Before Little House on the Prairie, there was The Bloody Benders…

E.E._BurkeHello, 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_BenderKate 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 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!


EEBurke_ADangerousPassion_800Can 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.


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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.


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31 thoughts on “Before Little House on the Prairie, there was The Bloody Benders…”

    • Connie, I sure didn’t mean to give you bad dreams! I grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe and graduated to Stephen King and I guess I never got over my fascination for the morbid. But I promise my book isn’t scary.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • No worries! I slept well. I, too, am a fan of Steven King.
        Looking forward to reading A Dangerous Passion.

  1. That is really creepy. The part that gets to me is people actually wanted pieces of the building as souvenirs. Yikes! I wouldn’t even want to look at the place.

    • Janine,

      I found the part about souvenir hunters pretty creepy, too. They made away with most of the building. Have to wonder, what did they do with it? Show it to guests who came to dinner? “Oh, hey, this comes from a house where a bunch of killers murdered their guests. You want to sit by the closed curtain?”

      Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

  2. Susan,

    I understand they are making a movie about it. There’s a Facebook site for it, anyway. I’m not sure Hollywood could top the real story. I only used a little part of it in my book, and nothing that should give you bad dreams.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi E.E. (Elisabeth!! Welcome to the Junction! Great to have you. I’m so excited. I love being able to bring you to our readers. It’s amazing what I learn on here. Serial killers in the old West! Who would’ve thought it. But we had the cannibal in Colorado who killed and ate bunches of people. The West wasn’t a safe place looks like.

    I’m loving your book! Henry Stevens is the perfect hero. Brains, brawn and plenty of ambition in addition to being a bit of a scoundrel. I fell in love with him during the opening scene. And Lucy seems quite a determined young woman. It’s great as is the backdrop.

    I hope this will the first of many visits to P&P. Wishing you much success!!

    • Linda,

      Thanks for being such a gracious hostess! I’ve long wanted to visit the Junction and so appreciate the opportunity. I found this murder mystery so fascinating that I wanted to include it in the story. It actually deserves its own book, but that wouldn’t be a romance.

      I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying A Dangerous Passion. Can’t wait to hear what you think of how I wove in the mystery.

      Stay warm, and have a great day!

  4. heck ,i loved the story,but cant enter the contest though I dont have any ereader to read it on,,but really enjoyed the post

  5. What a fascinating and interesting story. I love stories that have an ending where you do not know exactly what happened to the people. Maybe they just moved away and changed their names (& hopefully their ways)! Who really knows?

  6. Oh, my. It seems there have been crazy people around, probably forever, doing terrible things to others. One wonders what this family got out of doing such terrible things to people. The burial method was rather odd. Since they were never found, supposedly, there is no way to know why they did what they did. It is a bit odd that they deduced what each member of the family’s role was. How did they decide that the daughter was the one to slit the throats? All very odd and disturbing.

    People aren’t always what they seem. It sounds like this is the case with A DANGEROUS PASSION. This sounds like a good series. Hope the release is successful.

    • You’re right, Patricia, people aren’t always what they seem. The daughter, Kate, was quite popular with the men, I understand. Pretty and well-spoken. They got away with it for so long because no one believed “normal” folks would do something like that. They turned out to be not so “normal.”
      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. One thing I love is that history was documented which in turn still helps cases being solved today as well as cold cases. Just wow on how much they figured out and all. Your book sounds fascinating and I love a western historical romance!

    Great to meet you.

    • Cathie, great to meet you, too!
      This was quite a well known case back in the day and attracted reporters from as far away as Chicago. Seems amazing the Benders were able to vanish seemingly into thin air. There is something about two women being arrested later and they were going to try them, but the country ran out of money and didn’t have enough to hold them any longer. Ha! Truth really is stranger than fiction.
      Thanks for coming by.

  8. Great post, this is really creepy! Thanks for sharing, love the cover of your book and I can’t wait to read it.

  9. Hello from central Kansas! We’re getting rain here today (Saturday). How’s the KC area weather?

    Being a Kansan, I knew the story of the Benders, but I didn’t remember the Ingalls were involved in the hunt too.

    Thanks for posting today on P&P.

    • Linda,
      Greetings to another Kansan! We’re under rain here today, as well. Regarding the Ingalls, Laura gave speeches in which she referenced the Bender killings and her father being part of a posse. She said she recalled visiting the inn. Yikes!
      Thanks for coming by!

  10. Oh, how awful! Thank you for sharing this interesting post and for the chance to win A Dangerous Passion!

  11. Hi E. E.,
    Doggone if you didn’t pick the subject I had in mind to write on when my guest blog comes up in August. Guess I’ll just have to dig something else up out of the Kansas sod.

    A good post, by the way. Kansas didn’t have all that many famous criminals and outlaws (I guess we had too many famous lawmen around), but the Benders were one of the worst of anywhere. In other accounts I have read of them, there was some ambiguity about their familial relationships.

    My own sense of justice chafes at the fact they got away with all these murders. I hope some sort of justice came down on them after they disappeared, but we’ll never know. Labette County is only about 90 miles directly south of where I live. Interesting read.

    • JD,

      Another Kansan, cool! So you’re about an hour and a half north. Near Fort Scott? My second book, Her Bodyguard, is set there and features lots of local history.

      You’re right about the Benders questionable relationships. They were part of a spiritualist cult that showed up in the late 1860s. Some say Kate was Ma Bender’s daughter, but not related to Pa. And the “son” was supposedly her common law husband. Who really knows? It is a fascinating story.

      Thanks for coming by!

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