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Serial Killers

       October 05, 2013 4:19 PM

 The Butchers of Kansas


In 1870, much of the American "Wild West” remained unsettled. Seeking a better life, pioneers traveled west in horse-drawn wagons, but they faced many hardships.

Some were ambushed and killed by robbers or Indians. Towns were few and far between. The treeless windswept Kansas prairie was particularly harsh: extreme summer heat, frigid winters, disease and grasshopper plagues.

Imagine their relief when they came to the Bender Inn. Seated outside was Kate Bender, 23, a slender fair-haired beauty. Flashing her winsome smile, she urged them to stay overnight.

The travelers, most of them male, believed it would be safe to eat a hot meal and stay the night. Instead of a safe haven, many fell victim to America's first serial killers. In all, the Bloody Benders may have killed 21 people.

Who were the Benders?

In 1870, five years after the Civil War ended, the US government forced the Osage Indians out of Labette County, Kansas, and opened the land to homesteaders. In October 1870, John Bender registered 160 acres of land in western Labette County. The tract was adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, the only road available for traveling farther west.

John (Pa) Bender Sr., age 60, was a giant of a man, big-boned with broad shoulders, huge hands and powerful arms. His unkempt beard and long scraggly hair concealed a heavy jaw, high cheek bones and a swarthy complexion. Beneath bushy brows, his eyes were black and piercing.

Described as "a wild and woolly man,” he had come to America from Germany. Some say he was born John Flickinger, but no proof of this exists. He seldom spoke, then in German, sprinkled with English expletives.

Ma Bender, 55, was so unfriendly her neighbors called her a "she-devil." Like her husband, she rarely spoke. Stooped and heavy-set, Ma wore her iron-gray hair in a bun. Her steel-gray eyes were forbidding, and she had a vicious disposition. The men in the Bender household feared her.

News accounts after the grisly murders reported that she was born Almira Hill in the Adirondack Mountains. She married George Griffith as a teenager and bore him a dozen children. After the last child was born George died. Death records indicated that his head had a dent in it, as though it might have been hit with a hammer. Ma Bender went on to marry other men; some say she killed three of her older children so they couldn’t testify against her about the deaths of her husbands.

The Femme Fatale

A welcome contrast to the elder Benders, Kate Bender, 23, was popular with men who lived and traveled on that barren Kansas prairie. A slender five-foot-six, with full red lips, she flashed her winsome smile at them. She spoke fluent English with a slight accent which added to her charms.

Her coppery auburn hair glinted red-gold in the sunlight, a silky crown for her lovely face. Men described her as "beautiful and voluptuous with a tigerish grace” or, tellingly, "strikingly beautiful, but satanic.”

For a time she worked as a waitress at a hotel in nearby Cherryvale. Rumor had it that some men paid her for sex. But Kate had bigger ambitions. A self-proclaimed healer and psychic, she put up flyers advertising her supernatural powers and her ability to cure illnesses.

A glib talker, she conducted séances, gave lectures, and gained notoriety for advocating free love. Kate was a big draw for the Bender Inn. For a generous donation, she read palms, told fortunes and cast spells upon evil women.

Kate and Ma Bender were the only two in the Bender "family” who were actually related. Kate was the fifth child of Almira Griffin (Ma Bender). Christened Eliza, she was called "Kate,” and after Ma’s later marriage, Sara Eliza Davis.

The Femme Fatale's Lover

The man known as John Bender Jr. was not the son of Pa Bender. An inscription in a Bible found in the Bender home said he was born John Gebhardt but no proof of this or his place of birth were ever found.

John, 25, was tall and handsome with a ruddy complexion and auburn hair. Set close together, his eyes were grayish brown. He wore a mustache but no beard. He had a habit of laughing at odd moments, which led some to call him a "half-wit.” Others believed this was a ruse to conceal his "clever nature.”

Like Kate, John spoke English fluently, but with a German accent. Although the elder Benders kept to themselves, Kate and John attended Sunday school in nearby Harmony Grove and were well received the community. Kate took singing lessons from Leroy Dick, an elected township official.

John probably joined the Bender family because of his infatuation with Kate. He and his alleged "sister” had an ongoing relationship, and not as siblings. In fact, whenever Kate had a baby, they killed the infant with a blow to the head.

The Bloody Bender Inn

In October 1870, Pa Bender and John bought a load of rocks from a neighbor, including a huge rock seven feet square and three inches thick to use for the floor of a cellar under their home. They built the 16 x 24 foot shell of the cabin, and a three-sided stone and sod barn with a corral. The only water supply was Big Hill Creek, two miles away, so they dug two wells.

Seven months later, the town of Cherryvale was established seven miles away. In the fall of 1871, the two men sent for Ma Bender and Kate. Ma and Kate took a train to Ottawa, Kansas, 108 miles north of the Bender homestead. They bought furniture and supplies and loaded them into a large Army surplus wagon for the trip to the Bender homestead.

Using the canvas wagon cover, the Benders divided the cabin into two rooms. They used the smaller room in the rear for living quarters. The front room became a "general store" where dry goods were sold.  Photo at left taken the day after the bodies were discovered.

Kate placed a crudely lettered sign "Groceries" above the front door. Surrounded by the desolate prairie, the Benders operated their inn between the winter of 1871 and the spring of 1873. A scant 100 yards from the Great Osage Trail, it seemed like the perfect resting spot for unsuspecting travelers. Near the cabin, Kate and Ma planted a vegetable garden and apple trees in an orchard. This provided an excuse for the digging necessary to dispose of the bodies.

A Slaughterhouse for Travelers

When a weary traveler approached, Kate, seated in front of the inn, would ask where he was going. If it was nearing sundown, she would say it was impossible to reach his destination before nightfall and suggest he spend the night with them. Sketch at left depicts the crime setup.

The Benders were careful to select travelers with no connection to nearby families. Many carried large amounts of money, which they needed to buy land, machinery, cattle, horses and supplies. Since most were traveling to a distant area, it was easy to hide their disappearance. Mails at that time were uncertain and infrequent.

The front section of the cabin held the kitchen and a wooden dining table. Given the "place of honor" at the dinner table, the traveler sat with his back to the canvas wall. With her glib talk and charming manner, Kate distracted the unsuspecting man. Then Pa Bender or John would stand behind the canvas curtain and bash his head in with a hammer. If that didn't kill him, they slit his throat.   See sketch at right.

After dragging the body into the back room, they stripped off the clothes and dumped the body through a trap door into the cellar below, to be buried later. Officials later estimated the Benders collected two teams of horses and wagons, a pony, and less than $5,000 from their horrible deeds. Some travelers had no money, but the Benders killed them anyway, leading some to believe they killed for the thrill of it.

Suspicious travelers

A few men managed to escape when they heard strange sounds behind the canvas wall and grew suspicious. One man saw stains on the canvas and refused to sit where Kate told him. When she grew angry and came at him with a knife, he ran outside, got on his horse and galloped away.

Another lucky escapee was Father Paul Ponziglione, a Catholic missionary, who stopped at the Bender Inn. He grew frightened when he saw Pa Bender place an iron hammer behind the canvas curtain and speak to Kate in a low voice. Saying he needed to tend to his horse, the priest left the cabin, got on his horse and fled.

The Benders' Downfall


In the winter of 1872, recently widowed George Longcor and his young daughter left Independence, Kansas, to resettle in Iowa. They were never seen again. In the spring of 1873, their neighbor, Dr. William York, went looking for them and questioned homesteaders along the Great Osage Trail. On March 9 he began the return trip to Independence but never arrived. A well-known physician, Dr. York had two brothers, Colonel Ed York and Alexander York, a member of the Kansas State Senate. When Dr. York failed to return home they began an all out search for him.

Colonel York visited every homestead along the Osage Trail. On March 28, 1873, he stopped at the Bender Inn, explained that his brother was missing and asked if they had seen him. The Benders said Dr. York had stayed there but suggested he had run into trouble with Indians after he left. Colonel York agreed this was possible and ate a hearty dinner.

Later, alone in the dining area, he noticed a locket on a gold chain on the floor. Upon opening the locket, he saw photos of his brother's wife and daughter inside. Stunned, he slipped out the door, intent on notifying the authorities. As he walked to the stable to mount his horse, he saw a lantern in the orchard. He crept to the orchard and saw Pa Bender and John digging a hole. Nearby was an object wrapped in canvas that looked like a body. Fearing for his life, Colonel York left.

The Town Meeting


With so many travelers reported missing, residents of nearby towns began to believe someone in Cherryvale was responsible. Cherryvale officials held a meeting, attended by 75 locals, including Pa and John Bender. After discussing the disappearances, including that of Dr. William York, officials decided to obtain a search warrant for every homestead in the area.

Despite Colonel York's reported suspicions, no one had been watching the Benders. Three days later, a neighbor drove his cows past the Bender Inn and saw starving farm animals roaming the premises. A quick look inside convinced him the Bender Inn had been abandoned. He soon reported this to Cherryvale official, Leroy Dick.

Gruesome Discoveries


Due to severe bad weather, several days passed before the Bender property was searched. Led by LeRoy Dick, a large posse of men went to the Bender Inn. A sickening stench permeated the cabin. Searchers found a trap door, nailed shut, in the rear of the cabin. They pried it open, lifted it by its leather hinges, and discovered a 6 foot deep cellar filled with many large blood stains and a hideous odor. The men broke up the  stone slab floor with sledgehammers but found no bodies.

The searchers jacked up the cabin, moved it aside and searched under the house. Nothing was found. Using a metal rod, they began to probe the ground in the vegetable garden and apple orchard.

Later that night, they found the first body. See sketch at left. Dr. William York had been buried face down; his skull had been crushed with a hammer and his throat had been cut. The probing continued until midnight. Nine suspected grave sites in the orchard were marked and the men retired for the night.

Hell's Half-Acre


Digging resumed the next morning. In seven of the nine suspected graves, searchers found eight bodies with smashed skulls and slit throats. Another body was found in the well, along with several dismembered body parts.

They found a man and a young female, presumed to be George Longcor and his daughter, buried together in one grave. The girl's body exhibited no injuries sufficient to cause death. Searchers believed she had been strangled or buried alive. One man christened the orchard "Hell's Half-Acre."

News of the gruesome discoveries caused a sensation. Newspaper reports said the bodies had been "indecently mutilated." On May 15, 1873, a Kansas newspaper printed an extended article: "The Cherryvale Tragedy: The Most Diabolical On Record.” As word of the horror spread, more than 3,000 people raced to the scene. Newsmen and news artists from as far off as New York and Chicago flocked to "Hell's Acre."

Souvenir seekers destroyed the cabin, taking even the bricks that lined the cellar and the stones that lined the well. But the Benders were nowhere to be found, and people wanted vengeance.

Vigilantes questioned a friend of the Benders named Brockman. When he said he didn't know where they went, the men hanged him from a tree. When he fell unconscious, they revived him and asked him again. When he gave them no information, they hanged him a third time. But Brockman still maintained his innocence, so they released him.

The Reward Offers

Dr. York’s brother, Alexander York, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the four Bender family members. Kansas Governor Thomas Osborn later added a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of the four Benders.

Many people searched for the bloody Benders, but no one ever collected the rewards.

Detectives found the Bender wagon with a team of starving horses abandoned near the city of Thayer, 12 miles north of the Bender Inn. They learned that the Benders had bought railroad tickets on the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad, to travel to Humbolt, Kansas. A conductor verified their presence on the train, describing them in detail.

At Chanute, Kansas, John and Kate left the train and took another train south to Denison, Texas. Detectives later determined that John and Kate then bought horses and escaped to an outlaw colony in the border region between Texas and Mexico. One detective later claimed that he found evidence that John died there of apoplexy, but no confirmation of this exists.

Ma and Pa Bender, meanwhile, had continued north to Kansas City where they bought train tickets to St. Louis, Missouri. There, the trail was lost.

Myths and Legends

Some reports, unconfirmed, said vigilantes caught the four Benders and shot all of them but Kate, whom they buried alive. Another group claimed they caught the Benders, lynched them and threw their bodies into the Verdigris River. The search for the Benders continued for fifty years.

In 1884, a report surfaced that John Flickinger (aka John Bender) committed suicide in Lake Michigan. The same year, an elderly man resembling Pa Bender was arrested for murdering a man with a hammer blow to the head in Montana. A message sent to Cherryvale asking for someone to make a positive identification came too late. The man severed his own foot to escape his leg irons and bled to death. By the time Cherryvale officials arrived, the body was too decomposed to identify.

On October 31, 1889, Almira Monroe (aka Ma Bender) and Sara Eliza Davis, (aka Kate Bender) were arrested in Niles, Michigan, for larceny. Acquitted on that charge, they were then arrested for the Bender Inn murders. Two witnesses confirmed their identities from a tintype photograph.

Deputy Sheriff LeRoy Dick, who led the Bender Inn search, went to Michigan and arrested them. At the trial in May 1890, both women denied any involvement in the crimes. Kate's attorney produced evidence that she had been married in Michigan in 1872 at the time of the murders. The judge declared there was insufficient proof to convict them and released both women.

Thus ends the saga of the Bloody Benders. Did the dastardly killers escape justice? Or were they found and killed by vigilantes?


More details about this case are included in my ebook, DARK DEEDS, Volume Two: Serial killers, stalkers and domestic homicides.

Please leave a comment. I would love to hear your opinion on this case.









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[ Posted by sherry fundin, October 09, 2013 10:55 AM ]
     I saw a TV show that must have been based on this. I think it was on the History channel. Very creepy. I think they got away with it and probably killed more people. Stories like this confound me. I am always interested in trying to see into the minds of murderers. Thanks for the great post.

[ Posted by Lisa, June 23, 2014 3:46 PM ]
     Almira Monroe was married to my GGG Grandfather Simon Mark. She claims he died in 1866, in Michigan, but we have never found a death certificate or grave.

In October of 1872, she did marry Josiah Monroe, in Holton, Muskegon County, Michigan, USA. That is provable. She also stood trial that year for the manslaughter of her daughter in law.

[ Posted by admin, June 24, 2014 7:48 AM ]
     Thanks for the intriguing comment! It is so difficult to get information about this bizarre family. I found a few tidbits about Almira, but not many. Your information adds a bit more. What happened with the manslaughter trial? I assume she was acquitted and moved on to Kansas?
Susan Fleet

posted by SUSAN FLEET   October 05, 2013 4:19 PM  Serial Killers 


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