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Wicked Wednesday: Katie Bender, Medium Macabre of the Prairie

May 2nd, 2013

Katie Bender was a very beautiful woman with dark auburn hair and blue-grey eyes. She was lively, charismatic and engaging – and she loved to flirt. She could also see dead people and cure everything from dumbness to blindness, according to her own adverts:

Katie Bender arrived with her family in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1970. The family, consisting of Katie herself, Ma and Pa Bender and a brother; John, settled down and built a cabin seven miles northeast of Cherryvale, close to the main road for travelers between Indepence and Fort Scott. The family’s origins are shrouded in mystery: of the four of them, only Kate spoke English fluently and the family as whole spoke to each other in German. The elder couple didn’t speak English at all. Some claimed that the family had been part of a German or Dutch settlement in Pennsylvania, and had been forced to leave after some sort of dispute (some said it had something to do with witchcraft), another theory went that the family had been part of an Amish community. The family relations were a bit unclear too: Some said that Kate and John were siblings, others man and wife, and some even claimed that they were siblings, but lived as man and wife.

Though Ma and Pa had a reputation for being somewhat unfriendly, the family opened a tavern catering to the frequent travelers on the prairie. Their home consisted of one big room, which they split in half with a canvas curtain. In the front room they served guests and sold dried and canned food, in the other half of the cabin the family lived and slept.

Katie quickly gained a reputation as a gifted medium and travelled the roads with her show. She also received clients and the Bender family home. But though she was supposed to be especially good at locating lost objects, she was never able to locate the persons who frequently went missing on the prairie.

The Bender family’s cabin

Probably due to her good looks and unusual trade, Katie Bender was subject to a lot of rumors. One of the most persistent was that she (and old Ma) was dabbling in witchcraft. Many of the stories about Katie Bender and her Ma reflect the European superstitions of old: The Benders always had fresh dairy products to serve, but no cow, which puzzled their neighbors. Then a local boy claimed that he had seen Katie and Ma through the windows: squeezing gallons of fresh milk from old rags. This could only mean that they were witches, practicing the old craft of stealing milk from their neigbors’ cows. Katie was also rumored to be able to change into a cat.

It was not unusual in those days to ride west and disappear. A lot of men did it on purpose: leaving their old lives behind. Others fell victim to bands of horse thieves or the treacherous wilderness, so it took some time before the public reacted to the frequent disapperances on the trail between Indepence and Fort Scott. In 1873 Dr. William Henry York set out from indepence to identify a wagon he had sold to widower George Longcor in the fall of 72. Longcor and his infant daughter had set out from Indepence to start a new life after the death of his wife; they never arrived at their destination. Neither did Dr. York, and his brothers:  Colonel Ed York living in Fort Scott, and Alexander M. York, a member of the Kansas State Senate, began their own investigation into the matter, which led them to the Bender family’s tavern. The family confirmed that York had been there, but he had left, they said, after an hour, and he had not shared where he was going. Katie even offered to contact the spirits to try to locate him.

Here the stories differ: the popular version of the story goes that one of the York brothers found a ring or other keepsake that had belonged to the doctor while they were visiting the Benders, whereupon he alerted the authorities. The probably more true, but less exciting version goes that a town meeting was held in Cherryvale a little while after the brothers had been there, to address the subject of the missing persons. The day after the meeting, they discovered that the Benders were gone.
They had left in a hurry:  the cabin was a mess. The livestock was left to fend for themselves. Fearing that something had happened to the Benders, an investigation took place. On the first days of searching the cabin they found, among other, more domestic items: two half-burned spirit dolls pierced with iron nails in the stove, zodiac symbols on the kitchen floor, a knife hidden in a clock and a set of three hammers. They also found an unusual number of valuable items like cuff-links, rings and spectacles. In the kitchen they found a trap door in the floor, leading to an empty, but foul-smelling cellar.

The York brothers, alerted by this turn of events, came back, still looking for clues about their brother. Standing outside, the story goes; one of them suddenly became aware of strange furrows between the trees in the Benders’ carefully tended apple orchard: “Boys,” he said. “I see graves”.

The men began digging, and soon they found, not only the missing Dr. York, but nine others bodies as well. Four more were found buried off the property – and other graves could have been missed. Most estimate the number of killings by the “Bloody Benders” to be about twenty. Among the bodies were two young girls, one of them buried alive beneath her father’s corpse.

“Boys, I see graves!”
Digging up corpses on the Bender family’s property, 1873

Puzzling together the pieces, the killings were supposed to have played out like this: The guests at the tavern were placed with their backs to the canvas curtain. Katie would then distract them with conversation or one of her psychic parlor tricks, while one of the male members of the household, hidden behind the curtain, hit the victim over the head with a hammer. The victim was then thrown into the cellar, where Katie slit his throat – just to make sure he was dead. The body remained in the cellar until they had dug a fresh grave, then it was moved and buried during the night.

The Bender family’s fate after they disappeared is uncertain. Their wagon was found near Thayer, but there ends the trail. The Kansas governor promised a $2000 reward for their capture, and several attempts to locate them (as well as numerous fake sightings) took place, without any success. Many people believed that they had crossed the border to Mexico; others believed they had been overtaken by a group of civilian vigilantes and killed – the members of the group being sworn to silence.  The truth we will never know, the Bloody Bender’s demise is as shrouded in mystery as their origins. It is not difficult, though, to imagine crafty Katie Bender living out her life as a sought-after medium Senorita.

 The Gouvernor’s proclamation

More about the Bloody Benders:

Hell Hath No Fury 2: The Murderous Medium, by Troy Taylor
Kate Bender, The Kansas Murderess: The Horrible History Of An Arch Killer by Allison Hardy



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