America’s first serial killers

It’s difficult to trace history back to finding the first serial killer in America, but it is generally attributed to the “Bloody Benders,” whose killing spree spanned at least a few years in the early 1870’s.

During the expansion of the United States to the outermost reaches of the west coast, there was a large exodus of settlers. Families from all over the east coast and southern parts of the country started heading west and setting stakes in unclaimed territories. There was a feeling of freshness to the expansion, as families sought to claim a new life, free of poverty, where they could start their own business and prosper.

One of these families was the family of John Bender Sr (aka “Pa.”) The Benders- who also included son John (sometimes called “Thomas,”) “Ma,” the mother and their daughter Kate. The family claimed 160-acres in Osage County, Kansas. The family built a small one-room house, which was divided by a curtain. On one side of the curtain was a makeshift store and inn for weary travelers going down the nearby Osage Trail. The other side of the curtain was the family’s living quarters.

Kate was the most visible member of the family, while the rest generally kept to themselves when visitors were staying at their inn. She worked on the side as a clairvoyant and psychic and would offer her services to visitors for a small fee.

Throughout the years, hundreds of men traveled down the Osage Trail and stayed at the Benders’ inn. Many of them disappeared to never be heard from again. Osage County was one of the most common sites for missing persons in that era, with many believing it was to be blamed on the Indians in the area- who had recently been displaced and sent to reservations to make way for the white settlers.

In 1872, Dr. William York set out west, and stayed at the Benders’ inn. He was never heard from again.

His disappearance remained a mystery for quite a while, until the missing person’s relative started to investigate. It just so happened that his relatives were two very powerful brothers known as Colonel Ed York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York focused on that area of Osage County as the place where his brother went missing. He questioned every resident along the trail, which lead to the Bender’s place eventually. The Colonel spoke to Ma Bender about a young woman’s claim that Ma threatened her with a knife once. But, although the Colonel was suspicious, he decided there was not enough evidence to back-up his gut feeling. He then held a community meeting, at which the Benders attended without incident.

A couple days later, a group formed to conduct thorough searches of every residence in the area. When Colonel York and crew arrived at the Bender’s inn, they were gone. All of the family’s belongings were gone and the animals had not been fed. While searching the home, the group noticed a rancid smell emanating from the area behind the curtain: the family room. They traced the smell to a hidden trap door in the floor. Upon lifting the door, they found clotted blood, but no bodies or anything like that.

The group then went about searching the entire lot that the house was located on. They found many suspicious area where soil had been upturned. They dug up the areas and found many dead bodies, including that of Dr. William York. He was found facedown in a shallow grave with a large wound on the back of his head. Ten bodies ended up being found on the plot, with the family believed to be responsible for at least 21 murders in total.

Not much was known of the Benders at the time. It ended up that only Ma and Kate were actually related, and that their name was not Bender at all. Where they escaped to, no one knows. It was figured that the family killed visitors to the inn by hitting them over the head with a hammer, slitting their throats and then letting them bleed out in the cellar until ready for burial. The family would then destroy all traces of the visitors, steal their belongings and sell them to other travelers.