Dinner with Death: Kate Bender, Murder, and Mayhem on the Kansas Prairie

With the close of the American Civil War, western states like Kansas teemed with travelers and refugees seeking opportunity and solace as shattered families worked to rebuild their interrupted lives. Filled with open space and limitless development potential, Kansas attracted former Union and Confederate soldiers, Exodusters (newly freed African-Americans), and migrants from the world over.1 Rural Labette County, in the southeastern part of the state, was no exception. In 1871 the Bender family — father John, mother Almira, son John Jr. and daughter Kate — arrived from parts unknown and settled north of the growing community of Cherryvale.2 Quickly the Benders erected a one-room clapboard structure that from all appearances seemed normal. The Bender wayside stop sold supplies, served hot meals, and supplied overnight lodging to trail-weary travelers for a price. By the spring of 1873, however, the entire countryside was abuzz with talk of missing men, mysticism, and strange happenings on the Osage Trail that ran from Fort Scott to Independence. Kate — the attractive, intelligent, twenty-something-year-old Bender daughter — was at the heart of rumors and innuendo that swept through local communities like a fire over the sun-scorched prairie. The Benders’ neighbors found themselves asking the question: could Kate Bender be serving travelers death with dinner at their roadside inn?

Calling herself Professor Miss Katie Bender, Kate Bender touted her healing skills to the local community. (Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society)

The Bender establishment looked like other modest homes in rural Kansas. With a crude hand-lettered sign, advertising groceries for sale, their home measured roughly 16×24 feet and was divided into two distinct living areas: one serviced the family of four while the other was reserved for travelers. Using a rope and sheet of canvas as a divider, the Bender wayside inn needed little in the way of material possessions to operate successfully. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Bender home was a leather handled trap door located in the front room floor near the dining table. Concealed beneath the door, a cellar roughly six feet wide and deep seemed ill-placed but not alarming.3

When travelers arrived on the Bender’s doorstep, Kate, the most vivacious member of the family, answered the door with a smile. Kate drew the most attention to the family. She was described as uncommonly handsome, with hair as dark as a raven’s wing. Upon her arrival in Kansas she advertised her services as a healer and spiritualist medium in nearby communities. Her posters touted her skills to cure blindness, deafness, and other maladies by the laying of hands on the afflicted. Calling herself Professor Miss Katie Bender, she used her supernatural gifts to locate lost items and communicate with the spirits of the deceased. She gained ardent followers who were willing to pay for her services.4 However, for the Bender family Kate’s greatest value was her ability to size up the net worth of a traveler and mark them for death.

Single men with no local connections or family to worry about their whereabouts were Kate’s favored victims.5 While a traveler sat at the Bender table eating Almira’s meals, Kate chatted with the unsuspecting guest. Her charm won them over. They relaxed and shared intimate details of their lives with her, including their immediate plans and financial information. John Sr. and John Jr. waited behind the canvas partition with hammers in hand. Once Kate gave the signal, the Bender men emerged, turning their tranquil kitchen turned into a place of carnage, and the cracking of skulls and slitting of throats commenced. Kate herself took knife in hand to deliver the final blows to their unsuspecting dinner guests. Once dead, the family descended like a flock of vultures upon their victims’ bodies, stripping them of valuables and items that could provide clues to their identity. Lifting the leather handle to open the trap door in the floor, they then dumped the lifeless body into the cellar below. Under the cover of darkness, the Bender men then buried their victims in the apple orchard behind their home. Kate’s mother used the apples from the orchard to bake pies.

By the time they killed their thirteenth victim, Dr. William York of Independence, Kansas, the family had made murder an art form. Each Bender played their role to perfection. When York’s brother Colonel Edward York knocked on the Benders’ door in late April 1873 looking for his missing brother, however, the family knew their livelihood was in danger along with their lives. When Colonel York returned with a posse of men from Cherryvale in early May, the Benders were nowhere to be found. Pots on the stove contained food. Cups of half consumed coffee were on the table. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air. One of the first bodies found was that of Dr. William York.

A photograph of the Bender Family house, dated 1872.
The Bender family house in 1872. By April 1873, the family had escaped Kansas and gone on the run. (Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society)

News of the murders spread quickly.6 Local men began to excavate the grounds around the Bender home and unearthed thirteen victims, including a young girl buried alive in a grave with her father. Photographers chronicled the gruesome scene, and close to 3,000 curious onlookers flocked to the Bender place to watch the macabre spectacle. A local posse searched for the killers in vain. Newspapers across the United States, England, and France followed the deathly drama unfolding on the prairie. Despite enormous rewards offered, the Benders were never found. Numerous men and women matching the descriptions of the nefarious family members were extradited to Kansas, but none proved to be the bloodthirsty Benders. They fled Kansas after robbing their victims of $4,585.00, a saddle, wagon, team of horses, and a pony.7

By the turn of the century, the Benders and their crimes were consigned to memory. Their deeds became the stuff of legends and local lore in Kansas. In May 1910, a diminutive item in the New York Times heralded the death of Kate Bender. John Collins of Rio Vista, California told reporters that his recently deceased neighbor Mrs. Peters, an elderly woman, confided in him her true identity: Kate Bender. She also detailed for Collins the grim details of her life in Kansas and her role in the murders that shocked the Cherryvale community in 1873. Did Kate really die in a humble home after running a house of ill-repute and escaping Kansas justice for thirty-seven years? Kate Bender sightings continued in Southeast Kansas well into the 1920s when locals believed she was living in Altoona, Kansas. Settled and a respected church leader, Kate supposedly rented a house in nearby Neodesha and ran a “house of mystery.”8 After Kate supposedly purchased all the hammers from a Neodesha hardware store, rumors once again spread about death at her dinner table. Neighbors reported hearing the sounds of bodies hitting the floor coupled with moaning. Local newspaper pundits penned pithy songs about their enigmatic neighbor. By the close of the 1920s Kate Bender sightings dwindled. The hammers used by the Bender men went on display in a small museum in Cherryvale.9 The Benders’ inn, scavenged for souvenirs over the years, disappeared. Only the land knows the location of death’s dinner table and if there are more bodies buried, waiting to be unearthed and given respectful final repose, as a result of the Benders’ murderous activities.

Kate Bender and her mysterious, unconventional life signaled a change in women’s roles as Americans moved westward in the mid to late nineteenth century. Pushing back against the ideas of feminine domesticity, chastity, and submission to male authority, Kate Bender engaged in business and criminal activities that clashed with traditional ideas about women as caretakers, nurturers, and providers of domestic stability and bliss. Her penchant for spiritualism, self promotion, and murder showed that women harbored the same desires for power and control over their lives as men did. The wide open vistas of the American West provided Kate Bender with the perfect canvas to paint her life anew each time she moved one step ahead of the law.

Notes

  1. In the post war period Kansas earned the moniker The Soldier State given the high numbers of former soldiers that made the state their home. Return to text.
  2. Historians do not agree as to the Bender family’s place of origin, their names, and if they actually were indeed related. There is also much disagreement as to their fate after their Kansas crimes. The family is not traceable through United States Federal Census records and left a scant documentary footprint. There is little scholarly treatment of the Benders and their crimes, although local historians have written about the topic. See Fern Morrow Wood. The Benders: Keepers of the Devil’s Inn. (Chelsea, MI: Book Crafters, 1992.), Allison Hardy. Kate Bender, the Kansas Murderess: The Horrible History of an Arch Killer. (Girard: Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1944.), John T. James. The Benders in Kansas. (Wichita: Kan-Okla Publishing, 1913.). The author has been featured as an on-camera talking head in two documentaries about the Bloody Benders and portrayed Kate in an episode of Sunflower Journeys by KTWU public television that won a regional Emmy Award in 2010. Return to text.
  3. See “Hell’s Half Acre,” from The Kansas Democrat. (May 16, 1873). Return to text.
  4. To view Bender’s poster and see the knife she used to slit the throats of victims please visit Kansas Memory. There are additional historical materials related to the Bender’s and their crimes available via Kansas Memory simply enter Bender into the search engine field for more details. Return to text.
  5. This assertion is proven given the names of the Bender victims and information about their backgrounds researched by newspaper reporters during the time period and by historians and local devotees of the case in the modern era. Return to text.
  6. The most extensive coverage of the crimes is found in Harper’s Weekly. See “The Bender Murders,” Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. (Vol. XVII, No. 858; June 7, 1873). This edition featured engravings of the crime scene adapted from photographs taken on site while the grounds around the Bender inn were being searched for victims. Return to text.
  7. Adjusted for inflation the Bender’s cash haul is the equivalent to $97,118.50 in today’s currency. See Tim Potter, “The Bloody Benders: 140-year-old Crime Scene Still Fascinates Today,” from The Wichita Eagle. (August 24, 2013.) Some historians believe they were caught by the posse and killed, while others maintain they escaped. Tracing them through the census is problematic. The family members most likely used false names in legal documents to conceal themselves from law enforcement officials and evade capture. Return to text.
  8. “Does She Conduct a House of Mystery?” Altoona Tribune (October 25, 1923). Return to text.
  9. The hammers used by the Bender men are still on display in Cherryvale at the Cherryvale Historical Society Museum. A knife that belonged to Kate and was purported to be used in the crimes is in the collections of the Kansas Historical Society along with one of her posters advertising her services as a spiritualist medium and healer. They are not on public display. Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts