Hello, E.E.Burke here.
The peaceful Kansas prairie made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder saw a series of murders in the mid-nineteenth century that rival any killing spree since for pure viciousness.
Here are the facts, such as can be determined…
Between 1871 and early 1873, more than a dozen men traveling through southeastern Kansas vanished without a trace. At that time, the area was still considered a wild frontier, plagued by outlaws and unhappy Natives. The missing men were presumed victims of one or other since they’d last been seen headed west on the Osage Trail.
The first few disappearances didn’t raise an alarm, as it wasn’t all that uncommon for some tragedy to befall a lone traveler. However, as time passed and the number of disappearances increased, surrounding communities became alarmed.
One of the missing men, Dr. William York, was related to a well-known Kansas senator and a wartime hero, who went to search for their missing brother. The colonel discovered that the doctor had stopped at a store and wayside inn offering meals and a “safe” resting place for travelers headed west.
A German immigrant, John Bender, and his wife, along with a grown daughter and son ran the inn. Pa Bender was a hulking man, over six feet tall with piercing black eyes under bushy eyebrows. He and Ma, a heavyset, unfriendly matron, spoke with such guttural accents few could understand them.
In contrast, John Bender Jr. was slender and attractive, and spoke English fluently with a slight German accent. However, he was prone to laughing aimlessly, which led many in the neighboring community to consider him a half-wit.
Kate was the friendliest of the bunch. She spoke good English and had cultivated social skills. The petite auburn-haired beauty was a self-proclaimed healer and psychic. She gave lectures on spiritualism and conducted séances. In some of her lectures, she advocated free love and justification for murder. Although her friendly manner and social skills earned her popularity (especially with men), her views weren’t so popular. Some of the locals began to call her “satanic.”
By the time Dr. York’s brother showed up at the Bender’s doorstep, rumors were swirling. Ma admitted the doctor had stopped there for dinner, but indicated he’d left and proposed he’d run into problems with Indians. Kate even offered to conduct a séance to help him. The remaining York brothers were suspicious, but they had no proof of the Benders’ wrongdoing.
The Osage Township called a community meeting at a schoolhouse, to discuss the troubling situation and agreed to search farms and homes in the area. The two Bender men attended that meeting.
Several days later, their inn was found abandoned. Upon searching, authorities found the cabin empty of food, clothing and personal possessions. They were also met with a terrible smell. A trap door was discovered, and beneath the cabin, in a six-foot deep cellar, they found the source of the stench—clotted blood.
A frantic search began. The search party lifted the house off its moorings and tore into the cellar, but didn’t find bodies there. Moving into the field and orchard, they noticed the site of a freshly stirred depression and found the first body—Dr. William York—buried head downward with his feet barely covered. His skull had been crushed and his throat cut from ear to ear.
The digging continued and nine more bodies were uncovered, along with dismembered body parts. All of the men had their skulls bashed in and their throats slit. The corpses of a man and a little girl were found together, and it appeared she might’ve been buried alive. Ironically, it was the disappearance of this father and daughter that had sent the doctor off on his quest. The site was christened “Hell’s Half-Acre.”
Eventually, it even got its own historical marker!
Bit by bit, the story was pieced together into an awful picture of what happened to these hapless travelers. Visitors were invited in and seated at a table with their backs to a large wagon canvas, separating the public area from the family’s private quarters.
Kate would charm the men, flirting or revealing her psychic “gifts.” Pa Bender, hiding behind the canvas, would strike the distracted guest with a large hammer, bashing his skull. The women would rifle the body for money, then push the hapless fellow through the trap door into the cellar, where Kate or her mother would slit his throat.
During the night, the victim would be buried in the garden or orchard behind the house. Neighbors reported having seen the old man out plowing by moonlight, but attributed it to his eccentricities.
By the time the grisly murders were discovered, the Benders had skedaddled. Their abandoned wagon was found in a nearby community. Senator York offered a $1,000 reward for their capture and the governor of Kansas doubled it. Word of the gruesome murders spread fast and thousands of people flocked to the site, including newspaper reporters from as far away as Chicago. The visitors removed souvenirs, including bricks from the bloody cellar and even boards from the cabin’s walls. Pretty soon, nothing was left but the hole where the basement had been.
As for what happened to the Benders, that is the stuff of legend.
The author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, referenced the murders in speeches she made over the years. She said she had at one time visited the inn, and her father, “Pa Ingalls” had participated in the vigilante hunt for the killers. Reportedly he told her, “They will never be found.” Frontier justice may have been served, but the records don’t reveal the fate of the serial killers.
Later, curiosity seekers visiting the site would report seeing apparitions they surmised were the ghosts of victims, seeking revenge. Some thought it might be Kate’s ghost, doomed to wander the place where she’d committed the atrocities.
This grisly crime is woven into my latest novel, A Dangerous Passion, as are other historical events in Kansas and railroad history. For more information about the book and series, check out my website at www.eeburke.com. Also, I’m running a contest for two free e-books from my Steam series. Check out the box at the bottom of this post to enter!
Can a hero lurk in the heart of a villain?
Life in a small New England village is too quiet, too ordinary for a free spirit like Lucy Forbes. When her father lands a job out West, she packs her books and her dreams and eagerly sets off to pursue the kind of grand adventures she longs to experience and write about. The moment she steps off the train, she’s thrust into the gritty reality of an untamed frontier—and into the arms of a scoundrel.
Henry Stevens, the ruthless railroad executive her father has been sent to investigate, is as passionate as he is ambitious. Brave and charming, as well as clever, and possessed of a sharp wit. He is, in fact, the most fascinating man Lucy has ever met. However, his opponents are vanishing, and strangers are shooting at him. Fearing for her father’s life, Lucy resolves to unmask the secretive Mr. Stevens and expose a villain. What she doesn’t expect to find is a hero.
E.E. Burke writes sexy, suspenseful historical romance set in the American west. Her latest series, Steam! Romance and Rails, includes Passion’s Prize, Her Bodyguard and A Dangerous Passion. Her writing has earned accolades in regional and national contests, including the prestigious Golden Heart®.
Over the years, she’s been a disc jockey, a journalist and an advertising executive, before finally getting around to pursuing her dream of writing novels. Her stories are as deeply rooted in American soil as her family, which she can trace back to the earliest colonists and through both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and three daughters, the greatest inspiration of all.