The Family That Murders TogetherHome | Short Feature Story | The Family That Murders Together
The following story was written by Thomas Duke in 1910. At the end of the story are links to more information and there has even been a movie made recently about this case.
On March 9, 1873, Dr. William H. York left Fort Scott, Kansas, on horseback for his home in Independence, Kansas, and although the days and weeks rolled by, he did not appear at his home. Dr. York was in comfortable circumstances; possessed of a cheerful disposition, and had friends galore who decided that he had not voluntarily disappeared, and they concluded that he had become the victim of foul play, as it was known that he had considerable money on his person.
Senator and Colonel York employed detectives and joined them in the search for their missing brother. Excitement ran high throughout the State, and volunteer searching parties inspected nearly every foot of ground and dragged the rivers throughout the surrounding country.
There was a little town called Cherryvale, about fifty miles from the south line of the state (Kansas/Oklahoma), and Dr. York was traced to this place. About two miles south of this town, on the main wagon road, stood a small frame tavern, having a room in front where meals were served to wayfarers by William Bender and his family, who moved into the house in March, 1871.
Bender was sixty-three years of age and Mrs. Bender was about sixty years old. The son was twenty-seven, and the daughter Katie was twenty-four years of age. The father and son were large, coarse appearing men, and the daughter was a large, masculine, red-faced woman who bore an exceedingly bad reputation.
The family professed to be spiritualists and the daughter claimed that she possessed supernatural powers, as will be seen by the following advertisement inserted in the Kansas papers:
“Professor Miss Kate Bender can heal disease, cure blindness, fits and deafness. Residence, 14 miles east of Independence, on the road to Osage Mission. June 18, 1872.”
On April 3, 1873, a party of men rode up to this roadside tavern and asked the Bender family if they had heard or seen anything of the missing Dr. York, but they claimed to be ignorant of his whereabouts. A few days afterward, another party called and made the same inquiry. The Bender family, fearing that they were suspected, hitched up their team and, without touching the household effects, drove away.
On May 9, another searching party, while passing Bender’s tavern, noticed its deserted appearance. This impressed them as being rather singular, and when they went to the rear of the house, they found that some hogs and calves had died there, evidently from thirst or hunger. This aroused suspicion and the authorities instituted an investigation.
In a small one-half acre orchard adjoining the house, the surface of the ground had been carefully plowed and harrowed, but there had just been a heavy rainfall and in a certain place the ground had settled very noticeably and the settled portion was about the size of a grave. The ground was then dug up and the badly decomposed body of Dr. York was found. The skull had been crushed and the throat cut. Before nightfall seven more bodies were exhumed and were subsequently identified as follows :
No. 1. W. F. McCrotty, a resident of Cedarville, who was contesting a case before the land office in Independence and who probably stopped at Bender’s for refreshments.
No. 2. D. Brown, a resident of Cedarville, who had been trading horses in the neighborhood with a man named Johnson. Brown’s body was decomposed beyond recognition, but it was identified through a silver ring which Brown wore and which he had shown to Johnson.
No. 3. Henry F. McKenzie of Hamilton County, Indiana, who had been missing since December 5, 1872. He was en route to Independence for the purpose of locating there. His sister, Mrs. J. Thompson, identified his wearing apparel.
Nos. 4 and 5. Mr. Longoer and his baby girl. This gentleman had buried his wife in 1872 and was about to leave for Iowa.
Nos. 6 and 7 were the unidentified bodies of two men.
In each instance the skull was battered to a pulp and the throat cut from ear to ear, with the exception of Mr. Longoer’s eighteen-months-old girl, who died from suffocation. As there were no marks on the child’s throat, and as she was lying under her father’s body in the grave, it is probable that she was thrown in alive and was suffocated when her father’s body was thrown in on top of her.
The next day another body of a child was found, but it was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to ascertain its sex. Judging from the length of its golden hair and the size of the body, it was evidently the remains of an eight-year-old girl. This body was evidently butchered by a fiend. The breast bone was driven in ; the right knee was wrenched from its socket and the leg doubled up under the body.
When the officers entered the deserted house they were met by an unbearable stench. It was then revealed how the whole series of crimes was committed.
A little booth was formed by cloth partitions, in which the guests partook of their meals. The table was purposely set back so near this partition that when they sat in an up: right position in their chairs, the back of their heads would be against and indent this cloth. If the guests had the appearance of having money in their possession, one or both of the male members of the family would patiently wait on the opposite side of the curtain with heavy stone-breaker’s hammers, two of which were found by the officers, and when the guests sat upright and the impression of the back of their heads appeared on the cloth partition, the assassin, or assassins in case two guests were to be disposed of at once, would swing the hammers and crush in the victims’ skulls.
As people were constantly passing on the road who might stop at Bender’s, it was necessary to get the bodies out of sight as quickly as possible, and for this purpose a trapdoor was made in the floor, which was directly over a pit about six feet deep, which had been dug in the ground. After the body was thrown in the pit, the throat was cut from ear to ear, for fear there might be a spark of life yet remaining. It was the accumulation of congealed blood in the pit which caused the terrible stench.
After it became dark, the grave would be dug and the body buried. The reason for keeping the ground in the orchard constantly plowed and harrowed was to prevent the new graves from being noticed.
When the neighbors learned of this series of atrocious murders, they became almost insane in their desire for vengeance, and they immediately organized vigilance committees and scoured the country in the hopes of apprehending this family of fiends.
About a mile from Bender’s tavern was a grocery store conducted by a man named Brockman, who had been a partner of Bender’s from 1869 to 1871. As both men were Germans and close friends, it was suspected that Brockman was an accomplice in some of the murders, or at least could impart valuable information, both as regards the crimes and as to Bender’s whereabouts. A posse therefore seized him and after taking him to the woods, some eight miles distant, they placed a rope around his neck and told him to confess all that he knew or be hanged.
He begged for mercy and swore that Bender had never made a confidant of him. The frenzied posse then hanged him to a tree, but when he was on the point of death, they let him down to the ground and after restoratives were ad-ministered, he finally regained his speech. Again he was ordered to confess and again he swore that he was ignorant of Bender’s doings.
He was hanged again and this method of torture was repeated three times, but it availed the posse nothing, and they finally left Brockman lying on the ground in a semi-conscious condition, but he eventually recovered.
Sometime previous to the discovery that Bender’s tavern was a human slaughter-house, the body of a man named Jones was found in Drum Creek. The back of the head was completely crushed and almost severed from the body. The only clew obtainable was a wagon track through the snow, which led down to the creek near where the body was found. But there was a peculiarity about this track because of the fact that one of the wheels was evidently considerable out of plumb, therefore, in revolving it made a zig-zag track through the snow. In view of the discoveries at Bender’s tavern, an experiment was subsequently made with the wagon in which the family temporarily escaped, and it was found that their wagon left tracks similar to those found in the snow.
This deviation from the usual method of disposing of the bodies of the victims, was due to the fact that at the time of this murder the ground was frozen, thus making grave-digging slow work and hard to conceal. Upon arriving at the frozen creek, it became necessary to cut a hole in the ice and push the body underneath, in order to conceal it for the time being.
There is no doubt but that the methods above described were those employed by these butchers, as two prospective victims unconsciously escaped from their clutches after all the preliminaries were arranged, and it was not until the expose that they realized their hair-breadth escape from being “planted” in “Old Man Bender’s” orchard.
Mr. Wetzell of Independence, Kansas, read Kate Bender’s advertisement of her remarkable ability as a healer of the afflicted, and being constantly tortured with neuralgia in the face, he induced a friend named Gordan to accompany him to her home. Upon examining his face, Kate expressed confidence in her ability to effect a permanent cure, but as it was about dinner time she invited both men to dine first. She set the chairs for the guests so that their heads were in close proximity to the cloth partition, and eatables were then placed on the table.
When they first arrived they observed that Old Bender and his son scrutinized them closely, but assuming that it was done merely through curiosity, they gave the incident no further thought at the time.
When the visitors took their position at the table the father and son disappeared. For some reason, which Wetzell and Gordan could not explain, they immediately arose from the table and stood at the counter to eat their meals.
Up to this time Miss Bender was most affable toward her guests, but at this unexpected turn of affairs, she became caustic and almost abusive in her language toward them.
The two male Benders then reappeared from behind the partition, and after casting a glance at the two strangers, they repaired to the barn, a few rods from the house. The guests became suspicious at this sudden change of demeanor on the part of their hostess and immediately left the building and went out on the road.
Providentially two wagons were being driven past at this moment, and Gordan and Wetzell jumped into their buggy and drove away ahead of them, but on reflection they con¬cluded that perhaps they were unnecessarily alarmed and dismissed the incident from their minds.
As there has been much speculation as to the fate of the Bender family the following letters from the Chiefs of Police of Independence and Cherryvale, Kansas, to the author are published in part:
“Cherryvale, Kansas, June 14, 1910.
“Dear Sir :—Yours just received. It so happened that my father-in-law’s farm joins the Bender farm and he helped to 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.”
“Independence, Kansas, June 14, 1910.
“Dear Sir :—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 they 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 recently 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.”
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