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How a serial killer family murdered 8 — and got away with it

How a serial killer family murdered 8 — and got


On a Kansas evening in 1872, Julia Hestler immediately regretted her visit to the Bender family. The stagecoach that dropped her off was already racing away, leaving her alone on the prairie in front of a solitary, decrepit cabin.   

When the self-proclaimed “spiritualist” Kate Bender invited Julia inside for their scheduled séance, she was revolted by a strong stench and buzzing flies. She sat across from Kate and held hands to begin, not wanting to insult her hostess. 

But with her eyes closed, Julia felt doom. She looked up to see three Bender family members suddenly standing silently behind Kate. Pa Bender held a heavy tool that shone in the candlelight. Terrified, Julia leapt up and fled. She tumbled down the cabin’s front steps before scrambling to her feet and running for her life across the darkened plains. 

Julia was lucky to survive, as Susan Jonusas writes in “Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier” (Viking), out now. The neighbors she told found the incident more creepy than criminal, but the following spring her fears were validated when eight corpses were found buried beneath the Benders’ apple trees. The Benders would go down in American history as the most infamous family of serial killers.

Kate Bender lured unsuspecting victims with the promise of helping them speak to the dead.

Mid-1800s Kansas was a lawless place, called “Bleeding Kansas” because of its gruesome battles between pro- and anti-slavery factions. The territory — it became a state in 1861 — was part of the United States but barely governed, policed by occasional sheriffs or judges who were often corrupt and always outnumbered.  

Legal challenges were instead handled via frontier justice, Jonusas writes, like when one boundary dispute was settled with a farmer “drawing a large butcher knife from his boot and planting it directly into the chest of the other.” 

But Kansas was also a place for second chances. The 1862 Homestead Act provided 160 acres to any male paying a small fee, with many refugees from East Coast cities or Europe building new lives on the frontier. That included the Benders, who made their claim on the Osage Mission Trail in southeast Kansas in 1870. They settled near Cherryvale, an unincorporated town.  

The lonely Bender cabin was advertised as a place to sleep for weary travelers.
The lonely Bender cabin was advertised as a place to sleep for weary travelers.

Nothing was known about the family’s past. Ma and Pa Bender were middle-aged and spoke broken English with thick, German accents. Pa Bender was known for his “perpetual look of contempt,” Jonusas writes, and Ma for a “scowl . . . so off-putting.” 

The younger Benders were two American-sounding 20-somethings, Kate and John. John was thought of as a simpleton, giggling after every sentence he uttered. Kate was alternately a flirtatious minx or hollow-eyed shrew — neighbors never knew which version they’d get. 

Local gossip speculated that the younger couple was either married or incestuous siblings. The Benders never said. 

In the late 1800s, the Kansas prairie was a place of lawlessness.
In the late 1800s, the Kansas prairie was a place of lawlessness.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The family hung a “Groceries” sign and turned their cabin into a way station and inn. Spiritualism was popular at the time, and the manipulative Kate also claimed she could talk to the dead — for a price. Weary travelers on the desolate trail stopped, even after the Benders were accused of stealing jewelry and cash from one guest. (Those charges didn’t stick. When an angry family member of the victim visited the cabin to have a word, all four Benders faced him, stony-faced. He backed off and raced away on horseback.)

‘[They] set up a place for travelers to stay . . . with the express purpose of murdering them.’

Author Susan Jonusas, on unraveling a horrifying history

In 1872, three men traveling alone on the Osage Mission Trail were each found dead. Their horses, wagons and supplies were stolen and the men’s skulls crushed, their throats slit.   

Locals attributed the murders to a roving band of horse thieves. Journeys in the West were perilous, so when travelers on the Mission Trail began disappearing over the next six months, it wasn’t news. But when the number reached around 10 in the spring of 1873, including a popular doctor from nearby Independence, concerns were raised.

This 1873 Kansas bounty for the murderous Bender family proved too little, too late, as the governor failed to chip in state funds for a proper pursuit, while the Texas Rangers and US Cavalry were tied up fighting Indian tribes.
This 1873 Kansas bounty for the murderous Bender family proved too little, too late, as the governor failed to chip in state funds for a proper pursuit, while the Texas Rangers and US Cavalry were tied up fighting Indian tribes.

When Dr. William York disappeared, his brother Alexander (a lawyer and politician) had the money and connections to investigate. Alexander recruited as many as 75 men to canvas the state for news. 

Little progress was being made when Alexander visited the Benders, who had once been accused of thievery. Greeted at their cabin by a Bible-toting John and a charming Kate, Alexander quickly dismissed them as potential culprits and considered them instead “dim-witted country folks.” 

After Alexander left, the Benders frantically packed their wagon and fled, beginning a life on the lam. Their absence wasn’t discovered for a month, when neighbor Billy Tole noticed the Benders’ starving animals. Searching their abandoned home, Tole was nearly overwhelmed with a sickening odor, so he rode into town to inform trustee Leroy Dick, a veteran of the Civil War’s bloody battlefields. Dick recognized the smell at the cabin: Death. When he found a home-made mallet and two claw-footed hammers hidden behind the cabin’s wood stove, he figured he’d found murder weapons. 

The Benders were German immigrants but not much else is known about their past.
The Benders were German immigrants but not much else is known about their past.

Local men flooded the property, looking for bodies. The cellar was caked with blood but no human remains. But under the Benders’ vibrant apple orchard, buried in the dirt, eight corpses were found. 

First was Dr. York, then Hank McKenzie, a cousin to Leroy Dick, who the trustee hadn’t even known was missing. Next were Benjamin Brown, William McGrotty, James Feerick, and a John (either Boyle or Geary; the corpse was so decomposed it was impossible to tell which one). Then George Longcor, a widower traveling home to Iowa with his 1-year-old girl, Mary Ann. Her little body was found under her father’s leg in the grave and, terribly, the doctor on site believed she’d been buried alive. (Three more men murdered in the area were also believed to be Bender victims, but that couldn’t be proved.)

As for how the victims met their end, Dick had a theory: He imagined Kate entertaining visitors until the other Benders stunned the victims with the mallet. After slashing their throats, the bodies were dumped in the cellar to bleed out. 

In 1872, after reports of alarming encounters at the Benders' home, eight corpses were found buried beneath the family’s apple trees.
In 1872, after reports of alarming encounters at the Benders’ home, eight corpses were found buried beneath the family’s apple trees.

Their motive for the grisly acts? All anyone could guess was money. Travelers those days often carried all their cash with them, and on the prairie anything — from horses to supplies — could be sold to make a buck.

When the news of the murders spread across the plains, gawkers engulfed the Bender homestead. “The notion a family would set up a place for travelers to stay with the express purpose of murdering them was a story few . . . could resist investigating,” Jonasus writes.  

Vigilante justice was common in Kansas and the American public bayed for the Benders’ heads. 

But the family had a month-long head start, and that was all they needed. 

The Benders lived the rest of their days on the lam in Texas, setting up camp in a similar manner to outlaws (above).
The Benders lived the rest of their days on the lam in Texas, setting up camp in a similar manner to outlaws (above).

They fled Kansas south, through tribal lands — where whites couldn’t be prosecuted — to even more lawless Denison, Texas. Populated primarily by horse thieves, cattle rustlers and prostitutes, Denison fell under the jurisdiction of the US District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. But that court was ruled by a notoriously corrupt judge and had little manpower to pursue criminals, so the Benders felt safe. Initially, Kate and Ma dressed like men and used an alias, but the family soon let slip they were the “Kansas fiends” the entire country wanted dead. The cutthroat population of Denison didn’t care.

The pursuit of the family was disorganized at best. The Kansas governor offered a $2,000 reward for their heads, but he didn’t want to spend state funds to finance a pursuit. He asked both the Texas Rangers and the US Cavalry for help, but both were too busy fighting Apache and Comanche to care much about Kansas’ killers.   

For the following decades, the Benders were sighted throughout the Southwest, in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. Farther west than the railroads went, they lived on tribal lands, at outlaw camps, and in barren canyons and arroyos where only desperadoes dared tread. They were always heavily-armed, each Bender known to carry a Sharps .50 caliber rifle capable of taking down a buffalo. 

Hell's Half-Acre
Justice was never served to the Benders.

In Oklahoma, a Pinkerton detective who confidently announced he’d soon have the fugitives in custody trailed them into the Wichita Mountains and almost immediately disappeared, never to be heard from again. And a stylish bounty hunter in Texas — who wanted to get rich taking one of the “Bender Ghouls” on a nation-wide tour — suffered the same fate, following the family to Red River Station before disappearing off the face of the Earth. 

In the end, justice was never served to the Benders, and their final fates never known. Today it’s just their story that lives on.



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