‘Bender’ captures the surreal mystery of Kansas’ family of serial killers

Kansas true crime fans: it has finally happened. “Bender,” a movie about the Bloody Benders, is finally out.

Imagine if you were on a long and lonely trail in Eastern Kansas in the 1870s. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re alone, and maybe you haven’t seen another human being for days. And then you come upon a little inn along the trail and your weary self stops for some food and rest and company.

And while you’re waiting for your supper, your head is bashed in and no one ever hears from you again.

That’s the story of victims of the Bloody Benders, a family of serial killers that picked off one (usually male) guest after another, sacked their loot, then buried them in the inn’s Labette County, Kansas, garden.

And because it was the open prairie and fraught with danger, when a lone stranger went missing, his disappearance often went unnoticed.

Filmmakers John Alexander and J.C. Guest’s account of the story picks up at what turns out to be the beginning of the end for the Benders, when the disappearance of a father and daughter (murdered by the Benders) sent Dr. William York looking for them–a doctor whose family knew where he was and when he was expected to arrive. When Dr. York disappeared, a search was launched.

What happens to the Benders is never fully resolved.

When the vigilante search party arrived at the Bender Inn, what they found was an empty building and a garden full of bodies. The Benders, though, were long gone.

What the filmmakers do very well is capture the atmosphere of Kansas in 1873. Wide expanses of prairie grasses are both beautiful and anxiety-inducing. The horses plod along down the hint of a trail. Everything–and I mean everything–feels agonizingly far away. The characters never seemed more alone than when they came across a stranger on the trail.

“Bender” does take a few liberties with the story–Kate Bender’s brother was portrayed as a child instead of an adult–but it mostly stays true to the spirit of the Benders’ story. The historical film makes no excuses and offers no explanations. That, perhaps, is why the film is so haunting and still resonates with us today.

Any of us could find ourselves heading down the road, seeking shelter, only to knock on the wrong door.

More information:

Kansas film about notorious Bender family serial killers to make its debut Tuesday (Topeka Capital-Journal)

The Bloody Benders of Labette County (Legends of America)

Images of artifacts related to the Bloody Benders (Kansas Historical Society)

Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibit is now traveling Kansas #thinkwater

None of us can live without water, and a new traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit examines the role that water plays in our lives. Water/Ways is part of Museum on Main Street, a program that brings big topics to smaller towns all over the United States.

The Smithsonian Institution’s traveling Water/Ways exhibit is as beautiful as it is informative.

Water/Ways is currently traveling through Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. It’s a beautiful hands-on exhibit that looks at all of the ways we need, use, and interact with water. Water decides where we live, what we grow, and even our recreation and spiritual activities. Too much or too little water can be devastating.

Learn things you might not have known about water. Endorheic watersheds are made of water that drains to a basin instead of a river or the ocean.

In Kansas, we’re constantly thinking about water. We get too much rain. We don’t get enough. Our rivers are up. Our water supply is low. Our water mains break. Our reservoirs silt up. Zebra mussels threaten our water towers. We worry we’ll deplete our aquifers.

The rest of the world is having conversations about these things. too.

This display helps you understand how much water it takes to produce everyday things, like apples, blue jeans, and cars.

The Water/Ways exhibit looks at where we find water on earth and how human activity impacts our water resources. Learn how much water it takes to grow an apple, built a car, or produce a pair of blue jeans. Try your hand at developing good water policies that protect our water supply while supporting cities AND agriculture. [Hint: It’s super hard.] Discover the water challenges faced by people, plants, and animals around the globe, and how living things have adapted to them.

Try your hand at creating public policy that will both protect the water supply AND meet water demands.

It’s a small but powerful exhibit.

In addition to the traveling Water/Ways exhibit, the Kansas Humanities Council has also awarded grants to numerous sites around the state to tell their own water story. [Disclaimer: The Old Depot Museum, where I work, received one of these grants!] The local stories are amazing and demonstrate how our own state can have very diverse water experiences.

The Smithsonian exhibit is on display at the Eudora Community Museum through August 6. If you can’t make it to Eudora in time, you can catch the exhibit in other Kansas locations through 2018.

There are also three local stories being told during the summer of 2017:

At the Mercy of the Kaw: Eudora’s Relationship with Water,” the story of Eudora’s relationship with the Kansas River (Eudora Community Museum, Eudora, Kansas)

Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County,” the story of the love/hate relationship between Franklin County and the Marais des Cygnes River (Old Depot Museum, Ottawa, Kansas)

Dam, That Took a Long Time,” the story of the construction of Wyandotte County Lake and Dam (Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center, Kansas City, Kansas)

Upcoming local stories look at floods, failed canals, desegregating swimming pools, and artesian wells.

This is a powerful traveling exhibit and worth seeking out before it leaves the state.

Mushroom Rock State Park

During last year’s trip through Northwest and North Central Kansas, we found ourselves detouring off of I-70 west of Salina to find Mushroom Rock State Park, a curious piece of Kansas geology and one of the Kansas Sampler Foundations 8 Wonders of Kansas Geography.

My husband, Jim, stands next to the most famous mushroom rock.

Much of Kansas was once covered in a sea, and that sea once had a sandy beach. When that sand was glued together with calcium carbonate, it created a hard formation called a concretion. The loose sand around concretions eventually erode away, but the hard lumps of glued-together sand remain, leaving behind unusual natural sculptures distinguished enough to make visitors stop and puzzle over them–large rock formations sprouting out of the Kansas prairie like, well, mushrooms.

Hence, Mushroom Rock State Park in the Smoky Hills of Kansas.

The concretions at this park have been getting visitors for a long time. The sands within them, which are part of the Dakota Formation, are left over from the beaches of the Cretaceous Period, which was 144 to 66 million years ago. Indians, explorers, trail riders, emigrant settlers–many people have stopped by to pay their respects to the mushroom rocks. Ellsworth County Historical Society recognized their importance and built a road to see them, and in 1965, Mushroom Rock became a state park.

The formations’ ability to fascinate visitors for centuries is documented by historic vandalism.

This free park is small–only 5 acres–and the concretions are accessible on foot, though the footpaths are narrow in places and were extremely muddy and slippery the day we visited. The formations are fascinating and beautiful, and I’m particularly drawn to the idea of connecting with centuries of visitors who stood in the same spots, staring at the same rock formations. It’s a quick, kid-friendly stop, too.

Pulpit Rock formation, which, incidentally, is on the opposite end of the park from Devil’s Oven formation.

The state website includes a downloadable guide, and because we found cellphone service to be spotty in the area, it is helpful to download it ahead of time. Although they’ll be fun to visit at any time, the park was especially beautiful in late May, when wildflowers are blooming all around the park.

Mmmmm Food: Eating in Kansas

During last year’s whirlwind tour of North Central and Northwest Kansas, we found some amazing food–the kind of amazing food that you think about and want long after you’ve been there. Today I found myself thinking about a chicken house we loved in Hays and trying to rationalize whether it made sense to drive almost four hours to get there just for dinner, so I thought I’d blog about three iconic Kansas eateries worthy of a stop.

Say Cheese!

Alma Creamery

Alma Creamery sits on the edge of Alma, the “City of Native Stone” in the Flint Hills that is lovely enough to explore just because it’s a neat little town. Alma’s cheese isn’t a secret–when I posted on facebook that we were pulling into the parking lot, many professed their love for this Kansas-made cheese and maybe just a little envy that we were visiting the Mother Ship.

Alma CheeseLocally made Cheddar, Colby, Colby Jack, Pepper Cheddar (my favorite Alma cheese!) line the shelves, and many of them come in snackable curds, which we snacked on for the rest of our trip. They also carry other Kansas-made products. And did I mention you can sample the cheese right there in the store?

Cozy InnA Cozy Run

You know it’s going to be an adventure when you post that you’re stopping at Cozy Inn in Salina and your friends are both expressing envy and giving you advice on how to minimize the onion smell in your car.

These aromatic burgers are packed with flavor, much of which involves onions. Lots of onions. I like onions. But even though we sat in the truck with the windows down (it was too rainy to sit out at the tables that day), the onions traveled with us for the next two days.

I liked those little burgers. Jim loved them. I have a feeling arguments over Cozy Inn Burgers are the kind of thing that end marriages. But everyone should try them at least once. Also, bonus points for the fabulous signage.

The Chickenette

I know I’m going to start a food war here–people are very particular about their fried chicken–but I’m just going come right out and say it: Al’s Chickenette in Hays had some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

It was the kind of food where neither Jim nor I could speak, because the experience was about the miracle of what was on our plates. Truly fabulous food, the kind you find yourself thinking about and worrying, just a little, about whether or not you can ever again score such a perfect meal.

Al's Chickenette in Hays, KansasBonus: another fabulous iconic mid-20th Century sign, complete with blinky lights.

All three of these stops had great food. But just as important is the fact that they had great service. If you find yourself wandering by, make a stop.

A Note About Food Allergies

Food allergies can limit my culinary adventures. All three of these locations were wonderful about answering my questions so that I felt confident in what I was eating. What’s more, all three of these places make their food on-site, which means they know what they’re preparing. If you or someone traveling with you has food allergies, these are places who will give you an honest answer about what’s in their food.

 

How a pair of Topekans became Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Despite spending the better part of the past decade with my ear to the ground, listening for stories about Kansas’ most interesting crimes and criminals,  Ben and Stella Dickson–two bank robbers who would eventually make the FBI’s Public Enemies list–never blipped on my radar.

At least, not until this year, when I spotted Matthew Cecil’s The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2 listed among the University Press of Kansas’ new releases.

Author Matthew Cecil’s fascination with the Dicksons stems from his childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, the location of one of Ben and Stella’s bank robberies. Cecil spends years tracing the Dicksons’ movements, from the bad luck and bad decisions that set them on their destructive path to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive need to take them down by any (legal or not so legal) means.

Benjamin Johnson Dickson was born in Topeka in 1911. His father taught chemistry at Topeka High School, and his household was, by all accounts, a warm and happy place where reading and education were highly valued. Ben was a Boy Scout who was commended for saving a woman from drowning in a local pond. He was both studious and a good athlete, and he became known for his skills as a featherweight boxer.

In 1926, when Ben was 15, he and some friends were arrested for joyriding in a neighbor’s car without permission, and Ben was sentenced to serve time in the Kansas Industrial Reformatory. This–and his skills as a boxer–put him on the radar of the Topeka police, and he became one of their favorite suspects for every crime. After a cab driver accused Ben of knocking him unconscious and stealing money and the cab (a crime he likely didn’t do), Ben’s life became a series of thefts, aliases, and stints in prison, including time in “The Walls,” the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eleven years his junior, Stella Mae Irvin also hailed from Topeka. She was a typical teen until she was 15 years old, when she accepted a ride from a stranger and was violently raped and infected with gonorrhea. Treatment at that time was brutal and dehumanizing, and when Stella refused continuing treatment, she was referred to the Shawnee County Juvenile Court system.

By 1938, neither Ben nor Stella was in a good place. They met in Topeka (Stella was introduced to Ben as Johnny O’Malley), and eventually Stella would run away from home, meeting up with Ben in California. Ben and Stella married. In a matter of months, they would rob two banks (patiently waiting for the time-lock safes to open while determining whether customers inside could afford to give up a little cash), kidnap people (who were later compensated financially for their troubles), and steal (and wreck) several vehicles along the way. By April 1939, Ben was dead and Stella was left to answer for their crimes.

Cecil also documents the consequences of overzealous law enforcement. The descriptions of the Topeka Police’s gun “battle” with Ben at a motor camp–a gun battle that involved shooting in only one direction–are chilling, especially when, at that time, the Topeka police only wanted Ben for punching a guy in the face and stealing a car. Worse, though, is the FBI and Hoover’s almost desperate need to keep the bureau relevant in the public eye–even if it meant greatly exaggerating the threat the Dicksons posed to the public and inventing their own gun “battle” with Ben, which resulted in the bank robber being shot in the back, no weapon drawn, in St. Louis.

It’s hard to know what would have happened to Ben and Stella Dickson had Ben not been gunned down in front of a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939. Maybe they would have gone the way of Bonnie and Clyde and taken a violent turn. Or maybe, as the books and college pamphlets in their abandoned cars would suggest, they would have reinvented themselves and faded into obscurity. The question The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae really asks, though, is who Ben Dickson and Stella Irvin might have become had fate dealt them a better hand early on.

Today is Kansas Day

156 years ago when the state of Kansas was born, our country was in the middle of tremendous turmoil as we tried to work out who we are and what we value.

I haven’t blogged much this past year, but I have spent time traveling to new locations around the state.

Kansas is beautiful.

Kansans are resilient.

Kansans have a long history of fighting for the rights of those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

Ad astra per aspera.

Touring the Kansas capitol with my Leadership Franklin County class in spring 2016. John Steuart Curry's murals remind us the road to progress is hard.

Touring the Kansas capitol with my Leadership Franklin County class in spring 2016. John Steuart Curry’s murals remind us the road to progress is hard.

Pawnee Indian Museum in Republic County, Kansas

The history and current stories of the native and emigrant tribes of Kansas have been on my mind these past few days. My Sisters in Crime chapter (that would be a group of writers, not a group of criminals) was lucky enough to host tribal law expert Traci McClennan-Sorrell as our speaker this past weekend. And today, a story of a Wisconsin bill that would loosen the protection afforded to earth mounds constructed by indigenous people more than a thousand years ago–protection put in place after nearly 80 percent of these mounds were destroyed by farming and development–showed up in my Twitter feed.

The more I study Kansas history, the more I realize how little I know and understand the stories of the people who were here long before the rectangle that is Kansas came to be. Which is why during our Republic County research trip last May, Jim and I made a point of allowing time to visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, which is just north of Belleville and a short jog from the Nebraska border.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas' first state historic site.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas’ first state historic site.

Here’s the first thing to know about the Pawnee Indian Museum: The land was not originally preserved because it tells the story of an amazing group of people who lived in Kansas hundreds of years ago. Landowners George and Elizabeth Johnson deeded it to the state of Kansas in 1899 (which accepted it in 1901, making it the first state historic site) because of the mistaken believe that explorer Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) stopped here in 1806 to raise the American flag west of the Mississippi River for the first time. And while he did stop in a Pawnee village to do so, it turns out that he was actually in the Pawnee village 40 MILES NORTH of the state historic site in the village the Pawnee moved TO after abandoning the one that was preserved.

However, this error in geography probably went a long way to protecting the Republic County site from being plowed into oblivion. The result is a truly wonderful site dedicated to sharing the story of the Pawnee in the late 1700s.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

In this area by the Republican River, a band of Kitkehahki Pawnee built an entire village of earth lodges, which were surrounded by a fortification wall. After the village was abandoned, the earth lodges, which were built over carefully packed depressions, settled in place, complete with any remaining contents. Part of the fortification wall still exists. A handful of the depressions have been excavated. In 1967, the museum was built over the largest unexcavated depression in the shape of a Pawnee earth lodge, and archaeologists carefully unearthed the contents, exposing them but leaving them in place.

Pawnee Indian Village Scale model

A model of what the Pawnee lodge would have looked like when it was still in use.

As a result, when you enter the Pawnee Indian Museum, you don’t feel like you’ve entered a museum. You feel like you’ve entered a Pawnee earth lodge. Wooden posts that once held up the roof fell in place. Grains, shells, pottery, and other tools lay exactly where they were found. The storage pit–which is several feet deep (the Pawnee buried their supplies underground, hiding them from anyone poking around their village during the seasons they were elsewhere)–is visible. And then there is the faint scent of wood smoke, which will make you feel like the inhabitants could return at any moment.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

The Pawnee did not live in the village all year long. During the hunting seasons, they followed herds of bison. The women also cultivated crops and stored them in the storage pits.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

A sacred bundle–a bundle of items important religiously and symbolically to a Pawnee family–is reverently displayed over the sacred area of the earth lodge. It is the only artifact that cannot be photographed.

Around the perimeter of the excavated area are several displays about the history of the Pawnee. Audio recordings of memories, journals, and the Pawnee language make the visit to this site even more meaningful.

The museum does not end in the building. The site includes numerous depressions, and a walking trail and signage help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

After centuries on the Plains, the Pawnee’s population began to decline. As other tribes were pushed into the area that would become Kansas, the Pawnee were pushed out, and the tribal members who were not killed off by disease ultimately ended up in Oklahoma. By 1900, only about 600 Pawnee remained.

Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

According to one of the displays at the Pawnee Indian Museum, Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

If you visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, give yourself several hours to explore the museum, listen to the audio clips, and wander the grounds. It’s also a great museum for asking questions. Museum site manager Richard Gould has been researching the history of the Pawnee for years, and his insight made our visit even more meaningful.

This site does an amazing job of making the story of the Pawnee accessible to visitors regardless of what knowledge they may have of the history of native tribes. I highly recommend making the time to visit this museum.