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Historic Vampires

While researching the tale of Mercy Brown for the Cemetery Stories post, I read that she was the only accused vampire ever exhumed in the United States. The very idea that this is a notable fact gave me the willies. Is this so common in other countries? As it turns out, exhumation over supernatural suspicions happened quite often in our history, and many people have been accused of vampirism during their lives. There are so many such people that I limited this list to examples of the different reasons people became known as vampires. Warning: these stories are all gruesome.

The Serial Killer: Vincenzo Verzeni

Vincenzo Verzeni of Bergamo, Italy, was a serial killer who derived sexual pleasure from the act of murder by strangulation and from drinking blood and eating the entrails of the deceased. He was called The Vampire Strangler of Bergamo in the press. In 1873 he was arrested for attempted murder after an interrupted attempt at strangling at teenage girl. Verzeni was found guilty of two murders and several attempted murders and was sentenced to hard labor for life at a psychiatric hospital. He died in custody in 1918.

The Torture Victim: Clara Geisslerin

Clara Geisslerin was a 69-year-old widow in the town of Gelnhausen, Germany when she was accused of witchcraft in 1597. Among the charges were graverobbing, murder, and consorting with demons. Under torture (by thumbscrews and the rack), she confessed to sexual relations with demons in the form of animals and to drinking the blood of sixty children that she had killed. She also named twenty other women who were guilty. However, Geisslerin recanted her confession when the torture was stopped. Local authorities, fearing for her soul, resumed the torture a second time. Geisslerin again confessed, adding that she had conceived many children with the demons and had killed them all. She recanted once more as soon as she was taken off the rack, and told her accusers that God would be their judge. The other twenty suspects had been questioned and implicated Geisslerin by then, so the old woman was tortured a third time. A confession was once again elicited, but Geisslerin could not recant this time because she died under the pressure. The judges in the case attributed her death to the devil, who did not want Geisslerin to disclose any further details. Case closed.

The Deceased: Arnold Paole

Arnold Paole was a Serbian soldier who lived a relatively undistinguished life, but became a famous vampire after his death from a fall around the year 1725. Paole had told a tale of how he was once bitten by a vampire in Turkey, but that he had taken steps to reverse the curse, which involved eating soil from the vampire's grave and smearing himself with the vampire's blood. That tale was remembered by those left behind in the village of Medve?a. Within a month of his death, four people reported that Paole had attacked them; all four died soon after. Paole was, of course, blamed for their deaths and his body was exhumed. Expecting to find a skeleton, the villagers were shocked to find he looked rather fresh (after all, Paole had only been buried a few weeks earlier). The appearance of fresh blood at his mouth and the lack of decomposition convinced them that he was, indeed, a vampire. When they drove a stake through the body, Paole's corpse groaned and emitted blood. The villagers then burned the body. They then exhumed the four "victims" and, wonder of wonders, found they, too, were not yet decomposed. They were all staked and then burned.

A few years later in 1731, more than a dozen Medveda citizens died of a mysterious malady. Two of the dead had been to Turkey and brought back tales of vampires, and one had reported she had eaten meat from a sheep that Arnold Paole (or possibly one of his "victims") had slaughtered. The regional authorities sent a contagious disease expert to investigate. He found no evidence of a disease, but suspected rampant malnutrition as the cause of the deaths. The villagers, however, were convinced of a vampire curse. Once again, all the victims were dug up from their graves. Some were found to be in a "vampire condition" (not decomposed). Those bodies were beheaded and burned. Others that were observed to be rotting were reburied as innocent.

The Butcher: Fritz Haarmann

German serial killer Fritz Haarmann became known as the Butcher of Hanover and the Vampire of Hanover as well when his crimes came to light in 1924. Children playing near a river found a stash of human bones, which led to a search and discovery of more than 500 body parts in varying stages of decay. Haarmann had served time as a pedophile and dealer in stolen goods (including black market meat), so he was one of many suspects. He was also a police informant. Haarmann was arrested in the act of luring a boy into his apartment, and a search of the premises turned up bloodstains and some possessions belonging to missing boys. His defense? The blood was from his black market butchering business! Haarmann later confessed to raping, killing, and butchering "between 50 and 70" young men. He was found guilty of 24 murders and suspected of several others, and was executed by beheading in 1925. It was never proved conclusively that the meat he sold was from his victims, but that's what many believe.

The Necrophiliac: Francois Bertrand

Sergeant Francois Bertrand of the French Army earned the nickname the Vampire of Montparnasse by his habit of graverobbing for pleasure in the 1840s. Bertrand had been a model soldier. He also felt an attraction to dead bodies, and would invade cemeteries to dig them up. Bertrand was not attracted to male corpses, but often had to dig up several bodies in order to find a female. Those he would mutilate, often after gratifying himself sexually. He sometimes bit or tasted the flesh as well. His compulsion led him to cemeteries all over France, wherever his unit was stationed, but he was arrested for his activities in Montparnasse. Bertrand was court-martialed and convicted only of damage to state property for violating the graves. After serving his one-year sentence, Bertrand committed suicide in 1850.

The Tyrant: Vlad III

Vlad the Impaler was the ruler of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462 (plus two other short reigns). The region is now part of Romania. He is remembered most for his atrocities while consolidating his power, expanding his realm, and defending it against enemies. Between 40,000 and 100,000 of his enemies were tortured and killed by impalement, a very painful and public method of death. Vlad was known to take pleasure in the procedure. The nickname Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler in English) was bestowed after his death in 1476. Vlad's father, Vlad II, took the name Dracul from the organization called the Order of the Dragon (Dracul is Romanian for "the dragon"). The Romanian suffix "ulea" means "son of," so Vlad III was sometimes called Dracula. Bram Stoker used the name for his fictional vampire, which is how Vlad became associated with vampirism. Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in several Hammer Horror films, portrayed Vlad III in a 1975 documentary.

See also: Historic Werewolves and Real Monsters: The Science Behind the Legends

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Food
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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