The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

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iStock

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

Oscar Wilde's Gold Friendship Ring Recovered Nearly 20 Years After It Was Stolen

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

After missing for 17 years, a piece of literary history has been found. As Smithsonian.com reports, a gold ring that writer Oscar Wilde gifted to his friend is back home at Oxford's Magdalen College, following its theft from the school in 2002.

The friendship ring's history at Oxford dates back to 1876, when Wilde was studying there with his friends Reginald Harding and William Ward. Ward was planning to drop out of school to travel, and Wilde and Harding wanted to give him something to remember them by. The gift—an 18-karat gold ring shaped like a belt buckle—is engraved with the initials of each member of the trio and a Greek inscription that translates to “Gift of love, to one who wishes love."

The ring wound up back at Oxford, where it was kept with a collection of Oscar Wilde artifacts at the university's Magdalen College until 2002. That year, a former college custodian named Eamonn Andrews broke into the building through a skylight and got away with the friendship ring and three unrelated medals. The thief was eventually apprehended thanks to DNA he left at the scene, but by then it was too late: He had already pawned the jewelry for less than $200. The gold band is estimated to be worth around $70,000 today.

Hopes for the keepsake's recovery deflated after that. Investigators assumed that it had been melted down by scrap dealers and declined to pursue the case any further. That seemed like the end of the story until 2015, when art detective Arthur Brand (known as the "Indiana Jones of the Art World") heard whispers of a black market ring that fit a similar description to the missing item. Brand theorizes that after originally being stolen from Oxford, the ring wound up in one of the safe-deposit boxes that got looted during the infamous Hatton Garden heist of 2015. After the heist, it hit the market again and landed on his radar.

With help from William Veres—a London antiques dealer—and George Crump—a man with connections to the British underground crime scene—Brand determined that the ring had recently switched hands. The new owner was shocked to hear that the unusual Victorian ring once belonged to Wilde and was fully cooperative in returning it to the college.

The ring will resume its official spot in Magdalen College's collection at a small ceremony on December 4.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Thousands of Disney+ Accounts Are Being Cracked and Sold. Here's How to Protect Yourself

Disney+
Disney+

With an estimated 10 million sign-ups during its debut last week and positive reviews for its marquee original Star Wars series The Mandalorian, Disney’s new Disney+ streaming service has been a resounding success. But making such a high-profile splash is apparently coming at a price. According to CNBC, thousands of consumer accounts are being hijacked and their login information is being shared illicitly online. 

The report, published by ZDNet, alleges that hackers were able to breach usernames and passwords for the service within hours of launch and began distributing them for free or for a fee of $3 to $11—the economy of the black market making a one-time purchase cheaper than paying the standard $6.99 monthly for access to the Disney+ library.

The idea wasn’t to co-opt the accounts but to seize them entirely, using the login to change the email and password associated with the account and locking the consumer out.

A spokesperson for Disney told CNBC that they weren’t aware of any security breach. It’s possible that accounts from unrelated sites were compromised and hackers were able to cull from a database of existing passwords to see if consumers used them for their Disney+ account.

The best way to secure your account for Disney+ or any other service requiring a log-in is to use a unique password for each and avoid obvious parallels to the content. If you’re using “mickeymouse” as part of your login, don’t be shocked if you find yourself locked out of your account one day. Ideally, experts say, the service will eventually incorporate a multi-factor authentication process to make compromising logins—and watching Freaky Friday for free—more difficult.

[h/t CNBC]

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