The Gruesome Murder Mystery That Took Place Near The Little House On The Prairie

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By Jon BoonRadar Reporter

If classic U.S. staple Little House On The Prairie painted a picturesque portrait of family life in 19th century Midwest America, this grisly murder spree will have you thinking otherwise.

The god-fearing Ingalls lived a life of bliss in Independence, Kansas, but 17 miles south the real-life tale of a family of serial killers known as the Bloody Benders had locals quaking in their boots.

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JohnPaBender, 60, and his wife only known as Mrs. “MaBender, 55, (she was later referred to as Kate Sr. but no one knew her real name) ran a bed and breakfast in the nearby town of Osage beginning in 1871.  

Immigrants of either Dutch or German origin, the Benders kept to themselves with their children John Jr., and Kate, who were both in their 20s. Ma was considered unfriendly and her neighbors took to calling her “She-Devil” but they were devotees of the Sunday church, so were considered peaceful folk.

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The Benders lived in a cabin at the back of the small inn, which catered to travelers looking for a place to rest their heads. However, not many made it out alive.

Between 1871 and 1873 at least a dozen travelers who stayed at the bed and breakfast were murdered and robbed – a rough estimate since it’s not clear how many victims there were during that period.

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As myth has it, the Benders’ preferred method of disposing of their guests would be to crack them over the head with a hammer while serving dinner. This violent act was done behind a closed curtain, the bodies were then slid down a trap door and into a small cellar. To ensure death, one of the Bender women would slit the victims’ throats while their motionless bodies rested in the cellar.

Locals noticed that the Benders had an immaculately ploughed garden – but there was never anything planted. It later became clear that once the bodies were stripped they were buried on the property’s grounds.

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An investigation unfolded when Dr. William York disappeared searching for his neighbor George Loncher and his daughter, who left Independence in hope of starting a new life. 

They all had one thing in common – they all stayed at the Inn – and none of them were ever found again.

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This forced Dr. York’s brother, Kansas State Senator Alexander M. York into launching a hunt for his missing sibling.

It was in his second return to the inn that the mystery began to unravel. Alexander arrived with armed men to quiz the family about a woman who fled the lodge claiming Kate Sr. had threatened her with knives.

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Kate Sr., who it was understood spoke very little English, blew a gasket at the allegations and it was then acknowledged that her grasp of the language was much better than thought.

Alexander was convinced the family was guilty, but without substantial evidence they weren’t going to face the death penalty anytime soon.

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The missing person list grew daily, so a town meeting was called and a search of every home was authorized to solve the puzzle. Interestingly enough, Pa Bender and his son John Jr. were both in attendance.

Two weeks after the meeting, and while the search was underway, locals noticed that the Benders’ livestock appeared un-fed. It soon became evident that the Benders had slipped into the night, never to be seen again.

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On inspection of the inn, the Benders didn’t leave a trace of themselves, taking everything they owned with them. However, a dozen bodies were discovered on the property’s grounds, including Dr. York’s.

All but one of the bodies suffered the fate of having their skulls caved in with a hammer and throats slit. A young girl’s body was found and speculated to have been strangled or buried alive alongside her mother.

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Following the discovery, a state-wide manhunt was ordered, but the family remained unfound and their real identities have been the source of speculation ever since.

Twelve men were arrested and accused of disposing of the victims’ goods and a glimmer of hope in finding the sinister murderers flickered when four people fitting the Benders’ description were seen boarding a train bound for Humboldt, Kansas.

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The Humboldt station manager claimed that he saw the family split with John Jr. and Kate heading south, while Pa and Ma Bender took a second train to St. Louis.

A team of lawmen managed to pick up their trail as far as El Paso, Texas but soon lost track of the Benders and had to give up their search in the Chihuahua Desert.

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The authorities thought they had a breakthrough on October 31, 1889 when they arrested two woman for larceny in Niles, Michigan, who were identified as Ma and Kate Bender. They were brought back to Kansas but without significant evidence released two months later.

Sightings were reported all over the U.S. and it was rumored the family joined a group of outlaws in New Mexico or returned to Europe.

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Little House On The Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder revealed how the murders affected the community she lived in during a book fair in Detroit in 1937.

“The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa,” she said.

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“Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, ‘The vigilantes are called out.’ Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been.

“For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’”

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