Tag Archives: Labette County

‘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)

Advertisements

Dying to read about Kansas murders?

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is weeks away from being available to read. In the meanwhile, here are some famous (and not so famous) Kansas murders worth reading about.

The Bloody Benders – Labette County, Kansas – 1870-1873

Saga of the Bloody BendersThe Benders appeared to be an average family of homesteaders who ran a store and restaurant in Labette County, just a few miles away from where the town of Cherryvale would be platted. While many families would purchase goods and pass through without any trouble, the lone traveler might not be so lucky. The Benders killed at least nine people, including two young children, stole their belongings and then buried them in the garden. It was not until nearby counties began to wonder about the number of people gone missing that they made the connection to the Benders, who escaped and were never apprehended. Books about the Bloody Benders include Robert Adleman’s The Bloody Benders, and Rick Geary’s graphic novel, The Saga of the Bloody Benders. The basic story can be found at the Murder by Gaslight blog and at Legends of America. There is also a movie in the making.

The Walkup Murder – Emporia, Kansas – 1885

AdventuressWhile in New Orleans for the World’s Fair in December 1884, James Reeves Walkup fell for a 16-year-old girl named Minnie Wallace. Just a few months later, he would die of arsenic poisoning. The courtroom was packed for Minnie Walkup’s trial, but the all-male jury just couldn’t bear the idea of sending a teenaged girl to the gallows. Minnie moved on to at least two other wealthy husbands, both of whom died very shortly after marrying. Virginia McConnell documented Minnie Wallace’s life in The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. You can read the basics in The Vamp of New Orleans.

Ax Murders – Ellsworth, Kansas – 1911, Paola, Kansas – 1912

Rollin and Anna Hudson of Paola.

Murder victims Anna and Rollin Hudson of Paola.

A series of ax murders happened in the Midwest during the 1910s, and two of the families hit were in Kansas. Other attacks happened in Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, and it is believed that the famous murders in Villisca, Iowa, may also be connected. Although Lee Moore was convicted of the murders in Missouri, the other cases remain unsolved. The Ax Murderer Who Got Away is available online through the Smithsonian Magazine web site. Actual articles from the time period are available through the Miami County Historical Museum, Millers Paranormal Research, and the Villisca Ax Murder House website.

The Clutter Family – Holcomb, Kansas – 1959

In Cold BloodHands down, this the most famous Kansas murder story of the Twentieth Century. Hearing rumors of a safe full of money, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith carefully planned an attack on the Clutter family. Unbeknownst to them, there was no safe full of money, and they brutally murdered a respected small-town family for about $50. The story of the murder, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith was captured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a piece of literature that would shape the way we write about murder and think about Kansas. It was also made into a movie that was shot in Kansas. In recent years, movies about the writing of the book have come out. I recommend watching Capote, which really delves into the psychological impact the book had on its author and the people he portrayed.

The New Orleans Sniper – New Orleans, Louisiana – 1972 and 1973

Terrible ThunderAlthough the events took place in Louisiana, the man involved–Mark Essex–was from Emporia. After dropping out of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), he joined the Navy and went AWOL. He then became involved with Black radicals in California and would later join the New York Black Panthers. On December 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973, he would became involved in a spree killing that would kill nine people and injure thirteen others. Essex was fatally wounded by police officers shooting from a helicopter. Peter Hernon wrote about Mark Essex in A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

David Harmon Murder – Olathe, Kansas – 1982

Cold Blooded BusinessIn 1982, David Harmon was bludgeoned to death while sleeping. Although his wife Melinda and friend Mark were immediately suspected, justice did not find them until two decades later. Marek Fuchs wrote the book A Cold-Blooded Business: Adultery, Murder, and a Killer’s Path from the Bible Belt to the Boardroom  in 2009.

The Bird Murders – Emporia, Kansas – 1983

Murder OrdainedAsking someone what they were doing in Emporia when they heard about the deaths of Sandy Bird or Marty Anderson is kind of like asking other people where they were during the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Murders aren’t unheard of in Emporia, but the deaths of Sandy Bird and Marty Anderson shook and divided the town, and to this day, people still feel very strongly about whether Rev. Tom Bird and his secretary, Lorna Anderson, were both involved in the deaths of their respective spouses.  This particular case caught the attention of newspapers and news stations all over the country. While there is no definitive book on the subject, you can find many articles about the subject online. The story was also made into a movie called Murder Ordained, starring John Goodman, Kathy Bates, and Keith Carradine. A few examples of articles include this one in the L. A. Times, 20 years later. If you’re in Emporia, visit the public library and ask about the binders of newspaper clippings from around the country.

BTK Murders – Wichita, Kansas – 1974-1991

Nightmare in WichitaMany books have already been written about Dennis Rader, the BTK strangler who terrorized Wichita for nearly two decades. An average family man who installed security systems for a living, Rader was a Cub Scout leader and church goer. He was also responsible for the torture and deaths of at least ten people. Books include Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie; Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer by John Douglas and Johnny Dodd; and Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, and L. Kelly. Read the basic story online at the Crime Library.

Deborah Green and the Farrar Family Murders – Prairie Village, Kansas – 1995

Bitter HarvestDeborah Green was a smart physician whose personal life was out of control. After her husband, Mark Farrar, filed for divorce, she made numerous attempts to poison him to death and finally resorted to setting her own home on fire, killing two of her three children. She would eventually plead no contest to two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. The famous true crime writer Ann Rule told the story in Bitter Harvest: A Woman’s Fury, a Mother’s Sacrifice. Read the basic story online here.

Bobbi Jo Stinnett Murder – Skidmore, Missouri – 2004

Murder in the HeartlandMelvern, Kansas woman Lisa Montgomery desperately wanted a baby of her own. When she met pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett online through a forum for dog breeders, she concocted a plan to drive to Skidmore, Missouri, kill Bobbi Jo Stinnett, and steal her unborn child. This tragic story changed the way law enforcement handles Amber Alerts and made many a little more cautious about how they interact with others online. M. William Phelps chronicled the story in the book Murder in the Heartland. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.