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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spooky is in and Wichita is a hot spot

BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle

"Everybody remembers the time when the horrible crimes of the bloody Bender family were discovered. A gentleman was in the city yesterday who lives... in the vicinity where the Benders committed their cold blooded crimes... and related many interesting circumstances concerning the family and their methods of butchering their victims. Where the house once stood nothing now remains.... Curious relic- seekers have carried away the last remnant of the building...."

—Topeka Daily Capitol, Jan. 13, 1886

In its nearly 150 years of statehood, Kansas has its share of murders, unexplained sounds and creepy sensations.

These days, spooky is in and Kansans do get into Halloween.

"Ghost hunting and spookiness is really popular, probably because of the recent TV shows that have made it really interesting," said Nancy Lawrence, who manages Central Plains Novelty and is president of Historic Delano Inc., which hosted a neighborhood ghost tour Thursday.

Topeka sisters Beth Cooper and Cathy Ramirez, owners of Ghost Tours of Kansas, contend that several Kansas communities have more than their share of otherworldly tales.

At the top of their list?

Wichita.

"Because of its massive population and history, Wichita is the most haunted city," said Cooper, who has contracted to write a book, scheduled to be published in 2011, on haunted Wichita. Her company plans to schedule ghost tours in Wichita next year.

In Delano, Lawrence said more than 400 people tromped through the cold rain to hear ghost stories.

"The rain just gives you that spooky, creepy feeling," she said.

Each year, she said, more people admit to having ghostly experiences.

There are stories about a building in Delano where dead flies congregate — a sign, Lawrence said, of an otherworldly vortex.

In her own building, at 905 W. Douglas, Lawrence sometimes will catch a whiff of her mother's perfume and feel an unseen hand on her cheek.

Cooper's company focuses on eastern Kansas cities such as Topeka, Atchison, Leavenworth, Shawnee, Holton and Kansas City.

Few communities in Kansas capitalize on fright more than Atchison.

For several years, the chamber of commerce's Haunted Atchison Trolley Tours in September and October have almost always sold out.

Cooper said her company offers a "brothels and beer halls tour" in Atchinson, but won't visit a location simply because it's tied to a ghost story.

"If it is not based on fact, we don't discuss it," she said. "Our stories are based on locations that have been investigated by paranormal investigators."

She said one story worth sharing on any tour is that of the Bloody Benders, a family that owned a small general store and inn in Labette County, from 1872 to 1873.

It wasn't unusual for the Benders — Ma, Pa, Kate and John Jr. —to invite a road-weary traveler into their country home near Cherryvale for a hot meal and a night's sleep.

Once visitors were seated at the table, the Benders would bash them in the head with a hammer and slit their throats, then rob them.

They were Kansas' first recorded serial murderers. But as townspeople grew suspicious about the number of people who had gone missing, the family suddenly disappeared. A nationwide manhunt followed, but they were never found.

More than 130 years later, their story is still told around Kansas campfires, Cooper said.

With the 150th anniversary of Kansas becoming a state in 2011, Cooper expects attention on the paranormal to increase.

"Ghosts like the attention," she said.

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