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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killers

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In 1870, Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura Ingalls left their home in southeast Kansas, where they had lived for about a year, and headed back to Wisconsin. Their Kansas home was later the basis for Laura's book The Little House on the Prairie. That same year, a group of new families moved into the area. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was totally foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state. Two of the families moved away within a year. The others kept to themselves, with the exception of the Benders.

John Bender, Sr., and his family settled in Kansas in 1870, near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to settle the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in which 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. Ma and Pa spoke mostly German, and their English was so heavily accented that no one understood them. The younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The family built a one-room house near the Osage Trail, with a curtain that divided the home into two areas. The front area 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, black powder, and food from the Bender home. And they often spent the night.

Kate was the most outgoing of the Benders, and advertised herself as a fortune teller and healer. It was rumored that she and her mother practiced witchcraft. Kate was attractive, and her psychic abilities drew extra customers to the inn, when she wasn't traveling to give lectures on Spiritualism and holding healing services.

Later investigations revealed that none of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only ones that were related were Ma and her daughter Kate. Pa was born John Flickinger around 1810 in either Germany or the Netherlands. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik, and her first husband was named Griffith, with whom she bore 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhart, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband instead of her brother.

Hundreds of men passed through Kansas on their way to seek their fortune in the West, and some were never heard from again. It took time for such disappearances to draw attention, as there were many reasons for travelers, adventurers, and settlers to be out of touch or even dead. But over the course of a couple of years, more and more missing persons appeared to have dropped off the face of the earth about the time they passed through Labette County. Several bodies were even found in the area, murdered, but no one knew who did it.

In 1872, George Loncher and his infant daughter left Independence, Kansas, to settle in Iowa after the death of his wife. They never arrived. Dr. William York went looking for them, following the Osage Trail. He questioned people all the way to Fort Scott, but then Dr. York himself disappeared on his way back to Independence. And that was the turning point in the story. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened: Colonel Ed York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation into Labette County. They questioned the Benders about a woman who claimed Ma had threatened her with a knife. The township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse in which it was decided to search every homestead for evidence of the murders. Colonel York attended the meeting, as well as both male Benders. But the weather turned bad, and it was several days before such a search could begin.

Meanwhile, a neighbor noticed the inn was empty. The Benders were gone. A couple of days later, several hundred volunteers arrived for a search, including Colonel York. The Benders' wagon was gone, but they took little from the home besides food and clothing. What the townspeople did find was chilling.

A trap door in the floor behind the separating curtain led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. The cabin was moved away from the spot, and the ground was dug up, but no bodies were found. Then the investigation 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 the body of Dr. York. Seven more bodies were found that night, and another the next day. The throats had been cut, and the skulls were bashed in. The exception was Mr. Loucher's infant daughter, who was buried under her father. One of the bodies was that of a girl estimated to be about eight years old, whose body was badly mutilated. Ten bodies were ultimately found at the Bender farm, but 21 murders are attributed to the family.

Investigators pieced together what happened. Guests at the inn were urged to sit in the place of honor, which was against the separating curtain. While dining, the guest of honor would be hit in the head with a hammer from behind the curtain, his throat would be slit, and then his body dropped into the trap door to the cellar. One man, Mr. Wetzell, heard the story and remembered when he was at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot. His decision caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the curtain, he and his companion decided to leave. William Pickering told an almost identical story.

For all the murders, the Benders only received about $4600 and some livestock from their victims. The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, and drew journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over.

The Benders' wagon was eventually found some miles away from the homestead. Twelve men were arrested as accessories to the murders, mostly for receiving stolen goods. Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2,000, 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 by evidence. Several vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The official investigation notes that testimony from railroad employees placed the Benders boarding a train for Humboldt, and traced the younger Benders to trains going to Texas or New Mexico. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City. No one knows what ultimately became of them. The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers. Today, nothing remains to even indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although the property is said to be haunted by the victims.

Those are the facts as known. Rumors that surrounded the case were legion. Some said that John Gebhart was a "half-wit," while others said his behavior was a ruse. Others say that Kate was a prostitute as well as a psychic and murderer. Ma supposedly killed three of her older children because they were witnesses to the murders of her husbands (Kate was her fifth child). And another rumor says that Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled. It was also reported that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884. But after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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