The Great Osage Trail was an important early passageway to westward expansion in America. Many settlers eagerly loaded up their possessions onto rickety wagons and headed west with their families to seek a new life on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. Many people never made it to their final destination because of disease, accidents, weather, or attacks by Indians. But some unlucky travelers never made it because they stayed at a rural inn located in southeast Kansas run by a family of pioneer serial killers known as the Bloody Benders.
The Bender family settled in Labette County, Kansas in 1870. The family consisted of Ma and Pa, who were German immigrants, and their children, Kate and John. Kate was believed to have psychic powers, and she conducted seances and read the fortunes of travelers.
Like many settlers of the era, the Benders made their claim on 160 acres, conveniently located near the Great Osage Trail. The Benders built a one-room structure near the trail with their living quarters in the back, and an inn/general store in the front. The general store contained dry goods, a small kitchen and dining table, and an area for travelers to spend the night if they wished. A canvas wagon-cover separated the two areas.
In 1871, people started to disappear and dead bodies began to show up in Labette County near the Great Osage Trail. After a while, the number of deaths and disappearances caused many travelers to avoid the area altogether. Something sinister was afoot in southeast Kansas.
In November 1872, a man named George Longcor and his infant daughter set out from Independence, Kansas to resettle in Iowa. They never made it. A neighbor of Longcor’s, Dr. William York, set out to discover what happened to the man and his daughter. York questioned people along the Great Osage Trail until he went missing as well. While many of the missing in Labette County were poor, anonymous travelers, Dr. York had powerful family members. His brother Ed was a prominent Colonel, and his brother Alexander was a Kansas State Senator.
Ed and Alexander began to investigate what had happened to their brother. Ed led a company of 50 men and questioned all travelers and homesteaders along the trail where his brother went missing. In March 1873, he visited the Bender homestead. The family admitted that Dr. York had stayed with them, but suggested to Ed that his brother may have run into hostile Indians. Ed agreed that was possible, and he even stayed for dinner at the Bender’s inn. Several days later, Colonel York returned to the inn after a woman reported that Ma Bender had once threatened her with a knife. The Benders denied the claims, but Colonel York was now suspicious of the clan.
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