The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

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iStock

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.

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

11 Facts About the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

For 68 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been alerting the public to some of the most dangerous criminals in their midst. The organization's 10 Most Wanted list has become an iconic portrait of federal pursuit—referenced, parodied, and posted all around the world. For more on this famous rundown of felonious fugitives, check out these facts about how the Bureau approaches the most dangerous list in circulation today.

1. IT STARTED OVER A CARD GAME.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Thomas James Holden
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The notion of “wanted” posters has been around since the 1700s, when slave owners circulated descriptions of runaway slaves in an effort to force their return. The idea of itemizing society’s most hardened criminals originated in 1949, when a newspaper wire story profiled several “tough guys” who were in the Bureau’s sights. The writer had quizzed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during a game of cards. After seeing how popular the story became, Hoover approved the idea of circulating a top 10 list as a way of soliciting tips and other assistance from the general population. The first name on the list, released March 14, 1950, was Thomas Holden, who had murdered his wife and two of her relatives. Holden was arrested after a newspaper reader in Oregon recognized his photo and alerted authorities.

2. YOU NEED TO BE REALLY BAD TO MAKE THE LIST.

Not just any run-of-the-mill felon is suitable for this kind of scrutiny. Typically, criminals who appear on the list are fugitives who have a long history of disobeying the law, have current charges of a serious nature, are believed to pose a considerable threat to the public, and have potential to be captured based on knowledge submitted by citizens. To make the list, all 56 FBI field offices are tasked with submitting names for consideration. From there, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs weed out candidates for final approval by the FBI’s deputy director.

3. IT ALSO HELPS IF YOU HAVE DISTINCTIVE FEATURES.

Wanted By The FBI: Andrew Cunanan
FBI, Getty Images

In selecting fugitives they think the public could provide information on, the FBI looks at the ease with which someone could be recognized. A person with unremarkable features might blend in more easily, but a criminal with a peculiar facial quirk or who otherwise stands out in a crowd might be more likely to be featured.  

4. MOST OF THE FUGITIVES FEATURED HAVE BEEN CAPTURED.

As of 2018, the FBI had featured a total of 519 criminals in the 10 Most Wanted rundown. The Bureau says that 486 of those individuals were eventually captured, with the publicity of the list being a key reason. Of those 486, 162 were apprehended based on information shared by a tip.

5. IT’S NOT ALWAYS A LIST OF 10.

Nice round number that it is, the FBI can’t always restrict their criminal prey to a list of 10. If names on a list are part of a string of arrests, the sheet can drop to seven or eight names before being replenished. If criminals are co-conspirators, it might grow to 16. Anyone numbering 11 or beyond is labeled as a “Special Addition,” which is a polite way of saying a person is so dangerous that their capture is imperative. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example.

6. ONE GUY REMAINED ON THE LIST FOR MORE THAN 32 YEARS.

At one time, the FBI might have considered changing their list from the 10 Most Wanted to “Victor Manuel Gerena and Nine Other Fugitives.” In 1983, Gerena was working as an armored truck escort when he decided to swipe $7 million from a Wells Fargo truck. Gerena tied up his co-workers and injected them with a mixture of aspirin and water to make them sleepy, then took off and disappeared. It turned out Gerena was a pawn in a larger robbery scheme involving a Puerto Rican separatist group. In total, 19 men associated with the heist were either caught or killed. Gerena, however, remains at large—though he was finally removed from the list in 2016. Though the FBI didn’t specify why, removal is usually only on condition of the perpetrator’s death, dismissal of charges, or the belief they’re no longer a public menace.

7. THE LIST CHANGES WITH THE TIMES.

FBI Most Wanted poster for Eric Robert Rudolph
FBI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the list from different decades reveals a lot about which types of crimes happened to be in fashion during a given era. According to the FBI, bank robbers and car thieves populated the sheet in the 1950s. In the 1970s, counterculture figures engaged in sabotage or kidnappings took over. Today, terrorists and white-collar criminals are most likely to be the most wanted.

8. CALIFORNIA IS A HOTBED OF MOST WANTED ACTIVITY.

The FBI maintains a breakdown of crimes perpetuated by offenders in various states, and California doesn’t come out looking too good. Of the 519 criminals to make an appearance since 1950, 58 committed a crime in the Golden State. Illinois (38) and New York (33) are also prone to harboring Most Wanted activity. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have never had one.

9. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON BEING ADDED.

Not all subjects have committed contemporary crimes. In 2014, the FBI added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to the list even though his crime—murdering his wife, mother, and children with a hammer—took place 38 years earlier in 1976. Bishop had been at large the entire time before the FBI made a “surprise” entry to the list, hoping someone might recognize the then-79-year-old with the aid of age-advancing imagery. After two years on the list, he was removed due to a lack of viable leads and because Bishop was no longer believed to be a danger to the public at large.

10. ONLY 10 WOMEN HAVE EVER MADE THE LIST.

Of the 519 criminals who have been featured on the list, only 10 of them—or less than two percent—were women. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the first woman to earn the notorious distinction; she was added to the list in 1968 and wanted for kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. She was eventually apprehended on March 5, 1969 and ended up pleading guilty at her trial. She was sentenced to seven years in prison but paroled after four on the condition that she return to her native country of Honduras.

11. THERE’S AN APP FOR IT.

If you feel like scoping out your neighborhood for fugitives, the FBI has an app available via iTunes that guides you through their list and also allows you to be alerted to missing children or other public assistance situations in your region. It’s free, and if you have a tip that leads to capture or resolution, you might even get a reward.

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