In October 1870, sixty-year-old John Bender Sr. and his twenty-five year old son John Bender Jr. travelled to the settlement of Osage in Kansas and claimed 160 acres of government land to build on. This property was adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, which was the only open road for travelling west at that time.
A cabin, and barn and a well were constructed on the property, and in the fall of 1871, Bender Sr.'s fifty-five year wife Elvira and their twenty-three year old daughter Kate arrived. The front of the cabin was converted to a general store, and the Benders altered part of the cabin to accomodate a kitchen and dining table so that travelers would be able to eat and spend the night. The Benders lived in the back of the cabin in separate quarters.
John Bender Sr. and Elvira spoke both very little English, and were thought to be German due to their heavy accents. Neighbours spoke negatively about the pair, labelling Elvira a "she devil" and stating that John Sr. was "a repulsive, hideous brute, without a redeeming trait, dirty, profane and ill-tempered".
John Bender Jr. spoke excellent English, but due to a habit of laughing consistently, people called him a "half-wit". Kate Bender was an attractive and well educated woman who claimed to have healing powers. She advertised her spiritualism by distributing flyers, and her popularity helped to boost guests for the Benders' Inn.
Victim Disappearances and Murders
A series of disappearances began in 1871. In May 1871, a male body, identified only as Jones, was discovered in Drum Creek with his throat sliced and his skull bashed in. The owner of the creek was originally suspected but nothing was done.
In February 1872, two additional male bodies were discovered with similar injuries as Jones. By 1873, missing persons reports based on those who passed through the Great Osage Trail was so much that travellers began to avoid the trail.
The Benders' crimes may have gone on undiscovered, but their downfall came after the disappearance of a doctor in 1873.
In the winter of 1872, a man named George Newton Longcor and his infant daughter, Mary Ann, left the city of Independence in Kansas to settle in Iowa. They were never seen again. In the spring of 1873, Longcor's former neighbour, Dr. William Henry York, left Kansas to search for the missing father and daughter. York questioned residents along the trail but never got any clear answers regarding his neighbours. He began his return journey to Independence on March 9th, but never arrived.
Dr. York's brothers, Colonel Ed York and Alexander M. York, became suspicious after he failed to return home, and a search party was formed. Colonel York led fifty men on the search, and they questioned every traveller and homestead on the trail.
Colonel York, accompanied by a Mr. Johnson, arrived at the Benders' Inn, explained that his brother was missing and if they had seen him. They admitted Dr. York had stayed with them, but suggested that he may have been caught by indians. Colonel York agreed that this could be a possibility, and stayed at the inn for dinner.
On April 3rd, Colonel York came back to the inn after receiving information that a woman was forced to flee from there after Elvira threatened her with knives. Elvira feigned not knowing english, and the Bender children claimed this incident never happened. When York repeated the accusation, Elvira became angry and said that the woman was a witch who had cursed her coffee. After ordering the men to leave the inn, it dawned on the colonel that she did in fact comprehend english.
Benders' Disappearance and Body Discoveries
Neighboring communities complained that the town of Osage was responsible for the many disappearances, and a meeting was arranged by the Osage township. Seventy-five locals attended the meeting, including John Bender Sr. and his son, and Colonel York. Eventually, it was decided that every home between the Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek was to be searched. The Benders were not suspected by anyone besides York, so it was no surprise that they had fled without anyone noticing.
Locals realized the inn was abandoned three days after the township meeting, and several hundred volunteers turned out to search the property.
The first thing locals noticed was a bad scent emanating from a trap door underneath a bed. After opening the trap door, the empty six foot by seven foot room had clotted blood on the floor. The stone floor was broken with sledgehammers, but no bodies were found. The scent was a result of blood soaking into the soil under the cabin. The men of the search party physically lifted the cabin, but still they found no bodies.
The grounds around the cabin was probed with a metal rod, and eventually they came upon the disturbed soil in a vegetable garden, where Dr. York's body was discovered buried face down. Nine suspected grave sites were marked, and at midnight the locals decided to continue probing the property the next morning.
Digging resumed the next day, and an additional eight bodies were found throughout the grounds, one body was found in a well along with body parts. Most of the victims had their heads bashed in and their throats cut, and it was reported that all of the bodies had been "indecently mutilated". The body of a young girl was the only one without any injuries; it was believed that she was either buried alive or strangled to death. The total number of bodies actually discovered varies; various sources cite numbers ranging from 9-21.
People believed that the Benders' motives for murder was the simple fact of greed, since most of the victims were wealthy. It was theorized that once the victims were seated at the dinner table over a trap door, Bender Sr. or his son would come up behind them and hit the victim on the right side of the head. Next, one of the women would cut the victim's throat to be sure that they were dead, and the body was dropped through the trap door. The Benders would then strip the victims and their bodies would be buried along the property.
Detectives followed tracks made by the Benders' wagon, and discovered the wagon abandoned with their starving horses 12 miles north of the inn, just outside the city limits. It was verified that the family purchased railroad tickets for Humboldt, Kansas. John Jr. and Kate left the train in the city of Chanute, and caught a train that was headed to Red River County near Texas. From there, the pair traveled to an outlaw county in the border region between New Mexico and Texas. Lawmen that followed outlaws in this region usually never returned, so due to this, the two were not followed.
It was believed that the elder Benders purchased tickets for St. Louis, Missouri, and were never seen again. Several rewards were offered; $1000 from Alexander York and $2000 from Kansas Governor Thomas A. Osborn. No one ever claimed the rewards.
The crowd at the Bender Inn were so upset over finding the bodies that they decided to hang a friend of the Benders named Brockman, who was amongst the crowd. Brockman was hanged from a beam in the inn until he lost consciousness, then was revived, interrogated and hung again. After he was hung for a third time, they let him go and he staggered home.
Several weeks later, a man named Addison Roach and his son-in-law William Buxton were arrested as accessories to the murders. In total, 12 men, including Brockman, would be arrested.
What Happened to The Benders' Inn?
Souvenir hunters eventually destroyed the cabin after they looted the place. The bricks that lined the cellar and the well were taken as well.