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True Crime in Kansas: The Mystery of the Benders

Warning: This article contains descriptions of violence from an unsolved mystery that may be triggering to some readers.

Header Photo: Investigating the crime scene at the Bender farm. Source: Axe Library, Pittsburg State University.

For some people, true crime mysteries spark the imagination and a 150 year-old case from Southeast Kansas is no exception. For others, not so much. How do we talk about serial killers from the past, especially when the story takes place in our own backyard? The Bender Family Crimes 150 Years Later: A Panel Discussion at the Leonard Axe Library at Pittsburg State University will explore this question and more as part of the annual Gene DeGruson Memorial Lecture program. The event seeks to separate myth and lore from what is known about the murders committed 150 years ago by the Bender family – nicknamed the Bloody Benders by newspapers to sensationalize the tragic story. Discussion panelists include Max McCoy, journalism professor and author, who will provide an overview of the Bender Family crimes, Carol Staton of the Cherryvale Museum will discuss the museum’s collection of Bender-related artifacts, and Mike Wood, also of the Cherryvale Museum, will speak about his research and that of his mother, Fern Morrow Wood, author of The Benders: Keepers of the Devil’s Inn (1992). Bob Miller, the current owner of the property, will share his efforts to gather new information. The popular lecture series will be held on the PSU campus on Thursday, October 27 at 7:00 p.m. It is supported by an HK Humanities for All grant.

Newspaper Headline

In 1873, Kansas Governor Osborn offered a $2,000 reward for information pertaining to the Benders and the case. The reward ($50,000 in today’s dollars) was never claimed, and the Benders never found. Source: Acquired from Steve Cox, public domain. 

In the early 1870s in southeast Kansas near Cherryvale, the Bender family homesteaded 160 acres along the Osage Trail. They operated a small inn and a store, serving travelers on the north-south corridor through the state. It was there, between 1871 and 1873, that nearly a dozen people mysteriously disappeared. Their bodies were eventually discovered on the abandoned farmstead. The victims were murdered with blows to their heads and throats, and then buried in the farm’s vegetable gardens and orchards. The Bender family (mother, father, adult son, and adult daughter) were never seen again despite search parties and investigations to find them.

Bender Family

No photographs exist of the Bender family. These sketches appeared in a 1915 book about the case and were based on descriptions from neighbors and travelers in the 1870s. Source: Acquired from Steve Cox, public domain.

The story has been called the first documented serial killings in the United States. National publications like Harper’s Bazaar and the Associated Press reported on the gruesome story, sparking  an intense fascination across the nation. People even traveled to the isolated area to see the site and take home a souvenir, like a rock or a piece of the cabin, from the abandoned property. The Bender cabin was dismantled piece by piece by curiosity seekers and lookey-loos.

Bender Cabin

The Bender cabin in Labette County. The cabin was dismantled piece by piece by curiosity seekers. Source: Acquired from Steve Cox, public domain.

Since the time of the murders, the case has fascinated those in southeast Kansas and beyond. Television shows, podcasts, movies, and books have popularized the Bender story. The town of Cherryvale hosted an annual community event for years called “Bender Days” and a local museum, since closed, was dedicated to the story. Today some objects from the homestead are on exhibit at the Cherryvale Museum and a 2022 book, Hell’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier by British author Susan Jonusas, presents new ideas based on uncovered archival documents. The Kansas Historical Society marked the location with a sign along Highway 400, north of Cherryvale in Montgomery County, that originally concluded with “the end of the Benders is not known. The earth seemed to swallow them, as it had their victims.” The sign has since been updated.

Historical Marker

The Kansas Historical Society marked the Bender Family story along Highway 400. 

Despite the case’s infamy, critical information, including the fate of the Bender family, remains unclear. Even so, the larger question remains: How should we remember heinous crimes from the past? Should we even remember them at all? Definite answers may never be known, and so the case remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Old West.

 

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