"It was as if the men had been snatched off the earth. A terror slowly descended on the countryside. It seemed that Death stalked the highway, and men began to fear darkness and night."—J.E. McDowell, Bender historian
Two men settled a claim near the town of Cherryvale in southeastern Kansas in 1870. John Bender, Sr., and John Bender, Jr., built a one-room timber cabin with a trap door that led to a stone cellar. Once the lodging was complete, the Bender men sent for the rest of the family, a mother and a daughter, both named Kate. The family outfitted the house with furniture and supplies, and hung a canvas curtain to divide it into two rooms. The Benders turned the front half into an inn and grocery store where travelers on the nearby Osage Trail could find rest, supplies, and a warm meal. Ma and Kate planted a garden and small orchard near the house. By all appearances, the Benders were like most area settlers: a family of German descent who came west for a fresh start.
Business at the Bender inn would have been brisk. The southeast corner of Kansas had recently opened to white settlers, and men regularly arrived with money to purchase land and livestock. This available cash made the area a dangerous place to travel. Settlers were easy prey for robbers, and it was not uncommon for people to go missing. No one took note of people looking for their family members. This changed when locals started disappearing.
The first disappearance to receive notice was that of George Loncher and his daughter, of Independence. After the death of his wife, Loncher was taking his daughter to Iowa to stay with family. They never made it, but their wagon was found near Fort Scott. There were no clues as to the Lonchers' whereabouts.
Soon after, another Independence resident vanished. William York was a well-known local doctor who had been visiting family in Fort Scott in early March 1873. He headed home on horseback but was never again seen alive. When he did not return, his wife contacted Alexander and Edward York, her husband's brothers. They traced him to the Bender Inn. The family reluctantly admitted that Dr. York had stopped there but soon went on his way. It was a dead end; the Benders were the last to see the doctor.
The news of Dr. York's disappearance caused fear and worry among the residents of Cherryvale. While missing persons were not uncommon, an inordinate number had vanished near their town. Between 1871 and early 1873, at least 11 people had their last-known whereabouts traced to the small community. After the disappearance of Dr. York, locals decided to search every farm in the area for evidence.
In early May, a young man noticed that the Bender Inn appeared abandoned. With closer examination, he found dead and emaciated livestock in the barn, suggesting the owners had been gone for some time. All that remained of the Benders were three hammers, a knife, a German Bible, and a clock with a compartment containing jewelry.
At first the townspeople thought the Benders were the latest victims, but a search of their farm revealed something far more sinister: the Benders were serial killers. The trap door in the cabin led to a cellar whose floor was covered with dried pools of blood, the smell gagging the searchers. Depressions in the soil of the well-cultivated orchard contained the graves of the Benders' victims. Dr. York was the first uncovered. His brother Edward joined the search team and identified the body. The back of the skull was smashed and the throat sliced. Lochner and his daughter were found together in a grave. In total, the team found between eight and 11 bodies, some of them unrecognizable.
Though stories of strange experiences at the inn had circulated throughout the community since its establishment, few had given them credence. After the discovery, though, such tales seemed more plausible. Neighbors reported violent behavior, strange séances, and narrowly escaping with their lives. Those who escaped described being forced to sit at a table with their backs against a stained canvas curtain. Everyone assumed that Kate distracted the visitor while one of the men hit him on the back of the head with a hammer. The murderers then dropped the body through the trap door into the cellar and sliced the throat to ensure death. The Benders removed anything of value before burying the body in the orchard.
The community formed two posses to hunt down the murderers. A ticket agent in Thayer, Kansas, reported selling tickets to four people matching their descriptions. From Thayer, the trail of the Benders disappeared. Kansas' governor even issued a $2,000 reward for the family's apprehension, but to no avail. Though stories abound, to this day no one knows for certain what became of the "bloody Benders."
Elizabeth York, wife of Edward York, donated the knife shown here to the Kansas Museum of History (view a close-up of the knife blade). According to Mrs. York, her husband removed it from the Bender Inn the day his brother's body was found. It may have belonged to the Benders or one of their victims. Today the knife is in the museum collections.
Entry: Bender Knife
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 2006
Date Modified: September 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.