In 1871, stories of people mysteriously disappearing in Labette County, Kansas, started to circulate in the area. But it wasn’t until a local doctor who was investigating the disappearances went missing himself in 1873 that put the local community on high alert. Local authorities investigated and uncovered some really disturbing things when they inspected a farm and inn owned by one of their own.
Spiritualists & Homesteaders Settle In Kansas
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Government relocated Osage Indians from Kansas to what would eventually become Oklahoma. In 1870 homesteaders began occupying the area of Labette County, including five families of spiritualists in Osage township.
A Fresh Start
The Homestead Act allowed people to freely take up to 160 acres of federal land. One family included John Bender, Sr., and John Bender, Jr. They picked a parcel of land near the Great Osage Trail. At the time, it was the only open road for people who were traveling west. The father and son built a cabin and a barn well before Elvira Bender and her daughter Kate arrived in 1871.
The family lived in a small room at the back of the building. The front was converted into a general store where they sold dry goods. It also had an area for travelers to have a meal or stay overnight. Little did travelers know what horrid surprises awaited them.
A Very Weird Family
The Benders operated an inn for guests traveling between the towns of Independence and Fort Scott. Their home looked very welcoming with a sign advertising groceries above their door and products including alcohol and tobacco for sale. Despite the outwardly welcoming appearance, the family possessed some very odd characteristics.
The patriarch, John Sr., was about 60 years old and spoke little English. He was possibly of German descent. When he did talk, it was very guttural and hard to decipher. Elvira, 55, also struggled to speak English. Neighbors thought she was very unfriendly and nicknamed her the “She-Devil.” Their children were also very bizarre.
Although John Bender, Jr., 25, was very attractive and spoke fluent English with an accent, he had this strange propensity to laugh inappropriately. As a result, he was considered a “half-wit.” Kate Bender, 23, was also good looking and spoke very good English with very little accent.
Kate called herself a healer and a psychic. She advertised her fortune-telling powers and healing abilities. She became a big attraction at the inn for conducting séances and lecturing others about spiritualism. She also advocated free love. While their parents kept out of the spotlight, the siblings often attended Sunday school.
When the Benders first opened their inn, they had a lot of visitors who dropped by and spent the night. Some of the travelers, many of whom reportedly possessed large amounts of money, went missing. Investigations into their disappearances only went as far as Big Hill Country of southeast Kansas.
There were no signs of what happened to them. Many believed they simply traveled further west, as was very common in those days. However, by 1873, word began spreading that travelers were increasingly disappearing in the area, and many people avoided Osage Trail. Two deadly cases, in particular, stood out.
In the spring of 1871, the body of a man named Jones was discovered in Drum Creek. Jones’ skull was completely crushed and his throat had been cut. At first, authorities suspected the owner of the Drum Creek was responsible. However, no action was taken against him. The following winter, two more bodies were found in the area. The men had similar wounds as Jones.
The area was known for its “horse thieves and villains.” Some were arrested for the disappearances, but they were later released. Innocent men were also accused of crimes and were forced to flee the area. Then a man of importance disappeared.
A Doctor Disappears
In mid-1872, Dr. William Henry York sold a wagon and horses to his neighbor George Loncher who left Independence, Kansas, with his infant daughter Mary Ann to resettle in Iowa. Not long afterward, York found out that the wagon and horses that he had given to the Lonchers were abandoned, and the pair was missing. York was unsettled by the incident and decided to investigate their disappearance. He planned to question homesteaders along the trail to find out if they knew anything. On March 9th York arrived at Fort Scott, Kansas, and decided to return to Independence. He never made it back home.
The Benders Are Questioned
York had two brothers who took immediate action when they learned their sibling was missing. Colonel Ed York lived in Fort Scott, and Alexander M. York, a member of the Kansas State Senate, lived in Independence. The brothers were aware of the doctor’s travel plans, and when he didn’t return home to Independence, they launched a huge search-and-rescue mission to find him. Colonel York was accompanied by a group of 50 men, who stopped every traveler along the trail and asked them if they had any clues about the doctor’s disappearance. The Colonel’s men also visited all the homesteads in the area. The Benders were among those who were questioned.
Colonel York visited the Bender inn on March 28, 1873. He explained that his brother had gone missing and asked the family if they knew of his whereabouts. The Benders admitted that Dr. York has been a guest and told his brother he may have had a problem with some Indians. The Colonel accepted that explanation and stayed with the family for dinner. Nothing appeared to be unusual. However, a few days later the Colonel returned to the inn after hearing a scary story about a woman who visited the inn and was apparently scared off after Elvira threatened her with knives.
Elvira Loses Her Temper
When the Colonel confronted the Benders, Elvira said she didn’t understand English, and John Jr. and Kate denied the knife incident occurred. When the Colonel pressed the issue, Elvira blew up, claiming the woman was a witch and cursed her coffee. She also ordered him out of her house, simultaneously revealing she knew more English than she originally let on. The Colonel also asked Kate to help locate his brother using her psychic abilities.
At that time, the Colonel’s men believed the Roaches, a neighboring family, were responsible for the doctor’s disappearance and wanted to hang them. The Colonel was not convinced of their guilt.
The Benders Flee
Meanwhile, the Osage township orchestrated a meeting in the Harmony Grove schoolhouse. By that time, many people started believing someone in the Osage community was to blame for the disappearances. About 75 locals attended the gathering, as well as Colonel York. Even more interesting, John Bender Sr. and Elvira Bender also attended the meeting.
The people discussed the doctor’s disappearance and agreed that every single homestead between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek would be searched. The Colonel still had strong suspicions about the Benders, but they were not on everyone’s radar. So when they fled the area, it went unnoticed.
Several days later a man named Billy Tole was driving cattle near the Bender property when he noticed something unusual. The inn looked abandoned, and the farm animals appeared as though they hadn’t eaten in days. Tole immediately notified the township trustee, but the weather was bad, so nobody investigated the area for several more days. A search party, including Colonel York, finally visited the property and discovered that the cabin had been completely wiped out. There were no food, clothing, or other items inside. They also encountered a terrible odor coming from a trap door beneath the bed. And it was nailed shut.
The men were able to open the trap door and found a secret, empty room underneath the tiny cabin. The area was about 6-feet deep, 7-feet square at the top, and 3-feet square at the bottom. There were traces of blood on the floor of the room. The men used sledgehammers to break up the stone slab floor, but they didn’t find anything unusual. They deduced that the horrible odor was a result of the blood that had soaked into the soil. The men then completely moved the cabin from its foundation. Still, the townspeople did not find any dead bodies.
“Boys! I See Graves!”
After moving the cabin, the group of men decided to examine the farmland surrounding the buildings on the property. Eventually, Colonel York discovered a sunken, rectangular area of land next to a group of trees. There was a disturbed area of soil in the vegetable garden and orchard. He reportedly shouted to the other men, “Boys! I see graves!” The men immediately rushed over to the Colonel and used shovels to dig around the area. It didn’t take very long for the group to hit a hard object in the ground. You won’t believe what they found when the probed into the soil.
Colonel York and his men found a dead body. It appeared as though the victim’s skull has been bashed in with some kind of blunt instrument. When the search party turned the head to the side, they also discovered a large gash on the corpse’s neck. They deduced that the killer(s) had smashed the victim’s head, making him unconscious, before finishing him off with a knife slice to the neck.
In order to identify the victim, the men were forced to cut off the head and wash it. After clearing away the soil, blood, and grime, the men made a gruesome discovery.
The identity of the first victim was revealed to be Colonel York’s missing brother, Dr. William York. The reason he was found so easily is because he had been buried face down with his feet just barely below the surface of the ground. The men continued digging until around midnight. They discovered nine suspected graves.
In the morning, they uncovered an additional eight bodies. They also found a corpse in the well and several body parts. All but one of the victims had been smashed in the head with a hammer. Newspapers at the time described the victims as being “indecently mutilated.” One victim was just a child.
One of the corpses was a young girl who had no obvious injuries on her body. The authorities believed she had either been strangled or, worse, buried alive. The Lochners, whom Dr. York had set out to find, were also found among the dead. The Benders were linked to 12 murders.
After the bodies were uncovered, it became clear that the Benders had an elaborate scheme to seduce their victims. Kate would distract the target, who would sit with his back to a curtain that divided the cabin into two parts. One of the Bender men would then strike the victim’s head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Next, the family slit the victim’s throat in the secret room and buried the body on the property. Their motives for the killing were bone chilling.
Souvenir Hunters & Hefty Rewards
While some of the victims were wealthy, others had very little money. The Benders murdered them simply because they enjoyed the thrill of the kill. It wasn’t long before word spread of the murders. Reporters and people from as far away as Chicago and New York City traveled to Kansas to see the murder site. Eventually, the cabin was destroyed by souvenir hunters, who dismantled it.
Authorities also vowed to hunt down the Bender family. Senator Alexander York, the doctor’s brother, offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who arrested the Benders. The Kansas governor, Thomas A. Osborn, also offered a $2,000 reward for the apprehension.
What Happened To The Benders?
Despite the monetary awards and search parties, the Benders were never found. The family was reportedly sighted in St. Louis, Missouri, and El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. One vigilante group claimed to have shot all of them except for Kate, whom they burned alive. Another group said they lynched the family and threw the bodies into the Verdigris River. Still, a third group said they shot the Benders and buried their bodies.
No proof of their capture was ever recorded, and no one ever claimed the reward money. But there are clues that one family member lived until old age.
The “Bloody Bender” Who Lived To Age 70
The Benders were not truly related by blood. Many believed John and Kate were actually husband and wife. According to courthouse and census records, newspapers and biographies, John Bender and a woman named Katie “Miller” were married on Jan. 4, 1868, in Hermann, Missouri. They appeared in Colorado in 1878, five years after reportedly fleeing Kansas and the site of the murders. John, 45, died of dropsy of the heart in 1888. After his death, Katie turned their tavern into the Commercial Restaurant that she would operate for 30 more years until her death at age 70. There’s no definitive proof she’s one of the Benders of the “Bloody Benders,” but all signs indicate that she was.