Tag Archives: true crime

‘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

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.

Now Available in Audiobook Format!

I love, love, LOVE audiobooks. At least two out of every three books I read is an audiobook–CDs in my car or downloads on my mp3 player. I can’t imagine not listening to a book while folding laundry, cleaning guinea pig cages, cooking dinner, or mowing the lawn.

When the opportunity to create an audiobook version of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Murder presented itself, I was thrilled.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available in audiobook format from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available through Audible,  iTunes, and  Amazon. Both Audible and iTunes downloads can also be transferred to CD. Veteran narrator Kenneth Lee really captured the heart of the story, and he brings to life the ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances in 1925 Kansas.

A lot of people out there love a good story, but they don’t have time to sit down and read. Others spend a lot of time trapped in their cars during long commutes. Even more people out there have conditions that prevent them from being able to read–vision problems or arthritic hands that can no longer hold heavy books–even though they might long to do so. Thanks to the magic of the mp3 and the internet, thousands of audiobooks are readily available to this previously non-book-reading audience.

For you self-publishing authors out there, ACX s a company that produces and distributes audiobooks through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, the biggest companies that sell directly to consumers. (Most libraries that offer mp3 or WMA formats use distributors like OverDrive and OneClickDigital.) Originally, I thought that audiobooks were not accessible without a substantial upfront financial commitment, but ACX offers writers the opportunity to connect with narrators who are willing to accept a profit-sharing option in lieu of up-front fees. This means more options for writers who are just establishing themselves (and narrators who are building portfolios and wanting to connect with rights holders willing to take a chance on them).

Find me at Silver Lake Library on February 20!

Shadow on the Hill book cover

Silver Lake Library in Silver Lake, Kansas, is throwing open its doors after hours just for my presentation on Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder. We’ll talk about the murder of Florence Knoblock and the impact the murder, investigation, and subsequent trials had on the small towns and farming communities in Coffey County and Lyon County. Check out a copy from the library or pick up a copy of your very own at the book signing following the presentation.

The library is located at 203 Railroad Street. The program starts at 7:00 p.m. See you in Silver Lake!

In Cold Blood Murders Can’t be Linked to Florida Murders

You might recall that several months ago, the remains of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the two men executed for the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, were exhumed in order to obtain DNA samples in hopes of solving a similar case involving the murder of a family in Florida.

On Tuesday, authorities announced that the DNA samples could not be linked to the Florida crime. This is sad news for the family and friends of the Walkers, who continue to be denied closure on a very cold case.

The tests did not clear the men who murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., from committing a crime just as grisly while on the lam in the Sunshine State.

But investigators, working with evidence too old and degraded, could not positively match the pair’s DNA samples to Christine Walker, who was slain with her husband and two children about a month after the Kansas killings.

Reflecting on this from a Kansas history and literature standpoint, I can’t help but wonder how much the narrative would have changed had the DNA tests proven to be a match. Part of In Cold Blood‘s eeriness is the idea that the Clutter family murders happened because these two damaged men, neither of whom likely would have committed such a horrible crime alone, came together to commit this horrible act and spent the rest of their lives trying to run from it. Truman Capote’s novel also haunts us because it reminds us that if it can happen in Kansas, it can happen anywhere. To have connected them to yet another, similar crime would have not only solved a cold case, but also completely changed the narrative in both literature and history.

Hear about a Kansas True Crime at West Wyandotte Branch

Information about my upcoming presentation at West Wyandotte Library in Kansas City, Kansas has been posted to the KCKPL blog.

The Florence Knoblock Murder, Bread Dough Forensics, and a Loaf of Grandmother Bread

Shadow on the Hill readers know that bread dough played a role in narrowing down Florence Knoblock’s time of death.

Shards of broken dishes littered the hardwood. Bread dough, long past risen, had flowed over the lip of a crock, down the side of the stove, and onto the floor, where it began to dry out. A pan of washing water, likely pumped from the well that morning, sat on a chair.

We also know that bakery employees were able to testify to the time Florence Knoblock called to place an order for lard because they knew what stage the bread they were baking was in.

“I spoke with Florence on Decoration Day,” Ray said. “We were discussing compound and then she said, ‘John is coming to town and will talk to you.’”
“And at what time was this?”
“About nine o’clock,” Ray said. “I was sure it was nearly nine by the stage of the bread. It had been put in at seven and the dough was put on the bench just as she called.”

But for those of us who aren’t bakers, what does that really mean? Even though my mom was a superb baker, most of the things I make come out of a box. So I turned to someone who really knows her way around a kitchen: Veronica. Veronica not only bakes, but she wins RIBBONS at the Kansas State Fair (and not just the participation ones).  Veronica is going to walk us through baking the old-fashioned way so that those of us who don’t bake from scratch can better understand how bread behaves and why it could be a valuable tool for determining how much time had passed since Florence’s death.

Hi, my name is Veronica and you can usually find me posting recipes over at my blog, Veronica’s Cornucopia. I like to eat (a lot), so I cook because I have to, but my true love and passion is baking. I’ve won many ribbons over the last several years at the Kansas State Fair for my cakes, cookies, quick breads, and yeast breads. Although, I have to admit, many of my yeast bread attempts (especially whole wheat) don’t turn out so well…

Since bread dough plays into the 1925 murder of Florence Knoblock, which Diana’s book, Shadow on the Hill details, she asked me if I would do a bread post for her readers. While I consider myself a yeast bread novice, I have made many loaves, some failures, and some successes, and I suppose I’m moderately suited for the task. In any case, I wasn’t going to turn down such an honor! Thanks, Diana!

{Image source}

The day Florence was discovered murdered in her kitchen, there was a kettle of over-risen bread dough on the oil stove that had escaped the crock and spilled down the side of the stove, and onto the floor. This was one factor that helped determine the timeline of the morning and her murder, by how much it had over-risen.

Now today if we need bread, most of us pick up a loaf while we’re doing our grocery shopping at the supermarket, but in 1925, bread wasn’t as easily available for purchase if you lived in the country. While Florence had placed an order for lard at the bakery, which her husband and son went to retrieve the same morning she was murdered, she did not place one for bread and had instead started some herself.  Florence obviously was not a wasteful sort, and chose to do the things she had been raised doing, rather than paying a higher price for someone else to do it.  Making the bread was just another daily chore that Florence had begun.

{Image source}

As tradition has it, each day of the week had it’s own assigned chore: Monday: Wash Day ~ Tuesday: Ironing Day ~ Wednesday: Sewing Day ~ Thursday: Market Day ~ Friday: Cleaning Day ~ Saturday: Baking Day ~ Sunday: Day of Rest. Florence was murdered on a Saturday so this might have been just the beginning of a long day of baking for her. Baking Saturdays would be my favorite chore day! Maybe it was Florence’s too, and she was in a haze of baking bliss before she met her maker. I’d like to think so.

I wanted to bake a loaf of bread in Florence’s memory, something that was old-fashioned and not fussy. I decided on this Grandmother Bread from Chickens in the Road. It’s an old, simple recipe that’s been in Suzanne’s family for generations, and while it doesn’t require you to harvest your own yeast the way Florence might have, it suited my purposes just fine. I’d like to think that Florence approves of me skipping a step made unnecessary by modern convenience, as I got the impression from the book that she was a no-nonsense kind of woman.

Grandmother Bread

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2+ cups all-purpose flour

To start, you need to activate your yeast. I usually prefer to use rapid-acting yeast (bread machine yeast) because it’s easier and faster, but to get into the old-fashioned spirit to a degree, I stuck with active yeast. So sprinkle your yeast, sugar, and salt over warm water and let it rest so the yeast can get happy in it’s warm, sugary bath.

Or you could forget to add the sugar and salt like I did, and then add them along with your first cup of flour. See, it’s OK to mess up to a degree. If you’re new to bread making, it’s important to ask yourself, “What Would Florence Do?” Do you think she’d waste her precious yeast and start a new batch of dough because she forgot to add the sugar and salt at the right time? Heck to the no! She’d soldier on like a good early 20th century Kansas housewife. So will you.

Mix that all up with your spoon and then gradually add the remaining flour, stirring as you go.

When it gets too thick to stir, flour your hands and start kneading more flour in until you get a smooth and elastic dough. Most people, including Florence, would flour a counter and knead it there because it’s efficient, but I went against my WWFD (What Would Florence Do?) theme and did what I usually do, kneading it in the bowl so I don’t have to clean up a bowl and a counter afterward. It’s aggravating and makes your neck and back sore, but hey. I’m all about less mess to clean up. Florence put off sweeping up her husband’s and son’s hair after cutting it that morning, so I’m thinking she’d be all about less clean-up.

Once the dough feels right (if this is your first time making bread, then knead flour in until it’s not very sticky, just very slightly tacky, and is nice and stretchy and elastic and smooth), oil your bowl and turn the dough over in it so that all sides are oiled.

Cover your bowl with a cloth (or plastic wrap if you’re not feeling the WWFD thing) and set it in a warm, draft free place. Florence chose to put it on top of her stove, which we know she had going and was warm since she was using it to boil a kettle of water for tea. My trick is to preheat my oven to 350F for one minute, then turn it off and put my bowl inside. Works great! Oh and sorry, Florence, please forgive my dirty oven that I’ve never cleaned.  I don’t think you would have shirked that chore as long as I have.

Let it rest for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Most people, including Florence, would then place the dough on a floured counter and smooth it into a rectangle, then roll it up into a loaf, pinching the seams, and place it in an oiled bread tin. Again, I didn’t want to flour a counter and have to clean it up so I kinda just smooshed it together in my hands and then patted it down as evenly as I could in the pan. Florence is probably rolling over in her grave.

Cover the pan and let it rise until doubled, about 30 minutes or more depending on the temperature and humidity. I forgot about it and left it for an hour and you can see how much it had over-risen with only and extra half hour of rising.  I imagine it really would have run out of the pan and down the sides like Florence’s dough if left unattended for hours on end.

But WWFD if she lost track of time and found her dough in this state? She’d smack that dough down and start over with the rise, that’s what! We ain’t gonna have no over-risen mushroom bread with big holes up in here. I had to go to our evening church service, so I put it in the fridge this time to slow down the rise. By the time I got back, about two hours later, it was perfectly risen–no shrooming over the sides.

Once risen, bake for 25-45 minutes at 350F. I found I needed to bake a lot longer than the recommended 25 minutes because I had to add soooo much flour to my dough (maybe the humidity, although the recipe does call for a lot of water IMO) so my dough was a little more bountiful that it probably should have been. Also, I was multi-tasking and toasting pecans for cookies at the same time. I’m sure efficient and no-nonsense Florence would approve.

Look at that gawjus loaf! You know it’s done when you take it out of the pan and it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. I think I could have baked mine a little longer but it was still so, so good. If you under-bake your bread a bit, you can always toast the slices. That’s WFWD!

Now slather the top (and the sides and bottom) with butter while it’s still hot and try your best to wait until it’s cool to slice it. Oh who am I kidding? Well, wait at least fifteen minutes for best slicing. You’re probably thinking no-nonsense Florence wouldn’t be going hog wild with the butter so it’s time to ask, WWFD? Well, Florence’s family had cows, so I’m sure they had plenty of butter on hand, and despite her usual thrifty ways, according to me it was her secret pleasure to slather copious amounts of butter on freshly baked bread. So slather away! 😀

I want to thank Diana for writing this incredible true-life story of a Kansas murder, for all the hard work and research she put into it, and offering me some satisfaction in the long-time unsolved mystery. And for offering me this opportunity to be a part of her book in a small way as well! And thank you for reading. Now go get your bake day on! 😀

Recipe source: Chickens in the Road <–click the link for the two-loaf recipe