The Bender Family of Cherryvale, Kansas

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1929
Bender Inn the day after the grave digging began

On the side of the road near Cherryvale, Kansas a marker stands recognizing the gruesome murders that occurred in that tiny town from 1871 to 1873.

The Benders were an immigrant family who came to the area from Germany. Shortly after the Civil War, Osage Indian land was opened up to settlers. Because the land was available to all and everyone, most newcomers were accepted at their face value and no questions were asked. It was on this land that the Benders, John Bender Sr, his wife, son John Jr, and their daughter Kate chose to set up housekeeping. The Benders built a three-sided stone and sod barn that measured 16 x 20 foot that contained an Inn, grocery store, and living quarters. Kate and Ma planted a combined garden and had some fruit trees. This “store” was only about 100 yards from the well traveled Osage Trail.

Kate Bender

Kate, the Benders young daughter, was lively and very beautiful. She not only worked in her parents Inn but it has been rumored that for extra money her services would carry over into the night. She also advertised herself as a ‘Spiritualist” and posted the following information on posters around town.

Professor Kate Bender

Can heal all sorts of disorders: Can cure blindness, fits, deafness and all such diseases. Residence, 14 miles East of Independence, on the road from Independence to Osage Mission one and one half smiles South East of Nornhead Station.

The Inn had a steady stream of visitors. The danger in staying at the Benders came if the visitor was seated with his or her back to the canvas curtain that separated the Inn from the Benders living area. The diner, overnight guest, or séance participant who appeared to have a large amount of money was placed in this position. While Kate distracted them, John Jr or John Sr would take a sledgehammer and kill them with a powerful blow. The body was placed in the cellar until it could be buried in the garden or orchard. The Benders kept up their murdering spree for over 18 months. John Jr also started killing people on the trail before they arrived at the Inn.

Dr. William York

With mail being so slow and the trail so treacherous many of the missing people were not missed for months. However one victim who came up missing did cause alarm. Dr. William York had visited the Benders Inn several times. It was rumored that he returned so often because of Kate. In the spring of 1873, Dr York returned to the Benders. This time he told his brother, Colonel York, that he was going to visit at the Benders. When his brother didn’t return in a normal amount of time, Colonel York rode to the Inn to inquiry about his brother. The Benders denied seeing Dr York. Colonel York decided to stay overnight and look for his brother the following day. While in his bedroom later he noticed a locket under his bed. When he opened it he saw his brother’s wife and daughter’s photo inside. Realizing the Benders had probably murdered his brother; Colonel York snuck out the front door and rode into town to get help.

What Happened to the Benders?

When he returned the next morning he brought the sheriff and several local men. They were surprised to find the Inn abandoned. The Benders had obviously noticed Colonial York’s disappearance and left in the middle of night. York searched the cellar and noticed dried blood everywhere. Looking around the sheriff and local men didn’t find anything until Colonial York noticed a strange indentation in the ground. Digging began and the Colonial ‘s brother was found buried, head downward. In the following few days of searching nine more bodies were discovered along with bits and pieces of headless remains. Reports stated that one child was apparently buried alive with her father. While only 10 bodies were found it is believed the Benders killed over 21 people during their reign of terror in Kansas.

Large search parties were organized to search for the Benders with rewards offered by Alexander York, another of Dr. York’s brothers and the Governor of Kansas. No one ever came forward to accept the reward money and no trace of the Benders was ever discovered. The original house and Inn was nothing more than a shell in 1886 with curiosity seekers carting off bits and pieces. So interesting was the atrocities committed by the Bender family that in May of 1961 a museum was established in Cherryvale for the Kansas State-Wide Centennial Celebration. An exact replica of the Bender Inn was built with antiques and household items. Later on the local townspeople complained that the museum sullied the name of Cherryvale and the museum was sold and moved to another site. The Bender family and what happened to them is still a mystery to this day.

Sources:

  1. Wood, Fern Morrow. The Benders, Keepers of the Devil’s Inn. 1992.
  2. Garza, Phyllis. Death for Dinner. 2009