These first few missing travelers did not raise an overall alarm in the area as it was not uncommon during those days for men to simply continue their journey westward. However, as more time passed, the disappearances became more frequent and by the spring of 1873, the region had become strife with rumors and travelers began to avoid the trail.
When neighboring communities started to make slanderous insinuations, the Osage Township called a meeting held at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse in March to see what, if anything, could be done. About 75 people attended the gathering, including both Bender men.
The discussion began regarding the ten people who were reported missing, including a well-known Independence physician named Dr. William H. York. With the full realization that there truly was a major problem in their township, the group decided to search every farmstead between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. When most of the attendees volunteered to have their premises searched, the Benders remained silent.
Some time later, Billy Tole, a neighbor of the Benders, noticed that the Bender Inn was abandoned and their farm animals unfed. Tole reported the news to Leroy F Dick, the Township Trustee, and a search party was soon formed, which included Dr. York’s brother, Colonel A.M. York, of Fort Scott. When the men arrived at the property, they found the cabin empty of food, clothing, and personal possessions. They were also met by a terrible smell inside the abandoned inn. A trap door, nailed shut, was discovered in the floor of the cabin.
Prying it open, the men found a six foot deep hole that was filled with clotted blood, causing the terrible odor. However, there were no bodies in the hole. Finally, the men physically moved the entire cabin to the side and began to search beneath, but no bodies were found there either. Continuing, they began to dig around the cabin, especially in an area the Benders had utilized as a vegetable garden and orchard. At the site of a freshly stirred depression in the earth, they found the first body, buried head downward with its feet scarcely covered. The corpse was that of Dr. William H. York, his skull bludgeoned and his throat cut from ear to ear.
The digging continued the next day and nine other bodies and numerous dismembered body parts were found, including a woman and a little girl. The burial site was christened “Hell’s Half-Acre” and another brother of Dr. York, a lawyer and State Senator residing in Independence, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the Bender family’s arrest. On May 17th, Governor Thomas Osborn added to that amount by offering a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of all four.
Word of the gruesome murders spread fast and thousands of people flocked to the site, including news reporters from as far away as New York and Chicago. The Bender cabin was ripped apart by gruesome souvenir hunters, right down to the bloody bricks that lined the cellar. Bit by bit, the story of the Benders was pieced together.
The Benders were obviously not what they appeared. In fact, they weren’t even a true “family” — the only ones related were Ma and Kate Bender.
When the visitors stopped in for a meal, they were seated at a table with their back to the large canvas that separated the “inn” from the living quarters. Then Kate would begin to charm the men with her social skills, flirting, or revealing her psychic “gifts.” As the men gave their full attention to the alluring Kate, Pa and John Bender, hiding behind the canvas, would strike the unsuspecting traveler in the skull with a hammer. Ma Bender and Kate would then rifle the body for money pushing him through the trap door into the hole below the cabin, where Kate would slit his throat. During the night, the body would then be buried in the garden behind the house.
Their downfall was the murder of a father and daughter named Loncher, and that of Dr. William York, who had come looking for the missing pair. In the winter of 1872, Mr. Loncher and his daughter had left Independence for Iowa, but were never heard from again. In the spring of 1873, Dr. York took it upon himself to go looking for the Lonchers, stopping at the homesteads along the trail to ask questions. Though he reached Fort Scott unscathed and started to return to Independence about March 8th, he never reached home.
Dr. York had two brothers, one living in Fort Scott, and the other in Independence. Both knew of his travel plans and when he failed to return home, an all out search began for the missing doctor. Colonel A.M. York, leading a contingency of some 50 men began to question every traveler along the trail and to stop at the area homesteads. One of those places was the Bender Inn. The Benders tried to “help” by admitting that Dr. York had stopped at their place but, convinced the search party that he had left and was probably waylaid by Indians. Even Kate, with her clairvoyant abilities, attempted to “search” for the missing doctor to throw any suspicion off herself.
After Colonel York’s visit and the meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse, the Bender family fled. It was only a few days later that the homestead was found abandoned and the search party began to discover the grisly remains of the bodies.
The diggers were astounded to find what would become known as one of America’s first mass murder burial grounds as body after body was uncovered. Ten bodies were found in the Bender’s apple orchard, including Dr. York and the people he had been searching for – Mr. Loncher and his daughter, just seven or eight years old.
More gruesomely, though the little girl’s body was found to have multiple injuries, none of them would have caused death and it was speculated that the poor lass may have been buried alive. Of the discovery of her remains, the Kansas City Times reported:
“The little girl was probably eight years of age, and had long, sunny hair, and some traces of beauty on a countenance that was not yet entirely disfigured by decay. One arm was broken. The breastbone had been driven in. The right knee had been wrenched from its socket and the leg doubled up under the body. Nothing like this sickening series of crimes had ever been recorded in the whole history of the country.”
Other bodies found in the garden were those of Henry McKenzie’s mutilated remains, three men by the names of Ben Brown, W.F. McCrotty, and John Geary, as well as an unidentified male and female. Johnny Boyle’s body was found in the well. Dismembered parts of several other victims were also discovered, but, could never be identified. Four other bodies with crushed skulls and slit throats were also found outside the property in Drum Creek and on the surrounding prairie.