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The Bloody Benders
The Bender family ran a small inn and general store from their home near Cherryvale, Kansas where they brutally murdered passersby and buried the bodies in the orchard.
John (Pa) Bender Sr. and son John Bender Jr. arrived with four other families of spiritualists to claim newly vacant Kansas land in October 1870 following relocation of the Osage Indians to a new territory in Oklahoma after the American Civil War.
The Benders claimed 160 acres adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, which was, at the time, the only open road for traveling further west. Ma Bender (her real name was never known) and daughter Kate arrived the following Fall after Pa and John had built a cabin, a barn and a well on the land.
Kate’s self-proclaimed healing and psychic abilities became a big attraction for the inn. She distributed flyers advertising her ability to cure illnesses. She also conducted séances and lectured on spiritualism.
Beginning in 1871 there was rash of disappearances as travelers passing through area were never heard from again. Suspicion began to fall on the Bender family in 1873. Three days after a town meeting was held about the disappearances, it was discovered the Benders had vanished.
Upon entering the abandoned home, the search party noticed a horrible smell. They traced it to a trap door beneath a bed that had been nailed shut. They pried it open to discover a 6-foot deep pit beneath the house. The soil was soaked in clotted blood.
The men physically lifted the house and moved it to dig beneath, but no bodies were found.
They began to probe the surrounding land with a metal rod, checking the disturbed soil in the garden and the orchard. That evening the body of Dr. William Henry York was discovered buried face down, just beneath the surface in the orchard.
As the investigation continued, many more bodies were discovered in the orchard, as well as one in the well, and numerous body parts that did not belong to the already discovered remains. The victims were all found to have had their heads bashed in with a hammer and their throats cut. Newspapers reported they had all been “indecently mutilated.”
The body of one young girl had been found without wounds sufficient to cause death, causing speculation that she was either strangled or buried alive.
The remains of what was believed to be 20 victims were found on the farm. With the exception of five victims, including Dr. York, none of the bodies were ever claimed. They were buried at the base of a small hill nearby, a location now known as The Bender Mounds.
While the Benders were never found and their fates remain unknown to this day, twelve men “of bad repute in general” were arrested as accomplices, having been involved in disposing of the victims’ stolen goods.
Word of mouth quickly spread about the murders, bringing thousands of people from across the country to see the Bender homestead. Souvenir hunters took everything that remained, including the corral fence and the stones that lined the cellar and well. By 1886 there was nothing left but the hole in the ground.
A shoe hammer, a claw hammer and a sledgehammer which matched indentations in some of the skulls were on display in the Bender Museum in Cherryvale until it closed in 1978. They can now be seen in a case in the Cherryvale Museum. A small knife reportedly found hidden in a mantel clock in the Bender house can be viewed upon request at the Kansas Museum of History. The blade is still covered in reddish-brown stains.