A Family of Mass Murderers
Replica of Bender Cabin
They were called the “Bloody Benders,” a family of mass murderers living near the small town of Cherryvale, KS around 1870. However, to locals they appeared to be nothing more than honest, hardworking pioneers struggling to make a living like everyone else.
John Bender, Sr. was 60 years old when he arrived to the area supposedly emigrating from Germany with his 55 year old wife, his son, John Jr., and daughter Kate. They built a small one-room framed cabin, a barn and corral on 160 acres located directly on the Osage Mission-Independence Trail. The small family operated a grocery store and sidelined as “spiritualists. Their one room cabin was partitioned with a large canvas separating the living quarters from a small inn and store operations in front, which they opened in 1871.
John Sr. was described as a hulking six foot giant and John Jr. a tall, handsome and slender man of about 25 with auburn hair and moustache. Ma bender was said to be a heavy set, stern woman with an unfriendly attitude. The family’s only socially redeeming value was in their daughter Kate who was said to be friendly, beautiful and about 23. She and John Jr., often attended Sunday school at nearby Harmony Grove. Kate was also known to have a cultivated personality, which easily charmed those who knew her.
Spot Corpses Were Buried
However, beneath Kate's petite, auburn haired demure facade, lurked an evil, sinister personality. It was the same with the rest of the family as well. It wasn’t long before the community began whispering there was something seemingly peculiar about the family. Travelers through the area began to be reported missing. At first, it didn’t seem to be a problem since many who stopped at the Bender’s store were assumed to have simply continued their journey west.
However,as more time passed, disappearances became more frequent and travelers began avoiding the trail which was bad for local businesses. The Osage Township held a meeting to discuss the missing travelers at which about 75 people attended, including both Bender men. There was much discussion concerning the disappearance of a well known and prominent physician named Dr. William H. York.
It was unanimously decided a search of every farmstead in the area should be conducted…with the exception of the Bender’s who remained silent. Shortly afterwards it was noticed the Bender place had been abandoned and a search party was quickly assembled. When they arrived at the property, they found the cabin empty and a foul odor. It was emanating from underneath a trap door in the floor of the cabin.
Underneath was a six foot deep hole filled with clotted blood…but no bodies. Those were found in an adjacent orchard. The first body discovered was that of Dr.York. His skull showed he had been bludgeoned to death and his throat had been cut.
Nine other bodies and numerous dismembered body parts were also found, including a woman and a little girl. The burial site became known as "Hell’s Half Acre.” Word spread quickly and soon the Bender place was inundated with curiosity seekers, reporters and souvenir hunters. By the time they had finished nothing remained of the cabin. They had stripped it clean down to the last brick lining the cellar.
Slowly, the Bender’s atrocities and methods of operation were pieced together revealing one of history’s most gruesome stories imaginable. When patrons stopped for a meal, they were seated with their back to the canvas divider. Kate would then entertain them keeping their attention focused on her. Pa and John Jr., hiding behind the canvas, would strike their victim in the skull with a hammer. Ma Bender and Kate would steal their valuables and then push the bodies through the trapdoor to later be disposed of in the orchard.
For all of the deaths, estimated to have possibly been more than 20, the Bender’s collected about $4,600, two teams of horses and wagons, a pony and a saddle. Hardly worth the number of lives it cost.
It was later discovered the Bender’s were not a family at all, but a group of misfits who had banded together as one. John Sr. was found to have been a man named John Flickinger, from either Germany or Holland. John Jr. a man named John Gebhardt was not Kate’s brother at all. It was rumored the two often posed as husband and wife and had a child together, which they murdered as well. John Jr. was tracked down to the Texas and New Mexico border where it was discovered he had died from an illness.
As for Ma Bender, she was born Almira Meik in the Adirondacks and had married a man named George Griffith at an early age. Griffith died suddenly from what appeared to many as a dent on his head…perhaps a hammer blow. It was reported Almira remarried several more times and killed them also, as well as three children. Kate was actually Almira Meik’s fifth child named Eliza Griffith.
There were many reports coming from people who claimed to have killed one or more of the Bender clan, but none were ever able to be substantiated. Some say the site where the cabin was located is haunted by the spirits of those killed and by the Bender’s themselves.
The tales of the murderous family prompted the opening of the Bender Museum in nearby Cherryvale in 1961.