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Part 1

The term ‘serial killer’ has become popular as a modern day phenomenon.

While, technically, serial killers have been with us for a very long time, possibly since the mists of pre-history, the actual name ‘serial killer’ is a very modern one.
It was first used in the 1970's, and is credited to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler to describe the incidents involving Ted Bundy and the Son of Sam.

Prior to that time, serial killers, were known as mass murderers and only recently has a distinction been made.
What’s the difference? In practical terms, perhaps, there is little difference, but for the purpose of this story we will accept the simplistic definition that both serial killers and mass murders commit many murders over a period or many murders all at once.

The list of those Americans who have committed multiple murders, one at a time or in a group, is a long one indeed and contains many well-known names:
The Zodiac Killer
Charles Manson
Ted Bundy
David Berkowitz (Son of Sam)

Gary Ridgway
Richard Speck
And the list goes on, seemingly endless. While each case is unique and intriguing, one stands out in that it involves not an individual or even pair of killers, but a whole family.

To tell our story we must travel back in time to the early days of our nation’s settlement.

Following the American Civil War, the United States government moved the Osage Indians from their home in Kansas to a new Indian Territory located in what would eventually become Oklahoma. The "vacant" land was then made available to homesteaders and in in the fall of 1871, a family of spiritualists, the Bender family, moved in and established a ‘general store’, planting a couple of acres of vegetables to supplement their income.

The ‘family’ consisted of† John (Pa) Bender Sr. (around sixty years old),† Ma Bender, (42) , John Bender Jr. (around 25) and 23 year old Kate Bender.

Here the story begins to become clouded. It turns out they were a ‘family’ only by the loosest definition.

Pa Bender was from either Germany or Holland and had been born John Flickinger. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik in the Adirondack Mountains and had married George Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma allegedly married several times, each time following the death of her previous husband from head injuries.
Kate was the fifth child of Ma Bender and was born as Eliza Griffith while† John Jr. was actually born John Gebhardt.

While the whole clan was involved in murder, we shall focus upon the two youngest members who appear to be the driving force. It is not clear if the two were brother and sister, husband and wife or some combination of both.

John Bender Jr. was handsome with auburn hair and moustache and spoke English fluently, but with a German accent. John was prone to laughing aimlessly, which led many to consider him a "half-wit".
Kate Bender (daughter), was cultivated and attractive and spoke English well with very little accent. A self-proclaimed healer and psychic, she distributed flyers advertising her supernatural powers and her ability to cure illnesses. She also conducted sťances and gave lectures on spiritualism, for which she gained notoriety for advocating free love.
She and her brother/husband/companion planned and carried out their gruesome tasks with John Jr. the ‘enforcer, and Kate acting as the ‘bait’.

While operating their ‘general store’ the Benders also offered lodging to travelers and this is where they hatched their plot for robbery and murder.

If a guest appeared to be wealthy, the Benders would give him a seat of honor at the dinner table which was positioned over a trap door that led down into the cellar, with his back to a curtain dividing the building into ‘store‘ and living quarters.† Kate would distract the guest, usually with provocative talk or by displaying portions of her comely anatomy.

Meanwhile, John Bender or his son would come from behind the curtain and strike the guest on the side of the skull with a hammer. The victim's throat was then cut by one of the women to ensure his death and the body was dropped through the trap door. Once in the cellar, the body would be stripped and later buried somewhere on the property, often in the orchard.

In May 1871, the body of a man named Jones, who had had his skull crushed and his throat cut, was discovered in Drum Creek along the trail where the Benders homestead was located. In February of the following year, the bodies of two men were found who had the same injuries as Jones.
By 1873, reports of missing people who had passed through the area had became so common that travelers began to avoid the trail. The area was already widely known for horse thieves and "villains" and vigilance committees often "arrested" some for the disappearances, only for them to be later released by the authorities. Many honest men under suspicion were also run out of the country by these committees

While the total number of murders was never ascertained, they are known to have included:
  • joe Sowers.
  • Mr. Jones. Body found in Drum Creek with a crushed skull and throat cut.
  • Two unidentified men found on the prairie in February 1872 with crushed skulls and throats cut.
  • Ben Brown. Buried in the apple orchard.
  • W.F. McCrotty. Co D 123rd Ill Infantry.
  • Henry McKenzie. Missing.
  • Johnny Boyle.† Found in the Benders well.
  • George Loncher and his daughter (18 months old).† Buried together in the apple orchard.
  • Dr William York. Buried in the apple orchard.
  • John Greary. Buried in the apple orchard.
  • Unidentified male. Buried in the apple orchard.
  • Unidentified female. Buried in the apple orchard.
  • Various body parts. The parts did not belong to any of the other victims found.
  • The bodies of four unidentified males were found in Drum Creek and the surrounding area. All four had crushed skulls and their throats cut.
So, what brought the Bender’s killing spree to an end, and what happened to them?

We’ll conclude their story in next week’s issue of Stan’s Journal in
Part 2