Meet 5 Pioneering Women

March is Women's History Month, because women make history, even when they don't make the history books. It's not always easy to find the fascinating females hidden among the archives of those who settled the United States. Whether they are builders, barrier breakers, victims, or criminals, here are five interesting women whose stories were left out of most textbooks.

1. Deborah Moody

Lady Deborah Moody was an early pioneer in the "new" land of America. Born in the 1580s in England, she was already a widow with two children by the time she sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. There, she ran afoul of religious authorities. The well-read and educated Moody argued against baptizing infants, as they cannot make a freewill statement of faith. This belief landed her in court in 1642! The conflict with the Puritans caused Moody to move to New Amsterdam, taking a group of other Anabaptists with her. Moody founded a new community in 1643 called Gravesend, where she was the leading citizen, conducting town meetings and conferring with the Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant. Gravesend was one of the earliest planned communities in America, with streets laid out geometrically before any homes were built. The Gravesend community is now part of Brooklyn, New York, and the area settled by Moody and her followers includes Coney Island, which the community purchased from Native Americans in 1654.

2. Cynthia Ann Parker

Cynthia Ann Parker was born in 1825 in Illinois. Her family traveled by wagon train to settle Fort Parker in Texas. In 1836, soon after the community was established, Comanches raided the settlement and kidnapped five settlers, including ten-year-old Cynthia. Four of the settlers were eventually returned to Fort Parker, but Cynthia Ann Parker stayed with the tribe for 25 years. She had grown to love her Native American family and refused offers of ransom to return to her parents. Over the years, she had some contact with family members, but remained with her adopted tribe and husband, chief Peta Nocoma. They had three children. In 1860, a raid by the Texas Rangers recovered Parker and her infant daughter. Peta was presumed dead, and her two sons escaped. Parker tried many times to return to the Comanches, but was found and sent back to the Parker family each time. Word came that her son Pecos had died, and then her infant daughter Topsannah also died. Broken-hearted, Parker herself died in 1870 at the age of 43. But her legacy continued.

Parker's surviving son Quannah Parker became chief of the Quahadi Comanches and took control of the Texas plains for years, fighting back the U.S. Cavalry until 1874. Exiled to Oklahoma, he was revered as a tribal leader until his death in 1911.

3. Charlotte/Charlene Parkhurst

Charley Parkhurst was known as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers of the Old West. Charley was short but strong, and even after retiring from driving, could outwork men half her age as a lumberjack. But after she died, those who had known Charley for years were shocked to discover something they never knew -Charley was a woman! Charlotte (or possibly Charlene) Darkey Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812. Dressed as a boy, Charley worked in stables and learned the craft of a driver. She built a reputation as a skilled driver, then fled to Georgia, possibly over the threat of exposure. She moved west to California in 1851, where she again built a reputation as a skilled and talented driver. At least once her secret was discovered, but those who knew kept it confidential to preserve her dignity. After her death in 1879, doctors not only discovered Charley’s sex, but announced that she had at some time in her life given birth. Many parts of her story remain a mystery to this day.

4. Stagecoach Mary Fields

Mary Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1832. Little is known of her early life, but she was close to her master's daughter Dolly, whom she grew up with. Dolly became a nun and settled in a convent in Toledo, Ohio. Fields followed her, and worked for the convent. Then Dolly, now known as Sister Amadeus, moved to Montana to teach Native American children. Fields eventually followed, and was hired to perform heavy labor at the Montana mission. Mary Fields was six feet tall, smoked cigars, drank with men, and didn't turn away from a fight. When another laborer complained that the "uppity colored woman" made more money than he did, Fields went to kill him. The ensuing gunfight left the man slightly injured, and Fields was fired. After opening a restaurant that failed, she got a job delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service in 1895 -she was only the second woman and the first black woman to ever deliver the nation's mail. Already in her sixties, Fields built a reputation for getting the mail through no matter what the obstacles or the weather, and gained the nickname Stagecoach Mary. Fields retired at the age of seventy and opened a laundry service. But she was still tough: a customer who gave her a bad time about his laundry found himself knocked flat on the ground by a 72-year old woman!

5. Pearl Hart

Pearl Taylor Hart was born in Ontario around 1871. She had a conventional upbringing, but fell for Frederick Hart, with whom she eloped as a teenager. Hart was an abusive drunk and a poor provider, and Pearl was disillusioned. Her husband took a job as a carnival barker with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and Hart became inspired by sharpshooter Annie Oakley and activist Julia Ward Howe. Hart left her husband and traveled to Colorado. She and her husband reunited off and on, long enough to have three children, but Hart eventually left him for good and went to Arizona, where she hooked up with an outlaw named Joe Boot and began a life of crime. In 1899, they robbed a stagecoach of around $450 and fled. They were soon apprehended. Hart, who was dressed as a man for the caper, became famous as the "lady bandit," a role she was happy to play up for the press. Although she admitted guilt, she was acquitted out of sympathy. The angry judge then held her for firearms possession, for which she received a five-year sentence. Boot got 30 years for the robbery, although he escaped and was never seen again. In prison, Hart was a celebrity and found herself paroled after 18 months. For some time, she courted fame on stage and in a Wild West Show, but eventually disappeared. It is not known for certain how she spent the rest of her life.

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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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