6 of Your Favorite Local Characters

This is the fifth and final installment of a series on local characters whose fame spread by way of the internet. Each post drew a lot of response, mainly from those who requested a profile on characters from their hometowns. I feel like I know many of these people, even though I've never encountered them personally. They aren't just local anymore.

Emperor Norton

Joshua Abraham Norton was a 19th century local character in San Francisco who called himself His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, the emperor of the United States. He was thought of as eccentric at best or psychotic at worst, but those around him did not consider him dangerous. They humored Norton, and even honored him. Norton was given free meals at many restaurants and always had a seat at a play opening even though he had no money. He sometimes paid for services with currency he fashioned himself, which was accepted at local businesses. For 21 years, Norton issued decrees that were ignored by politicians and law enforcement (but welcomed by the media). One decree ordered the dissolution of the United States! Norton wore a uniform given to him by the army as he inspected the streets of San Francisco -but never call it "Frisco", because Norton forbade the use of the nickname. When Emperor Norton died in 1880, an estimated crowd of 30,000 people attended his funeral.

Artis the Spoonman


Artis the Spoonman is a street performer and professional spoons player. Artis, who legally dropped his last name, began performing with spoons when he was in the Navy. He began playing in Seattle bars and on street corners after his divorce in 1972. Artis has recorded with Frank Zappa, Soundgarden, and a host of other musicians. See him perform in this video. The song "Spoonman" by Soundgarden was written about Artis. Image by Tara Anderson.

Piccolo Guy


Tom Ryan is Madison, Wisconsin's Piccolo Guy, also known as Orange Guy. Ryan is a busker who plays a piccolo while wearing a high-visibility orange coat or jumpsuit. He is also a member of the jazz band Piccolissimo. Not everyone enjoys hearing piccolo music on the street. Ryan was cited for a noise violation in 2003 but was found not guilty after he launched an aggressive defense. See a documentary about Ryan named Blaze Orange.

Scanner Dan


Also in Madison, Wisconsin, Dan Mathison is an honorary member of every sorority at the University of Wisconsin. He got the name Scanner Dan back in the 80s when he came out to watch a man being pulled over by police after he heard about the incident on his police scanner. Mathison hangs out on State Street and at the Memorial Union and remembers the names of every student he meets.  Scanner Dan has his own definition on Urban Dictionary.

The Jacksonville Ninja


If you see a man doing martial arts moves at the corner of Western Boulevard and Highway 17 in Jacksonville, North Carolina, you've seen the Jacksonville Ninja. His name is Robert Mattocks, although he also goes by the nickname Radio Rahim. Mattocks spend up to eight hours a day exercising on the corner and entertaining those who drive or walk by. A rumor of his death in 2007 upset many Jacksonville citizens, but proved to be false. See Mattocks in action in this video.

Jennifer Gale


Jennifer Gale was a homeless transgendered person (born male and identified hersef as a woman) who ran for political office on many occasions in Austin, Texas. Each time she ran for mayor, in 1997, 200, 2001, 2003, and 2006, she received a larger percentage of the vote, although never enough to be considered a serious contender. Gale also ran for school board, city council, and once for mayor of Dallas. She ran on a platform of compassion for the homeless, universal health coverage, alternative energy, and recycling. Gale died in December of 2008 from a previously undiagnosed heart condition, which may have been exacerbated by life on the streets. She was believed to be 48 years old. Gale's campaign website is now a memorial site.

See also How to Be a Local Character, which featured Popcorn Sutton, Prince Mongo, the Flip-Flop Man, Henry Earl, and New York's He-Man; 7 Fascinating Local Characters, which profiled the Duck Lady, DJ Nitetrain, Blanket Man, Zanta, Shakey Jake, Leslie Cochran, and Radio; 9 Wonderful Local Characters, featuring Baton Bob, the Brown Twins, Tuba Man, Johnny Haysman, the St. Cloud Superman, Beatle Bob, the Naked Cowboy, and the World Famous Bushman; and 7 More Unforgettable Local Characters in which you'll see The Great Antonio, Willie York, The Flower Lady, Frisbee Dan, Moondog, the Rev. Livingston Wills, and Boardwalk Elvis.

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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