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Mabel Stark: The Lady with the Tigers

Mabel Stark was the most famous female tiger tamer ever. She worked with the animals from 1911 to 1968, was mauled many times, and kept coming back for more, even into her old age.  

The story of Stark's early life is hard to pin down accurately, as she embellished the facts liberally to make a good story in various interviews and her autobiography. Most sources agree she was born in Kentucky with the name Mary Haynie, although she said at least once that she was born in Canada. Her birthdate varied, but appears to be around 1889. She was an only child or one of seven, and her parents died within the same month or two years apart when she was 11 or 13 or 17. We know that she was trained as a nurse before she joined a circus as a hoochie-coochie dancer somewhere around 1909. But Stark later claimed she went straight from nursing school to the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1911 to become an animal trainer.  

No one starts out in the circus as a tiger tamer, however. Stark was assigned to riding horses, which she hated. She wanted to work with tigers, the most dangerous animal in the circus. Stark approached the circus' head animal trainer, Hungarian Louis Roth, and trained under him -and was even married to him for a short time. Roth would have preferred for Stark to work with lions, but she insisted on tigers. Roth advocated training big cats by rewarding them with meat, as opposed to just beating them into submission as earlier trainers did. In other words, Roth used the carrot and the stick instead of just the stick. Stark's first big cat performance was with two lions and two tigers, and she eventually worked up to as many as 18 tigers at once.  

Stark took in a sickly tiger cub that was rejected by his mother and raised him by hand. Rajah became instrumental in making Stark a star. She developed a shocking signature act in which she wrestled Rajah, causing the audience to believe she was being mauled. She admitted years later that Rajah was actually relieving himself sexually during this act, which looks very much like a vicious attack to anyone not familiar with tiger behavior. Stark started wearing a white uniform at this time so that the audience would not see tiger semen. The white costume became her signature, which she used for the rest of her career.   

   

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus hired Stark away from Barnes in 1920. By then Stark had divorced Roth and was a star act. She married the circus's accountant Albert Ewing, who was embezzling funds from Ringling. They divorced when the crime was uncovered, but Stark believed she was being punished for her husband's sins when the circus cut all big cat acts in 1925. Ringling chiefs claimed that the cage took too long to assemble and tear down during a performance. Stark was still under contract, though, and was assigned to a horse act. Her tigers were kept on in the circus's menagerie, which was supervised by Art Rooney. Mabel later claimed that she married her first husbands for practical reasons, but she fell in love with Rooney. They soon married, which surprised other circus employees because Rooney wore makeup and nail polish, and they assumed he was not the marrying kind. Rooney died soon after under circumstances that were not recorded.

Stark was touring with the John Robinson Company when she was badly injured in 1928. The circus train was late getting to the venue in Bangor, Maine, the tigers were getting wet in the rain, and there was no time to feed them before the show. Normally, a cat act would be delayed or cancelled for this reason. But Stark let the show go on. Two hungry tigers named Sheik and Zoo mauled her during the show. Stark's own description of the incident:

"Sheik was right behind me, and caught me in the left thigh, tearing a two-inch gash that cut through to the bone and almost severed my left leg just above the knee. . .I could feel blood pouring into both my boots, but I was determined to go through with the act. . .(Zoo) jumped from his pedestal and seized my right leg, jerking me to the ground. As I fell, Sheik struck out with one paw, catching the side of my head, almost scalping me. . .Zoo gave a deep growl and bit my leg again. He gave it a shake, and planting both forefeet with his claws deep in my flesh, started to chew. . .I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn. . .Most of all I was concerned for the audience. . .I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes. And all my tigers would be branded as murderers and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in narrow cages instead of being allowed the freedom of the big arena and the pleasure of working. That thought gave me strength to fight."

Stark managed to leave the cage with the help of another animal trainer, and insisted on changing out of her blood-soaked stage clothing before going to the hospital. Doctors sewed muscles and skin back together with 378 stitches, but did not expect her to survive. She was back to work within a few weeks, although the injuries troubled her and she was in and out of hospitals several times over the next two years for further muscle repair.

That was only the first of three serious maulings Stark suffered. In 1933, during a show featuring 18 tigers, one bit through her arm. She finished her act with the arm hanging limp before seeking medical attention. In 1950, Stark survived her third serious mauling, when her right arm was so mangled that it required 175 stitches. Once again, she recovered. But those were just the "severe" maulings -Mabel Stark had many other incidents in which she was injured by a big cat throughout her career. She always blamed herself, or other factors, but never the tigers. She loved them and respected them, but also said there was no such thing as a "tame tiger."  

Stark announced her retirement a couple of times, but always returned to performing. She appeared with various circuses through the 1930s. She worked as a stunt double in the lion-taming scenes for Mae West in the 1933 film I'm No Angel, which West wrote, possibly inspired by Stark's career. Hollywood work introduced Stark to Louis Goebel's Jungleland, a Thousand Oaks, California, facility that housed trained animals for movies. It later became a theme park, and Mabel Stark went to work there in 1938, eventually on a permanent basis. During her 30 years at Jungleland, she also found time to take her tiger act on the road to Europe and Japan. And she got married for the last time. Her fourth (or possibly fifth) husband was menagerie keeper Ed Trees, who died in 1953.

Jungleland was bought and sold several times during Stark's tenure, and the park declined financially through the 1960s (it was finally dismantled in 1969). The new owner in 1968 did not like Stark, and fired her. The 79-year-old tiger tamer did not want to retire. The loss of her job, combined with an incident in which one of her tigers escaped and was killed, sent her into despair. Mabel Stark took an overdose of barbiturates, and was found dead by her housekeeper on April 20, 1968. According to her 1938 autobiography Hold That Tiger, Stark would have preferred to die at the hands of a tiger than by any other means, but it was not to be. She had already survived that fate. 

 

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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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crime
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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