Bloody Bender Family  1871-1873
Keepers of the Devil's Inn

 by Wayne Hallowell, Director of the Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast

The family offered tired travelers a long rest!

Shortly after the Civil War, the United States government moved the Osage Indians southwest from Labette County, Kansas, into the new Indian Territory making new lands available for homesteading. This newly opened section in Labette County was settled by earnest, hard-working men and women who were trying to wrest a living from the droughty, windswept plain. The constant struggle, the fierce contest with the land to obtain food and shelter dulled their interest and curiosity concerning the world at large and even their own local vicinity. They accepted all newcomers at their face value. In 1870, five families of spiritualists settled in Labette County just north and east of what later became the township of Cherryvale (originally named Cherry Vale). Spiritualists were unknown in the Old West at that time and their presence caused no alarm among the hard working settlers. The Benders were members of that cult. After a few months of life on the prairie with its high temperatures, hot winds and hardships, two of the families moved away. But the Bender family had other plans then just farming the land.

In late 1870, John Bender, Sr. and his alleged son, John, Jr., traveled along the Osage Trail. Tying their horses at Ern Brockman Trading Post, they spent the night. The next morning Ern took them to see the claims available on this treeless and wind-swept prairie and by night fall they had chosen and filed for their land. Platting records show that the two settled on the western slopes of the mounds that have come to bear their infamous name. Pa, as the senior Bender was called, chose the usual 160 acres in the north-east quarter of Section 13, Township 31, Range 17, in the Osage township. The Brockmann claim was the South-west quarter of Section 13 and touched John, Sr. claim at the corners. That made them near neighbors. (Click on map for enlarged view). His “son” chose a long narrow piece of ground just north of his "Pa" on the South-east quarter of Section 12, in the same Township and Range, which would keep other settlers from being very close to them.  John, Jr. did not live on his claim nor make any improvement upon it.  The location was in the western part of Labette County, east of Montgomery and south of the Neosho County lines. The only water supply was Big Hill Creek, two miles or so away. They bought a load of rocks from neighbor Mr. Hieronymus, including a huge rock seven feet square and three inches thick. This slab was to be used for the floor of the planned cellar under the house. They brought hay from another neighbor to thatch their shed-like barn. Lumber was brought from Fort Scott, 78-miles northeast, for a framed one-room cabin. Hard workers, they shortly had built the 16 x 24 foot shell of the cabin, a three-sided stone and sod barn with a corral from sapling poles, and dug the first of two wells. In fall of 1871, when the house was about finished, word was sent to Ma Bender and Kate to come to Ottawa by train, 108-miles north of their new homestead. In Ottawa, household furniture and supplies were purchased and loaded into their heavy Army surplus lumber wagon for the return trip. After they settled in, a wagon-cover canvas partition, tightly drawn over upright scantlings, was erected dividing the house into two rooms. The smaller divided area concealed the Bender's living quarters in the rear half of the Inn. Kate placed a crudely lettered sign “Groceries” above the front door. Just north of the house, Kate and Ma planted a combined garden and fruit trees in what was to be an orchard. It was carefully cultivated furnishing an excuse for constant harrowing and digging. The prairie Bender "store" was said to be only 100 yards south of the Osage Trail. That location also made the homestead a good overnight resting spot for travelers.

According to published records, the Benders operated this lonely little inn and store, surrounded by wide-open prairie land, between the winter of 1871 and spring of 1873. The well-traveled Osage Trail came from Fort Scott through the Osage Mission via Saint Paul (12-miles west of the "Bender flats"), down through the mounds to Cherryvale (7-miles north-east), and on to Independence. Thayer was 10-miles north of the Inn. This trail was sometimes referred to as the Osage Mission-Fort Scott Road. It was the only road open for travel at that time. Many weary cross-country travelers would buy provisions and/or stop for a meal. Sometimes they would bed down for a "safe" overnight stay. Feed was also provided for the traveler's horses. During this period, lone travelers mostly from the east, were traced as far as Big Hill Country and then just disappeared along with their horses, wagons and personal property. Many of these men, as they were going with the intention of settling, of buying machinery, cattle and horses, frequently carried large sums of money upon their persons. Other would-be settlers traded horses as part payment for their claims. As most of the travelers were going to a new and far-away country or county to settle, it was an easy matter to cover their disappearance. Mails at that time were uncertain and infrequent.

As time passed, reports of lost persons became more frequent. In the late spring of 1873, much bitterness was directed to this southeast Kansas area. The Osage township called a meeting to see what should be done. About 75 people from surrounding areas come to the meeting at the Harmony Grove school house in District No. 30. Indignation was running high because of the slanderous insinuations that had been circulated by the neighboring communities against this township due to the supposed disappearance of travelers in that area. Tension at the meeting reached the breaking point when the widely-known Independence physician named Dr. William H. York was reported to have disappeared on the Osage Trail in their area while returning from a trip to Fort Scott. A decision was made to search, under  the sanction of a search warrant, every farmstead in the area between the headwaters of Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Old man Bender and young John were at this meeting. Three days after the meeting, neighbor Billy Tole was driving his cows past the Bender Inn when he noticed the starving condition of the farm animals roaming about the promises and discovered a starved calf  in the pen. Upon further investigation, he found the inn was abandoned. He reported the news, which quickly spread.

Several days elapsed, because of fowl weather, before a search party directed by LeRoy Dick, the elected township officer, was fully organized with men coming from Montgomery and Labette counties. They descended onto the Bender property and found the place was deserted and the Benders’ food, clothing and possessions greatly disturbed or removed. Upon entering the cabin, Mr. Dick was met by a sickening stench. A trap door, nailed shut, was discovered in the floor of the cabin. Pried open and lifted by its leather hinges, it was learned that it covered a hole or cellar that was filled with clotted blood which produced the horrid odor. In desperation, the cabin was completely lifted and moved aside. A search was made under the house, but nothing was found. The search was about to be called off when Dr. William York’s brother, Colonel Ed York, seating in his buggy, saw against the setting sun, the outline of a strange depression. Silently, digging began and Dr. York’s body was found buried, head downward, his feet scarcely covered. His skull had been bludgeoned from behind with a hammer and his throat had been cut. The next day, with spades, shovels and plows, the search revealed nine other bodies with smashed skulls and slit throats along with dismembered parts of other bodies. One man and his little daughter were found buried together in one grave. It was determined that the child had apparently been buried alive for no marks of violence were found on her body. One of the men that day christened the orchard "Hell's Half-Acre." Another of Dr. York’s brothers, Alexander M. York, a lawyer and State Senator residing in Independence, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the ghastly family's arrest. On May 17, Gov Thomas Osborn put up a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of all four. No one ever stepped forward to collected the reward offered.

On May 15, 1873, the Wilson County Free Press printed a story beginning, “The Cherryvale Tragedy: The Most Diabolical On Record. Over 3,000 persons visited the scene of horrors on Sunday. All kinds of rumors afloat.” The discovery caused an absolute sensation. Newsmen and news artists flocked into this wide open prairie, now called "Hell's Acre", from as far away as New York and Chicago.

Order of Disappearances of Victims:
1869  Joe Sowers - not proven as victim #
 1871  Mr. Jones - body found in Drum Creek #
 1872  2 unknown men - found on prairie #
 1872  Henry McKenzie - body mutilated *
1872  Ben Brown *  
1872  W.F. McCrotty *       
1873  George Loncher & little girl *  
 1873  Johnny Boyle * - found in well  
 1873  Dr. William York *   
   ?     John Greary *       
   ?     Unknown female *      
   ?     Unidentified man * 
   ?     Dismembered parts of several victims *

  * Discovered in Bender’s apple orchard 
Money Taken From Victims:
- ? -
      - ? -
      - ? -
    40 cents or $2,000 depending on sources
$36, finely matched team of horses
$2,600, possibly to buy claim build home
$38, wagon, good horse team
    $1,900, possibly to buy claim 
    $10, red pacing mare, $850 saddle
    $2,000, possibly to buy claim
      - ? -
      - ? -
      - ? -

#  Found with crushed skulls and slit throats

Thus, Pa, Ma, John Jr. and Kate became notorieties in 1873 when the family quickly left Labette County after a murderous spree at the family's "prairie slaughterhouse for travelers". They became this Nation's first recorded mass murders or "serial killers" when the 10 bodies were recovered at the inn. Many believe the Benders killed over 21 people. When the Benders fled, they left a legendary trail of rumors, half-truth stories, and eye witness accounts about their demise. A number of posses claimed to have found the family and killed them. One posse of citizens stated they caught the Benders while escaping to the south, lynched them, then threw their disembodied bodies into the Verdigris River. The Verdigris River has never revealed this amazing fact. Another vengeful posse claims they killed the Benders during a gun fight chase and unceremoniously buried them on the prairie. Still another claim they killed the Benders while they were camping overnight, burned their bodies and took their wagon and team to Thayer, 13-miles north, as a diversion. This way nobody would know who they were. Countless and fruitless trips were made by law enforcement officers to many towns to look at persons identified as the Benders. There seems to be no facts in these stories. Detectives did discovered the Benders' abandon lumber wagon and tied-up starving team of horses, one of the mares lame, just outside the city limits of Thayer. Those detectives who attempted to follow the Benders became satisfied with the following facts: The passenger train conductor, Captain James B. Ransom, on the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad verified the descriptions of the family and stated they had brought tickets for the north-bound train to Humboldt. At Chanute, John, Jr. and Kate detrained and took the MK&T train south to the Red River country of Texas, which was then the terminus of the railroad. From there the young Benders traveled to an outlaw colony considered to be either in Texas or New Mexico. Everyone considered this area to be the toughest, most lawless region in the United States. Many lawmen pursuing outlaws into this region never returned. Ma and Pa did not detrain at Humboldt, but continued north to Kansas City. It is believed they purchased tickets for St. Louis. Many tales could possibly be dismissed as self-serving speculation and sensationalism. Still their flight would become the grist for detective stories and rumors well into the 20th century. Their story remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Old West.

Further investigations reveled that the only relationship between the four was Ma and Kate, who were actually mother and daughter. Ma chose to go with the name of her first husband and father of her 12 children, George Griffith. John Sr. or "Pa's" real last name was Flickinger and young John's last name was Gebhardt.

Three of the Bender hammers, remaining artifacts from the Bloody Bender Inn, were gifted to the Cherryvale museum by the Dick family in 1967. They are displayed in the Museum along with a certified Notary by Cornelius P. Dick, son of LeRoy Dick.  © 2000-2005 Wayne Hallowell

The Bender Museum in Cherryvale 1961-1978

When it comes to Kansas hospitality, there was no one like the Benders!

So provocative was the Bender family atrocities that a special museum was established in Cherryvale for the Kansas State-wide Centennial Celebration in May of 1961. It featured an exact reconstructed replica of the Bender building and housed antiques and household items of the Bender days. In the first three days of its opening, the museum attracted approximately 2,150 visitors from many states and Canada. It operated until 1978 and was closed when the city decided to built a fire station at the site. It was bought by an individual who wanted to place the building on Cherryvale’s Main Street, but the plan was axed by city officials. The building code prohibited wooden frame structure from being placed within the fire limits of Main Street. Some proposed it be relocated behind the Cherryvale Museum, but due to the fact that over a 1.200 visitors came during summer months, parking would be a problem there. The Bender museum had become a point of controversy in Cherryvale. Some of the townspeople objected to the town being known as the place of such tragic happenings. They were anxious to preserve the good and well-merited name of their town. The museum building and its contents was again sold to Denis R. Ast, a Cherryvale resident and operator of an auction service. He moved it seven miles west on US 160 to the Dennis corner, then a mile south and 1 ¼ miles west to the property where Mr. Ast had his sale barn. The site was within three miles of the original Bender killing site and only a few hundred yards from the new Army Corp of Engineers' Big Hill Lake recreational area. The lake was nearing completion and scheduled to be filled by June,1981. Completion date of the entire project with picnic and camp sites was June of 1982. The relocated museum plan fell through. It is believed it later was used as pool/recreation room.

Southeast Kansas may be the only place anywhere where mass murders are marked in both a topographical and celebratory manner. The two prehistoirc Indian promontories north of US 160 are now known as the "Bender Mounds." The City of Cherryvale, after the removal of its successful Bender Museum in 1978, had for several years an annual “Bender Days” event.

To view a larger image and personal traits of the Benders, click on the thumbnail images below:


Note: All rights are reserved. The presentation of all photos and electronic materials on these pages are the property of other sources and historical societies, and used with their permission.

Favorite Web Links:

The Old Bender Family
Topeka Daily Capital article of the discovery of the horrible crimes of the Bloody Benders on Bender Mound, January 13, 1886
Dead Men Do Tell Tales, Mass Murderers from the History of Kansas; novel by Troy Taylor, 2004
Topeka Capital-Journal's Sensational Crimes Series which ran for 12 Mondays and on WIBW-AM Radio 580, 2003

Books and information about the Bloody Benders:

Additional Bender Research: Available in the Cherryvale Public Library are extensive research files, articles, newspaper stories, and photos of the bizarre and murderous family's atrocities in the Sunflower State.

In 1913, John Towner James, Defense Attorney from Minnesota wrote The Benders of Kansas about his experiences in the 1889 Oswego, Kansas, Bender trial of Ma Kate, Sr. and Kate, Jr. when they were brought from Michigan. Dr. William York was the only victim listed on the warrant for their arrest. The "Bender Women" were finally released because the trial to be held for February had to be postponed until May 1890, and the county did not want the expense of boarding the two prisoners that long. This book may be reviewed at the Cherryvale Library.

Influenced by the ensuring years of sensational writings on the Benders, a motion picture was filmed in Girard, Ks in 1939. The early days of television saw several dramatizations about the ghastly murders of Southeast Kansas. Manly Wade Wellman wrote A Candle of the Wicked in 1960, and Robert H. Alderman published another best-selling novel, The Bloody Benders, in 1970. Both of these books can be reviewed at the Cherryvale Public Library.

After his 1970 visit to the Cherryvale Bender Museum, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. brought the film rights to Adleman’s book, for a haunted-house type film in a mid-western setting. He was attracted to the story by the character of killer Kate. The film was never produced.

In 1992, Fern Morrow Wood, a Cherryvale teacher, wrote The Benders, Keepers of the Devil's Inn. It is the first and only comprehensive story of the Bloody Benders; a terrible chapter in the annuals of crime on this lonely prairie Inn in the southeast Kansas. It covers the on-going investigation into the Bloody Benders. After sifting the reminiscences of long-forgotten neighbors, searching newspaper stories of the period from various libraries and historic institutions, obtaining newly discovered documents, her skeptical eye examines the conclusions of these results in her chronological narrative. This book is available for sale at  the historic Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast.

In 2003, author S. Philip wrote Cottonwood. It is a fictional town placed between two real towns, Cherryvale and Independence, with stolen histories and characters from the southeast Kansas area and the Bender murders. The plot sort of congeals around those things.

To Purchase Bender Books:
The Benders, Keepers of the Devil's Inn Paperback, $8.00 each, ISBN 0-9606922-1-5, by placing orders to: Fern Morrow Wood, Route 2, Box 114, Cherryvale, KS 67335. Please add $2.00 to cover shipping and handling ($.50 for each additional book). In Kansas, please add 82 cents sales tax.

JUST PUBLISHED: Death For Dinner by Phyllis de la Garza, Hardbound, $32.25 each including S/H, ISBN 0-9631772-9-X. In Kansas, please add $1.17 sales tax. De la Garza reports the events of this 1871-73 bizarre story from primary sources, books, and articles. But she cannot tell the reader what happened to the evil Bender Family.

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© 1999-2008 Wayne E. Hallowell
Web Site created, compiled and maintained by
Wayne Hallowell, Director of the Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast

The above information is part of the heritage of Cherryvale, Kansas
and the legacy of the historic

Leatherock Hotel Bed & Breakfast
A Railroad Hotel Bed & Breakfast / Suites and Museum
420 North Depot Street         Cherryvale, KS 67335
Information and Reservations   620 336-3350

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