Recluses: Private, Exploited, or Self-Destructive?

Sometimes very private people wish to withdraw from the world, and they have that right. Yet some cases may be more than just personal choice. When there is a lot of money at stake and a very few people have access to an elderly recluse, the temptation to take complete control may be too much to resist. Still, the privacy issues surrounding such cases make investigations difficult.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of Sogen Kato hit the news. Kato was on record as turning 111 years old, which made him the oldest man in Tokyo. City officials went to congratulate him on the milestone, but were rebuffed by family members, who said the patriarch "doesn't want to see anybody." Welfare officials made several visits before police broke into the bedroom to see Kato. The man was found to be nothing but a mummified skeleton. Authorities estimate that he had been dead for as long as thirty years. Kato's relatives said he had locked himself away and refused to let anyone in. However, millions of yen in pension funds had been deposited into Kato's account and withdrawn by the family over the years.

An 1871 account related how an unnamed wealthy recluse shut himself away in a hotel and gave the power to deal with visitors to the hotel manager. Years later, officials forced their way into his room and found that the man had changed his mind about leaving the world behind years before, but the hotel manager had kept him locked away anyway.

Huguette Clark recently turned 104 years old. She is an heiress, the only surviving child of copper tycoon and Senator William Andrews Clark, who was once thought to be the second richest man in America. He was 67 years old when Huguette was born to his second wife, Anna. William Clark had other children from his first wife, and Huguette had an older full sister who died at a young age. Huguette Clark is estimated to be worth about $500 million. She owns several multi-million dollar estates which sit empty. She owns two floors of her New York City apartment building, where she and her mother lived for many years. The building is still listed as Clark's residence, but she has been living at a Manhattan hospital for the past 22 years. Yes, 22 years, because Clark feels comfortable and safe there, she doesn't have to socialize in order to have her health monitored, and she can pay for it.

Huguette Clark was married for a couple of years in the 1920s, but has otherwise stayed out of the spotlight her entire adult life. The last known photograph she ever allowed was taken in 1930. After her divorce, Clark lived in the New York apartment with her mother Anna until her death in 1963. Since then, she has spoken to very few people and has seen even fewer. Even business transactions took place through closed doors. Clark's longtime friends and caretakers have all died with the exception of 89-year-old Suzanne Pierre, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

Clark's money is looked after by her accountant, Irving Kamsler, and her lawyer, Wallace Bock. Both men became the beneficiaries of another elderly client upon his death, inheriting $100,000 each and an apartment in New York after his will was changed several times in short order. Bock recently arranged for the sale of some of Clark's possessions. After the recent stories of Clark's life and finances were published, Adult Protective Services in New York opened a case to determine if Clark is being properly cared for and whether she is being exploited. Distant relatives have requested that a guardian be appointed to watch after Clark's interests. She reportedly gave one of her longtime nurses nearly $2 million just this past week.

The Bouvier family was fabulously wealthy until the Great Depression. Some of the younger generation recovered pretty well: Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy and then Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and her sister Caroline Lee married a publishing executive and then a Polish prince, Stanis?aw Albrecht Radziwi??. Jacqueline's aunt, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale didn't fare as well. The aspiring singer was left relatively little of her father's wealth and cut off from her husband's fortune after their divorce, but she received a 28-room mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. She lived there with her daughter, who was also named Edith. "Little Edie", as the daughter was known, had been a model and aspiring actress when her mother asked her to come home and care for her in 1952. For decades, Big Edie and Little Edie kept to themselves, feeding off each other's eccentricity. The two women were rarely seen outside of Grey Gardens until inspectors from the local Health Department came to the mansion in 1971. They found the two Ediths living in squalor, with most of the dilapidated mansion's rooms shut off and their living quarters piled high with garbage and inhabited by cats. fleas, opossums, and raccoons. The women refused to cooperate with health authorities, and the story became a public scandal. The extended family was shocked and embarrassed; they had apparently assumed that Little Edie was taking care of Big Edie. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis paid for a professional cleanup project in 1972.

At the same time, Lee Radziwill was in discussions with David and Albert Maysles about producing a documentary film on the Bouviers, meaning Lee and Jackie. The Maysles passed on that idea, but were interested in filming Big Edie and Little Edie. The result was the 1976 documentary Grey Gardens. The mother and daughter enjoyed their opportunity to be seen on the silver screen, although the film crew had to wear flea collars on their legs while filming at Grey Gardens. The movie became a cult hit, which spawned a Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

After Big Edie died in 1977, Edith Bouvier Beale II resumed a regular life. She gave away the cats, cleaned up the mansion, and made appearances at New York nightclubs. After selling Grey Gardens, she retired to Florida where she lived a normal, relatively subdued life until her death in 2002.

Howard Hughes was a filmmaker, aviator, businessman, and the most notorious recluse of all. He built his fortune in the 1920s and '30s, married twice but had no children, and bought his privacy in a most public way. In 1947, Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder took over his when he locked himself in his screening room for four months, insisting that none of his aides look at him or speak to him. He sat naked and watched movies day after day. Afterward he withdrew from the world, conducting business through his close associates, only emerging briefly in 1972 to expose a biography by Clifford Irving as a hoax. Hughes lived in hotels, which he bought one after another, to ensure his privacy. In his later years, Hughes surrounded himself with Mormons because he trusted them, although he was not a member of the faith.

During this time, Hughes kept doctors on staff, but did not follow their advice. He received no psychiatric help. He was so wealthy and powerful that no one dared cross him, even for his own health and safety. Hughes second wife, Jean Peters, divorced him 1971 -she had not seen her husband for years. He died in 1976 of what was determined to be kidney failure. Hughes weighed 90 pounds and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arm, as he had been addicted to morphine for years, prescribed for injuries suffered in plane crashes. His appearance had changed so much since he appeared in public that his fingerprints were taken for identification. Hughes' estate of $2.5 billion was claimed by many people, and was eventually distributed to 22 cousins after years of litigation.

The desire to be left alone can work against a person's best interests, but who is to say when the line is crossed, especially for those who have no close relatives? Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a person's self-destruction is a lifestyle choice or is aided and abetted by those who stand to gain.

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.

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters


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