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.

The Real Reason Costco Employees Check Receipts at Exits

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If shoppers have one complaint about Costco—the vast discount warehouse chain with a notoriously permissive return policy and speedy checkout lanes—it’s that the employees posted at the exits to take a marker to customers' receipts seem vaguely insulting. Is the premise that everyone is a shoplifter until proven otherwise?

Not exactly. A recent rundown of Costco's policy from The Takeout (via Cheat Sheet) points out that the true motivation of these exit-door sentries isn’t to identify potential thieves. It’s to make sure that Costco isn’t picking the pockets of its customers.

According to employees who have made not-for-attribution comments, Costco is actually examining receipts to make sure a shopper hasn’t been overcharged for their purchases. Someone with three giant bundles of toilet paper in their cart, for example, might have been charged for four. By giving the receipt a cursory glance, the employee can make sure a cashier didn’t inadvertently ring up phantom crates of canned tuna.

Of course, if someone did try to wheel out several big-screen televisions without a receipt, the exit door employee would likely make an issue of it. But they’re not in loss prevention, and the measure isn’t intended to deter thieves. If you do have something in your cart you didn’t pay for, their immediate assumption is that the mistake is almost certainly the result of a cashier not scanning the item.

In fact, hardly any criminals are caught at the door—which isn't to say the store isn't immune to theft. Earlier this year, thieves at a Seattle Costco were busted with armloads of laptops after they barged out of the back entrance. In June, a Costco in Alpharetta, Georgia, was victimized by burglars who smashed the jewelry case at night and made off with $10,000 worth of valuables.

[h/t The Takeout]

8 Dishes Made by Notorious Poisoners

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iStock/com/bhofack2

While many poisoners throughout history have stirred their deadly potions and powders into drinks, some of the more culinarily inclined have crafted killer dishes instead. The nurturing image these poisoners often presented—with casseroles and cakes always at the ready—may have even helped distract from their murderous ways.

1. NANNIE DOSS’S APPLE AND PRUNE PIE

Nannie Doss (1905–1965) poisoned as many as 12 family members. She allegedly added poison to both prune cake and an apple-prune pie, soaking the fruit overnight in rat poison. Her reported recipe included sprinkling the top of the crust with sugar when it was fresh from the oven, which probably helped disguise the taste of the poison.

2. ANJETTE LYLES’S BANANA PUDDING

Anjette Donovan Lyles (1925–1977) owned and operated a thriving luncheonette in Macon, Georgia. She was known for simple Southern fare and desserts such as her banana pudding with vanilla wafers (which you can find a recipe for here alongside a selection of her other popular creations). She took frequent breaks from the restaurant to tend to two dying husbands, a mother-in-law, and a daughter, all of whom she killed by adding rat poison to their food—though it's not clear precisely which specific dishes she served them.

3. BLANCHE TAYLOR-MOORE’S PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKE

Milkshake in nostalgic glass with whipped cream and cherry on top
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Blanche Taylor-Moore (1933-) dispatched of at least three people in a prolonged and agonizing fashion by repeatedly serving them arsenic-laced meals. She then hindered recovery by bringing digestive-friendly foodstuffs laced with poison (including banana pudding) to their hospital beds. Shakes made with vanilla ice cream, milk, and creamy peanut butter were the favorite of her second husband, the Reverend Dwight Moore, who survived despite reportedly having 100 times the normal levels of arsenic in his system.

4. LYDA SOUTHARD’S APPLE PIE

She sprinkled it with cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg too
And sugared it with arsenic, a tasty devil's brew.
That famous apple pie, which ne'er forgot will be,
And for Lyda Southard's apple pie, men lay them down to die.

Idaho folk song

Lyda Trueblood Southard (1892-1958) and her family are said to have moved from their home in Missouri around 1907 after seeing a photo of a man holding a cantaloupe-sized apple grown near the new town of Twin Falls, Idaho. She put these apples to use in pies ... along with arsenic from boiled flypaper, which she reportedly used to poison four husbands, one daughter, and a brother-in-law [PDF]. Although she proclaimed her innocence to the end, it's rumored that her body was hairless, revealing a prolonged exposure to arsenic.

5. LYDIA SHERMAN’S CLAM CHOWDER

Bowl of clam chowder
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Lydia Sherman (1824-1878) poisoned three husbands and eight children with milk, oatmeal, and New England clam chowder. The standard Civil War recipe involves salt pork, potatoes, shucked clams or quahogs, and plenty of milk and cream. In Lydia's case, it also involved arsenic, which helped earn her $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash after one inconvenient husband died. She went the easier route with her next husband by simply adding arsenic to his bottle of brandy.

6. DEBORA GREEN'S HAM AND BEANS

When Debora Green's (1951-) marriage dissolved in the summer of 1995, her husband began suffering from mysterious bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although he at first blamed the symptoms on a bug picked up during a recent vacation in Peru, investigators grew suspicious after a fire burned down the family home that fall, killing two of the couple's children. Police looking into the blaze soon discovered that Green had burned down her own home in a rage—and that she been poisoning her husband by putting castor beans in his chicken-salad sandwich and ham and beans. Castor oil is commonly used as a laxative, but when crushed, the beans produce the deadly toxin ricin.

7. LOCUSTA'S MUSHROOMS

An Amanita phalloides in the woods
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The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) loved mushrooms, a fact that the notorious female poisoner Locusta allegedly used to help finish him off. Locusta was acting on the orders of Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's fourth wife, who wanted to clear the path so that her son Nero (from a previous marriage) could ascend to the throne. Historians debate whether the assassination ever really happened, but some report that Locusta added the juice from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides, known as "the destroying angel") to a dish of Claudius's preferred fungi, Amanita caesarea. The details after that vary—a poisoned feather stuck down Claudius's throat or a poison enema may have also been involved—but either way, the death would have been slow and painful.

8. CAROLINE GRILLS’S TEA CAKES

Caroline Grills (1888–1960) was a prolific baker known for bringing home-baked cakes and cookies to tea with relatives. Unfortunately, Grills was lacing her goodies and tea with thallium, a popular rat poison, and may have killed as many as four family members doing so. The symptoms of thallium poisoning often involve fever, delirium, convulsions, and progressive blindness, followed by death.

Still, Grills's sweets were so delicious that even when she was under suspicion of murder, it didn't stop people from consuming them: One relative given some candied ginger couldn't resist trying it and was rewarded with pains in his neck and chest and numbed toes. Grills was eventually arrested and charged with four murders and one attempted murder, but only convicted on one count. Her case was part of a string of thallium poisonings in post-war Australia, with dozens of cases, several high-profile trials, and 10 deaths.

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