie, and whether she was the prettiest woman who ever lived or the ugliest.

She and her mother were said to have given themselves to the Devil, so that's fun.

Katie liked to style herself as "Professor Miss Katie Bender" in printed handbills that she distributed throughout the region advertising her faith-healing abilities. She also conducted seances, told fortunes, and sold love charms. Very side-hustle. [TW: Hypothetical Incest, Infant Death] She may or may not have had a sexual relationship with the man who may or may not have been her brother and they may or may not have gotten rid of several infants they had together, but this is all very much speculation and NO ONE KNOWS.

(Kissmate is reading aloud to me, which helps with my eye-strain, but he also has to pause every few sentences to say "wait WHAT" so that's fun, lol.)

ANYWAY, the 16x24 building was basically cut in half with a curtain. The front half had a "grocery" with a small stock of canned goods, coffee, and tobacco for visitors to buy. The rear was their kitchen and bedroom where all four adults slept. The kitchen was important because it had a table and two benches, one of which was backed right up against the curtain. (SO SOMEONE CAN SNEAK UP ON YOU WHILE YOU EAT? YES, WE'RE GETTING THERE.) Inn-guests got a straw pallet next to the family to cuddle up. Cozy!

Guests to the Bender's home noticed a terrible stench coming up from the floor plus a lot of flies swarming around the floor. That's probably nothing! One girl who visited for a seance was a little startled when the Benders cornered her in the kitchen with an axe; she ran for her life (she claimed they shot at her with a gun when she fled!) and quickly moved to Nebraska with her husband. Without telling anyone what happened. As one does.

Confirmed kill count so far: 0

A month later, two boys found a dead body near the Bender's land--a local stonemason who'd gone missing when he was on his way to Independence. The money he'd taken with him was gone, but there were wagon tracks nearby matching the Bender's peculiar wagon. (Their wagon wheels were set up in a strange manner that made their tracks very recognizable. This, too, will be important later. The wagon's rear axle was significantly wider than the front one. Unclear whether this was a stylistic choice or something they'd jury-rigged together like the rest of their building projects.)

Kill Count: 1

During a blizzard, a Mrs. Leroy Dick saw the Bender men traveling away from their home in their wagon, which is a very odd thing to do during a prairie blizzard. Following a winter thaw, the bodies of two dead men were found on the prairie, killed in the same way as the last dead guy, and dumped around where the Benders had been driving. Very suspicious!

Kill Count: 3

Over the next year, 9 men traveling through the Bender's county went missing.

Kill Count: definitely probably 12!

These missing persons were big news! Papers were upset about how dangerous the roads were! There was a lot of ink spilled about highway bandits and robbers! The book doesn't say, but I am certain that lots of white people probably blamed Native Americans!

Leroy Dick--ah, you didn't think we'd hear from the Mrs. and her husband again, did you?--received no fewer than SIX anguished letters from family relations asking where their sons, husbands, etc. had disappeared to. One of the missing men had a newborn baby daughter with him, as he was leaving the territory after his wife died in childbirth. Um. I'm pretty sure that's not going in a happy direction so let us hang a big TRIGGER WARNING: BABY DEATH on this thread from here on out, ok?

A friend of the missing widower tried to retrace his buddy's steps and found: starving horses hitched to an empty wagon. He took the horses safely into custody and continued on his search. At his last known stop, he said his next step was to stay overnight at the Benders. Uh oh. UPDATE: THAT GUY IS NOW MISSING TOO.

Kill Count: The last 12 guys + this 1 guy + the baby I didn't count earlier because she was a surprise = 14.

Missing Guy's Missing Friend has a Brother who is now going to retrace HIS steps. This is like a fairy tale wherein people keep falling into the same pit. However, THIS guy is a lawyer AND a colonel AND a newspaper founder AND a state senator! That is a lot of hats to wear! His name is Alexander York which I am going to include here, despite my desire to keep my live-reads sparse on names, because I feel like that many hats means this guy will be important. So: Everyone, meet Colonel York.

York pulls together a search party to scour the prairie for his missing brother. They narrow down that his last known location was the Bender inn. The Benders recalled that the missing guy had stopped by, bought some supplies, and ridden on. Maybe he was killed by outlaws? When this vague outlaw "lead" didn't pan out, Katie offered to go into a trance to communicate with the missing brother. She announced that the spirits couldn't assist because there were "too many unbelievers present". The colonel needed to come back tomorrow, alone. KATIE, I DON'T THINK THIS IS GOING TO WORK.

Colonel York leaves with his search party and doesn't return the next day. Unclear at this time whether he smelled a rat or just didn't believe in spiritualism. Either way, wise choice! You avoided the pit, York! There are now 11 unexplained missing men in the county. (Kill count: 15? It's unclear how many of the 11 have already been counted.) Seventy-five men of the county, including the two Bender men, meet to discuss this! The Benders did not have any suggestions regarding this rash of missing men. Fast forward a week later and a guy finds an abandoned wagon. Again, two half-starved horses were still hitched to the wagon. The horses (and a hungry dog) were saved and taken back to town.

Prairie CSI went over the wagon and determined that it was the Bender's wagon. BUT. There is an important detail that I missed just now. Remember that town meeting? The non-Bender men resolved to search EVERY HOUSE in the county to, I guess, see if anything was amiss. So it would seem that the Benders had a good reason to get out of town. The wagon had been abandoned after breaking down, so did they go from there on foot or did they have another ride? We don't know yet! Because instead it's time to: SEARCH THE CRIME SCENE.

A neighbor notices that the Bender Inn doesn't look right. The cows and such are just wandering around loose and hungry. He notifies Leroy Dick and Colonel York, who bring a search party to check the place out. The house is completely in order. Some clothes are missing, but all the food and store supplies are still on the shelves. But they find 3 hammers (previous bodies were found with their heads smashed in) and a German Bible wherein someone had recorded "cryptic dates".

Penciled inside the Bible cover were:
- birth and death dates of family members
- several recent dates
- these accompanied by the phrase "Slagh Day"

The Benders were German. I'm not sure if that would transliterate to "Slay"? The search party found the indoor air to be heavy and fetid. They found the trapdoor and opened it, and the scent was so foul that everyone had to run outside. York--who doesn't do anything by halves--suggested that the entire house be pried apart and the floor taken up.The entire cellar floor slab was coated with blood. Under the slab the ground was saturated with gore. Looking for bodies, they checked the orchard and found graves. York quickly found his missing brother--dead and buried.

Ah, this seems important:

@McNutcase. "Schlag" is German for "hit" as in hit with a hammer...

The search party non-fatally hanged the nearest neighbor who ran a trading post on the grounds that he must've known what the Benders were up to. The newspapers were shocked and outraged given that the man had an impeccable reputation and was clearly innocent, although that "clear innocence" is a little in question given that he was convicted 23 years later of the torture and first-degree murder of his teenage daughter, so it's unclear what the hell was going on with that guy! (His name was Rudolph Brockman, if you want to research him more.)

A second neighbor--this one definitely innocent--was also non-fatally hanged a few times in search of a confession that led nowhere. This is why vigilante mobs are notoriously bad at the whole "justice" thing. They wanted someone to blame and focused on nearby bystanders. INCIDENTALLY, this is the search party that Laura was eventually convinced to say her Pa was a part of, so it's actually a rare moral point in his favor that he wasn't present at the time.

[TW: Child Death, Mutilation, Torture] More digging uncovers eight more bodies (9 so far!) including the missing widower and his baby daughter. The men are all naked and (confusingly?) castrated. The baby had been buried alive with her father. Note: The Benders are still missing at this point!

We're going to do a calm CSI-style chapter. The Benders' methods seemed to be: when a single isolated traveler who looked like he might have money came through, they sat him at the table with his back to the curtain. They'd sneak up behind the curtain, crack his head with a hammer, and then dump him into the cellar through the trapdoor. From there, he was stripped of his goods and clothes, then they cut his neck in order to drain him. If the ground wasn't frozen, they'd bury him in the orchard; if it was winter and they couldn't dig the frozen earth, then he'd be carried off in the wagon and dumped in the creek.

The best motive anyone could figure out at this point was robbery, but several of the victims had very little money on them and seem to just have been killed for the fun of it. Society didn't have a "serial killer" designation at that time, but that's the best word we have for them now.

Back to history: The entire nation's newspapers go nuts with delight at having something lurid to write about. They compare the events to Edgar Allen Poe's short stories and reach for the gothic in order to convey the facts. The papers then quickly begin to make up new details, speculating on a Satanic cult.

The Bender farm is *instantly* turned into a tourist attraction, with people flocking in to see the site. They have to walk for miles or hire a wagon, but there's still HUNDREDS of visitors wanting to see the graves. They are literally walking all over evidence and taking shingles and stones as souvenirs! WHY ARE PEOPLE. The town has to intervene to bury the victims, but not before people have robbed the dead of their hair. Within a WEEK the entire site has been picked clean. ONE WEEK. Everything, even the timbers of the house, are gone. The only thing left are the holes where the cellar and graves had been. That's how long it took tourists to pick the place clean. Tourists that had to come by wagon! Not, like, neighbors!

Kissmate is horrified. I'm reminded of the conversations we've been having about modern True Crime fans? Not ALL of them, of course, but the ones that go way too far and hamper ongoing investigations? Because there's this very odd human desire to be a part of these stories? I'm remembering how when that one guy went missing after his girlfriend turned up dead, there were people who flew out to Florida to walk around on his parents' lawn and harass them and it was all way too much and I was afraid someone would get killed. There's this need some people seem to have that drives them to become part of a story that isn't theirs to be part of, or to memorialize it as "theirs" in some way due to their intense interest, and it's very strange and maybe unhealthy? Those poor victims of the Benders should not have been desecrated like that.

Speaking of, now dozens of witnesses come forward to tell the story of their Close Encounters with the Benders and how they survived against all odds. One man claimed to have visited Katie for her faith-healing powers. He and his buddy refused to eat with their backs to the "killing screen" and instead ate standing up and were after able to escape. A second witness, a priest, was unnerved by the way Pa Bender kept walking around the house with a heavy hammer in his hands. Remembering the strange missing persons reports in the area, the priest went to go "check on his horses" and drove away as fast as possible.

Another man caught Pa Bender sneaking up on him with a hammer. This one *drew his gun* and Pa dropped to the floor and claimed to be fixing a "loose floorboard". Ballsy McSurvivesalot walked straight out and drove off. A fourth man was passing through the grocery store and heard "gurgling noises" under the house. He asked about it and Pa yelled at him while Katie tried to coax him to "stay for lunch". He wisely lit out of there.

Assuming these are true--and I feel a lot of them are!--it becomes increasingly clear that a lot of people felt there was a bad vibe going on at the Bender Inn and just didn't know what to DO about it. The only "law" in the area seems to have been Leroy Dick, a township trustee. Like, I'm sure there were a lot of fake stories too! But these aren't very lurid if they're fake. You want a fake story to have, like, a stretching hand reaching out to you! Not "I heard a weird noise and left".

That said, this observation is hilarious: "the editor of the Kansas Democrat couldn’t help noting how “remarkable” it was that “every man who has visited that portion of Kansas in the last year has taken dinner at the Benders. Of course they all had narrow escapes.”

Note: The Benders are still missing!

Authorities put out their names, possible aliases, and descriptions along with a reward of $500 for the capture of each of them. Colonel York also puts up his own money and investigators. A lot of Civil War veterans get involved and nobody finds anything useful. For several years, the newspapers speculate that every elderly couple or random stranger taken into custody is a FUGITIVE BENDER, but no.

Love this line: "The notorious clan was spotted in so many places—including Paris—that headlines began referring to them as “The Ubiquitous Benders.”" You can see why Laura was under so much pressure from Rose to include the Benders in her prairie fiction: they were THE celebrated murder family of the time and Rose loved chasing lurid headlines. Ironically, I think if Laura HAD included them it would have greatly dated the books in a bad way.

SOME YEARS LATER, a woman becomes convinced that her friend (I think? This part is very unclear.) is actually her aunt and also Katie Bender. This is evidenced by the friend telling her strange stories about cellars and murders in Canada. (Which is not Kansas! This part does not make a lot of sense!)

Nevertheless, Leroy Dick is brought out to look at the supposed Katie Bender and her mother, thought to be Ma Bender. No one is sure where the male Benders are, but the two women are taken into custody and brought to Kansas. Everyone who sees them identifies them as "definitely Katie and Ma" even though it's been 16 years since anyone saw them. Somehow in this time Ma was supposed to give birth to a girl who then grew up and gave birth to this niece who is now an adult. (How?? Maybe the niece, Frances McCann, was supposed to have been adopted?) Anyway, it *sounds* like these two women being put on trial as "Ma" and "Katie" are either very confused OR serial killers of a totally different Canadian family that also had a kill-cellar but with more daughters. Bloody Benders, but an all-girl cast reboot, like Ghostbusters.

The trial defense pointed out that several of the neighbors did NOT recognize the women as Katie and Ma. So basically we're just pitting 16-year-old memories against each other. The "Ma" woman plausibly testifies that she's someone else entirely and was being held in prison (for an abortion!) during the Bender murders. Seems plausible! The "Katie" woman insists that she's not Katie Bender. Her attorney apparently doesn't ask about all the cellar murders she told Frances about. Wise attorneying, but I confess to wondering about it!

This is apparently a preliminary hearing to decide whether these even are the Benders. The presiding justices decide that the women probably are the Benders. The attorneys see the writing on the wall that if this goes to trial they will lose, and instead hire detectives to prove that the women weren't in Kansas during the murders. Very smart attorneys!

Public sentiment turns slowly towards the women in their favor when it becomes known that the accuser--the alleged niece, Frances McCann--was guided in her accusations by her own dreams. There is also the matter of the reward money that she is keen on collecting. Then the defense's private investigators come back with proof that the two women were nowhere near Kansas and are who they say they are. And this is why you should always hire a good defense attorney.

The prosecutor dropped the charges and the two women were set free. They were penniless, so the county sent them home at taxpayer expense (yay!) and the attorneys and their PIs were apparently not paid (boo!) but here's hoping it fleshed out their resumes nicely? I guess?

Note: The Benders continue to be missing!

People speculate whether they have, perhaps, been found and killed by vigilantes. There are eye-witness accounts of people present at the deaths! All of the accounts are contradictory as fuck! Laura Ingalls Wilder comes back into play with her tale about Pa Ingalls being part of the posse that killed the Benders, with the author noting that this is flatly impossible and therefore either Laura lied or confused herself. It's honestly very frustrating to me that Laura was believed for decades until someone thought to CHECK. THE. DATES.

Note: The Benders are still missing!

And that's the end of the book. Nobody has any idea what happened to the Benders and if someone is telling the truth about having killed them, they haven't provided proof. It is possible the Benders are still out there as vampires. Who knows! Note: If you are one of the four Bloody Benders, you are morally obligated to tell someone and give yourself up to the authorities. Thank you!