In the 1870s, a family of four settled on the frontier prairie lands of southeastern Kansas, not far from the town of Cherryvale. John and Kate Bender, along with their two adult children, also named John and Kate, operated an inn and grocery store that catered to travelers along a nearby road—until, one day, they vanished.
Locals initially thought the Benders were the latest victims in a string of mysterious disappearances plaguing the area. But it soon became clear that the family had played a more malevolent role in the story. An investigation of the Bender property revealed the remains of an estimated 11 individuals buried in the garden, their skulls smashed in and throats slashed. The family members, who appeared to have fled the scene, were quickly identified as the perpetrators of these grisly murders.
Today, the “Bloody Benders” endure as a notorious serial killing family of the Old West. And as Jonathan Riley reports for the Salina Journal, the land where they committed their crimes is now up for sale.
The historic Bender farm is listed as “Tract 2” in a bundle of 15 properties heading to auction on February 11. Schrader, the Indiana-based real estate and auction company facilitating the sale, describes the 162-acre tract as containing “some mature trees and a beautiful view overlooking the Drum Creek and the farmland bottoms below.”
According to Amy Renee Leiker of the Wichita Eagle, the property’s current owners purchased the land in the 1950s or 60s, long after souvenir seekers drawn in by the gory tale had picked apart the original Bender homestead.
“It’s strictly cropland,” Brent Wellings, Schrader’s southwest auction manager, tells the Eagle. He suspects that the property will continue to be used as farmland by its new owner but notes that the upcoming sale of the property could provide “a neat opportunity for somebody who’s interested in that type of history.”
The Benders are often described as a family of German descent, though little is known about them, and some researchers have questioned whether they were actually related. They arrived in Kansas after the southeastern part of the state had opened to settlers, according to the Kansas Historical Society. A historical marker set up near the Bender farm states that the younger Kate “soon gained notoriety as a self-proclaimed healer and spiritualist.”
A canvas curtain divided the family’s home into two sections. The front half was used as an inn and general store, selling goods like crackers, sardines and candies, but the sleeping quarters in the back of the property were employed for far more sinister purposes. The family is said to have enticed travelers into the small cabin with the promise of a hot meal and a chance to rest.
According to the Salina Journal, authorities were able to piece together the Benders’ modus operandi based on evidence found at the scene. One of the family members would hide behind the dividing curtain, then creep up on the victim from behind and attack them with a hammer. The hapless individual was then dropped through a trap door into the cellar, where another waiting Bender would slash their throat. After removing anything of value from the dead, the Benders waited until nightfall and buried the bodies on their property.
Because it was not uncommon for travelers to go missing on the rough frontiers of the Old West, it took some time before victims’ disappearances began to attract notice. Alarm bells were first raised when one George Lochner and his daughter, traveling from Kansas to visit family in Iowa, vanished without a trace. Then, a well-known local doctor named William York disappeared. His brothers traced York’s last-known whereabouts to the Bender farm; the family admitted he had been there but said the doctor had not stayed for long.
In spring 1873, a local noticed that the Bender inn had been abandoned and, upon closer investigation, found the family’s livestock dead or starving. Subsequent searches of the property revealed a blood-soaked cellar and multiple bodies in the garden. One of Dr. York’s brothers was able to identify his remains. Lochner and his daughter were found buried together in a single grave.
Though authorities issued a $2,000 reward (more than $50,000 today) for the family’s capture, their fate remains unclear. Some say the Benders were killed by vigilantes; others believe they successfully escaped punishment.
Today, the tract of land holds no visible signs of the farm’s macabre history. The Benders’ cabin was demolished long ago, and the precise location of the home and its garden are not known. But morbid mementos of the crime may still linger beneath the surface of the land. Though most accounts place the number of victims at around a dozen, some believe the Benders killed as many as 21 people. And, Wellings tells the Eagle, he is “pretty confident” the property has never been scanned for missing bodies.