For all these deaths, the Benders gained only about $4,600, two teams of horses and wagons, a pony, and a saddle. Because some of the travelers were carrying nothing of value, it was widely speculated that the Benders killed simply for the bloody thrill of it.
As word of the grisly murders spread, more and more travelers came forward to tell their own stories of narrow escape, including one gentleman by the name of William Pickering. When he refused to sit with his back to the canvas because of its disgusting stains, Pickering said that Kate Bender threatened him with a knife, at which point he fled the premises. A Catholic priest said that he too fled when he saw one of the Bender men concealing a large hammer.
After following a fresh trail of wagon tracks, a search party found that the Benders had gone to the town of nearby Thayer, some twelve miles to the north. There, they purchased tickets on the northbound Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Train to Humboldt. Several days later the Benders’ team and wagon were found a short distance away, the horses nearly starved.
Upon further investigation, Captain James B. Ransom, the train’s conductor, said that John, Jr. and Kate disembarked at Chanute and took the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad train south to the Red River country near Dennison, Texas, which was then the terminus of the railroad.
Allegedly, the pair then fled to a tough outlaw colony along the border of Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, Ma and Pa Bender continued on the train north to Kansas City where it was believed they transferred to a train headed to St. Louis.
Attempts to capture the bloodthirsty family were immediately made by both law officers and vigilantes alike. Though no one ever collected on the rewards offered, rumors began to fly of several parties who had captured and killed the Benders. One vigilante group claimed to have shot down the men and Ma Bender, and burned Kate alive, as the witch they believed her to be. Another group claimed they had caught the Benders while escaping to the south and lynched them before throwing their bodies into the Verdigris River. Yet another group claimed to have killed the Benders during a gunfight and buried their bodies on the prairie.
However, none of these tales were ever confirmed, nor bodies found, so most thought that the Benders had managed to escape. For years, sightings of Ma Bender and Kate were reported and in 1889, two women were actually extradited from Michigan on the charge. Though the pair was jailed, the case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
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.
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.
If 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.