Last week I drove from New Orleans to Kansas to pick up a guitar my friend Jack Jacomo had left at a gas station while hitchhiking over the summer. Coming through the flat plains of southeastern Kansas in the gray blue light of evening we noticed a strange series of mounds.
“Indian burial mounds?” Jacomo wondered.
“Garbage dumps?” I questioned.
At a rest area a few miles down the road we learned the true story behind the mounds, which are known as Bender Mounds.
After the Civil War, the U.S. government moved the Osage Indians from southeastern Kansas to new Indian Territory in Oklahoma and made the former Osage land available to homesteaders. In October 1870, five families of spiritualists settled in the area. One was the Bender family, which consisted of John, his wife, known simply as Ma, their son John Jr., and their daughter Kate. John, who was about 60, was from Germany and spoke guttural and barely intelligible English. Ma was around 55, she also spoke little English and was so cruel that neighbors called her the “she-devil”. Ma indeed had a dark past, she was born Almira Hill Mark in the Adirondacks, had been married several times and was suspected of killing at least one of her husbands.
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As for the rest of the family, John Jr. was 25 and handsome, with auburn hair and a mustache. He was prone to laughing aimlessly, which led many people to consider him a half-wit. Kate, age 23, was cultivated and attractive, she spoke English fluently and was a self-proclaimed healer and psychic. She gave lectures on spiritualism and conducted séances. She was also known to advocate free love.
The family lived along the main road taken by pioneers headed west across the country from St. Louis toward the Rocky Mountains and California. Kate’s charismatic personality and spiritualist activities attracted many travelers to the home. The family also ran an inn, providing travelers with food and a place to sleep. But people who stayed at the Bender house found a whole different sort of rest. The family was later found responsible for committing around a dozen murders. How they did it was as follows.
A canvas curtain divided the home into two rooms. The Bender’s lived in the smaller rear room and converted the front room into a general store, which also served as a kitchen, dining room and lodging area. When a traveler was seated at the table his head was outlined against the curtain, like a shadow puppet. With the victim’s back to the curtain, Kate would distract the guest. John or John Jr. would then sneak up behind the victim and smash their skull in with a hammer. To ensure death, one of the Bender women would then cut the victim’s throat. The body was dropped through a trapdoor into a basement and later buried in an apple orchard. Numerous bullet holes were found in the walls and roof, leading newspapermen who later reported on the murders to believe that several of the victims had fought back after being hit with the hammer.
As more and more travelers disappeared in southeastern Kansas suspicion began to center on the Benders. In the winter of 1872, George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter Mary Ann left Independence, Kansas to resettle in Iowa and were never seen again. The following spring a friend of theirs named Dr. William Henry York went looking for the pair. He reached Fort Scott, Kansas but on the journey home disappeared. Dr. York had two brothers, one was a member of the Kansas State Senate. Upon hearing of the good doctor’s disappearance the brothers organized a search party some fifty men strong. The posse questioned every traveler along the trail and visited all the homesteads. In late March they visited the Bender Inn. The Bender family admitted the doctor had stayed with them and suggested he had been killed by Indians. The posse agreed this may well have been the case but left suspicious.
The doctor’s brothers were convinced the Bender family was responsible for the murder but wanted to first gather evidence. They arranged a town hall meeting attended by 75 locals. Among the crowd were John and John Junior. They must have heard the news and got the family packing because several days later when the posse returned to the Bender Inn the family was nowhere to be seen. The cabin was empty of food, clothing, and personal possessions. Beneath a trapdoor was the basement, a square dank space that stank of old blood. The posse found the first body in the vegetable garden, that of Dr. York, buried face down with his feet barely below the surface. The men dug through much of the night, finding another eight bodies. All but one had had their heads bashed in with a hammer and their throats cut. The body of a young girl was found without any injuries, leading people to believe she had been buried alive.
In May the Governor of Kansas offered a $2,000 award for the Bender family’s arrest. Detectives found the family wagon abandoned with a team of starving horses just outside the city of Thayer. From there it was determined that John Jr. and Kate fled for Red River County in Texas, looking to escape into an outlaw border region near the border of New Mexico. John Bender Sr. and Ma reportedly bought tickets on a train bound for St. Louis. Vigilantes continued to look for the family for decades. Plenty of people spun yarns that involved capturing or killing the Benders. According to one tale, a group caught up with the Benders and shot the entire family save Kate, whom they burned alive. But the fact remains, nobody ever claimed the reward money.