Part 2 of 2
The Bender family had established themselves in Osage Township in Labette County, Kansas, starting in 1870. They had arrived seemingly from nowhere. The two men of the family filed a 160-acre claim in the remote southeast corner of the state, 17 miles from Independence, Kansas, that fronted on the Great Osage Trail, the only decent westward settlement road in the area.
With the arrival of the Bender women, a mother named Kate and a daughter named Katie, the Bender family set up a general mercantile along the trail. Travelers stopped and purchased goods or stayed the night as needed. Sometimes, however, the travelers never left.
After the disappearance of a popular and well-known doctor from the area, Dr. William York, in March 1873, his brother, a colonel in the US Army posted at nearby Fort Scott, Kansas, took an aggressive interest in finding his brother. During the course of his search he spoke with the Bender clan at their hostelry, The Wayside Inn, on two occasions, both times coming away feeling dissatisfied and disquieted.
Because of the spate of disappearances the townspeople called a town meeting in late April 1873 to discuss what could be done to curtail these vanishings. Some believed the recently ousted Osage Indians (forced off by the US Government into Oklahoma and New Mexico) were terrorizing wayward travelers and ambushing them in guerrilla retaliation strikes. Others, such as Dr. York’s brother, Colonel York, suspected something more sinister at work. He had no proof for his suspicions, but he wanted it. The meeting adjourned with a resolution to issue a warrant and search every house along the trail Dr. York had traveled before his disappearance.
In this group of attendees were John Bender, Sr. (a German immigrant whose real name was John Flickinger) and his “son”, John Bender, Jr. (also a German immigrant; his real nameCredit: public domain was John Gebhardt). They quietly left the meeting and went back to their home, the inn along the Great Osage Trail.
No one paid much attention to the Benders over the next few days, but within the week of the meeting a local cowherd noticed a peculiarly vacant look to the Bender store. He briefly satisfied his curiosity that the place had been abandoned – the condition of the unfed farm animals indicated they’d been gone for a few days.
This man, Bill Tole, reported back to town of his findings. Bad weather prevented a posse from mounting up and traveling the many miles to the Bender place immediately. Finally, about four days after Tole’s report, a group of over a hundred people made it out to the Bender spread.
They found no Benders. They found no Bender food, or Bender clothes, or any other Bender necessities for living.
What they did find, though, was a charnel house death smell that was traced to a trap door covering a cellar in the rear part of the rustic cabin.
The Door in the Floor
Gaining access to the trapdoor from where the stench emanated required moving a bed placed over it. The door had been nailed shut. Prizing it up, the stench intensified and examination revealed an oddly dug cellar with a stone-slab floor (the cellar was about six feet deep and had a 7 ft2 opening, tapering to a floor about 3 ft2, almost like a rectangular funnel).
The decomposition stench was horrific, but no rotting matter was seen in the cellar. Instead the cellar’s stone-slab floor was coated with a grisly, greasy muck, the seepage from blood draining in the soil below from an untold number of human slaughters. Feeling vindicated in his suspicions, Colonel York directed the work of breaking up the floor slab to see what lay beneath. There was nothing but more clotted blood; no immediate cause for so much reeking blood could be immediately found.
The posse then went outside and as a group was able to physically shift the cabin from its place, moving it to one side. They began digging in and around the cellar area but found nothing incriminating, just the bloody gore -- no Benders and no bodies.
The group fanned out and started inspecting and probing the nearby grounds. The orchard and garden the Bender women had planted (mother Kate Bender, real name Almira Meik Griffith, and her “daughter”, Katie Bender, real name believed to be Eliza Griffith, Almira’s fifth born child). The soil around the cabin produced nothing, but the disturbed landscaping of the garden and orchard bore sinister fruit. Probing with a metal rod revealed some strange subsurface obstacles in the turned earth – the first of several bodies was found later that evening in the orchard plot.
Dr. York’s body was the first uncovered. He was buried face down so shallowly that his feet were barely beneath the topsoil. Colonel York had, at last, found his vanished brother.
The Circus is in Town
Probing around the property until midnight (and fully exhuming Dr. York) the other potential sites were flagged for further work. Considering the lateness of the hour, the party elected to Credit: Harper's Weekly (public domain)continue their work the next day.
Leroy Dick, the township’s trustee and a man who had given the young woman Katie Bender voice lessons was briefed on the situation. Concurrently, a group was mustered to run the killers to ground – the Benders had about a week’s head start on any possible pursuit. Since no one was sure from where they’d really come before settling in the area, it was anyone’s guess as to where they might flee.
This was the Age of the Telegraph (the technology that destroyed the ambitious Pony Express a mere 18 months after it began running overland express parcel service). Given the morbid nature and the sensationalism of the crime scene and the immediate stereotyping of the evil Benders (Katie, the fiery temptress; the wicked witch mother; the morbidly stolid old man; and the “idiot” son) the press from as far away as Kansas City, Missouri, were on hand starting the very next day.
Representatives from some of the biggest print media outlets of the day swarmed over the Bender farm in days to come – scribblers from The Police Gazette, Harper’s Weekly, and the St. Louis Republican would all come to sketch and photograph every action in the investigation.Credit: Harper's Weekly (public domain)
The next morning eight bodies were found in seven suspected grave sites. The double occupancy of one particular grave was very disturbing – it was the grave of George Loncher, the widower bound for Iowa who never made it. It was his friend George for whom the missing Dr. York was searching when he, too, vanished.
George’s toddler daughter’s body was found beneath his. It appeared, because of the lack of injury to her body, she was callously tossed into the grave first, then had her dead father thrown atop her, suffocating her as she was buried alive. The other supposition is the child could have been strangled before burial.
Another body was found in the well along with several unrelated body parts. All of the corpses except the girl had had their heads bashed with a blunt object. The newspapers of the day further reported all the bodies had been “indecently mutilated.” In the euphemistic Victorian vernacular of the day, what this means is unclear (possibly a reference to genital mutilation, perhaps, but uncertain). Among the group of bodies found was one unidentified adult female.Credit: public domain
The crowd, approaching several thousand roaming the farm, was livid in their indignation. A Kansas reporter wired in the attempted lynching of one bystander who unfortunately happened to be chummy with the Benders.
This man’s name was Brockman, and he was known to have had business dealings with the Benders (mostly as a fence for the goods they stole from their victims). Although he may have suspected the source of their largess he did nothing but continue to profit from it. He was grabbed and strung up from a beam in the Wayside Inn until he was unconscious. He was brought down, revived, and then interrogated about the Bender’s activities and their whereabouts.
He claimed no knowledge of anything incriminating about the Benders, so the lynch mob strung him up a second time. He was brought down, questioned again, and then hung for a third time. After reviving him from this third hanging, it was clear he either knew nothing of relevance or would never confess. He was allowed to leave, though it was reported he staggered away toward his home “as one who was drunken or deranged.”
An interesting find, and one of the few personal items left by the Benders in their sudden departure, was a Catholic prayer-book. Notes were written on the flyleaf in German and they Credit: Bender Museum, Cherryvale, Kansaswere later translated, although a part of a date was unreadable. The text translated into “Johannah Bender. Born July 30, 1848”. Another inscription read “John Gebhardt came to America on July 1, 18[??].” The two digits from the date of Gebhardt’s American arrival are illegible.
Increased publicity of the discoveries on the farm meant more press presence, and reporters arrived from as far as Chicago and New York. Over 3,000 people milled about the site within a week of its unearthing.
The Wayside Inn was “souvenired” to pieces – it was stripped of all its wood, and anything removable was taken, including the grisly brick work lining the bloody cellar walls and the stones used to line the inside of the well. The skeletal remains of the stripped cabin were then burned to finish the job.
Recovered from the scene were three hammers believed used by the Bender men to incapacitate their victims. A drawing-knife was found secreted in the body of a clock in the cabin, and it was believed this was the weapon used to slit the throats of the victims.Credit: Bender Museum, Cherryvale, Kansas
The dead Dr. York’s other brother, Kansas State Senator Alexander York, put up a $1000 reward for the Bender family’s arrest. On May 17, 1873, the governor of Kansas, Thomas A. Osborn, put up $2,000 of the state’s funds as a reward for apprehending all four Benders.
They’d been on the lam now for almost two weeks.
A few weeks after the farm was relieved of all of its corpses, the real police work of cleaning up began.
Two male members of the Roach family, friendly with the Benders, were arrested. [The Roach family had come dangerously close to being lynched during the earlier search for Dr. York. Members of Colonel York’s team had wanted to hang the Roaches, along with the Benders, merely on suspicion of being “bad”.]
Brockman, the “thrice hanged man”, was also arrested as an accessory. A total of twelve men were finally brought in to answer for accessory complaints, all having to do with the acquisition and disposal of the Bender’s victims’ goods. On the “good” side of local vigilante law was a man named Mit Cherry (of the Cherry Vale town’s namesake clan). [This upstanding citizen was arrested for forging a letter wherein he wrote to a victim’s wife that the man was fine and had arrived safely in Illinois, knowing more than likely the man was dead.]
All of these men had fenced goods for the Benders. None took positive action to stop them.
The letter writing on behalf of a known dead man by Mit Cherry infers the certainty that at least some of the locals knew what was going on at the Bender farm. Because they were profiting from it, they elected not to turn the Benders in. Brockman, for whom one might feel sorry after his abuses at the hands of the mob at the crime scene, was arrested 23 years later for raping and murdering his 18-year-old daughter.
The pursuit of the Benders meanwhile was massive and intensive. Detectives followed wagon tracks from the Bender place, finally locating their wagon and team abandoned twelve miles north of the inn in Thayer, Kansas. Both animals were starving, and one was lame (which seems to be the reason the wagon was abandoned).
Thayer was a whistle-stop, and it was learned the entire Bender family had bought rail tickets. In Humboldt, Kansas, John Gebhardt and Katie Bender left that train and transferred to one headed south to a point near Denison, Texas. The two older Benders stayed on the original train and continued north to Kansas City where it was thought they bought tickets for St. Louis, Missouri, before their trail went cold.
Meanwhile, in Texas, John and Katie made their way to a known outlaw colony that existed in a literal No-Man’s Land: this strip of territory between the Texas and New Mexico borders had yet to be properly surveyed and jurisdictional questions arose. Were the Texas Rangers the proper authority or should some other government agency go in? Another issue revolved around the badlands itself – given the number of bandits holed up there, many lawmen that went into the area never came out.
Beyond any doubt the vixen Katie Bender would have been welcomed in such a colony. John Gebhardt, however, would have been of no value to any of the outlaws in hiding. One detective later claimed he traced the pair to the border; he said he found out John Gebhardt had died of apoplexy (in other words, of what is commonly known as a stroke, something very uncommon for a healthy man in his mid twenties). It is more likely the group of bandits he and Katie approached simply killed him as a superfluous male and kept her for their own use.
And that is the last verifiable information about the Benders known: the “parents” were headed to St. Louis and Katie survived John Gebhardt (her brother, lover, or husband) in an outlaw colony in a remote pocket of the United States. Much like Belle Gunness (America’s first female serial killer who operated a couple of decades after the Benders), Katie Bender – the auburn-tressed, vivacious vixen – had vanished for good.
Many refused to accept that the Benders had gotten away not only with murder but from their tracking efforts as well.
The lurid traits assigned to the killers (reports of incest with Katie by her brother and father; claims that Katie’s and John’s incestuous relationship led to several pregnancies and they always killed her babies upon birth; claims that Katie was prostituting locally, had gonorrhea and had given it to both her brother and father) were all inventions of the press and rumor mongering. A lurid story splattered with sensational details of “indecent mutilations” and incest rumors sells more newspapers. [All the victims but one had been bashed in the head with their throats cut. That is the extent of their “indecent mutilations”. The Benders would neither have cared for nor wasted the time on excessive “statements” such as mutilations. Their motives were profit driven, plain and simple.]
Bender sightings and capture stories circulated widely. Many vigilante groups kept up their searching for the pair (a total of $3000 in reward money was a tremendous incentive; that cash would be the equivalent of about $55,000 in today’s money).
One story made the rounds that a vigilante group had caught the Benders and shot all of them but Kate. Her fate was more heinous – she was burned alive. Another alleged the Benders had been caught, then lynched, and their bodies thrown in the Verdigris River. [This river is in the area of the Bender farm. It is ridiculous on its face – the Benders were long gone from Kansas.] Another claimant alleged to have shot all the Benders during a gunfight and then buried their bodies on the prairie. All are lies: the reward money was never collected.
Benders were found in all parts of the United States and many innocent people who perhaps bore a passing resemblance to any of them were often accosted, arrested, or otherwise harassed. Women traveling in pairs were particularly suspect – everyone wanted to believe such a pair was Ma and Katie Bender.
The patriarch Bender came in for his share of rumor mongering.
It was claimed in 1884 that John Flickinger (real name of John Bender, Sr.) had committed suicide in Lake Michigan. That same year a particularly strange claim came out of Montana. An Credit: sketch from tintype, public domainelderly man fitting the description of the senior Bender was arrested in Montana for a murder. The murder victim had allegedly been dispatched with a hammer crack to the skull, Bender’s method. This murder allegedly occurred near Salmon, Idaho, and this Bender was on the lam when picked up in Montana.
A request was sent from Montana to Cherryvale, Kansas, authorities to confirm the identification of the man Montana was holding. Unfortunately, the Montana prisoner hacked off his own foot and bled to death before anyone from could arrive for a timely identification. Once a Cherryvale deputy finally made it to Montana, the corpse on hand was so decomposed no identification could be made. Regardless, the skull of this man passed into the hands of a Salmon, Idaho, barkeeper who displayed it in his saloon as that of John Bender, Sr., until 1920 when Prohibition forced its closing, and the skull disappeared. This story is also clearly a self-serving lie – it is merely an amusing anecdote to lend provenance to a skull sitting in a bar.
Zealousness and Bender-finding in general led to the arrests and questioning of no less than 100 people, none of whom were Benders, by the year 1882. Each was released once his or her identity was confirmed, but it is a sign of the intensity of the desire for justice that this many people could be considered one of the murderous clan.
Perhaps the best documented (because it involved court proceedings) “Bender sighting” occurred in 1889. A woman named Almira Monroe and another named Eliza Davis were Credit: public domainarrested in Niles, Michigan, on larceny charges. They had been released from custody after an acquittal on all charges. On October 13, 1889, these two women were re-arrested, this time on charges of being responsible for the Bender murders.
This case is strange because of the idiocy involving law enforcement. Of paramount evidentiary importance was establishing the positive identities of these two women beyond any doubt. This was done using outdated sketches and tintypes and the “eyewitness” account of a very strange and apparently deranged woman.
These events occurred 16 years after the Benders absconded, which would make Katie Bender about 39 or 40 years old and Almira Bender about 70 years old by then. A crackpot named Frances E. McCann had convinced authorities that the younger woman, Eliza Davis, was really Katie Bender. Her “proof” was a dream and the strange embellishments of Eliza Davis who held a grudge of some sort against her stepmother, Mrs. Almira Monroe, which got her in trouble, too.
A few years before her arrest in Niles, Michigan, on larceny charges, this Eliza Davis woman had visited McPherson County, Kansas, and had taken ill. A young married woman named Frances McCann (wife of a local retailer) called on the sick woman. How McCann knew Eliza is unknown, but McCann herself was led to believe she was the daughter of one of the Bender victims! During the course of visiting with the ill Mrs. Davis, McCann told her of a dream she had. In the dream McCann was in a strange house, and heard a screaming coming from a cellar. She ran down the stairs to find a man with his throat cut, bleeding to death. A strange woman in the dream saw McCann and demanded that McCann be taken out of the cellar.
At this point Eliza stopped McCann’s dream recitation and in effect told McCann it was true, that McCann was subconsciously expressing a repressed memory of her father’s murder at the hands of the Benders. The mistake Eliza Davis made was in telling the gullible and flighty Frances McCann that she, Eliza Davis, was related to Katie Bender – Katie was her sister.
It is clear that once this yarn-spinning by Eliza Davis started it quickly grew out of control. The woman began by revealing to McCann that Eliza had two sisters, Elizabeth and Rose. Both women fell in love with the same man named Sanford. [There were no identified Bender victims named Sanford, and McCann’s maiden name is unknown.] Sanford married Elizabeth. The other daughter, Rose, and their stepmother, Almira, were distraught over which daughter Sanford had chosen to marry.
The mythical sister Rose and Almira (a very real woman who was Eliza Davis’ stepmother, and who lived in Niles, Michigan) then went to visit the happy couple after some time had elapsed. Apparently carrying a chronic grudge, while at the Sanford home, Rose and Almira killed him by setting up a trip wire on a cellar stairwell. Rose went down to the cellar and screamed at the top of her lungs. Sanford rushed down the stairs in alarm to help, tripped on the booby trap, and had his throat slit by Rose (his sister-in-law) and her stepmother.
Because this fictional murder of Sanford did not occur in the Bender home (it happened in his own home) the details can be made to fit McCann’s dream and not the true layout of the Bender inn. [The Bender cellar, a mere hole in the ground, did not have any stairwell adequate to accommodate “running down”. It was also not large enough for more than one person to stand in, let alone murder someone in – the Bender victims were killed over the pit, and then dropped in. Finally, the real Benders would not have let this girl witness live to tell of what she had seen.]
The story Eliza Davis fed McCann in short then states McCann’s mother was the mysterious Elizabeth Sanford, and that Rose and their stepmother killed McCann’s father. Eliza Davis then allegedly went on to tell of other heinous crimes committed by her stepmother. These included murdering a woman in Portland, Kansas, burning a child, and killing one of her husbands, a man from a town 12 miles away.
At the end of that narrative, the naïve McCann gushed, “So your mother is old Mrs. Bender?” Eliza Davis elected to stay silent at that point. She had probably had her fun, putting one over on the ridiculously starry-eyed McCann. Unfortunately, it would come back to haunt her. [It is evident McCann’s parentage was in doubt because she did not question her father’s name nor that of her mother, Elizabeth. She may very well have been an orphan, Eliza knew this, and created the tale to amuse herself].
McCann could not let this story go and she spent time and effort tracking Eliza Davis and Almira Monroe to Niles, Michigan, thinking she had finally found the Bender women. She repeated her fantastic tale to local police in Kansas. The Deputy Sheriff was now Leroy Dick, the former township trustee, and Kate Bender’s former music teacher. He took McCann’s story to heart, and traveled to Niles, Michigan. He arrived just in time to arrest the pair as they were acquitted of larceny.
Evidence for identification was absurd in extremis – tintypes of the two hapless women were mailed to two different people who had known the Benders once upon a time, but each of whom no longer lived in Kansas. Each reported the tintype of Almira resembled the elder Kate Bender. Leroy Dick also used the “evidence” that a man had gone missing from the town Eliza said Almira’s murdered husband had come from (without ever having any detail about when this man was allegedly murdered, just that a local man had gone missing at some point).
Perhaps not bettering her position the 70-year-old Almira Monroe had resisted arrest, claiming she would never be taken alive. Eliza Davis then stated that Almira really was Mrs. Bender, butCredit: sketch from tintype, public domain that she, Eliza, was not Katie Bender, but her sister. Eliza Davis later signed an affidavit to that effect (a meaningless gesture). Almira Monroe continued to protest that she was not Ma Bender.
Deputy Sheriff Dick took the two women to Oswego, Kansas, where seven out of thirteen impaneled jurors (not an overwhelming majority) confirmed their identity as Bender women, and committed them for trial. [What is most noteworthy is that Leroy Dick himself could not make an immediate and credible positive identification of either of these women upon first meeting them. He had been in close quarters with Katie Bender many times when he had given her singing lessons, and he was also a frequent visitor to the Benders’ inn.]
The trial was originally slated for February 1890 but was delayed until May 1890. Meanwhile, their lawyer dug up a marriage certificate for the older woman that showed she had been married in Michigan in 1872 and could not have been a Bender in Kansas at the same time. The county dropped the charges against both women and let them go. The lawyer in this case wrote a book about the Benders that was published in 1913. He included some contemporary sketches of the women, and although one of them is canonically accepted as Katie Bender, it is doubtful if it is. Katie Bender was not known to have any images made of her. This sketch is probably a rendering of the younger woman the lawyer represented, and that would have been Eliza Davis.
Bizarrely, people continued to search for the Benders for the next fifty years (up to a time when all but Katie would certainly be dead of old age). This is the lure of the myth and legend by people who choose not to face reality.
Who Were the Benders?
Legends. Mysteries. Murderers. Thieves. They were travelers.
The detail with which the Benders set up and executed their criminal enterprise is a certain indicator they had clearly done this before. Establishing themselves in the community, the purchase of land – these are all indicators of “the long con”, an involved criminal enterprise that is so lucrative it is worth spending time to develop. This criminal machine was extremely successful – at today’s exchange rates, the Benders accumulated the equivalent of more than $140,000 in cash alone. Many of their victims were traveling with their entire life savings on their person. George Loncher, for example, had his grubstake of $1900 – about $35,000 today – on him when he left for Iowa with his baby daughter. The wealth does not include all the material goods they “liberated” – a horse and buggy combo, an expensive saddle, much jewelry, etc.
The level of sophistication of this enterprise clearly shows a prior experience in similar situations. Just as whoever killed Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) was no novice, neither were the Benders. It is unfortunate nothing is known of the Benders’ whereabouts before their arrival in Kansas. It is almost a certainty one would find missing persons and mysteriously dumped bodies in that place as well. Somehow, from New York State, Almira Meik Griffith Bender worked her way across country with a ragtag crew of killers and thieves. It would be a fascinating exercise to attempt to trace her steps, and perhaps find out how and where the others came into her sphere.
The biographical details of these people are slight. The most interesting person of the lot, of course, is Katie Bender, alias Eliza Griffith. The mystique surrounding this woman remains to this day. The Catholic prayer book found at the time the murders were discovered may offer a clue. Recall it held an annotation about the birth of a woman and John Gebhardt’s immigration date to America on its flyleaf.
Of primary interest is the name “Johanna Bender”. This is a Germanic woman’s name, not a man’s. It could be Austrian, but it could also be Swiss. The year of birth noted, 1848, is coincident with the approximate age of Katie Bender. Finally, one must consider the nature of such writings in religious tomes. Most people in the past recorded births, deaths, and marriages in such books. The Bender woman’s name associated with Gebhardt’s either indicates they are members of the same family, or the two were married. This means a woman named Johannah Bender remained behind in Germany and Gebhardt came to America independent of her and adopted the Bender name. Or Johannah was a female relative with no part in the Bender story except the misuse of her family name. Or, Johannah Bender could have been married to John Gebhardt and assumed the name “Katie” Bender in America and the guise of being Almira’s daughter. This latter may fit with neighbors’ reports the two were really married.
The fate of the Benders is unknown but reasonable conclusions can be drawn. The first certainty is they did get away with murder. There is no doubt about this. It’s what happened after their escape that keeps armchair detectives and conspiracy buffs keenly interested to this day.
The two older Benders obviously did make it to St. Louis, but from there, anything can be supposed. If they ever surfaced elsewhere it is almost certain they were using different names. Both had the hardened prairie look of immigrant settlers. Both would have fit in very well among the Swedes and Norwegians in the Minnesota farm country or even among the German populations of cities such as Cincinnati (a haven for Germans in its earlier years).
Only a handful of rational conclusions can be drawn about Brother John and Sister Kate. First is that the young man John Bender either died or was killed shortly after escaping into the No-Man’s Land of the outlaws. Another rooster in the outlaw hen-house was unnecessary – he was probably summarily dispatched the moment he entered their territory.
Katie Bender would have met a different fate. She could have been gang raped and murdered. She could have been forced into being the outlaws’ sexual plaything indefinitely. Or she could have voluntarily agreed to live and work among them as one of their own. Finally, she could have departed for parts unknown.
The personage of Kate Bender is fascinating. She represented a spirit not common for women of her day (her esoteric Spiritualist dabbling, her loquacity, her audacity). There is no direct Credit: public domain, adulteration by authorevidence she ever killed anyone, just the outlandish lurid titillation the press and public attach to their female miscreants.
She was, however, a heartless, vicious criminal, and she was definitely complicit in at least eleven brutal and cold-blooded murders-for-profit. Her name will forever be associated with “The Bloody Benders of Kansas”. Eliza Griffith, alias Bloody Kate Bender, is not deserving of honor or commemoration. But perhaps she does, however, deserve a second look to remove the rumors from her reality.
[End of Series]
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