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Little House of Horrors: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Bloody Benders

"Little House on the Prairie" could have been a lot more twisted.

laura ingalls wilder
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Laura Ingalls Wilder is best-known for writing the Little House series. Living out on the prairie in the late 1800s led to run-ins with other settlers, displaced Natives, and the constant fear of natural disasters. Much of this is chronicled in the Little House series, but one unsettling encounter was left out of the story.

According to a speech given by Wilder at a book fair in 1937, she claimed to have kept a story of her family’s encounter with the notorious Bloody Benders out of the Little House books because she didn’t believe it appropriate for a children’s saga.

The Bloody Benders, often called America’s first serial killers, were a family that owned an inn and general store in Kansas, near where the Ingalls family lived. It’s believed that the Benders brutally killed at least 11 travelers passing through the area.

Related: Too Close for Comfort: 8 True Crime Books Written by Authors with a Direct Link to the Case  

During Wilder’s speech, which was reprinted in The Saturday Evening Post in September 1978, she told the book fair attendees about the Benders, who lived about halfway between the Ingalls homestead and the town of Independence, Kansas.

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  • Laura Ingalls Wilder

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wilder said that her family would stop at the Benders’ property on trips to and from Independence. Her father would fetch water from the well but never ventured into the Benders’ tavern. This was odd, as it was the only place south of town for travelers to stop. Also odd: Many travelers who headed south from Independence were never heard from again.

One thing Wilder said the locals noticed was that the garden on the Benders’ property always seemed freshly plowed, although no one could recall seeing anything planted or growing there. Eventually, a man arrived in the area to investigate his brother’s disappearance. The clues led to the Benders' tavern and inn. A search party assembled; they traveled out to the property. When the search party arrived, however, the Benders were nowhere to be found. 

Related: Little House of Murder: The Bloody Benders  

The party began their search. It didn't take long to find their first victim: a body with its head bashed in, and a large hammer sitting close by. Digging up the garden revealed multiple bodies and sets of human bones. One body was even that of a little girl who appeared to have been buried alive. Wilder concluded her story by saying that Pa Ingalls disappeared with his rifle one night. He told Ma Ingalls, “The vigilantes are called out.” Wilder said her father came back late the following day. Afterward, whenever the subject of hunting for the Benders was brought up, Pa Ingalls would always say that the family would “never be found.” Wilder told her book fair audience that she didn't feel comfortable putting the story in a kids’ book, so she omitted it.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

As always with historical crimes, there are inconsistencies in Wilder’s retelling. The Benders, it should be noted, were very real. There is some disagreement among historians as to whether they were a family in the biological sense, or if they were four people who chose to take a common surname. Regardless, there were two men and two women in the Bender clan.

Related: The Terrifying Truth About Serial Killer Belle Gunness 

According to the historical record, the Benders' crimes were not actually discovered until 1873, which was two years after Wilder and the rest of her family left Kansas. Also, Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, so she would have only been four years old at best if the encounter with the Benders did happen before the family left Kansas in 1871.

Whether Wilder purposefully exaggerated her tale, or simply allowed the details of the event to increase in her mind over the years is unclear. It is possible that the Ingalls family did come into contact with the Benders. They certainly lived in the same area while the Bender clan was in the midst of their spree. Regardless, this is yet another example of how truly dangerous the frontier was in the late 1800s.

Read more: American Indians in Children’s Literature; Humanities Magazine; BoingBoing; Murderpedia; Melville House; Mental Floss