The story behind early serial killers The Bender Family and the ties to 'Little House on the Prairie'

bender family kansas killer laura wilder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

May. 26 2021, Published 2:25 p.m. ET

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Laura Ingalls Wilder rose to prominence for writing the wildly popular children’s book series The “Little House on the Prairie,” which tells the story of a family living their everyday lives on a family farm. They are considered one of the most wholesome families in America.

However, did you know that they were in proximity to one of America’s first serial killers?

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In 1937, Wilder attended a book fair where she stated she had kept the story of her family’s run-in with the Bender family a secret since she deemed it inappropriate for the readers of her books — especially the children.

At the time, the Bender family, later called the infamous Bloody Benders, lived on a farm near Ingalls’s homestead near Independence, Kansas. The Benders were a family of four made up of John Bender Sr., his wife Elvira, and their children John Jr. and Kate. They ran a general merchandise store in Kansas and an inn. While they seemed to be working folk at first glance, the family is believed to be responsible for the death and disappearance of at least 20 people. 

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They were believed to be German immigrants, with the elder Benders speaking little English, with a thick accent. The matron of the family, Elvira, or “Ma” as she was known, was called a “she-devil” by the neighbors with her unfriendly nature. The younger man, John Jr., spoke English with a slight accent, but he was called a “half-wit” for his habit of laughing aimlessly.

The only redeeming quality of the Bender family was Kate, who spoke English fluently and self-proclaimed psychic and healer.

Wilder’s speech during the book fair where she told the attendees about the Benders was reprinted in September 1978 by The Saturday Evening Post. She recalled how during their family trips to and from Independence, they would stop by the Benders’ estate with her father fetching water from the well, but never went beyond the family’s tavern.

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Another curious event happening at the time was the disappearance of travelers who headed south from Independence, with the Benders’ inn being the closest stop for weary travelers. 

It wasn’t long before news of the disappearances became widespread, and their acts were soon unveiled, when the body of a man with his head bashed in and his throat cut was found in Drum Creek, which was situated southeast of the Benders’ property in May 1871.

The man was later identified only as Jones and initial suspicion fell on the owner of the Drum Creek, but no action was taken at the time. It wasn’t until the following year, in February 1872, when two more men were found with the same injuries as Jones and by then, reports of people missing in the area have increased, which led to the trail being avoided by travelers. 

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The event that triggered the search for the people behind these killings began with the disappearance of George Newton Longcor, where he and his 18-month-old daughter Mary left Independence to relocate to Iowa but never made it.

Longcor’s neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, concern for the two led him to seek out the missing father-daughter duo in the spring of 1873. He followed the trail and questioned homesteaders along the way but to no success. York was supposed to return home but made the wrong decision of stopping by the Benders’ inn, and he never returned.

What the Benders didn’t know was York came from a prominent family and had two high-profile brothers Col. Ed York and Alexander M. York, who worked in the Kansas State Senate. The brothers set up an organized search party for the missing doctor, which led to the Benders’ Inn. The family quickly denied meeting the late doctor and suggested he may have encountered an unfortunate accident in Drum Creek.

The brothers left but came back another time with more evidence against the Benders.

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There were also accusations of disappearances being lodged against the Osage people, a midwestern native American tribe of the Great Plains. As a result, a township meeting was held, and it was decided a search warrant was agreed upon to inspect all properties located between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek.

A few days after the announcement, the Benders’ tavern was left unoccupied with the animals abandoned and starving. The Benders were never to be seen again. Various accounts have popped up on what became of this mysterious family, but none confirmed.

Wilder herself recalled the story in the book fair. There are inconsistencies with her retelling, but regardless of the inconsistencies, she decided to omit the story for the benefit of her audience. Now, the story of the Benders and their disappearance seems something out of the fiction section.

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