The year is 1873. You're a weary traveler making your way through Kansas on your way to check out this California you've been hearing so much about. After a long day of traveling, you arrive at the small town of Cherryvale, and all you want right now is a pile of hay to rest your head and a nice roll of burlap to wipe the dysentery off your body, so you look for a place to rest. Lucky for you, you manage to find a quaint little inn a few miles outside of town. It's not much, but the idea of sleeping outside again, after your horse peed on you last night, doesn't seem too appealing, and Airbnb is still years away (and would probably look like black magic to you), so it'll have to do.
Unfortunately, before you can make your way to your itchy bed and extinguish your oil lamp for the night, you have to sit down to dinner with the family running the place: an odd brood of German immigrants who keep staring at you and giggling for some reason. You plop yourself at the head of the table, bracing yourself for what sure to be some gross, unregulated food when suddenly SKLORMP! (I wasn't sure what sound it makes when your skull gets bashed in with a hammer, so I guessed.)
You've just fallen victim to the Bloody Benders, America's first and, arguably, greatest family of serial killers. Think of their story like The Little House of 1000 Corpses on the Prairie. A lot of what we know about them is shrouded in mystery, but the stuff we do know for sure is, well, batshit freaking insane.
Like the Berenstain Bears, the family consisted of a mom, a dad, a brother, and a sister. Also, like the Berenstain Bears, the Benders would brutally attack any human who wandered into their living space ... I mean, they are bears, after all.
Their story begins with the Homestead Act of 1862, one of many pieces of legislation designed to steal land from indigenous people and give it to European settlers because *sigh* America. Pa Bender (That's actually the name he went by) took advantage of the bill, moving himself and his son John to Labette County, Kansas, where they were each given a small plot of land to call their own. Soon after, they were followed by the mom of the family (Her real name was Elvira, but she was called Ma, since even by old-timey killer standards, Elvira was too on the nose.) and the sister Kate. The family used their 160 acres to construct a one-room house, which they somehow managed to use as a store, an inn, a living space, and a murder emporium because the 1800s put the tiny house movement to shame. The family separated their living quarters from their businesses by draping a blanket across the middle of the room that ... well, remember that detail because it will become important when we start talking about their murders.
Before we can talk about what they did, though, we should probably talk a bit about the Benders themselves, who were are a bunch of weirdos even before adding murder to the equation. For starters, they were self-described "spiritualists" who believed they could talk to the dead. As far as the living were concerned, though, they didn't seem to be the chattiest bunch, preferring to keep to themselves. ("Hey, neighbors, y'all like murder? We like murder; Wanna hang? No? No? Okay ...") Pa Bender was a six-foot-plus tall man with bushy eyebrows who looked exactly like the first image you'd get if you Google searched "Goth Paul Bunyan," and Ma was a stout woman whose lack of social skills garnered her the adorable nickname of "she-devil" from those who lived nearby. They both had such thick, guttural German accents that nobody could understand them when they spoke English. Meanwhile, John was a handsome chap who was said to either be mentally impaired or, more terrifyingly, seemed like he was mentally impaired due to his creepy habit of laughing at inappropriate times. (Eat your heart out, Joaquin Phoenix.)
And then there was Kate ... Kate was kind of like that one human daughter who was somehow related to the rest of The Munsters. She was attractive, fun, and, unlike the rest of her family, seemed to be capable of maintaining a human conversation with people outside her own home. She was also more than likely the ringleader of the family's entire homicidal operation.
As a spiritualist, Kate believed herself to be a skilled healer and fortuneteller, a fact, which along with her aforementioned hotness, she exploited to her family's advantage. Kate would lure men back to her family's humble abode with promises of psychic readings and, probably, other, more sex-filled activities. Kate's skills as a temptress coupled with their house's location near the oft-traveled Osage Trail ensured that the Benders had a steady stream of outsiders entering their home at any given time. Sadly, not all of them got to leave.
Once the Bloody Benders had officially lured a victim into their trap, they'd proceed with their brutal, if remarkably efficient, system of murder. Remember that blanket I mentioned earlier? Well, here's where it becomes important. The Benders would seat their marks near said blanket, at the dinner table. While they were presumably chatting up a storm with Kate, another member of the family would stand behind the canvas sheet with a hammer and bludgeon the victim dead. They would then dispose of the corpse by dropping it down a trap door in their home, and then go about their lives, doing ... whatever the hell people did to pass the time in 1870s Kansas. I dunno. Eating turnips, probably.
Though bodies started turning up all over town, nobody initially suspected the Benders. Most of their victims were travelers, so even if their loved ones managed to notice they were missing, it wasn't like their first thought about what happened would be that a family of serial killers got to them. It wasn't until a man named George Newton Longcor and his daughter Mary Ann fell victim to the Benders. When their neighbor, Dr. William York, realized that something wasn't right, he bravely traced the missing persons to the Bender house where he heroically ... got his ass murdered too. But because of that, his brothers went looking for him, and that's when things began going downhill for our beloved family of psychopaths.
After searching every last inch of his brother's known travel route, Colonel A.M. York arrived at the Bender's inn, and lucky for him, he came leading a group of 50 men, so he wasn't murdered. Though the Benders did acknowledge that Dr. York had been one of their guests, they obviously did not admit to beating him to a bloody pulp.
Perhaps Colonel York would have been able to find more evidence in his search had it not been for Kate thinking quickly like the sociopath she was. She told York that if he left and came back with fewer men, she would use her psychic abilities to try and find his brother. Via her skilled combination of manipulation, being hot, and 19th-century people being dumb as rocks, this somehow worked, and Kate used the opportunity to throw suspicion off her family.
Ultimately, the Benders remained uncaught in this episode, but they were suspects for the first time since their killing spree began. Unfortunately for them, it wouldn't be long until their bloody jig was fully up.
Around the same time as Colonel York arrived in town, neighboring counties began to complain about, ya know, all the murders that kept happening. This resulted in a meeting at a local schoolhouse wherein the Osage township citizens decided to solve the case once and for all by going home to home and doing thorough searches of every property in the area. Both of the male Benders were in attendance that night, and, as you probably could have guessed, they weren't too happy with what they heard. The family knew their back was against canvas blanket, so they decided to haul ass out of town as soon as possible.
Soon after the meeting, neighbors began complaining of dead and dying animals on the Benders' property. After a search of the farm, it became clear that the family had abandoned their home, and after a much more thorough examination of the farm, it became clear that the family was a bunch of monsters. A total of 11 bodies were found on the farm, though it's believed that their actual murder count was closer to 21. Of all the disturbing finds made in the town's excavation of the abandoned land, perhaps none was more depressing than the discovery of the previously mentioned Mary Ann Longcor. Because none of the wounds found on her body appeared to be fatal, it's suspected that once the Benders killed her father, they disposed of the little girl by burying her alive under her dad's corpse. It is at this point in the article that I feel the need to take a moment to say screw these people, and may they choke on any floating turds in the lava pools of hell they're currently drowning in.
You, reading this, are probably wondering what happened to the Benders, and you are about to be very disappointed. Though there are many theories out there about the murderers' ultimate fate, the truth is that nobody knows for sure. Like I said, the Bloody Benders are a family that's shrouded in mystery. For example, we're not even sure if they were a family at all.
Though they called themselves a family, many people today believe that the Benders were actually just a group of people joined at their shared passion for bloodshed. It is widely thought that Kate and John weren't even siblings but, in fact, husband and wife. It's a weird lie to keep up, particularly since many think that they were so intent on maintaining their ruse that when Kate gave birth to a baby, the couple killed it so as not to raise suspicion ... so, yeah, there's that ...
Another mystery surrounding the Benders is why they did what they did. The obvious answer is that they wanted to rob their victims, but the truth is that none of the people they killed had all that much to take. Over the course of 21 murders, it's believed that the Benders' only profit was about $4,600 and a couple of horses. While this wasn't nothing, especially at the time, it certainly wasn't a dedicate yourselves to a life of carnage amount money. For that reason, a lot of people suspect that the Benders' main motivation was simply that they enjoyed killing people. Either 1870s Kansas was just that boring, or, more likely, the Bloody Benders were just that evil.
Echos of the Bender can be seen all over pop culture, from movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to tv shows like Supernatural. Most recently, the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 featured a nod to the murderous family. Remember that part at the Aberdeen Pig Farm that somehow managed to disturb you even though you had just spent two hours murdering innocent travelers and skinning their horses for pelts? Yeah, they were based on the Benders too. No matter how many pop culture monsters they inspire, though, none are more terrifying than the real thing. So here's to the Bloody Benders: They were truly the best at being the worst.
Top image: Artem Furman/Shutterstock, John Towner James/Kan-Okla Publishing