Notorious crimes have intrigued Kansans
06/04/2013 9:35 AM
08/13/2014 10:49 AM
Some crimes on Kansas soil have chilled and fascinated us — so unthinkable they draw people to the crime scenes for years.
In the 1870s, after the crime spree of the Bloody Benders — the state's first known serial killers — people flocked to the family's farmstead, taking from the site whatever souvenirs and mementos they could.
Within years, the farmstead was picked clean.
Eventually, the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka would end up with splinters from the Bender family's fence and a knife said to have been taken from their house.
"It has something on it; we don't know what it is," said Blair Tarr, museum curator for the society.
People never tire of seeing the items the few times they've been on display at the museum.
Within a few decades after Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were hanged at Lansing State Penitentiary, their granite markers — paid for by "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote — were stolen. In 2000, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation tracked the stones to a family farm in southeast Allen County.
They had been used as steps leading into a chicken house. They are now also archived at the State Historical Society.
We have other notorious criminals: the Dalton Gang, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, Bonnie and Clyde, the Fleagles, Michael Soles, Daniel Remeta, BTK, the Carr brothers and Scott Roeder.
But we also have criminals whose stories may be less violent and less defined — more crusader than villain.
"Carry Nation was one of our most famous lawbreakers," says Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.
"She was jailed frequently for smashing saloons. Now, you can contend she was throwing and destroying property that shouldn't have been there in the first place. But if you were the liquor store owner back then and complained, it would be the equivalent today of running to the police and saying 'She stole my marijuana.' That's not going to go over well. So, if you are destroying illegal goods, are you a lawbreaker or not?"
Kansas has always had a tug-of-war over the dark side. More often than not it plays into clashes of cultures, of races and mores.
Was John Brown a terrorist when he led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 that left five men murdered on Kansas soil and later an insurrection to abolish slavery?
Was George Custer a hero for leading military raids into Indian villages?
"Violence plays into the Wild West image we want to create," says Jay Price, director of public history at Wichita State University. "There is a struggle in Kansas over what is law-abiding. There has always been this fulcrum whose tipping point is 'Who is a criminal?' Is John Brown a criminal? Is the person who killed George Tiller a criminal or is George Tiller the criminal?
"Our image has never been a 'Walker Texas Ranger' string-them-up type of people. More often than not, our image is more like Mary Ann from Gilligan. We like to believe we are a nice Midwestern state where crime doesn't happen. And that's why crimes like the murders of the Clutter family and BTK are so jarring. It is the opposite of the image Kansas tries to portray."
Definition of crime
From abolition to abortion, Kansans through the decades have fought causes and put their lives on the line.
First it was abolitionists who challenged and fought pro-slavery supporters in determining whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state.
Then, it was prohibitionists who determined for more than six decades why liquor should be banned from our lips.
And then, it was proper Victorian resolve that for decades helped guide Kansas women in what they should and should not do.
Kansans tried changing their state's image from rough and wild in the late 19th century to prim and proper at the turn of the 20th century, Price said.
"We built high standards," Price said. "But the problem becomes that we build such high standards, few people are able to obey the law."
Chris Lovett, history professor at Emporia State University, is working on a book he's tentatively calling "Bad Girls." It is a study of the Kansas prisons over more than a century.
"If you knew the charges they put people in prison for, you'd be stunned," Lovett said.
In the late 19th century, if a man proposed to a woman and had a sexual relationship before the marriage and he decided he didn't want to marry her, she or her parents could bring charges of illicit relations against him.
He could spend a year or more in prison.
Likewise, women could be charged with sexual crimes. Nearly 80 percent of the women who were incarcerated from 1865 through 1917 were there on sex-related crimes, Lovett said.
Some were prostitutes.
Many were not.
Women could be imprisoned for health code violations, for bootlegging, for white slavery and crossing state lines.
It depended on what kind of family they came from.
"A woman could go to a doctor for venereal disease and the doctor, by law, would have to notify public health officials who would then imprison her," Lovett said. "Or, if she tried treating herself by going to the pharmacy, the pharmacist would turn her in. There was one girl who was as young as 11 turned in."
Once incarcerated, the women might commit suicide or become hysterical.
For those who survived, the state would force them to become sterilized.
At that time, Kansas ranked third nationally in the number of sterilizations.
"This is a dark side of Kansas history that often doesn't make its way into history books," Lovett said. "It was a way to control the women in Kansas. Ever since its founding, Kansas was a male-dominated state. This law was a way of protecting men."
It was improper for a single woman to be in the same room as a man who was not her relative, to ride in a car with a man, or to dance.
"You wouldn't want to be a woman who challenged male authority," Lovett said. "In looking at the first war in Kansas, it's really about sex and justice."
The wide, open frontier often gave people the feeling anything could happen in Kansas.
And from the end of the Civil War through the turn of the 20th century, almost anything did.
Some actions were so blatant, there was no doubt a crime was committed.
More often than not a crime involves dead bodies, blood on the scene and money missing.
Such was the case in the early 1870s when the state's first known serial killers — a farm family named Bender —disappeared abruptly after people near Cherryvale reported missing loved ones for weeks on end.
The Bender family — Ma, Pa, Kate and John Jr. —had been inviting road-weary travelers into their home for a hot meal and a night's sleep. Then the Benders would bash their victims in the head with a hammer, slit their throats and rob them.
From the time they homesteaded in Labette County in 1871 until the spring of 1873, the Benders killed at least 11, including one child.
They buried the bodies in the nearby garden and apple orchard.
Kansas at the end of the 19th century was rough and wild. It nurtured characters such as John Wesley Hardin, a man so mean he was reported to have been in 40 standup gunfights and to have shot a man in an Abilene boarding house for snoring too loud.
Others passed through Kansas, killing and taking what they could.
A horse thief, murderer and robber, Jack Ledford and his Star-Bar-Half-Moon Gang ruled the Arkansas River alley during Wichita's early days.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Dalton Gang terrorized much of south-central Kansas and Oklahoma by robbing trains and banks.
"We tend to talk about our Wild West, but we overplay it," Price said. "We talk about wild, wicked Wichita and how rough and tumble it was, but it is inaccurate. It would be the same as if we were to write a history of Los Angeles and write solely based on the LA gangs crime unit. If you took that, you would get a different perspective than someone who looks only at Hollywood."
The worst crimes
Still, some crimes that shake the soul and alter how we look at strangers and the people we see day to day.
Such was the case with the Benders.
Or, when Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were found murdered in their farmhouse near Holcomb on Nov. 15, 1959 by two ex-convicts on parole from the state penitentiary.
The killers had heard a jailmate describe how the Clutters were wealthy, how they kept a safe filled with money in their home. It wasn't true. The killers ended up with about $40, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio.
New York writer Truman Capote described it: "Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives."
Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were caught after a six-week manhunt. They were executed for their crimes on April 14, 1965.
The four shotgun blasts echoed beyond Holcomb. They changed the way Kansans felt about their safety. And they touched people around the world when they were recounted in Capote's book, "In Cold Blood."
"Those murders broke new ground," said Dave Webb, historian and assistant director at the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City. "Here we had a down-to-earth Midwestern Great Plains family murdered seemingly in the night. It woke up the whole country."
The feeling of security was again jarred when a Park City code enforcer terrorized the state's largest city for more than three decades.
Dennis Rader was known simply as BTK, for Bind, Torture and Kill.
"The intriguing thing about him is that he could do such vicious things and melt back into the landscape and go about his ordinary life," Webb said.
And if these things could happen in Kansas, it meant they could happen anywhere.
"When things happen in Kansas, they take on a significance that they might not take on elsewhere," Averill said. "Kansas is such an iconic state. And even Truman Capote said that 'In Cold Blood' he was looking for a big story. If you are not safe in your bed in Kansas, you are not safe in any bed in America, anymore."