Despite what movies and TV shows might suggest families killing together, as a unit, is fairly rare. There are many instances in which couples or two blood relations get together to kill others, but a whole family working to take lives? Not so much…though it’s not unheard of either. There was at least one such case in the 1800s wherein the Bender family worked together to rob and kill unsuspecting travelers who made the mistake of choosing to stay at their inn. When their crimes were discovered they became known simply as “The Bloody Benders”.
The Bender family consisted of John “Old Man Bender” Sr., Marli “Ma” Bender, John Bender Jr, and Kate “Professor Miss Katie” Bender. Despite the current legend of being a great red-headed seductress in truth Kate was something of a red-faced girl with manly features who would hold seances and claim to be a faith healer. Not that the rest of the family appeared much better. John Sr was 60, Marli was 42 with the appearance of a hag, and John Jr was described as a dim-witted hulk of a man. …What does stand out is the suggestion that Kate Bender was not only bait for victims, but possibly of the brains of the operation itself even though the youngest (only in her early 20s).
Set upon a long, lonely, stretch of road just short of a nearby railway town in Labette County, Kansas, it’s not too surprising that the family would turn their home into a makeshift inn for other frontier folk looking for a hot meal and warm bed. Though unlike H H Holmes’ complex hotel of horrors created in the same century (1893, Chicago’s World Fair) the set-up of the Bender family’s inn was rather simple, just like their murder tactics. It was little more than a single large room divided in half by a canvas with one side being the family’s living space and the other for their guests…assuming the family let them live.
It was Kate who, if she noted a traveler that appeared wealthy, would invite the person to come inside, enjoy a nice meal, a drink, and perhaps stay at the family’s inn for the night. If they accepted she brought them inside to sit them at the head of the table nearest the curtain that split the Bender household into two. As she distracted them with conversation, and quite possibly a little flirting, either her father or brother would lie in wait on the other side of the curtain with a hammer. When their prey would lean back they were struck with the hammer hard enough to crack skull. After that the victim was dragged off to be stripped of their money and clothes before being dumped through a trapdoor to the basement where their throat was slit to ensure death. Later on the body would be taken out and buried in a pasture.
It wasn’t until 1873 when Dr William York went missing on his travels (from Fort Scott to his home in Independence) that any kind of alarm was raised at all. A posse lead by Dr York’s brother began to search for the man and came upon the Bender home where they asked the Benders’ about the missing physician. The Bender family denied all knowledge of the missing man and then fled the area completely a few days later. It was only after this, after word got out that the family had vanished, that the search posse grew truly suspicious and returned to the Bender farm to conduct a more thorough search. In the search they made the rather horrific discovery of several shallow graves containing the family’s victims, including an 18-month-old girl who’d been traveling with her father that the family tossed in and buried alive with her murdered father. It is believed that the family killed approximately 8-11 victims together before they disappeared and while there had been a number of different believed sightings in the 50 plus years that followed the Bender family was never officially considered found and/or brought to justice.
Because the Bender family was never caught, never truly questioned, it’s left a lot of questions unanswered. Who in the family first thought of their wicked scheme to murder and rob? Was the entire family in agreement on the murders or were some simply passive accomplices? How, exactly, did the dynamics of the family work within what they did? It’s hard to say. What is pretty clear is that if they had been brought to justice it’s deeply unlikely any would’ve been found innocent…And that, for the Benders, the family that slayed together stayed together.