Love this case. The Benders were not America’s first serial killers as many have said (it wasn’t HH Holmes, either) that title goes to Brothers Big Harpe and Little Harpe. Still, the Benders are recognized as our first savage American serial killing family.
The Benders consisted of a German speaking father, John “Pa” Bender, Elvira “Ma” Bender, their son, John Jr, and their beautiful daughter, Kate. It’s very possible that they hadn’t really been a family at all, but if they were, it’s likely that they’d been incestuous. Kate and John Jr. are believed to have really been a couple, they acted more like lovers than siblings.
So in 1871 the Benders settled in Labette County, Southeast Kansas, which is along the Osage trail. They opened up a little general store which had been frequented by travelers, and as a sort of rest area for men traveling through the area. A weary traveler would stop at the store, meet the bewitching young monster, Kate, who was one hell of a flirt. Not only was she beautiful and charismatic, but Kate had special powers; she was a spiritualist, could see the future, contact the dead through seance, and a healer who could make potions to cure whatever ailed you. Yep, Kate was quite the catch; she would charm these men into staying over, and into having dinner with her family.
After having met Kate, the poor gentleman would’ve thought that he’d just struck gold! Not only had he met a beautiful young woman who seemed interested in him, but she had a good family with a lucrative business. So the traveler would come to dinner inside the family’s quaint little cabin; he’d be seated at the table, talked up by the enchanting Kate while Ma would be cooking in the kitchen. Kate would ask him about himself; she’d find out if he had family who’d come searching for him, if he was likely to have money on him, etc. If Kate had deemed the man worth the risk, she’d have given the signal. At that time Pa would’ve come from behind a canvas curtain which had run along the back side of the table with a hammer to bash that poor man’s brains out. At this time Kate would’ve joined in, slashed his throat and savagely stabbed him; the victim would have then been dropped through a trap door which lead from the kitchen table to the cellar. The dead man’s earthly belongings would’ve been stripped from him, a grave would’ve been dug, then he’d have been buried; within mere hours there would’ve been no visible signs that there had ever been a murder within that cabin.
The end came for the Benders in April of 1873, after they murdered the wrong man. A Dr. William York came to the tavern looking for his friend, George Loncher, who’d gone missing after having stated that he’d planned to visit the Bender family. Kate had welcomed the doctor into the cabin, where he’d proceeded to ask questions about his missing friend. Kate gave the signal, Pa came from behind the curtain with his hammer and Kate stabbed him with her blade. They knew they’d killed a man who would be missed this time, and there would be more people coming for him. Very soon the doctors brother, Colonel York, came knocking. The colonel found the doctor’s horse’s saddle on the Bender property, so he left quickly to go get help. When he returned, the Bender cabin was completely empty. In haste they had left, dinner still on the table, never to be heard from again.
During a search of the property, Pa’s hammer, Kate’s knife, and blood spatter was found. They also discovered the trap door which dropped down from the kitchen table to the cellar. 8-10 bodies were found buried on the property, including the body of a young girl, aged 7 or 8; her only injury had been a broken arm. This girl had been buried alive, and you could tell she’d tried to claw herself out of her grave. Even today there’s no telling what all is buried on that property, or who is still buried there – it’s believed the Bender family’s true body count is more along the lines of 21. Personally I’d love to see a backhoe taken to the area, let’s see what’s still there.
A $2,000.00 reward was quickly issued for anyone who could find the Benders, which was a fortune back in those days. There were sightings all over the country, but the family was never found; they’d simply vanished. Maybe they separated, maybe just John and Kate had stayed together, no one really knows. In 1912 a man in Los Angeles said that his neighbor, an elderly woman, made a death bed confession that she had been Kate Bender; to this day we do not know whether this was true or not.
Bonus Fact! Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House On The Prairie was living in the same area at the time which the Bloody Benders were active. Their paths may have crossed.