When I was a kid, maybe seven or eight, my brother sat me on down and made me watch THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the story of a family of creepy crazy kooky killers. I’ll be honest – the movie didn’t scare me. I liked it, but by that point I was already pretty numb to things I figured couldn’t happen. I’ve never been one to get scared by zombies and monsters and ghosts because those things don’t happen – it’s the real stuff that spooks me. In those pre-teen years, I knew that there were creepy crazy kooky killers, but I didn’t know that sometimes there were entire families of creepy crazy kooky killers. If I had known about something like the Bender family, then Leatherface and his family would have totes freaked me out.
Just after the Civil War, the US government was looking to get back to screwing with Native Americans again, so they went to the Osage Indians, the tribe best known for being tall – the average Osage male was between six and a half feet to seven feet tall – and told them to pack up and move on out of what we now call Labette County, Kansas so five families of spiritualists could move in. I know that all sounds like the opening of a movie – super tall Native Americans forced out of their land by people who claim to talk to the dead – but I swear to you this is what happened.
One of these spiritualist families was the Benders, with the grand patriarch of the family, John Bender Sr., better known as Pa Bender. Pa Bender wasn’t much of a speaker, and when he did speak, it was almost impossible to understand what he said – he spoke in a low, guttural style, with few English words – Pa spoke German.. His son, John Bender Jr., was the one who did most of the talking for the family, though he had a tendency to laugh randomly at nothing in particular, leading many in the area to consider him to be a half-wit. The Bender men arrived in Labette County and claimed 160 acres near the Great Osage Trail, the only road in Kentucky that headed further west.
The Bender men built themselves a small one room house, with the majority of it being used as a General Store, a curtain separating the family area from the General Store. When everything was set up, the men called in the Bender women. Elvira, Pa’s wife, spoke no English and hated everyone. The other locals took to calling Elvira “she-devil”. Then there was Kate.
Kate Bender was the Marilyn Munster of the family. Marilyn, like her brother, spoke perfect English. Unlike her brother, she had been able to rid herself of her German accent, and she didn’t laugh at trees. She was smart and beautiful and kind, all the things the rest of the Bender family was missing. Kate claimed to be a healer and psychic – she would hold seances and give lectures about spiritualism. Kate was a proponent of free love some 100 years before Woodstock.
It was Kate that drew customers to the Bender General Store. Some came for her psychic readings, some came for her seances, and some came hoping to learn more about that whole free love idea. The free love guys usually left sad – Kate believed in free love, but that didn’t mean she just slept with anyone. Matter of fact, she didn’t seem to sleep with any men. No women either.
Things were going well for the Benders and their General Store. While the two men worked the store, the two women worked a vegetable garden that supplied the store with fresh veggies to sell. Kate’s spiritual work brought in plenty of customers. People came and went, and the Bender General Store became an inn as well, letting adventurers looking to make their fortunes even further west to have a place to sleep before they entered the unknown areas of America.
That was how George Loncher and his baby daughter found themselves at the Bender General Store. Early in 1872, George’s wife had died, and George needed a change – he needed to get far away from all the things that reminded him of the woman he loved. So, like so many others, George packed up his life and headed west. George had a destination – the home of Dr. William York in Iowa. George never showed up.
Dr. York, concerned for his friend, went looking for George and tracked the widower’s path straight to Labette County. He asked around, and some of the residents suggested he check out the Bender General Store.
William York headed to speak with the Benders, and he was never heard from again.
This, as you may imagine, perked up the ears of William’s brothers, Colonel Ed York and Kansas’ own Senator, Alexander York. Colonel Ed took up the investigation and headed to Labette County. He asked the locals if they knew anything. None of them did.
Oh, except there was that guy in 1871 who was found with his skull crushed and his throat cut over in Drum Creek.
And there were those two bodies found in early 1872 with the same injuries as the guy from 1871.
And a lot of people had gone missing matter of fact, so many people went missing from Labette County that the area became known as a place to avoid if you didn’t want to die an early death.
But beyond that… nothing really.
Colonel York and his crew showed up at the Bender General Store on March 28, 1873. After a nice enough talk, the Colonel left the Benders positive that they had something to do with the disappearance of his brother. What tipped him off was when Elvira, who previously never spoke English, told him, in English, about how another woman tried to curse her coffee.
Colonel York convinced the people of Labutte County to let him and his men search every house in the area. Before the search could begin, a storm hit, forcing Colonel York to hold off.
When the storm cleared, the Benders were gone. Over the next week, Colonel York’s team uncovered multiple bodies on the Bender land. The first person they found was William York, who had been buried head first in the vegetable garden. In the house everything was gone except for a prayer book marked with notes written in German. Some of the writings included “Johannah Bender. Born July 30, 1848,” “John Gebhardt came to America on July 1,” “big slaughter day, Jan eighth” and “hell departed.”
The men found a trap door in the floor of the house and put together a basic idea of how the Benders pulled off their murders…
The victim was always someone who was staying at the Bender General Store for the night. They would be given a seat at the dinner table that was placed over the trap door, just against the curtain that separated the “family area” from the store.
Kate would keep the attention of the victim as either one of the men, or sometimes both of them, would creep up from behind. They would hit the victim in the head with hammers, stunning or killing them right there. Just to be safe, Elvira or Kate would then slit the victim’s throat. They would then let the trap door go, letting the victim bleed out under the house.
There was no format to who the Benders killed. Poor, rich, man, woman – it didn’t matter to them. They seemed to kill purely for the fun of killing.
Colonel York tracked the Benders to the city of Thayer where the family split up. Junior and Kate headed to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico. Colonel York knew that to chase after them would be suicide – many a lawman tried to get into the outlaw colony, and not a single one had come out alive.
Pa and Elvira were last seen in Kansas City. It was believed that they bought train tickets to St. Louis, but the trail went cold.
The story of the Benders spread across the country, and information about the family came out. For one thing, Junior wasn’t Junior. John Bender Jr was really John Gebhardt, and Kate was his wife. Elvira had been married before she met John Bender. She had twelve children, Kate being one of them, and multiple husbands. Each of her husbands died by way of head wound.
A three thousand dollar reward was placed on the head of the Benders, and while multiple vigilante groups claimed to have killed the Benders, no one ever came forward for the reward.
In 1884, a man in Montana was arrested for murder. The man resembled Pa Bender, and his victim was killed by a blow to the head with a hammer. Before he was positively ID’d as Pa Bender, the man cut off his own foot to escape his leg irons. He was found a few miles away – he had bled to death. By the time his body was found, he had decomposed to a point that an ID was impossible.
In 1889, Almira Monroe and Sarah Eliza Davis were arrested in Niles, Michigan for larceny. They were found not guilty for the theft, but were still held by police because of their resemblance to Elvira and Kate Bender. Sarah told the police that Almira was indeed Elvira, but she was not Kate. Sarah claimed to be one of Kate’s eleven siblings. In return, Almira claimed that she as not Elvira, but that Sarah was indeed Kate. The two women were brought to Kansas where they were identified by multiple people as Elvira and Kate Bender. Still, there was not enough evidence, as well as contradicting reports, to charge the women. They were let go.
The Benders, wanted for at least twenty murders, were never officially captured. Their escape into the unknowns of America have spread their story and turned parts of it into myth. The idea of the Benders still being out there – not Pa, Elvira, Jr. and Kate, but their descendants – killing is kinda creepy.
Worse to it, the Benders are forever a part of the purity of Americana. In 1870,the Ingalls family, made famous by the books by Laura Ingalls and the long running TV series LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, lived in Independence, Kansas. Laura Ingalls wrote and spoke about the Benders on many occasions. She even told a story of her father having been part of a vigilante crew that looked for the Benders. I’ll let Laura tell her story…
The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.