#3. The Bloody Benders
Life in America could be pretty precarious in the years immediately following the Civil War. Intrepid frontiersmen journeying west through former Kansas Indian territory were always on the lookout for a port in the storm, safe from blizzards and bandits. The Bender homestead, located in western Labette County, probably seemed like such a refuge. But the Bender family's price for lodging could be pretty steep, considering that many of their guests wound up with their heads smashed in.
"They shouldn't have tried to steal our towels."
The Benders -- John, his wife and their children John, Jr. and Kate, are believed to have been immigrants from Germany, but nobody was ever too sure, knowing only that they spoke with funny accents. In addition, Kate billed herself in the area as a psychic and a healer. So men attracted by Kate's "supernatural powers" (boobs) were also frequently showing up at their front door. But then it's pretty easy to be a psychic when all of your clients have around 5 minutes to live.
Guests were given a seat at the head of the table, expecting a warm meal, and once they got settled in, either Pa or John, Jr. would appear from behind a curtain and brain them with a hammer. We have no way of knowing whether the murders were committed immediately after the guest was asked whether he wanted "one lump or two," so we merely have to assume that's what happened. Once dispatched, the unfortunate patron was stripped of any valuables and delivered to the cellar via a trap door to await a more permanent disposal somewhere on the prairie.
The Benders kept up this macabre business venture for 18 months, until they made the mistake of doing the old "stop, hammertime" on one Dr. William York, a brother of an army colonel who later formed a vigilante group to track down the missing man. Their search led them to the Bender homestead, but when the Benders realized they were about to get sprung (and this was one problem they wouldn't be able to solve with hammers) the family fled in the middle of the night. Authorities discovered the burial fields, but they never found the family. What became of them after that? Nobody knows. Take a few minutes to try to imagine an ending to the story that isn't terrifying.
#2. Human Sacrifice Cults Were Very Real
Remember the evil, human-sacrificing cult from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Those guys really existed. The Thuggee Cult (where the word "thug" actually comes from) gained notoriety in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the British occupation, for murdering countless unsuspecting travelers. They had been around for a long time, though, with the first record of their existence appearing in 1356. Over that time, the Thuggee were responsible for tens of thousands of human sacrifices in the name of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, who is usually depicted laughing and waving a bunch of knives and severed body parts around.
"Mess with me, Jesus, and I'll make that stigmata look like a scraped knee."
In the early 1800s, the leader of the cult was a man known as Thug Behram, who personally admitted to killing 125 men, though he claimed to have been present for 931 ritual murders. They didn't really pull people's hearts out with magic, but they did sneak up behind their victims with a ceremonial strangle-cloth called a rumal. Behram was apparently so good at it that he could catch a man's Adam's apple with the rumal's sewn-in medallion in one swing, for the most efficient strangulation.
"I also perfected the whole 'evil moustache twirling' thing."
British Colonial authorities eventually caught up with Behram, whereupon he immediately violated the "thug life" credo by snitching out his partners in crime. With his help the Thuggee Cult was effectively stamped out and the reign of terror brought to an end. It was not so easy, however, to get rid of the Anioto cult in Nigerial.
That one was discovered in the early part of the 20th Century, when British colonial administrators found people were being slaughtered and children going missing by the dozen in what was described by witnesses as attacks by "man-leopards." The rumors turned out to be true -- at least, in the sense that they were a bunch of dudes dressed up like leopards.
"Man, I really hope it's not breezy tonight."
They were members of the Anioto, a cult of leopard-worshippers. They had apparently been around for centuries and are believed to have started off as devotees of the Egyptian god Osiris. The men believed themselves to be were-leopards, though in reality they just wore cloaks made from leopard skins, and strapped claws and knives to their hands. Apparently, whenever they faced some local problem like illness or failing crops, the Anioto knew exactly what needed to be done: dress up and find a human sacrifice.
Forty-eight killings were committed in 1946 alone. In 1947 there were another 43 and most troubling to the white colonists was the realization that the violence now seemed to be directed at them. Cultists were rounded up and executed in an attempt to prove to local chiefs that they weren't immortal supernatural leopard people. Not much has been heard from the Cult of the Leopard since the brutal crackdown in the late 1940s, but- Oh, wait, no, a kid was killed by a cult priest in 2011.
#1. Elizabeth Bathory
Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian countess from back in the 1500s who has the distinction of being widely regarded the most prolific serial killer in human history. Nobody even knows how many people met their end in Bathory's castle of horrors, but estimates usually get up to around 650 before they lose count and round it up to the nearest thousand or so.
A lot of what we know about Bathory is probably trumped up, because back then, history tended to get mixed up with folklore, especially when you're talking about someone who might have leaped out of a Bram Stoker novel. And since one witness reported seeing Bathory having sex with Satan one day, we can deduce that some of these reports were unreliable.
"Don't be absurd -- it was just a handjob."
By all accounts, she was a vain and beauty-obsessed aristocrat who would have been at home in any one of Grimm's fairy tales. The popular account of Bathory's life is that the aging countess became obsessed with trying to reclaim her youth, and settled upon bathing in the blood of her young female servants, which probably made a lot more sense in the 16th century. But researchers who try to stick to the facts as much as possible admit a more down to earth scenario might be that she was just a terrifyingly brutal bitch going through the worst mid-life crisis in history.
Either way, the one thing scholars agree on is that Bathory seemed to really get off on torturing young women to death, and witnesses reported that her interests were as diverse as severe beatings, burning, freezing and biting her victims' faces. It says a lot for the quality of investigative journalism that girls continued to seek employment in Bathory's torture castle despite the suspiciously high turnover rate.
"I offer health and dental."
Eventually the King decided that he should put a stop to this before she reduced Hungary to the biggest sausage party in Europe, but nobody wanted to put her on trial because it might embarrass some rich people to try one of their own. So Bathory was put on house arrest for the rest of her life, which due to 16th-century life expectancy, thankfully wasn't long.
E. Reid Ross murders comics with his pals at RealToyGun.
For more reasons to fear reality over fiction, check out 5 Horrific Serial Killers (Who Are Free Right Now) and The 5 Creepiest Serial Killers (Who Were Animals).