When it comes to vintage serial killers who shat where their ate, so to speak, H.H. Holmes seems to get all the attention and ink. Much less well known today, but perhaps even more notorious in their own time, were a family of four who went by the last name of Bender and who operated an inn and general store from 1871-1873 in southeastern Kansas, in the frontier region from which the Osage Indians had been displaced and where homesteaders were invited to lay their claims.
They posed as a father, mother, daughter, and son, though no definitive proof of their familial relationships has ever been found. Two went by the name of John and two by Kate. The elder two were vile, unfriendly, and spoke poor English in thick German accents. The younger two were attractive, spoke English well, and attended church gatherings in the community; some said they were siblings, others claimed man and wife.
Kate Jr. was the nucleus of the clan. A spiritualist with wild beauty and wicked charm, her seances and alleged powers of healing drew many travelers to the humble cabin they had set up on a wagon trail. Their legend started as a rumor. People passing through those parts had a strange habit of disappearing. A male body found on a neighboring property turned rumor to fact. His head was bludgeoned and his throat cut. When two more men turned up in the same area, dead of the same wounds, panic set in among the locals. Posses were formed, innocents accused and arrested. Various men suspected of the crimes were driven from the area, but no one was successfully tried and the disappearances continued.
Two who went missing were George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter, Mary Ann, on their way to Iowa to find a better life. They were never seen again. Longcor’s former neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, cared enough about their fates to go looking for them. When he too went missing, the matter finally drew the attention of men with authority: York’s brothers Ed and Alexander, a colonel and a Kansas State Senator. A search party was assembled and a proper investigation was undertaken. Colonel York visited the Benders twice, the first time to question them, and the second to follow up on another woman’s allegation that Ma Bender had chased her with knives. Both times he walked away with strong suspicions but no proof. Kate Jr. suggested he return later, so she could help him locate the victims with her clairvoyance.
Citizens of the area were fed up enough to launch a search of every homestead. By the time they got to the Bender cabin, the place was abandoned. Foul odors led them to a trapdoor under a bed; beneath it they found a death pit clotted with dried blood. But no bodies. They moved the entire cabin off its foundations, broke up the stone slab with sledgehammers and searched the area but still didn’t find any dead. It wasn’t until they dug up Ma Bender’s garden and orchard that the true extent of the horror was revealed. The first body found was Dr. York. Eight more turned up in the soil around the house; another in the well, along with numerous body parts. One young girl appeared to have been buried alive.
Later interviews with people who stayed at the inn and managed to leave with their lives suggested a method to the madness: guests of honor were seated over the trap door and distracted while one of the men crept up with a hammer. Throats were slit to seal the deal, likely by one of the women, and the bodies were dumped into a pit to bleed out. Many were killed for the money or valuables they carried; others were poor and seemingly murdered out of pure blood lust.
The case became a national scandal. Vigilante groups scoured the country for the Bloody Blenders. Additional innocents were targeted and abused. At one point, two women matching the descriptions of Ma and Kate Bender were arrested and about to face trial for the murders when they presented a bunch of confusing evidence about their identities and succeeded in getting the case dismissed. Several accessories–those who helped sell and dispose of the victims’ possessions–were tried for their participation, but none of the killers were ever tried for their crimes and to this day no one knows for certain what became of them.