At the same time, neighboring communities began to make noise about the large number of missing and deceased people along that section of the trail. A town meeting was held, and it was decided that every homestead in the area would be thoroughly searched for evidence related to the murders. Three days after the town meeting, a man driving cattle past the Bender homestead noticed that the family’s inn had been abandoned. A few days later, several hundred volunteers, along with Colonel York, descended on the Bender property to search for evidence – and what they found was shocking.
In the garden on the Bender’s property, searchers discovered the remains of Dr. York, his infant daughter, and 6 additional bodies. When they searched the interior of the home/inn, it became clear to the townspeople how the Benders had committed their murders. Dinner guests were given the seat at the head of the table…which backed up to the canvas wagon-cover that divided the room. Under the seat was a trap door. During dinner, either Pa or John would appear from the behind the wagon-cover and crush the unsuspecting victim’s head with a hammer. Their throats would be slit, the trap door activated, and the lifeless bodies would tumble into the cellar.
The Benders’ wagon was found abandoned about 12 miles from their property, but there was no sign of Pa, Ma, John, or Kate, until railroad employees told investigators that the family had bought train tickets to Humboldt, Kansas. John and Kate disembarked at Chanute and traveled to a station in northeast Texas, then on to an outlaw colony along the Texas/New Mexico border. Pa and Ma Bender traveled to Kansas City, and then reportedly on to St. Louis, Missouri. From there the trail went cold. A hefty $3,000 reward was offered, but no one ever claimed the prize.
Rumors and uncertainty surrounded the legend of the Bloody Benders in the years after their disappearance. It was speculated that the Benders were not even a family, and that only Ma and Kate were related, mother and daughter. In fact, some people believe that John and Kate were not brother and sister at all, but a married couple.
The final body count attributed to the Benders is around 20. Many men and women were accused of being the Benders in different parts of the country for years after they fled Labette County. Some suspects were arrested on suspicion of being part of the murderous clan, though all were later released. Vigilante groups even claimed to have killed the family. But no concrete evidence ever surfaced to suggest any of the Bloody Benders were really captured. The story of the family of pioneer serial killers remains a creepy, unsolved chapter in the history of westward expansion.
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h/t: Mental Floss