The Bloody Benders: 140-year-old crime scene still fascinates today

08/24/2013 6:58 PM

08/24/2013 9:09 PM

This is the place where the ghost hunters wanted to set up their equipment: the scene of serial murders that happened 140 years ago.

The homesteaders’ house where it unfolded “used to sit somewhere in here,” Larry March said, pointing forward as he stood under the midday sun Wednesday on a secluded gravel road. The spot is about a two-hour drive southeast of Wichita along U.S. 400 in Labette County.

It was getting hot, and the bugs were swarming as March squinted at the field. The wiry 71-year-old, sporting whitish sideburns and with a can of chewing tobacco parked in his shirt pocket, was asked to recall everything he knew about the place. It’s now just a weedy, sun-drenched field that March farms.

“I don’t think anyone lived up here after the Benders, as far as I know,” March said in a gravelly drawl.

He was speaking of the mysterious group of four who came to be known as the Bloody Benders, whose horrendous crimes shocked the nation and stoked tales about the Old West.

The story is again bringing filmmakers to Kansas. It’s the kind of story that rivets people, that sparks the imagination. There’s been an ongoing fascination with Kate Bender, the dynamic personality of the four.

It’s also the kind of situation that intrigues a Wichita State University anthropology professor who is an expert in analyzing human remains. He says it’s possible that some victims’ bones remain under the cropland, 7 feet down, according to old accounts.

No ghosts sighted

The field looks unremarkable now.

But in the spring of 1873, on the frontier prairie where the field is now, the Benders lived in a little wood-sided house that doubled as a general store near the Osage Trail. When travelers arrived, someone in the house smashed their skulls from behind, slit their throats and took their money and possessions.

The consensus was that the killer or killers used a canvas partition to hide behind and a trapdoor to help remove the bodies until they could be buried in what was supposed to be a vegetable plot and apple orchard.

The investigators found eight or so bodies in the garden area, including that of a 7- or 8-year-old girl. By some accounts, three or so bodies were found on the surrounding prairie. Some bodies couldn’t be identified. Most accounts put the number of victims at around a dozen, although some suspected the Benders of killing up to 21.

Who knows whether all the bodies were found. The horrified and grief-stricken grave excavators who descended on the scene back then on horseback and in buggies weren’t professional crime scene investigators using scientific methods and sophisticated tools.

A couple of years ago, ghost hunters from Oklahoma asked March – who says his great-grandfather was part of the posse that went after the Benders – whether they could set up equipment in the field to catch ghostly images at night.

“I laughed,” March recalled.

“Well, good luck,” he told them. He doesn’t know what came of it.

He takes a practical view.

“It’s good cropland” for wheat and soybeans, he said.

Because he can’t see well after dark, his wife, Jean, runs the combine on harvest nights. And she’s thought about the bodies that were buried in the same ground she now works.

But she hasn’t seen any ghosts, she said, laughing.

Larry March has joked with his grandson about watching out for skeletons while he drives a tractor over the spot.

Subject of movies

Jokes aside, the crimes are again the subject of upcoming movies.

Earlier this summer, independent filmmakers working on “The Bender Claim” shot scenes at Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita. Other scenes were planned near Junction City and on a ranch near El Dorado. A second movie based on the Bender legend is reportedly in the works.

Only a few things that are said to be from the Bender home remain. A set of three hammers is part of a Bender exhibit at the Cherryvale Museum, about eight miles from the Bender site. And a stained knife has been in the state’s possession for 90 years.

Whether they were among the murder weapons will probably never be known. Still, at the least, they have become symbolic. They fit into the narrative.

Although so little remains of the murder scene, standing on the gravel road, staring at the field, you can peel back layers of change to see the past. Where the weedy field is now, there used to be a hay meadow and, before that, prairie ground the Benders built on. Over the years, farming has smoothed nature’s prairie contours.

Some time in the 1950s, March rode horses over the ground past an old cistern. His brother found an iron bar, scratched “Kate Bender” onto it and dropped it into the cistern, of which there is no trace now.

The land has been sold, resold and handed down, and the current owners don’t live in the area, March said.

The ground has changed since 1873. But looking south, you can still see distinctly notched hills that rise from the plains, the same hills that can be seen in the distance in some of the grainy black and white photographs of the murder scene.

The hills didn’t appear then to have trees, as they do now. It was barren prairie, with just the whistle of the wind – no droning engines and swishing tires like you hear now from the highway cutting south of the field.

The hills came to be known as the Bender Mounds. Some speculated that the killers could have used the mounds as lookouts to watch for approaching prey.

Brutal killings

State archives in Topeka contain accounts of the killings.

A Labette County history published in 1901, about 28 years after the crimes, has a section titled “The Bender Slaughter-Pen.”

It says that around late 1870, about nine years after Kansas became a state, a family of four “Hollanders or Germans” – a man, his wife and two adult children – moved to Osage Township. The men built a 16-by-24-foot wood-frame house, divided into two interior sections by an “old wagon sheet” used as a partition.

A crude sign outside said “Groceries.” In the front room of the house, the family sold tobacco, crackers, sardines, candy, powder and shot.

“They also pretended to furnish lunch and entertainment for travelers,” according to the archives.

In the back room, a hole had been cut into the floor close to the partition, “just large enough to let a man down” into a cellar, which was 6 to 7 feet wide and deep. A trapdoor, raised by a leather strap, covered the cut-out. Supposedly, a victim killed during the day would be dropped into the hole and taken out and buried at night.

Not much was known about the family or even whether they really were a family, but they seemed unfriendly to neighbors. Still, Kate Bender reached out with “spiritualistic lectures and like entertainments,” the history said.

The Bender house sat near the road from Osage Mission to Independence. By 1871 and 1872, several people were traveling the road and searching for people who had gone missing after leaving Fort Scott or Independence.

A father and his young daughter were among the missing; they had vanished after leaving Independence the previous winter on their way to Iowa.

Around March 1, 1873, William York, a doctor, left his home in Montgomery County. After York disappeared, his brother went searching for him with about 50 citizens from Montgomery County.

“On their return they visited the Bender place and tried to induce Kate, who professed to be clairvoyant, to make an effort to help discover the Doctor,” the account said. She managed to “successfully elude their efforts without throwing any suspicion on herself.”

That night, the Benders left, abandoning their house. Around early May, a man passing the Bender place noticed stock wandering, starving. The man notified the township trustee, who with others broke into the house and found “nearly everything in usual order.” Only the clothing and bedding appeared to be missing.

But they also noticed a “sickening stench” that “almost drove them from the house.” When they raised the trapdoor, they discovered the source of the smell – clotted blood in the cellar.

Outside, someone saw a depression in the garden area, dug down and found the doctor’s body, his feet barely covered, his head face down.

“His skull was smashed in, and his throat cut from ear to ear,” the history said.

According to the 1901 account, they found several more bodies, including that of the man and his young daughter. Father and child had been buried in the same hole.

“It is altogether probable that other parties were murdered, whose bodies were never found,” the history said.

The search for more bodies involved probing the garden plot with iron rods.

It appeared that all but the girl had been killed in the same way: “first stunned by a blow on the back of the head, and the murderous work finished with the knife,” the archives said. According to a series about the crimes published in the Parsons Sun in 1952, the girl didn’t have an obvious injury, and it fed speculation that she had been strangled or buried alive.

It was calculated that the Benders stole $2,600 from one of the victims, $1,900 from another, $37 from another, 40 cents from one man, $38 and a “good team and wagon” from one man and, from the doctor, $10, a pony and a saddle.

A search party determined that the Benders took a train from Thayer to Chanute, that Kate and the man known as her brother, John Jr., got off in Chanute and traveled by train south to Red River in Indian Territory. There they joined the elder two, who apparently had gone through St. Louis. Detectives thought they had traced the Benders through Texas and New Mexico.

The Kansas governor offered a $2,000 reward for their capture, but they got away.

People suspected of being the Benders were brought back to the area for identification but “proved to have little if any resemblance to this butcher gang,” the history said. In 1890, two women thought to be the fugitives were arrested in Michigan, brought to Kansas and released by a court after it concluded that they were not the Bender women. Others persisted in their belief that the two women were the Benders.

Much of the fascination with the crimes focused on the most colorful Bender, Kate.

An article in the June 7, 1873, issue of Harper’s Weekly, a national publication, said: “She claimed to have power over evil spirits, and to cure diseases of every kind. She is described as a repulsive-looking creature, with a vicious and cruel eye, and is supposed to have been the ruling spirit of the family.”

Other accounts described her as strikingly attractive.

The national publication said she had posted notices in hotels in neighboring towns advertising that she could heal “blindness, fits, deafness, and drunkenness.”

Modern sleuthing

From the Bender house, authorities recovered hammers whose shapes appeared to match indentations in some of the skulls. Almost 100 years after the killings, the family of Leroy Dick – the official in charge when the Bender house was found deserted – gave three hammers to the Cherryvale Museum.

They remain there in a display case mounted on a wall. A notarized note with the tools – a shoe hammer, claw hammer and sledgehammer – says that Dick “took the hammers to avoid possible loss of valuable evidence.”

Crystal Harper, the museum board president, said, “When I show people the museum, at least half the time, that’s why they are there – they want to see the Bender stuff.”

In theory, the hammers could be used today to see whether they are consistent with injuries to the skulls of the victims who were reburied, said Peer Moore-Jansen, a professor and chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Wichita State University. He has helped analyze modern-day crime scenes as well as historic and prehistoric materials.

Hammers, especially old ones, could have distinctive characteristics that could be matched to injuries. But such work would depend on having the cooperation of relatives, the local community and authorities, and it would have to be dealt with sensitively because it would involve disturbing graves to recover the remains, Moore-Jansen said.

As for the extensive crime scene at the farm – what came to be known as “Hell’s Acre” or “Hell’s Half-Acre” – it’s very likely that the 1873 excavation missed some of the graves dug by the killers, Moore-Jansen said. If reports that the most of the graves were dug 7 feet deep is correct, that would increase the likelihood that remains would not be disturbed and that some bones could remain, he said.

Tools that could be used now would include non-intrusive subsurface testing that can reveal disturbances in the soil that could suggest a grave. Also, test pits could be dug.

“It would be a very interesting project to pursue” for its scientific, educational and historical value, Moore-Jansen said.

Besides the hammers, there’s another interesting item reportedly from the Bender house that has been in the state’s possession since 1923. It’s a knife reportedly found by a brother of the doctor who was killed. The brother’s wife donated it.

The knife supposedly had been hidden in a mantel clock in the Bender house, said Nikaela Zimmerman, registrar with the Kansas Museum of History. “Now, how true that is,” she said, trailing off.

This past week, Zimmerman showed the knife to an Eagle reporter researching the Bender case. The tapered blade, about 4 inches long and with a bent tip, bears reddish-brown stains.

“Is that blood?” she said. “I have my doubts.”

She wonders whether the knife would have been big enough to cut throats.

Still, the knife is a rare surviving item reportedly from the Bender house. The knife is not on exhibit but can be seen upon request at the state museum in Topeka.

Benders’ fate unknown

In late 1970, the Kansas City Star’s magazine published an article about new national interest in the Bender murders, partly as a result of a new novel based on the killings and partly because Hollywood was interested in possibly casting Raquel Welch, Jane Fonda or Jacqueline Bisset as Kate Bender.

Writer Robert Adelman had visited Cherryvale to get background on his novel “The Bloody Benders,” and Samuel Goldwyn Jr. had bought the movie rights. Goldwyn reportedly visited the Cherryvale area and took photos of the countryside, but it’s not clear whether a movie ever came of it.

Just as an Eagle reporter did this past week, the reporter of the 1970 magazine story went to the Bender site and wrote that it no longer bore marks of the Bender home. Soon after the crimes were discovered, souvenir hunters took boards from the house, even rocks from a well where a body was found.

Apparently, the house was gone long before the 1970 story. An article in the Kansas City Journal between 1929 and 1932 was titled “A Visit to the Bender Farm,” and the subhead said, “This Famous Place Now a Mass of Cockle Burs and Grass.”

The story said that the only sign of the home was a hole where the cellar had been. A small band of corn stood where the bodies had been unearthed.

Over the years, some people claimed that the Benders had been lynched and that their bodies had been weighted and tossed into the Verdigris River.

Nowadays, travelers who stop at a rest area at the junction of U.S. 400 and U.S. 169, north of Cherryvale, can read a historical marker about the Benders’ crimes.

Steve Towns, a 66-year-old from Derby, stood in front of the marker last week and read the story.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” he said after he finished. “I didn’t know any of this.”

The case “remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the old West,” the marker concludes.

Back in 1970, another historical marker put it this way: “The end of the Benders is not known. The earth seemed to swallow them, as it had their victims.”

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