Serial killers: We think of them as bad seeds — loners with sickening desires to kill repeatedly, often in the shadows.
But can there be a group of bad seeds? A flourishing garden of ruthless murderers? This harrowing tale from the Kansas prairie suggests that, yes, sometimes these things run deep in a bloodline. So goes the tale of The Bloody Benders.
In the 1870s, Labette County, Kansas became a destination for a small groups of Spiritualists — among them, the Bender family, who built a cabin that served as their home and an inn for travelers.
The parents, John and Ma (her real name was never known), spoke little English and had two children — John Jr. and Kate. Neighbors soon branded John and Ma as devilish and mysterious. On the other hand, their children were more outgoing.
Kate, in particular, proclaimed herself a clairvoyant and a healer, and she frequently conducted séances. Rumors of her paranormal abilities spread, and men would stop in at the lodge for dinner and to commune with spirits. Others would pay extra to spend the night with her.
John Jr. did his part to attract guests by stopping men on the road and engaging them in conversation. He would suggest they drop by the house to pick up some groceries fresh from the orchard. And so the Bender inn became a common spot for pioneers to stop on their westward journey.
Unfortunately, some visitors never left.
Such was the story for George Loncher and his infant daughter, who decided to return home to Iowa after his wife died, making an overnight stop at the Bender inn. After Loncher failed to arrive in Iowa, a man named Dr. William York, who had known the widower, began a search and soon found himself in Labette County.
When he, too, failed to return home, suspicions circulated about why travelers in the area kept disappearing. A homesteaders meeting was called. The male Benders attended, as well as Dr. York’s brother, who had come looking for him.
The townspeople decided to conduct a search of all the cabins in the county. That night, a storm arrived, and it postponed the investigation for a few days. When the weather let up, the Benders themselves had disappeared. Their wagon gone, their inn abandoned, never to be heard from again.
A group of fellow homesteaders – including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, reportedly – searched the home and found a trap door to a cellar that was riddled with blood. With no bodies found, the building was torn up and the ground unearthed. But there was still nothing to explain the blood.
All eyes turned to the apple orchard nearby where the Benders grew their produce. It was here that the body of Dr. York, George Lochner, and his infant daughter were found. Along with their corpses lay eight others, most of them with cut throats and crushed skulls.
The theory emerged that guests were made to sit at a “place of honor” during dinner, where a curtain hung behind them. During dinner, Pa and John Jr. would strike the lodger’s head with a hammer from behind the curtain, slit their throats, and then drop their bodies through the trap door.
This story was corroborated by a Catholic missionary named Father Paul Ponziglione. While sitting down for the dinner at the inn, he saw Pa Bender take a hammer behind the dining room curtain. He heard Kate whispering to the man a minute later, and the priest got so nervous he jumped up and ran out with the excuse he had to check on his horses.
Another traveler had a similarly bad feeling about the Benders. He saw a greased stain on the curtain right above the guest chair. He asked to sit in another seat, which angered Kate so much she pulled a knife on him. He also ran out of the house, probably saving his own life.
Many of the victims found in the orchard – later dubbed “Hell’s Half-Acre” – were never known, and the exact number of murders was never confirmed, although estimates place the tally as high as 21.
The family’s motive remains unclear — some the victims were wealthy, while others had not much to their name. One well-dressed guest was rumored to only have 40 cents on him when he died.
It may very well be that the Benders, steeped in their dark mysticism, simply enjoyed a side of death at the dinner table. But since they were never found, as a historical marker along US-169 states: “Their fate remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Old West.”