Part 1 of 2

Murder is a lonely business. 

Most infamous serial killers worked alone (e.g., Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper). 

It is rare to find two or more working in cooperation with each other.  Edinburgh’s body snatchers Burke and Hare in the late 1820s, and Los Angeles’ Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono (the sadistic Hillside Stranglers) in the early 1980s are perhaps the best examples.

The rarest form of wholesale murder, though, is that in which a larger group of people coöperate. 

One particularly noxious example is the early 1960s Indianapolis family (a white trash mother and her offspring aided by neighborhood children) who systematically tortured and abused Sylvia Likens, a fragile homeless teen girl, causing her death.

Although not related by blood, the hippie cult, The Manson Family, engaged in much petty criminal behavior as a group before finally committing the murders for which they are best known.

More closely related by kinship ties are the groups of nomadic con artists and home repair scammers known collectively as “The Travelers”.  They are largely of Celtic origins; although almost all were born in America, they cling to many clannish traditions of the British Isles. 

These people operate out of communities based in the southeastern US.  They travel seasonally around the country in caravans, bilking the gullible out of money by engaging in door-to-door “home repair” (resurfacing a driveway, for example, with a solution of darkly colored liquid that washes off in the first rain).  They are extremely clannish and closed as a community.  Their criminality does not generally extend to murder as part of their routine con work, however, although some murders (unrelated to their grifting) have been attributed to them.

Finally the model for what most people think of as “The Syndicate” was Murder, Inc..  In the early part of the 20th Century, this cooperative turned murder into a model of businesslike efficiency.  This Mafia construct worked as any other service-oriented concern – its product, however, was murder-for-hire.

Prof. Miss Katie Bender poster (June 18, 1872)Credit: Bender Museum, Cherryvale, Kansas


For one family in Kansas toward the latter part of the 19th Century, however, murder was also their business. 

In one of the more unusual serial murder cases in US history, the clan known later as “The Bloody Benders of Kansas” killed at least eleven identifiable victims (with remains from several more unknowns found) from 1871-1873.  If not for a mistake in their choice of one particular victim, “Bloody” Kate Bender (as she was later nicknamed) and the other three members of her murderous family (a mother, a father, and a brother) might have killed far more.  Their modus operandi is unique in its assembly line method and in the fact they operated right out in the open without raising suspicions for a fairly long time.

Dropped Out of the Sky
Kansas had a history of internal conflict before becoming a state.  The violence associated with the state’s formation earned it the sobriquet “Bleeding Kansas”.  Battles with Native Americans over territory as they were pushed further south and westward via Kansas into Oklahoma and New Mexico created turmoil.  So, too, did the bitterly divisive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a “free state” or a “slave state”.  The slavery issue bred many skirmishes throughout the territory—combatants fought on both sides of the issue with guerilla tactics, and many people were killed.  The domestic terrorist John Brown is perhaps the most famous radical abolitionist spawned from this breeding ground. 

There was another kind of revolution in progress, however, one that started in western New York by the Fox Sisters.  These sisters played a prank on their parents, claiming to speak with an otherworldly presence in their humble, mid-19th Century farm house.  Word of this spread quickly, and the sisters developed an elaborate system for séances involving “table rappings” and other sounds, allegedly coded messages from the Beyond.

This prank blossomed quickly into the fad of Spiritualism, the practice of communing with the dead via spirit mediums and séances.  The total of Spiritualism embraced more than merely speaking with the dead, but that was the bedrock for its beliefs.  Many communes were established to practice; the same is true today when New Age hucksters host retreats and spiritual guidance sessions for the gullible and those easily separated from their cash.

In today’s world everyone has a past.  The paper trail (and the modern, digitally enhanced “paper-trail”) that begins at birth and ends at death follows one everywhere he or she goes.  It is only with sincere effort that a modern person can credibly erase his or her earlier identity and history.

This was not true in the days of westward pioneer expansion.  There was no such thing as uniform birth registration.  If a man or woman introduced himself or herself as “Butch Cassidy” (real name, Robert Leroy Parker) or as “Belle Starr” (real name, Myra Maybelle Shirley) one generally had to take their word for it, and the word of others, that they were who they claimed.

In the undeveloped southeast corner of dusty, “Bleeding” Kansas (newly relieved of its Osage Native American population), a group of five Spiritualist families from the East settled together to create aJohn Bender, Sr. (John Flickinger)Credit: public domain, tintype community.  The village was established in Osage township in Labette County in October 1870.  Among this group of five pioneering forces was an elderly man named John Bender and his son, John Bender, Jr.

The senior Bender, roughly 60 years old, was described as taciturn, solidly built (though “spare”), and very rough in appearance, with wide shoulders and a sour demeanor.  He was 5’9” tall, with dark hair and a dark complexion.  Although usually clean-shaven occasionally he took to wearing a full beard.  He spoke very little English (mostly profane expletives) and his speaking voice was described as guttural and unintelligible to most.  Almost everyone assumed he was German (though it is possible he might have been Dutch).  He was European by birth, however, and had immigrated to the United States.   

In contrast to his father, the younger John Bender was of a more artistic and gracile appearance.  He was about the same height as his father, but with brown hair tending toward sandy, grey eyes John Bender, Jr. (John Gebhardt)Credit: public domain; sketch from unknown tintypeflecked with brown, a light mustache, and no other facial hair.  His age was estimated between 25 and 27 years old.  In his speech he spoke heavily accented English but he was articulate.  His most unnerving habit was a spontaneous and seemingly uncontrollable nervous laugh that escaped when he spoke, as if he were tittering at every word coming from his mouth.  This quirk led many to erroneously believe he was “feeble” or a “half-wit”. 

The two Bender men registered a claim parcel of 160 acres upon arrival.  They had chosen well – their claim had frontage on the only passably developed westbound trail in the area, the Great Osage Trail.  This trail started in Independence, Kansas, roughly 17 miles from the Bender claim and headed out west to parts unknown.

The Great Osage Trail’s abutting the Bender’s new claim was lucky (or perhaps intended on their part).  The two Bender men built a cabin, a barn with a corral, and dug a well. 

The cabin was a ramshackle affair, 16’ x 24’ (slightly less than 400 square feet of space).  Roughly two-thirds of its space was outfitted as a general mercantile when it was completed.  The smaller rear section served as its living quarters, and a tiny cellar had been dug into the earth beneath this part, with a trap door covering it.  With the constructions and amenities established the women folk arrived.

Diagram of Bender cabin floor with cellar markedCredit: Vic Dillinger™, © 2011

In the fall of 1871, the senior Bender’s wife, Kate, and their daughter, Katie, showed up on the new claim (about a year after the men had settled it).  The Benders furnished the home with their Kate Bender, elder (Almira Meik Griffith)Credit: public domain, tintypepersonal items and stocked the front section with consumer goods.  They named this enterprise “The Wayside Inn” with the intent of also providing lodging and meals to passing travelers in addition to consumer goods.

The missus Bender was about 55 years old.  She was plodding, stolid, stooped, and heavy-set.  Her overall appearance was regarded by neighbors as one of poor health.  She had thinning iron-grey hair, ragged at its ends.  Her eyes were steel grey.  Her Germanic-inflected English was as poor as the senior Bender’s.   She was so cantankerous of character the neighbors referred to her as “old she-devil”.  The senior Bender was likewise not well-regarded, but the locals liked him far better than his wife: “If we thought Mr. Bender was an ugly cuss, she’s no improvement.”

It was the daughter, Katie, however, that would set tongues wagging in that little backwoods corner of Kansas.  Contemporary accounts vary only slightly in levels of superlatives, but she was Katie Bender (Eliza Griffith)Credit: public domainconsidered very attractive.  She was about 5’ 6” tall, slender, and buxom.  She had deep hazel eyes, and a luxuriant head of deep auburn hair.  Physically, she was described as “voluptuous”, “good looking”, and “well formed”.  Unlike her parents, her English was excellent, and only lightly accented.  She was talkative and sociable, and the locals liked her.

Both Katie Bender and her mother were Spiritualists, and the older Kate Bender also dabbled in “spell casting”, using “charmed” boiled herbs and roots to make “potions”.   She and her daughter worked up two acres of truck patch near the cabin/store/inn and planted a vegetable garden and started an apple orchard on the plot.  Then they settled into the family business.

The Grifters
The Benders almost dropped out of the sky but not quite, and hostelry was not their true calling.  Scanty information was learned, but for sure the Benders were not related to each other by law or blood.  They were a traveling group of professional criminals.

John Bender, Sr., was really a man named Johann Flickinger, an immigrant from Germany although there is a suggestion he may have been from The Netherlands.  He did have a relationship with the woman posing as his wife, but they were not married.

The son, John Bender, Jr., was in reality a man named John Gebhardt (variant spelling “Gebardt”).  He, too, was a German immigrant.  Beyond that not much else is known about him. 

More is known of the senior Bender’s “wife”, but even that is minimal as well.  Her maiden name was Almira Meik.  She had been born in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.  When she was barely into her teens, she married a name named George Griffith.  She would bear twelve children with him.  Soon after the birth of their youngest child George Griffith mysteriously died.   Historically, he was recorded as having “a bad place on his head” upon death (as from a blunt instrument strike). 
Katie Bender, although appearing as if she were in her late teens, was really a 23-year-old mature woman.  It is believed she was the fifth born of Almira’s and George’s twelve children, and her real name was Eliza Griffith.  Even this piece of data may be incorrect – she may not have been any relation to Almira Griffith at all, but she was treated as a daughter.

Nothing is known of how these four people met and came to work together in what would become a murder-for-profit scheme.  It is not known how John Flickinger and Almira Griffiths met, nor is it clear how they with the other two coalesced into this band of criminals.  What is known is that John Flickinger and Almira did live as man and wife. 

The relationship between John Gebhardt (the “son”) and the young woman “Katie” was perhaps more intimate than expected.  Later reports claimed they were actually husband and wife, but a more realistic imagining is that they were merely lovers, and that John Gebhardt’s involvement with the group was based solely upon his preoccupation with the voluptuous Katie.  This makes more sense – even by the more “loose” moral standards of the frontier, “living in sin” was still considered by many a taboo.  [A great illustrator of this sentiment is the old song, “Sweet Betsy from Pike”.  The first lines of the song were originally “Have you ever heard of sweet Betsy from Pike / Who crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike?”  Later, out of prudish Victorian moralizing this song’s line was changed to “ . . . with her husband Ike”.]

How this group of killers formed or where they had been between Almira Griffith’s widowhood in New York State and 1870 is unknown.  Business boomed soon enough, however.

Setting up Shop
The Benders had to ingratiate themselves into the community.  Neither of the elders had any inclination toward friendliness; it was Kate and the younger man who were the social animals.

The two younger Benders attended social functions such as they were.  Kate was the more vivacious; she was glib, laughed easily, and her overall charm made her welcome in the community.  She was an excellent dancer.  She went to church occasionally.  She was flirtatious and popular.  She often went to gatherings at a local schoolhouse, went to its Christmas exercises, and took singing lessons from a man named Leroy F. Dick.  Dick was the trustee of the township, and he lived about four miles southeast of the Bender spread.  He also visited their home on several occasions and became one of the few who would know them as well as could be expected.  

Kate found a job in the nearby, newly incorporated town of Cherryvale (originally Cherry Vale), Kansas.  She worked as a waitress in a hotel, but considering her aspirations for greatness, she soon quit to pursue her dream of being a star lecturer on the subject of Spiritualism.  Amusingly, she conflated her dabbling in the spirit realm into something far more grandiose.  She had handbills printed up which she dutifully posted around town:


                                        Can heal all sorts of Diseases; can cure Blind-
                                        ness, Fits, Deafness and all such diseases, also
                                        Deaf and Dumbness.
                                           Residence, 14 miles from Independence, on
                                        the road from Independence to Osage Mission
                                        one and one half miles South East of Norehead

                                                                               Katie Bender.
                                         June 18, 1872.

The “professor” soon gained a local popularity as a medium and spirit guide, perhaps due in no small part to her ebullient personality. 

The real work was back at the Wayside Inn, however.  The Benders modus operandi was simple and effective.  Isolated travelers often pounded along the Great Osage Trail and needed either refreshment or a place to spend the night.  The Benders provided both; it was the beguiling Katie’s job to suss out the intended victim to see if he was worth robbing. 

Through her gift of gab (and enticing physicality) she would learn whether a passing traveler was a good mark.  The profile was simple: the traveler had to have money or other material wealth on his person (e.g., driving a nice buggy and team, or having a gold watch plus ready cash), and he also had to be unattached, isolated in the world (meaning he had no friends or family, and no one really awaiting his arrival at either end of his trip).  Once these facts were established, and a mark was targeted, the rest of the robbery plans went along like a well-oiled machine.

The weary man on the road was invited to stay the night by the coquettish Katie.  Regardless of which direction he was traveling (whether it was the eastbound 17 miles to Independence, Kansas, or heading west) if the victim was unfamiliar with the area she would tell the person there was no way to make his goal before nightfall.  That, combined with her flirtations, might have enticed many men to accept the offer of accommodations.
People who (fortunately for them) were not well-heeled, but who did stay there of necessity later told of Katie’s wheedling about their financial situation.  They also reported the food served up at the inn was terrible; only the most meager sub-quality meals were proffered.

Floor plan of furnished Bender cabin (1872)Credit: public domain

The cabin had been divided into two “rooms” by a heavy sheet of wagon canvas hung from the ceiling.  The storefront section served also as the meal preparation and dining area.  Facing the front door was a rough wooden table; it had one chair whose back was against the hanging canvas “wall”.  Thus, any diner had to sit with his back to the canvas facing the open front door.

Because of the obvious task of food preparation, serving, and keeping up the chatter, it is almost certain that neither Almira Griffiths Bender nor Katie Bender ever killed anyone personally.  That task would have fallen to either the old man or the younger man. 

This step of the operation was apparently not meant as the murder phase, though.  With the victim seated with his back to the canvas wall, one of the Bender men, lurking in the rear living area behind the canvas, struck at the head silhouetted against it.  Usually, this would knock the victim unconscious, sometimes killing him immediately, but not always.  [One recovered victim’s body had multiple head wounds indicating he did not fall on the first strike.  Also, several bullet holes, scatter-shot throughout the cabin, were discovered later, indicating at least one victim may have been sufficiently alert to at least squeeze off a few rounds before being dispatched].

Once stunned, the victim was dragged to the rear living area and stripped of his clothes and personal effects.  In this task there can be no doubt that both women would have participated.  Each would have wanted her share of the swag, and as there is no honor among thieves, they would have had to see the take.  Certainly the victim could not be allowed to revive – the cellar dug in the rear corner of the cabin’s substrate served as a killing pit.  The trap door was raised, the victim placed over the drop, his throat slit, and he bled out as he was dropped into the small space.  Then the trap was closed, and the Benders all returned to their normal activities.  The body would be disposed of after dark or when otherwise convenient.

Sensationalists like to play up Katie Bender’s role as the ringleader and sadistic killer of all these victims.  It seems most rational that the handling of a corpse’s dead weight (certainly of an unconscious man) would best be done by the more physically stronger Bender men, as was the throat cutting.  Though complicit in every murder, Katie Bender and Almira Griffiths Bender were not the killers of the Bloody Benders’ victims (although it is possible that Almira may very well have murdered her New York husband, George Griffiths).  

Katie continued to ply her Spiritualist’s trade locally, the Bender men pottered on the land, and the missus Bender ran the shop.  As opportunity permitted, travelers were knocked over the head with a hammer, stripped of their effects, had their throats slit, and were finally interred in the apple orchard ground the women had cultivated. 

Katie’s profile as a Spiritualist rose steadily.  She became known as a “magnetic healer” (hypnotist).  She covered a whole range of bunco scams for money including astrology and numerology castings, reading palms, and telling fortunes.  She dramatically worked spells against “evil” women, and she sold lucky charms and love potions.   Her “donations” for her magic were substantial.

The Doctor in the House
Beginning in May 1871 (several months after Katie and Almira arrived to homestead) bodies began turning up in a nearby creek.  Later, other people would simply be reported as gone missing.  Considering the times, and the intermittent activities of Indians, horse thieves, and highwaymen, this was generally chalked up to the hazards of travel in the West.

The Bender’s murder trap sprung closed from time to time without incident.  In the winter of 1872 the wife of an Independence, Kansas, man named George Loncher died.  George decided to leave Independence for Iowa.  He and his daughter struck out for Iowa and were never seen again.  [Wildly disparate ages of 18 months and 8 years are given in different sources for the girl.  It is likely the younger age is correct based upon later discoveries]. 

In early 1873 a neighbor of Loncher’s, Dr. William York, set out to search for his friend as it was now known he had not made it to Iowa.  York arrived in Fort Scott, Kansas, and on March 9, he began the return trip to Independence, assuming that since no one at the fort had seen Loncher, something must have happened before he reached that point.  Dr. York never returned to his home.

Unlike the other Bender victims Dr. York had family and people who knew of his movements and when he should have been expected at his destination.  One of his brothers was a colonel living in Fort Scott (whom the doctor had recently visited while looking for Loncher).  The other was a Kansas State Senator, Alexander York, who also lived in Independence.  Both of Dr. York’s brothers knew of his search and his travel itinerary.  His failure to return home when anticipated sparked a manhunt.  Colonel York led a party of 50 men; they visited every homestead along the Osage Trail and questioned every traveler they met.

On March 28, 1873, Colonel York and his men arrived at the Bender’s Wayside Inn.  He asked a few direct questions about whether his brother had passed through.  He was advised that Dr. York had indeed spent the night there recently, but hazarded that he might have met with Indian trouble after leaving the inn.  Colonel York thought that was a reasonable explanation and given the lateness of the day he elected to stay for dinner at the Benders when invited.  He then took his leave.

Someone had told Colonel York an anecdote of a woman recently seen running screaming from the Bender place after allegedly being threatened with a knife by Almira Griffiths Bender.  Colonel York was already suspicious of the Benders and this gave him an excuse to revisit their inn.  On April 3, 1873, with a few armed men in tow, Colonel York approached the inn and advised Almira Griffith Bender of his reason for calling.  Almira (although perfectly clear in her understanding of English) pretended not to comprehend what Colonel York was telling her about the knife-wielding incident. 

Colonel York repeated his assertion that Almira had indeed threatened this woman – Almira then lost her head and blurted out in clear and easily understood English that the visiting woman was a witch who had “cursed her coffee”.  She ordered the men out of the inn.  As York made his way off the property he was approached by the coquettish Katie who asked him to come back the next Friday night and she would use her clairvoyant powers to help find his missing brother.  The men with York that day felt clearly the Benders (perhaps in complicity with a neighboring family no one seemed to like very well, the Roaches) were guilty of some wrongdoing with respect to Dr. York.  They began talking of lynching the entire family;  Colonel York insisted on proof, however. 

Some of the neighboring communities feared the spate of disappearances were because of Osage Indian assaults and ambushes.  A town meeting was held in the little schoolhouse. Among the 75 locals who attended were the two Bender men.  Colonel York was also present.  During the discussion a motion was brought to the floor to have a search warrant issued to cover combing every homestead along the missing Dr. York’s last known route.  After the meeting adjourned the Bender men quietly went home.

Empty Nest
Colonel York’s strong suspicions of the Benders notwithstanding, no one seemed to have paid much attention to them in the weeks between Colonel York’s last visit and the time of the town meeting.

Just three days after the meeting a man named Billy Tole was out driving cattle.  As he passed the Wayside Inn he noticed the odd look of abandonment.  The farm animals were clearly unfed and restless.  Tole reported his findings to Leroy Dick (Katie’s voice coach and the township’s trustee).  Because of bad weather, however, no one could make their way out to the Bender place to investigate. 

Bender cabin ("The Wayside Inn", May 1873)Credit: public domain

Several days later a group of volunteers were called up and trooped out to the Wayside Inn.  Colonel York was among their number.  They found the Bender cabin clearly abandoned; there was no food, clothing, or other personal effects left.

The Benders had vanished, leaving in their wake a very bad stench coming from a trap door, nailed shut, in the back room.

[End of Part 1]

Part 2 – Bloody Kate Bender: Vanishing Vixen

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