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The Bloody Benders - Page 3

 

 

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Of the "family,” Pa Bender was actually found to have been a man named John Flickinger, from either Germany or Holland. Though he allegedly committed suicide in 1884 in Lake Michigan, others believed that Ma and Kate murdered him because he had fled Cherryvale with all the cash and valuables they had taken from their victims.

 

Ma Bender was born Almira Meik in the Adirondacks and married as a teenager to a man named George Griffith. After bearing him a dozen children, including Kate, Mr. Griffith suddenly died, some said of a "bad place on his head,” resembling a "dent” that might be made with a hammer. Afterwards, she reportedly remarried several times, killing those husbands too, as well as three of her older children so they could not testify against her.

 

John, Jr. was actually found to have been a man named John Gebhardt. His habit of laughing aimlessly was what led to him being described as a "half-wit,” though many, afterwards, believed this was simply a ruse to disguise his clever nature. Though most were led to believe John and Kate were sister and brother, others said that they sometimes passed as man and wife. The two were known to have had a relationship and further tales abounded that when Kate became pregnant, they would simply bash in the baby’s head once it was born. After the Benders' escape, one detective, who had closely followed all the leads, said that he had traced Gebhardt to the outlaw country along the Texas/New Mexico border where he had found that the criminal had died of apoplexy.

 

Cherryvale, Kansas

Cherryvale, Kansas

 

 

 

Kate was the fifth child of Ma Bender and was born as Eliza Griffith. At some point, she married and went by the name of Sara Eliza Davis. Allegedly, while "working” at the Bender Inn, she also earned her keep as a prostitute, adding an additional amount to the traveler’s bill for the privilege of laying with her. In the end, it was Kate who was primarily blamed for the numerous bloody murders – that even at her young age, was the inspiration for the crimes.

 

Though the tales of what happened to the Benders can only be speculated as to their accuracy, the fact that ten bodies were found on the property is not disputed. Other corpses found in the area, as well as the many mysterious disappearances of other lonely travelers, led the locals to believe that the Benders actually killed more than 20 people.

 

The sensational tales and rumors of the Benders continued well into the 20th century, but, as to what actually happened to them remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Old West.

 

f the terrible story of the Bender murders was not, in and of itself, "legend” enough, another tale began to circulate regarding the property upon which the Benders had once lived. The old Bender property was haunted, began to fly the rumors of the locals. A decade after the gruesome killings, nothing was left of the cabin and outbuildings on the property, the only thing remaining -- an empty hole that had once been the cellar. From these depths allegedly came the souls of those murdered on the site, wandering about the property and making moaning sounds that could be heard by passersby. Of those most often reporting seeing glowing apparitions on the property were those who came to the site in search of some long lost souvenir of the grisly murders. Quickly, the scavengers were frightened away by the dead souls to spread their ghostly tales.

 

As the legend of the haunting continued, people began to say that Kate Bender, herself, had returned to the property, doomed to roam the very land where she had committed so many atrocities. Whether the stuff of folklore or fact, many believe that the trapped souls of these century-old ghosts continue to lurk at the site today.

 

So provocative was the Bender family tale, that the Bender Museum was created in Cherryvale in 1961. In honor of the Kansas state-wide Centennial Celebration, an exact replica of the Bender cabin was built that housed antiques and household items. In its first three days of opening, it attracted more than 2,000 visitors. In 1967, three of the Bender hammers were gifted to the museum by the Dick family. The museum remained a popular tourist destination until it closed in 1978 when a fire station was built upon the site. Though many wanted to relocate the building, it had become a point of controversy in Cherryvale, with locals objecting to the town being known for the Bender atrocities. In the end, the artifacts, including the hammers, photos, and newspaper clippings, were placed in the Cherryvale Museum and can still be seen today at 215 East 4th Street.

 

In addition to the museum, southeast Kansas may be the only place where a mass murder is celebrated by a state historical marker. While not actually on the old Bender property, the marker sits on the high prairie about a mile northwest of Bender Mounds at the US-400 and US-169 interchange at the Montgomery County Rest area, north of Cherryvale.

 

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

 

Dave meets the curator at the Cherryvale, Kansas Museum

Dave Alexander meets the curator at the Cherryvale, Kansas Museum.

 

Contact Information:

 

Cherryvale Museum

215 East 4th Street

Cherryvale, Kansas

620-336-3576

Open April to October - Sunday, 2:00 to 4:00 pm, or by appointment.

Sources:

The Bloody Benders

James, John Towner; The Benders of Kansas; Kan-Okla Publishing, Wichita, KS, 1913, reprinted 1995.

Prairie Ghosts

 

Reader's Update: January, 2011

 

Grandpa's Tale of the Bloody Benders

 

Escaping nakedI listened to a story last night from my grandfather, Emerson Smalley, about the Benders and their supposed end. His family was from the Cherryvale, Kansas area and the story involves a group of men that found the Benders and were in a gunfight with them, one of whom was a judge that lost part of his ear in the gun battle. My grandfather, who is approaching 80 years-old, is always full of great stories but, he  assured me that his father, who passed this on to him, knew of what really happened. When his father (my great grandfather), Frank Smalley was a boy, he was hiding in the hay loft of the family barn when he overheard a group of men below talking and laughing. Frank's father, Jesse P. Smalley, along with several men were joking with a local judge, teasing him about his missing ear. As the boy listened, the men continued to talk, relating the tale of how the judge had lost his ear. It was a story about the infamous Benders and about one man who got away. This unnamed man was evidently one of the many who made the mistake of stopping at the Bender Inn. Like others, as he sat at the the table, he was hit over the head. The Benders then stripped him of his clothes and went to bury him, when the man suddenly awoke. The Benders were, no doubt, surprised to find that the man wasn't dead. Somehow, he managed to escape, next appearing naked in the middle of the night at Jesse Smalley's door step. Telling the story of his near death, Jesse quickly retold it to a nearby doctor and judge, who formed a vigilante group to go after the Benders.

 

However, by the time the men arrived at the Benders' cabin very early the next morning, they found the Benders gone. They then began to follow a wagon trail left by the Benders that took them down as far south as near Tulsa, Oklahoma before circling back into Kansas. At a fork of the Fall and Verdigris Rivers, they found the Benders with their wagon backed up against a fallen tree with canvas over it for shelter. When the vigilante group approached, the Benders fired on them, at which time, the judge lost part of his ear to a flying bullet. In retaliation, the vigilantes killed all of the members of the Bender family, buried them where they died, and took the wagon to town, where they left it.

 

I have heard my grandfather tell of this story since I was a boy and Grandpa swears that this is the real story of what happened to the Benders. Fact or fiction, no one really knows, but, I've always enjoyed the tale and hope you will as well.

 

Today, there are Smalley descendants that continue to live in the Neodosha and Cherryvale area.

 

 

 -- Gabe Gibson, Effingham, Illinois, as told to him by his grandfather, Emerson Smalley, January, 2011.
 

 

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