A Bovine Gift from the Heart

Last week we had seven cow tales, but here's one that can't be told in just a simple paragraph. The story of the Masai village of Enoosaen and their gift of cattle is a story you won't forget.

The Masai people (also spelled Maasai) live in Kenya and Tanzania. They are semi-nomadic and require large swathes of territory to graze their cattle. Livestock, mainly cattle, is the lifeblood of the tribe. A man who has many cattle and many children is a rich man; more of one and few of the other spells trouble. Cows provide their nutrition: milk and cheese, blood, and occasionally meat. More often, sheep and goats are used for meat and cows are saved for milk and calves. Cows are used as an exchange medium. A man will trade cattle for a bride, and the number of cows given is a symbol of how wealthy he is and how much he wants to impress his in-laws. It may be the largest purchase of this life. Image by Flickr user ddepauw1.

In traditional Masai culture, young boys herd cattle. Young men become warriors and protect the cattle (and in the past, steal cattle). Older men own cattle. But with modernization, education is also important. The Masai have taken charge of the tourist trade and use the proceeds to support schools. A young Masai warrior named Wilson Kimel Naiyomah had a dream to become a doctor and serve his people. The tribe sold cattle and raised $5,000 in 1996 to send Naiyomah to college. Administrators at The University of Oregon read of the sacrifice the cattlemen of Enoosaen, Kenya, made, and offered a scholarship. Naiyomah went to Oregon and then later transferred to Stanford in pre-med. Naiyomah happened to be visiting Manhattan when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. He absorbed the horror of that day along with everyone in the city, as well as the rest of America. When Naiyomah returned to his home for a visit in 2002, he found that although some Masai had heard of the attack, they only had a vague notion of what happened, since electricity had only been available to the village of Enoosaen for a short time and there were few radios.

Naiyomah told the story from his perspective as a witness and informed student. The villagers were horrified. They had trouble understanding how buildings were tall enough to cause death if one jumped from them, but they understood what 3,000 dead meant -that would be most of their village. The entire tribe anguished over the tragedy. They felt they had to do something to help the United States in their time of need. Naiyomah offered one of his cows and asked the elder to bless it. The elders responded by also donating cows as gifts to America.

"The cow is almost the center of life for us," said Mr. Naiyomah. "It's sacred. It's more than property. You give it a name. You talk to it. You perform rituals with it. I don't know if you have any sacred food in America, something that has a supernatural feel as you eat it. That's the cow for us."

The gift was meant to help Americans through their time of sorrow. Image above by Flickr user deepchi1.

Families donated 14 head of cattle to present to the United States. Naiyomah  contacted the deputy chief of mission of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, William Brancick, to present the gift. Brancick flew to western Kenya, then drove another two hours to reach Enoosaen for the gift ceremony in 2002. He thanked the people of the village, but explained that the logistics of transporting the cattle would be prohibitively expensive. The cattle stayed in the village awaiting a decision on what the Americans would do with them. See video footage from the day of ceremony.

By 2006, the American herd numbered 21 head. Michael E. Ranneberger, the new US ambassador to Kenya, arrived at Enoosaen to inspect the herd. He announced the plan: the cattle would stay in Kenya, and their offspring would be sold to provide educational opportunities for Masai children. The Americans kicked off the program by providing 14 high school scholarships for village children. But how to identify which cows are American? The Masai mark their cattle with a notch in the ear. Each owner has a distinctive notch, so the US cattle had to have their own mark. Ambassador Ranneberger was asked to select a mark for the American cows. After some thought, he decided on two simple rectangles, which symbolize the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Image by Guillaume Bonn for The New York Times.

Naiyomah was contacted by author Carmen Agra Deedy to collaborate on a children's book about the Masai's gift of cattle. The result is 14 Cows for America. The picture book, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, was released in 2009 and is now a best seller.

The experience has changed life for Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. He completed his MS in Biological Sciences at Stanford, and has switched gears from medicine to diplomacy. He is now a Rotary World Peace Fellow and is studying at the Rotary Center for International Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His goal is to become "a peacemaker", although he is plenty busy doing other things as well. Image by Rotary Images/Alyce Henson.

Naiyomah worked to set up a system for clean water in his village, and helps to support orphans in both Kenya and the US. He founded the America Africa Nuru Foundation to bring educational opportunities and modern infrastructure to Enoosaen. The foundation is working on establishing a hospital for the village. Naiyomah is on the Board of Directors. As of 2009, the American herd of cattle in Kenya numbered 40 head.
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Special thanks to Bullwinkle, whose comment on last week's cow post inspired this article.

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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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.

1. S'MORES

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.

2. WREATHS

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.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

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.

4. ART SUPPLIES

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).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

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.

6. PEEPS POPS

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.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

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.

8. DIORAMAS

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.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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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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