Location: Cherryvale, Kansas
Victim: Dr. William York & nine others
Cause of Death: Blows from a hammer, suffocation
Accused: The Bender Family
Around 1870 the Bender family built a small cabin outside of Cherryvale, Kansas, about fifty miles north of the Oklahoma border. William Bender and his wife (sometimes referred to as “Ma” Bender) were in their sixties; Thomas and Joanna—better known as Kate—were in their twenties. They were German immigrants; all spoke with accents and the elder Benders spoke little English. It is unclear exactly how these four were related. Most accounts say that Thomas and Kate were the son and daughter of William Bender and his wife, but Thomas was also known as John Gebhardt and is sometimes referred to as Kate’s husband. Other accounts say that none of them were actually named Bender and that only the mother and daughter were related. The men are described as “large, coarse appearing men.” The description of Kate ranges from “a large, masculine, red-faced woman” to “good looking, well formed, rather bold in appearance.” A number of sources agree that she had a ruddy complexion and she may have been a redhead.
The Bender’s kept a small grocery store in the front of the cabin, selling stapes such as tobacco, crackers, sardines, candles, powder and shot. They also provided meals for travelers. Though they kept to themselves, the Benders attended church and town meetings and seemed to be an ordinary rural family. The only exception was Kate who professed to being clairvoyant, giving public lectures on spiritualism and advertising in local newspapers her ability to “heal disease, cure blindness, fits and deafness.”
In 1873, citizens of Labette County became concerned over the inordinate number missing persons in their community. Neighboring counties were experiencing losses as well. In March 1973, Dr. William York from Onion Creek, Montgomery County, came in search of a man named Loucher and his infant daughter, who had travelled in the region the previous winter and were never heard from again. Dr. York never made it home either.
Dr. York was from a very prominent family and in April his brother, Col. A. M. York came to Labette County leading a party of fifty citizens of Montgomery County. They searched unsuccessfully for the missing doctor, stopping several times at the Benders' cabin. On one occasion they asked Kate to use her clairvoyant powers to help with the search, but she had no information for them.
The next time someone stopped at the Bender’s cabin it appeared to be deserted. Their wagon was missing and a calf they were raising had died of neglect. The authorities in Cherryvale were notified and went back to check on the house. Everything seemed to be in order, nothing was missing but clothes and bedding. But a thorough search of the house began to reveal the Benders’ horrible secret. Near the table where guests were served was a trap door and the foul smelling hole beneath the door was clotted with blood.
The ground in an orchard near the house had been carefully plowed but one small section was noticeably indented. The ground was dug up revealing the decomposed body of Dr. York. His skull had been crushed and his throat had been cut. Before nightfall seven more bodies were extracted and another was found the next day. Most were badly decomposed but were identified by clothing and jewelry. They were:
• W. F. McCrotty of Cedarville.
• D. Brown of Cederville.
• Henry F. McKenzie of Hamilton County, Indiana.
• Mr. Loucher and his baby daughter from Independence.
• Two unidentified men.
• One child believed to be an eight year old girl.
Another body previously found in Drum Creek was also attributed to the Benders. All but the baby had fractured skulls and slit throats. It was believed that the baby was suffocated when buried alive with her father. The eight year old girl’s body had been badly mutilated.
The travelers were murdered for their money. The amounts stolen by the Benders ranged from 40 cents to $2600 along with horses and wagons.
From the condition of the bodies and the arrangement of the house, the authorities were able to surmise how the killings were done. The table where customers took their meals was in a small booth formed by cloth partitions on both sides. The partitions were close enough to the back of the chairs that, when sitting upright, the heads of the diners would indent the cloth. The male Benders would wait behind the cloth partitions and when the opportunity presented itself would smash their victims’ skulls with stone-breaker’s hammers. The bodies were thrown through the trapdoor—into what one book called the “slaughter-pen”— where the throats were cut to guarantee death. After dark the bodies were removed and buried in the orchard.
This speculation was verified to an extent by a Mr. Wetzell of Independence, Kansas who had read Kate’s advertisement and travelled to the Benders’ with his friend Mr. Gordan, seeking a cure for neuralgia. Kate examined Wetzel and expressed confidence in her ability to effect a permanent cure, but invited them to dine first. For some reason the two men rose from the table and decided to eat their dinners at the counter instead. This caused a change in Kate’s behavior; she became caustic and abusive toward them. They saw the two Bender men emerge from behind the partitions. Wetzell and Gordan became suspicious then and decided to leave—a decision that probably saved their lives.
When the news of the murders spread through Labette County, it whipped the citizens into a frenzy. They demanded vengeance and formed vigilance committees to hunt down the Benders. The vigilantes went first to the home of a man named Brockman, another German immigrant who had briefly been a partner of Mr. Bender’s. They put a rope around his neck and threatened to hang him if he would not confess. When Brockman swore he knew nothing they hanged him from a tree but when he was at the point of death they lowered him down and questioned him again. When he still had nothing to tell him they hung him again. This torture was repeated three times before the posse left him semi-conscious, lying on the ground.
The search for the Benders continued, but though the Governor of Kansas offered a $2000 reward for their capture, the Benders were never brought to justice. One investigation determined that they took a train from Thayer to Chanute where John and Kate got off and took the M. K. & T. train south to Red River in Indian Territory. Here they met up with the elder Benders and travelled through Texas and New Mexico.
Other residents of Labette County told a different story. While researching the Benders' story for his 1910 book, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America , San Francisco Captain of Police, Thomas S. Duke, contacted police chiefs of Cherryvale and Independence, Kansas. This is how they responded:
June 14, 1910
Yours just received. It so happened that my father-in-law’s farm joins the Bender farm and he helped locate the bodies of the victims. I often tried to find out from him what became of the Benders, but he only gave me a knowing look and said he guessed they would not bother anyone else.
There was a vigilance committee organized to locate the Benders, and shortly afterward old man Bender’s wagon was found by the roadside riddled with bullets. You will have to guess the rest. I am respectfully yours,
J. N. Kramer
Chief of Police
June 14, 1910
In regard to the Bender family I will say that I have lived here forty years, and it is my opinion that they never got away.
A vigilance committee was formed and some of them are still here, but will not talk except to say that it would be useless to look for them, and they smile at the reports of some of the family having been located.
The family nearly got my father. He intended to stay there one night, but he became suspicious, and although they tried to coax him to stay he hitched up his team and left.
Regretting that I cannot give you more information, I am yours respectfully,
D.M. Van Cleve
Chief of Police
Several times suspected members of the Bender family were arrested in other parts of the country and brought back to Kansas to be tried. Most notably, in 1890 two women were arrested in Michigan and alleged to be Ma Bender and Kate. There attorney had affidavits proving they were Mrs. Almira Griffith and Mrs. Sarah E. Davis and were in Michigan between 1870 and 1874. After a habeas corpus hearing they were released from the Labette County jail.
The true fate of the Bender family remains a mystery.
More pictures of the Bender Family here: A Bender Family Album.