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.

The Sea Waif: A Murder on the Ocean and the Little Girl Who Stayed Alive

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iStock.com/jaminwell

It began with a man in a boat and a little girl in a raft. On November 13, 1961, the tanker Gulf Lion was plying the waters of the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas when it crossed paths with a small dinghy towing a life raft. The man in the dinghy shouted up to an officer on the tanker, identifying himself as Julian Harvey, captain of the ketch Bluebelle. The little girl in the raft, he said, was Terry Jo Duperrault, and she was dead.

Harvey, a handsome war hero and charter boat captain, was hauled aboard the tanker, where he told his harrowing tale. He'd been taking the Duperrault family of Green Bay, Wisconsin, back to Florida after a week-long cruise through the Bahamas on the Bluebelle when a squall struck in the middle of the previous night. It damaged the yacht's mainmast so badly the post plunged straight through the cabin and hull of the boat, taking another mast with it and rupturing gas lines in the engine room, which caused a fire to break out. Harvey said his passengers—the five-member Duperrault family and his own wife, Mary Dene—were either caught in the felled rigging or jumped overboard as the Bluebelle went down.

It was the same story he'd tell Coast Guard investigators three days later in even greater detail; he described emptying two fire extinguishers onto the flames with little effect and, once in the dinghy, how he shouted over and over into the squall, trying to locate the other passengers. When he did spot little Terry Jo, she was floating face down in the water in her life jacket, already dead.

It was a horrific tale, to be sure. There was just one problem: At the very moment Harvey was telling his story to the crew of the Gulf Lion, the real Terry Jo was clinging to a small life raft several miles away, slowly withering under a murderous tropical sun.

 

Terry Jo was in many ways your average 11-year-old girl. In the 2010 book Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, co-authored by psychologist Richard D. Logan and Terry Jo (who now goes by Tere Fassbender), the authors describe a pretty blonde girl who loved animals and her family and enjoyed spending time in the wooded areas around her home in Green Bay, pretending to be Tarzan swinging through the forest. In fact, up until November 12, 1961, her life was the very model of mid-century, middle-class bliss.

The week on the Bluebelle had been a trial run for a months-long, round-the-world voyage Terry Jo's father, Dr. Arthur Duperrault, had planned for the family. The Duperrault patriarch was an accomplished sailor in his own right, having frequently traversed the waters of Green Bay. But he was looking for something more ambitious for his family, which included his wife, Jean, their 14-year-old son, Brian, and daughters Rene, aged 7, and Terry Jo. So he packed them in the car and drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he chartered the ketch Bluebelle from owner Harold Pegg, destination: The Bahamas. Their captain and tour guide would be Julian Harvey, accompanied by his sixth wife, Mary Dene.

Terry Jo had spent the week in the Bahamas snorkeling and spearfishing through crystal waters, exploring tiny, uninhabited islands, and dining on fresh seafood with locals. The vacation seemed like it would be one to remember, even if it was just a prelude to a grander adventure.

As the Bluebelle began its return journey to Florida on Sunday night, November 12, Terry Jo descended into the small cabin she shared with her sister below deck. The rest of the family—including Rene—stayed in the cockpit, the children napping, the adults, including Harvey and his wife, savoring the last dregs of their vacation. At around 11 p.m., something startled Terry Jo from her sleep.

"Help, Daddy, help!"

It was her brother, Brian, screaming. There were sounds of running and stamping. Paralyzed with fear, Terry Jo stayed in her bed for many minutes, finally working up the courage to get out of her berth to see what was happening. What she found just outside the door would be enough to sink the most hardened heart: her mother and brother lying dead, in a pool of blood. As she descended into shock, Terry Jo ascended to the deck, where the lights on the boat illuminated the figure of Julian Harvey walking toward her.

"What happened?" she asked. Harvey angrily shoved her back down the companionway, but the brief exchange had given Terry Jo enough time to notice that nothing else was amiss on the boat: no downed rigging, no splintered masts. Even the weather was calm. Later in life, an interview under sodium amytal would prompt Terry Jo to remember seeing blood and a knife on deck, but in that moment, there was too much to keep track of.

Blue waves and bubbles
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Terry Jo returned to the cabin, where she huddled in her bed. She heard the sounds of sloshing water, and soon, oily bilge water began to creep into her room. Suddenly, Harvey's frame filled up the doorway. He stood for a long time looking at her with what seemed to be a rifle in his hands, while she shrunk against the wall and held her breath. After an agonizing moment, he turned and ascended to the deck. The little girl remained frozen until the water crested the bunk. The Bluebelle was sinking.

As she waded through the foul water quickly filling the cabin, Terry Jo must have prayed she wouldn't bump into what would now be the floating bodies of her mother and brother. Back up on deck, she saw that Harvey had launched the dinghy and life raft, and shouted to him, "Is the ship sinking?" He confirmed it was and shoved the line holding the dinghy into her hands, but it slipped through. When he realized his escape vehicle was drifting away, he dove into the sea, leaving the girl alone to die in the dark on the rapidly capsizing sailboat.

 

Nearly everyone who heard Julian Harvey's story found something off about it. Some crew members of the ship that picked him up found him far too calm and collected for someone who just lost his wife and an entire family of clients and nearly escaped death. The Bluebelle's owner, Harold Pegg, found Harvey's account of the mast failure preposterous, given that the ketch had been recently inspected and cleared. Even Harvey's old friend James Boozer, who heard multiple, varying iterations of Harvey's story, felt there were holes.

Anyone with a birds-eye-view of Julian Harvey's life would have found a few other elements not in his favor. While it was true that Harvey was a skilled WWII bomber pilot, served in the Korean War, and even managed to pull off a dangerous test flight of a modified B-24 bomber, peers in the military periodically noted his propensity for ditching missions due to "engine failure." By the end of his career in the military, even his supporters noted his nerves were shot—a fact apparently made clear by the worsening of a facial tic and stutter.

Anchored sailboat in blue waters, view from drone 
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Then there were the wives. Mary Dene Jordan was the sixth, and until her, Harvey had a habit of wooing, rapidly marrying, and then abruptly dumping his partners, usually with a cursory "I don't love you anymore." His affairs were legend at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where Harvey was stationed with his second (or possibly third) wife Joan in 1949. They'd soon turn darker. One rainy night, Harvey was driving his wife and mother-in-law back from the movies when, as he described it, his car swerved on a bridge and rolled over the side into the bayou below. The car sank, and Harvey alone survived. As bystanders dove into the water to look for Mrs. Harvey and her mother, the pilot calmly described, perhaps even boasted, about how he'd been able to escape the car while it was mid-air. Not only did evidence at the scene point to that not being the case, but it was apparent that Harvey had made no attempt to save his relatives. Nor did he seem overly broken up about their deaths. He soon cashed in his wife's life insurance policy.

Finally, the Bluebelle wasn't the first boat to sink under Harvey's watch. Twice before Harvey had filed insurance claims for destroyed boats. Both cases, while suspicious, were decided in his favor. Later, friends would admit that in the first wreck, Harvey had probably steered the boat into an obstacle on purpose, and in the case of the second, had flat-out admitted to setting his vessel on fire.

But Harvey's history was largely unknown to the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed him three days post-rescue. He repeated what was broadly the same story he told the crew of the Gulf Lion, but under the questioning of investigators, holes began to appear.

For one, the idea of a mast plunging straight through the deck of a sailboat was unlikely; masts broken by squall winds tilt over, rather than fall straight down. Harvey asserted that after the mast failure, he had asked Dr. Duperrault to steer the Bluebelle while he went to find cable cutters to cut through the downed rigging. As the fire broke out in the engine room and spread up through the cockpit, the course he'd asked Duperrault to follow—into the wind—actually began fanning the flames. Yet, he insisted, Duperrault kept steering in the same direction—an inconceivable move for any person of common sense, let alone a Navy veteran and experienced sailor like Arthur Duperrault.

There was also the fact that no one at the lighthouse on a nearby island saw a fire at sea that night, nor did Harvey try to make it over to that island after he found the body of who he thought was Terry Jo, but was actually 7-year-old Rene, and placed it on the raft. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Harvey, the sailboat captain, admitted that at no point during his hours of drifting did he think to look for the flares that were in the dinghy's emergency kit.

In the long run, Harvey's dark history and tortured tale wouldn’t much matter. Just as he was wrapping up his testimony for investigators, a captain of the Coast Guard rushed into the room. In a scene out of a police procedural, he broke the news: They'd found a survivor.

 

Terry Jo had been on the ocean for three and a half days when she was picked up by a Greek freighter. By then, she was hours from death, if not closer—severely dehydrated, badly sunburned, mostly unconscious. The fact that she was alive at all—that she'd managed to find, launch, and hold on to a small cork-and-rope life raft as the Bluebelle sank; that she hadn't fallen off or been attacked by a predator; that she was even able to give her name to the crew of the ship that found her despite her body largely shutting down—it was all a miracle.

Within a month, the image of her tiny frame surrounded by a vast blue expanse, captured by a crewman with a camera on the ship that found her, would be familiar to readers of LIFE magazine the world over; Terry Jo's photo and story was featured in a spread alongside news of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea. By then, she'd be home with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother in Wisconsin, trying to achieve some kind of normalcy. It would be decades, however, before she'd talk about what happened to anyone other than the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed her in her Miami hospital room.

Motel entrance at night
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"Oh, my God!" is what Harvey said when he found out about Terry Jo's rescue. After a few moments regaining his composure, he commented on how wonderful the news was and then abruptly exited the room, leaving puzzled investigators in his wake.

The next day, the manager at the Sandman Motel in Miami called the police after the maid smelled something funny in the bathroom of Room 17 and couldn’t get the door open. Behind the door was the corpse of Julian Harvey, handsome as ever but covered in self-inflicted slash wounds. He'd left a note addressed to his friend James Boozer: "I'm a nervous wreck and just can't continue. I'm going out now. I guess I either don't like life or don't know what to do with it." The message also arranged for the adoption of Harvey's son, and requested that Harvey's body be buried at sea.

After two interviews, in which her story never deviated, the Coast Guard came to accept Terry Jo's version of events that night on the Bluebelle. In his book on the incident, Richard D. Logan theorized that Harvey had murdered his wife in their cabin on the Bluebelle that night, possibly for insurance money, and intended to tell the Duperraults she'd fallen overboard. She'd put up more of a fight than he expected, alerting Dr. Duperrault, who went to investigate. Harvey stabbed Duperrault with the knife that Terry Jo would later remember seeing on the deck, then killed Mrs. Duperrault and Brian. Little Rene most likely drowned, although it has never been made clear whether she fell, was thrown overboard, or was forcibly held under by Harvey before he dragged her into the lifeboat tied to his dinghy.

Terry Jo received support from all over the world after her story broke. She went on to live a full life; she fell in love, had children and grandchildren, moved around, and found work she loved with Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources as a Water Management Specialist. Call it ironic, call it fate, but Terry found her life's mission protecting bodies of water. In the afterword of the book she co-authored with Logan, she wrote:

What I want to stress to all who read this book is never give up, always have hope, and try to look on the bright side of things. Be positive, be trusting, and try to go with the flow; have compassion, give of yourself to those in need, and be loving and kind. I believe that what you give comes back to you.

Julian Harvey was buried at sea per his wishes.

You Can Explore Al Capone's Newly Recreated Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

In 1929, infamous organized crime figure Alphonse “Al” Capone was incarcerated in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for possessing an unlicensed and concealed firearm. Capone was released in 1930—though he would famously go to federal prison on tax evasion charges only two years later. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970, reopening in 1994 as a historic site that lets visitors explore prison life (though not prison food, thankfully).

While the prison has always made note of Capone’s cell, the facility has just launched an exhibit that recreates how Capone lived at the prison more accurately than ever before, according to the Associated Press.

A recreation of Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Work began in January 2019 to restore and repaint the plaster walls of Capone's original cell. In the process, further research indicated that certain details of Capone’s stay—like the fact that he had a roommate—would need to be incorporated into the design. A cot was added and some items were removed after it was discovered that the cell was not as luxuriously furnished as some reports had indicated at the time. Rather than boasting of expensive furniture, his cell likely consisted of a prison-made rug, a dresser, a table, a flower vase, and a smoking stand.

The restoration work uncovered more than just Capone’s lack of privacy. While preparing the walls, workers uncovered a considerable amount of paint schemes covering the surface that indicated an attempt to paint artwork or change the color of the walls. Not wanting to cover the evidence of inmate artistry back up, Capone’s recreated cell was moved to the next cell over.

Visitors can view both at Eastern State, which is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t PennLive]

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