Category Archives: Kansas People

‘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)

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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.

 

Diphtheria, the O’Marra Family, and the Rest of the Story

In 2011, I wrote about the O’Marra family, who lost eight of their nine children when a particularly awful strain of “black” diphtheria hit their household in 1903. Their story touched my heart, and it turns out that it touched the hearts of a lot of readers out there, too. Of all of the stories and places I’ve shared, the O’Marra’s story is the most read, most shared, and most discussed.

But many of us wanted to know what happened afterward. What happened after the diphtheria outbreak and the newspaper stories? What happened to the O’Marra family? What happened to Lizzie, once the middle child in a family of nine, and now the only remaining child?

Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant of the O’Marra family, reached out to me to tell me more about her family and offer some insight into the rest of their story.

Lizzie wasn’t an only child for long.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Nearly 25 years after the birth of their oldest child, James and Anna O’Marra became parents for the tenth time. John was born in 1906 and would never know eight of his nine siblings. But John would grow up to be healthy and happy and live the life of a farmer. He married and became the father of three children, including Margaret Miller, who told me that John’s lineage now includes 54 descendants. He died in 2000, just a few months shy of his 94th birthday.

Nearly fourteen years older than her baby brother, Lizzie left the family farm not long after John was born.

“Lizzie was a happy-go-lucky person,” Miller told me in an interview last year. Her life wasn’t always easy–Lizzie married, had two children who died young, then divorced. But she kept moving on with her life, leaving the farm to work at a restaurant in Richmond, Kansas, and then a motel in Louisburg, Kansas. She died in 1962 from complications during surgery to remove colon cancer. Yet, despite the loss and hardships, Miller said that Lizzie had a good life and made the most of it.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O'Marra.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O’Marra.

What happened to James and Anna, the parents who lost almost everyone dear to them?

Born in Ireland in 1855, James came to Kansas by way of Boston and Drexel, Mo. He settled in the Anderson County community of Emerald in 1882, where he met and married Ruth Ann Gillespie, who had been living in Westphalia, Kansas. They moved to Hartford in 1884 with their first-born son, William. William was 21 when he and seven of his siblings died of diphtheria in 1903.

“Grandma never complained,” Miller said. It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, but she didn’t, and she and her husband both found strength in their faith. After her family’s plight, however, she exhibited a an extraordinary level of compassion for those in need, and she regularly took in those who were too sick to look after themselves.

James and Anna lived in their old house right up until the end, living a hardworking, old-fashioned life. James died in 1938. Miller said that her grandmother never had electricity installed in “the big house,” as the old house was known, and used candles for light right up until her death in 1954, at the age of 92.

I think the reason the O’Marra family’s story resonates so much with modern readers is that we understand theirs was not an isolated tragedy. Somewhere in our family lines, our ancestors all faced this kind of loss to some degree. Children died of so many diseases that we can either prevent or treat today. We exist because those who survived managed to keep moving forward. Many of our great-great-great-greats buried their children. Many of them found the strength to move on.

In just a few days, people all over the globe will be watching the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which commemorates the attempt to deliver serum from Anchorage to Nome during a 1925 outbreak of diphtheria that threatened the lives of many Native Alaskan children. Many of those dog sled race watchers will find their way to the O’Marra family’s story when they search for information on diphtheria. Then they will understand why those 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs would work so hard to sled the 674 miles of Iditadrod trail,