John Bender, in his mid-twenties, had red hair, and giggled at inappropriate times. Most people avoided him. It was never determined whether he was the brother or husband of Kate.
Kate Bender, a buxom beauty on the lonely plains, garnered lots of attention from men. She claimed to be a spiritualist, a psychic, and a healer. She told neighbors she could speak with the dead, and held séances to prove it.
In 1872, the family drifted into Cherryvale, Kansas and built a make-shift inn. There, weary travelers heading west could bunk down for the night after enjoying one of Ma’s tasty meals. A covered-wagon canvas separated the kitchen and a bed from the family’s living quarters.
Soon travelers began to disappear, particularly those who looked well-to-do. Townspeople suspected that something was not right at the Bender place, but couldn’t put a finger on it. Then one day, a well-dressed man with a large entourage appeared, inquiring about his missing brother. The Benders, without realizing it, had murdered the wrong man.
Colonel Ed York, a Civil War veteran and brother to a Kansas state senator, had come looking for Dr. William Henry York. The Benders told the colonel that Dr. York had spent a night at the inn but left the next day, heading into the Indian Territory. Colonel York was unconvinced, but told the family he would search ahead. He informed them that he would return if he didn’t find his brother.
That was all the Benders needed. As soon as Colonel York and his posse moved on, the family high-tailed it out of Kansas.
A few days later, Col. York, along with dozens of suspicious townspeople, was back at the now-abandoned inn. What they found horrified them. Eleven bodies, including that of Dr. York, had been buried in the pear orchard behind the shack.
Beneath the chair where travelers partook of Ma Bender’s delicacies, a trapdoor opened into a basement. Body parts, bloody sledge-hammers, spent bullets, and swaths of blood told a grisly tale. While eating, visitors, perhaps distracted by Kate’s ample cleavage, had been dispatched with a blow to the back of the head. Then the trapdoor opened and the unlucky traveler descended into Hell. Some, still alive after having been bludgeoned, had had their throats cut. Each was stripped of his possessions, and buried, as Ma tenderly planted flowers over their graves.
So what happened to the murderous Benders?
A large posse mounted a determined search. Twelve miles north of the inn, near the town of Thayer, they came upon the Benders’ wagon. Nearby, several lame, starving horses had to be put down by the posse. In town, the vigilantes discovered that the family had boarded a train. Kate and John were thought to have headed for the badlands of Texas, while Ma and Pa made their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City.
They would have had plenty of money for their getaway. After identifying the victims and assessing the cash each had been carrying, investigators estimated that the Benders had netted about $10,000 from the murders (a near-fortune in the 1870s).
The state of Kansas offered a $3,000 reward, and several vigilante groups began trying to track the fleeing foursome. No one ever claimed the reward.
It is possible that Ma and Pa Bender settled in Michigan. A man named John Flickinger supposedly committed suicide there—that was thought to have been the real name of William Bender. John and Kate disappeared from history.
Persistent rumors swirled around one other possible outcome—vigilante justice. Many years later, two members of the original posse made deathbed confessions. They both stated that they caught the family and summarily dispatched them. Ma, Pa, and John, the story goes, were hung. Kate, thought to be the brains behind the murders, had been burned to death.
What really happened to the Bloody Benders?
No one knows.