Saturday, July 10, 2010
In 1871, a small cabin was erected near the Osage Trail in southern Kansas. Built mainly from used scraps and boards, the cabin was constructed crudely and plainly, affording only one room and a small cellar below the house. To the right of the cabin was a little garden and a miniature fruit tree, making the home seem less like a rundown shack and more like a place someone might like to retire for a night or two. Residing in the ramshackle tiny cabin was an odd family of four named the Benders. To earn their living, the Benders rented out their home to passing travelers in need of shelter and a meal. By using the cover of their wagon, the Bender’s sectioned off the front part of the cabin as a sleeping area for visitors. The Benders stayed in the back area, sharing two small cots. Calling the cabin The Wayside Inn, it was a welcome spot for exhausted and weary travelers.
Eccentric and buxom, daughter Kate Bender was a said to be a psychic and mystic healer, showing off her talents at travelling carnivals and conducting séances at will. She advertised her strange gift in local newspapers, calling herself Professor Miss Kate Bender, drawing only few interested parties living in neighboring towns and the visitors that stayed at the Bender Inn. Her brother, a slow-witted mid-twenties young man named John Jr., took care of the farm animals living in the shed. Ma and Pa Bender were the heads of the household, dictating the cooking in the cabin, the farm chores that needed to be done, and the cleanliness needed to make the cabin presentable.
People who knew the Bender family recall them as peculiar and poor, speaking in throaty and inferior accents and seeming to come from another time. With no other known family, the Benders kept exclusively to themselves, privately living on their half acre, living off the land and the small amounts of money they received from traveling visitors. Rumors about the unusual family spread from locals, labeling the Benders to be responsible for the disappearances of their own tenants. Specifically, the body found under the ice of a frozen creek was connected to the Bender family. In 1871, all of these lore’s were exaggerated and probably concocted by locals as a way to explain those they did not understand.
On March 9, 1873, well known Dr. William York left his brother’s home at Fort Scott, Kansas, on his way home to Independence. Nearly a week went by before York’s brother became concerned when William did not respond to any of his posts in Independence. Colonel York, William’s brother, decided to track the same voyage William took to try and find his missing brother. Stopping shortly at the Wayside Inn, Colonel York made a desperate plea to the Bender’s asking if they had seen William on his way home. The Bender’s had no recollection of the man described by Colonel York, claiming they had not had a visitor in weeks. As the hunt for William become more distressed, a search party was formed. The search party found themselves at the Bender cabin, where they again asked the family about William. The Bender’s claim no knowledge of his whereabouts.
After the two inquisitions for William York, the Benders took a small number of belongings, loaded it up on a small cart and hauled it off with them while they fled the Wayside Inn. Meanwhile, another suspicious search party arrived at the Inn to find it abandoned, and hurriedly so, it seemed. After hearing muffled screaming noises coming from the barn, the search party found all the animals on the farm either dead or dying from starvation. Furthermore, inside the inn, a strange and nauseating smell filled the air, literally making ill members of the search party. Bravely wandering through the tiny cabin, only 16ft by 20ft, the leaders of the party realized that the sickening smell was coming from below the floor boards. After prying up the nails, the leaders find what could be considered as a “cellar.” What it was, exactly, was a roughly dug pit just large enough for a squatting man. The walls of the pit were coated not with dirt, but layered thick with what most assumed was human blood.
Upon searching the rest of the Wayside Inn, Colonel York saw a protruding bit of earth next to the garden. Examining it more closely, the colonel realized that it looked remarkably like a freshly covered grave. Ordering the searchers to begin digging, they soon found the corpse of Dr. William York. His head had been bashed in, his throat slit, and all his personal affects were taken from his pockets. After a brief day or two of rainfall, the searchers and now police began going through the rest of the yard. What they found were ten graves in all. Almost all of them had exactly similar injuries as William York, save for one grave. Inside was the body of a man and a little girl. The man been killed the same as William, but the girl was crouched in a particular position that suggested she had been alive when buried. She had no injuries, and appeared to have been trying to claw her way through the dirt. Some believe that the number of killings was not only 10, found in the front yard, but actually 21, disposed of throughout the prairies around the Wayside Inn.
Calling the Wayside Inn “Hell’s Half Acre,” the search party returned to the neighboring town to inform police to investigate the whereabouts of the murderous Bender family. On March 17, 1873, Governor Thomas Osborn put up a $2,000 reward to the person or persons who could apprehend and bring back all four of the Benders. The public, so sickened with the revelation of what had gone on at the cabin of horrors, all pitched in by putting up posters featuring the likeness of each family member. They sent off their eldest children to join the rapidly growing posses of men willing to go to the ends of the earth to find the heinous killers.
While the posses were traveling as far as possible for any sign of the family, the cabin was more closely examined. It appeared that people who visited the Inn were treated to a meal by the Benders, the travelers seated purposefully with their backs to the cloth partition. A member of the Bender family would be behind the partition, wielding the head of a heavy hammer. When ready, the unknowing visitor would be beaten in the head with the hammer, and then their throats slit to assure their death. The Benders would then search the pockets and bags of the victim, taking anything they could trade or sell. Since the visitors were often carrying all of their belongings with them, the Benders most surely would have taken incredible sums of money and jewelry and other precious goods. After stealing from the corpses, the Benders, with an uncaring foot, kicked the body into the trapdoor under the table that led to the small “cellar.” In the cover of night, the Benders would bury the bodies in shallow graves in their front yard.
The Benders, thought to be distinctive in appearance and hauling a cart which had a wheel that trailed in zig-zag fashion, seemed easy to find according to the posses that tracked them. Though after the reward posted by the Governor, the posses also believed they could retrieve the $10,000 that the Benders were said to have been carrying. Others, disgusted by the horrible family, were attracted only by the goodness of capturing the Benders. Stopping their spree of murders was enough for them. Of course, some of the posse felt the reward of finding the Benders would be that of bloodshed. After all the Benders had done, some thought death by a mob was most fitting.
During the investigation for the Benders, a colleague and business partner of the family named Brockman was captured. People believed him to be partly responsible for some of the murders and demanded he admit exactly what he had done and to whom he had done it to. Hanging him by his neck to a tree branch, Brockman was choked nearly to death by angry locals. Brockman admitted nothing, and never confessed to involvement in any of the murders.
Police investigators reportedly did find a lumber wagon thought to have belonged to the Bender family outside of Thayer in Kansas. Also verified by a train conductor were four people fitting the description of the Benders who had boarded the train on their way to Humboldt, Kansas. Leaving the train shortly after, John Jr. and his sister Kate were said to have continued on to Red River in Texas, a place where outlaws were known to inhabit. Ma and Pa Bender traveled on to Kansas City, boarded another train and headed to St. Louis.
Lore tells a different story however. Stated by one of the posses, they said they did indeed find the Benders and lynched them. Others claim the Benders had been burned alive, disemboweled, or shot to death. Either way, the Benders, if they were caught, were punished duly for their crimes by a ferociously angry mob.