Wild Women Of The West: Kate Bender


A fierce wind filled with alkali dust blew past Silas Toles, a Labette County, Kansas farmer, as he made his way to his neighbor’s seemingly vacant home.  Three other farmers followed tentatively behind him.  An endless prairie stretched out on either side of the weather-beaten building.  A hungry calf languished in a nearby fenced enclosure and bawled pitilessly for something to eat.  A handful of dead chickens lay scattered about the parched earth leading to the house.  The front door was ajar and creaked back and forth.  Silas cautiously walked to the main entrance of the building and glanced inside.  Light from the late afternoon sun filtered through partially drawn curtains onto the sparse, shabby, and torn furnishings in the center of the one-room home.  

Silas pushed the door open and stood in the dirt entryway.  The home was in complete disarray; clothing, books, paper, and dishes were on the floor; bugs covered bits of food on a broken table, chairs were overturned and a pungent smell of death hung in the air.  The three men with Silas held back, waiting for him to motion them forward.  The sound of fast approaching horses distracted the quartet, and they watched with rapt attention as several riders hurried to the spot and quickly dismounted.  Colonel A. M. York, a distinguished, bearded man dressed in the uniform of an army officer, led a team of Civil War veterans and lawmen to the entrance of the home.  They pushed past Silas and the others and boldly entered.     

Colonel York surveyed the room and kicked away the debris at his feet as he walked around.  He wore a determined, yet forlorn expression.  The group with the colonel examined the area along with him and inspected the items underfoot carefully.  One of the men noticed a collection of pagan artifacts, including a pentagram and tarot cards, in the corner of the room.  Some of the articles were covered with dried blood.  Colonel York followed a trail of blood from the artifacts to a mound of fresh earth under a pile of soiled sheets.  Kneeling down in the dirt he scooped out the earth until he reached a crude door.  The men around stared wide-eyed at the oddity waiting for the colonel to make the next move.  One of the lawmen brushed dirt away from a round handle attached to the door.  Before giving it a pull, he glanced over at the colonel to see if he wanted to continue the search.  The colonel was quietly transfixed by the scene.  The lawman interpreted his silence as an affirmative answer and quickly pulled the door open.  The foul stench that wafted out of the dark hole hit the men like a punch in the face.  There was no question the source of the odor that had offended their senses from the moment they entered the home was coming from this location.  

The colonel picked himself up and walked over to a trio of kerosene lamps lying under a window.  He lit them all and handed two to a nearby lawman who handed one to another member of the group.  Sweating profusely the colonel lowered himself into the hole.  

Holding the lantern in front of him, the officer took a step in the direction he believed the smell was strongest.  The air reeked and the two men with lanterns who entered the pit after the Colonel covered their noses and mouths with a kerchief.  Apart from the sound of the men’s careful footsteps, all was silent and still.  Suddenly Colonel York’s foot caught on something, and he stopped moving.  He held the lantern over the area where his boot made contact with the object and saw the torso of a man lying before him.  The body was face down in a pool of dried blood.  “Is it your brother?”  He heard one of the men behind him ask.  The colonel did not respond as he bent down next to the corpse.  The back of the dead man’s skull had been bludgeoned with a sharp instrument, and brain matter oozed from the wound.  He rolled the body over.  The deceased’s eyes were open and his throat had been cut from ear to ear.  “Is it him?” The question was issued to the colonel again.  “No,” the colonel finally responded.  He held the light up and stretched it out in front of him.  Four more bodies littered the ground leading to another crude door beyond the building they were under.  After instructing the men in the house above to prepare to help move the dead bodies, the colonel studied the gory sight.  Shock and horror registered on his face, and he was speechless.     

Colonel York arrived at the forsaken, Kansas house in late April 1873.  He had come searching for his brother, William H. York, a doctor who resided in Independence, Kansas.  The doctor had traveled to Fort Scott to visit with his brother and on March 9, 1873, and was on his way back to his wife and practice when he went missing.  According to the colonel, his brother was dressed in a fine suit, carried a gold pocket watch, and had a large sum of money with him when he left for home.  His horse and saddle were of the finest quality as well.  The last anyone saw of Doctor York was riding toward a stage stop known as the Bender House.  Acquaintances he met on the road told Colonel York his brother was going to have dinner at the house and continue on.  That was the last anyone saw of him.

The Bender House, located seven miles northeast of Cherryvale, one hundred yards from the main road, opened to the public in 1871.  It was owned and operated by a German family from Pennsylvania, sixty-one-year-old John Bender, his wife, their twenty-year-old daughter Kate, and son John Jr..  Kate was a statuesque figure with dark hair and coal black eyes.  Of the four, she was the most social.  She readily engaged with neighbors and passersby and had a pleasing sense of humor.  Kate and her mother dabbled in the occult.  They made regular visits to the sick in the county and claimed to be able to cure their infirmities by reciting incantations.  Kate’s venture into such spiritualism was the subject of a stage act she performed in various Kansas towns.  Billed as “Professor Miss Kate Bender” she performed séances and convinced audiences into paying her large sums to deliver messages to their loved ones who had passed on.  

Kate and her mother managed to make superstitious Labette County residents believe they possessed the power to locate lost objects.  For a $5 consulting fee, the Bender women would listen to the particulars of the misplaced item, pretend to contact the mischievous spirit that took the item, and reveal where they had hidden it.  Desperate to find individuals who had been reported missing, Kate was also called upon by friends and family to advise authorities where to look for those who had disappeared.  Kate often told poor souls who sought her professional expertise that the missing people were alive and well and on their way to the Indian Territory, Texas, or some other not-too-distant region.  She was able to convey the misleading information with emotion and conviction worthy of a theatrical starlet.   

The Bender House, where the sinister family lived, offered food and lodging to weary travelers making their way across the prairie to homesteads west of the Mississippi.  Horses and wagons were placed in a barn not far from the crude house.  The animals were cared for by John and John Jr..  Kate and her mother made the meals and prepared a place for guests to sleep.  Before retiring for the evening Kate would regale patrons with a fortune telling or palm reading demonstration.  Somewhere in the middle of the act her brother or father would give her a signal that indicated they believed customers had money.  A secretive, but thorough inspection of the travelers’ personal belongings enabled the family patriarch and his son to determine how much the guests had on them.  The value of the horse they rode and quality of the vehicle they brought with them was also taken into consideration.  The plan was to keep the overnight visitors distracted long enough for one of the men to get behind them and hit them in the head with a sharp instrument.  Once they were unconscious, Kate would cut their throats and separate them from their money and personal belongings.  The victims were then deposited in a pit under the house and later buried.   

During Colonel York’s first sweep through the region in search of Doctor York, he enlisted the help of Kate’s brother and father.  John Bender told the officer and his party that he believed the doctor might have been attacked by a wild group of bandits that had been terrorizing the region.  Kate agreed with her father and told the colonel that Doctor York had been a guest at their business.  She added that he had ridden out the following morning in the direction of a spot known as Drum Creek.  

Having no reason to doubt the young woman, Colonel York led the searchers to the area noted.  John and his son rode along with the group and, once they arrived at the spot to be searched, helped comb the shallow waterbed for a body.  The collection of men aiding Colonel York in his efforts to find his brother disbanded after only the remains of a hog were uncovered.  The Benders returned to their home, and the colonel rode on to a nearby town to think over the search.  In reviewing the difficult country he had traveled and the people he had met along the way, his thoughts settled on Kate and her family.  There were many similarities in the way father and daughter told the story of the thieving bandits.  The colonel was suspicious about that and decided to question the family again.  Eleven days after he first visited the road house, Colonel York returned with a larger group of men to help him find out what happened to his brother.  The Benders had been gone several days by the time they arrived.

Now shaken, but determined, Colonel York scanned the ground around the Bender House.  Beyond a barn that sat adjacent to the house he noticed a garden and an orchard, neither of which were very well maintained.  Weeds grew between several rows of corn; rotten tomatoes that were dead on the vine clung to the earth under them.  Dirt was heaped in narrow mounds in front of a stand of neglected apple trees.  Colonel York’s face grew pale as he realized what the mounds represented.  “Boys,” he said to the men with him, “I see graves yonder in the orchard.”  At first the searchers who had accompanied him to this point believed he was imagining things.  It wasn’t until they followed the army officer to the area he was referring to and saw the depressions shaped like graves that they considered the possibility.  

Colonel York removed the ramrod from his military rifle and plunged it into the first would-be grave he came to.  The unfortunate look that filled his face revealed he had struck something.  He slowly raised the ramrod to the surface and inspected it.  Human hair was on the end of the tool.  He repeated the process at the next grave and drew out a piece of clothing.  Colonel York tossed the ramrod aside, dropped to his knees, and as quickly as he could began to paw at the dirt.  He ordered the stunned men with him to find shovels and spades and start digging.  They snapped to in quick obedience. 

 The first body uncovered was a man.  His face was partially decomposed, his eyes were bulged, and his tongue was sticking out.  Like the other body the colonel found, this one, too had a deep gash in the back of the skull, and his throat had been cut.  Nine bodies in all were removed from their shallow graves and placed side by side.  Not a word was exchanged as the group performed the gruesome task.  A few wept when the corpse of a little girl was discovered among the dead.  Colonel York was moved to tears when he identified his brother among the murder victims.  Doctor York’s skull had been crushed on the right side.  He’d been stripped of his fine clothing, his watch was missing and as well as his money.   

Colonel York and the lawmen at the scene determined that Kate Bender and her family must have preyed on solitary riders they thought had money on them.  The unsuspecting Bender House customers were ushered into the establishment and seated at a table next to a curtain that divided the spacious room in half.  They were served a meal, and, while they ate, John Jr. tended to their horses and rifled through their possessions they kept in their saddle bags.  At some point in the evening one of the Bender men would position themselves behind the curtain and strike the guests on the head with a hammer.  Before the bodies touched the floor Kate descended upon them and sliced their throats open from ear to ear with a razor-edged knife.  The deceased were tossed into a pit under the home and left there until the Bender men could bury them in the orchard.  The wagons, horses, harnesses, and saddles that belonged to the murder victims were sold to Indians in the area who resold the items to trading post owners in the west.  

The disappearance of wayward travelers did cause some concern.  Occasionally a friend or family member passed through the area, but it wasn’t until the search for Doctor York that residents in southeast Kansas began to talk among themselves about the missing people.  Ten out of the twelve bodies were eventually identified.  A grave filled with dismembered body parts were too charred to determine much of anything about them except that they were once human.  The Benders had made an attempt to cover up their heinous actions by burning the evidence.

According to those who were acquainted with the Benders, either because they were neighbors or had sold them goods at a store in the nearby town of Cherryvale, the consensus was that the Benders fled the area under cover of darkness.  The theory was echoed by Rudolph Brockman, a neighbor who had courted Kate for a short time.  Brockman admitted to proposing marriage to Kate at one time, but they could not agree on a date to tie the knot.  “She showed me a number of complicated astrological charts to support the day we should be wed but the proper nuptial conjunction never fell into place,” Brockman confessed to authorities.

Brockman did not know Kate and her family had fled the area until searchers besieged upon him with questions about his relationship with the family.  The posse that helped question Brockman was not entirely pleased with his answers.  They did not believe he was unaware of the Bender’s murderous actions or that he didn’t know their whereabouts.  The angry mob fashioned a noose around a tree and hanged Brockman by the neck for not coming forth with information they were convinced he had about Kate and the other killers.  Before he expired friends cut him down and revived him.

Kansas Governor Thomas Osborn took immediate action against the Benders when he was informed of what they had done.  A $1,000 reward was issued for each member of the family.  They were wanted dead or alive.  Colonel York was heartbroken over the brutal killing of his brother.  He wanted Kate and the other three dead.  Every gypsy family or small band of prospectors or trappers making their way through the area were cornered and questioned about whether they’d seen anyone matching the Benders’ description.  No one had come in contact with the family.  

Colonel York estimated that Kate, her brother, and parents had left the area on April 29, 1873, heading north.  He concluded that the country in that direction would be most ideal for them because it was sparsely settled and the roads were less traveled.  The Benders would be better able to make their way around without being detected.  The lawmen and volunteer searchers did not want to invest as much time tracking the Benders down as Colonel York did.  There was a great deal of excitement within the posse the first forty-eight hours of the trek because they knew they were hot on the trail of the serial killers.  Colonel York and the posse followed a lead on the family that took them into the Indian Territory.  They pursued rumors of sightings of the Benders from one end of the state to the other.

By the fall of 1873, posse members believed Kate Bender and her family had escaped to Dennison, Texas, and was working with a railroad construction gang.  Colonel York could not convince the majority of the posse to venture on with him.  They were tired and disillusioned and decided to return to their homes.  Colonel York was left with a handful of men to see the search through to the end.  He needed to report back to Fort Scott before he continued on but didn’t want the trail to grow cold.  He hired three professional trackers to hurry to Texas to find the individuals who killed his brother.  The men were given $1,000 for their efforts and all their expenses were taken care of as well.  Although the professionals were exceptional at their jobs, Texas authorities were less than helpful.  They refused to let the posse search the territory for individuals that had never lifted a hand against Texas.  The men Colonel York hired returned to Kansas empty handed.  

Leroy F. Dick, an associate of the Benders claimed in his memoirs that John and his wife fled to Michigan and that their son eventually killed himself when he realized there was no escaping public scrutiny.  John, Kate, and her brother disappeared somewhere into the Southwest.  Articles in the August 13, 1880, edition of the Warren Ledger newspaper in Warren, Pennsylvania, and the Chicago Evening Journal substantiated some of the information about the Benders contained in Dick’s journal.  According to the newspaper accounts, John Bender Senior was arrested near Fremont, Nebraska, on July 30, 1880.  He and his wife, who had been traveling together on foot, had made a stop at a road house for supplies and while they were there asked if anyone knew about the Bender family and if they had ever been caught.  The question and John’s behavior aroused suspicion, and the sheriff was notified.  The couple were arrested and placed in jail until the law could make sense of their peculiar query.  

John and his wife were locked in a cell together, and one of the jailers overheard a conversation between the two involving the desire to lay hands on a sharp object in order to commit suicide.  “I know if they send us back to Kansas they’ll hang us before we’re there two hours,” John was overheard saying.  “We would not stand a ghost of a show.  If I have to die I want to die with you and be buried with you,” he told his wife.  The two discussed how they would kill themselves if they were able to acquire a razor.  John theorized that the guards would never let them have such an item.  “They are afraid of losing their reward,” he told his despondent spouse.  Fearing the pair would contrive a method to do away with themselves, the police separated them.  When John asked authorities where they were taking his wife, they told him they were taking her to Kansas.  In truth she was being held at another location well away from her husband and questioned thoroughly about the murders that took place in the Bender home.  According to the Warren Ledger and the Chicago Evening Journal, Mrs. Bender finally told her side of the gruesome events after several hours of interrogation.  “I was with the old man [my husband] all the time,” she told the lawmen.  “The money taken from persons murdered was always divided.  The garden was full of graves and the cellar full of bodies.  Colonel York’s brother was murdered while I was there.  He was a single man, I think, about thirty-five years old.  He was such a pleasant man, with side whiskers and a moustache.  It was a rainy day when he came and they got a good deal of money when they killed him.  He fought hard too but Kate killed him with a hatchet.  I think there were more than ten people killed while I was there.”  

When the authorities told John what his wife had shared with them he decided to confess, too.  “Individuals would stop by the house to get something to eat,” he explained to the authorities.  “A young man from California that came by wanted to know why the house smelled so.  Kate told him it was nothing.  I don’t think the man believed her.  He told her he wasn’t going to stay the night.  Kate and John Junior had put two children in the hole earlier that day and covered them with dirt.  The man from California was the man that saw the children when they were alive.  When Kate and John Junior saw they’d been found out they left right then.  I went to Jacksonville, Illinois by foot, called myself McGregor.  Don’t know where the others went.  About four weeks after we left the house I saw Kate between Springfield, Illinois and Jacksonville.  She had men’s clothes on.  She had her hair cut short.”  

After several hours of being questioned, John Senior became quiet and sullen.  “I don’t care what they do to me,” he concluded.  Leroy Dick insists in his published recollections that John Bender Senior finally did manage to get hold of a sharp object and cut his own throat.  Some historians have reported that the authorities allowed an angry mob entrance into the jail and that John Senior and his wife were taken and killed and their bodies secretly disposed.  Most historians believe the pair broke out of jail and escaped justice.       

In 1888 two women believed to be Kate Bender and her mother were arrested at a small town in southern Kansas.  Mrs. Frances McPherson and Sara Eliza Davis were charged with the murder of Doctor York and held over for trial.  They were acquitted after key witnesses failed to positively identify the pair as the Benders.  

On March 12, 1890, Frank Ayres, a cattle rancher from Colorado, traveled to Labette County, Kansas, with news that he had located Kate and John Bender Junior.  Not only did he claim the pair were living in Longmont, Colorado, and had changed their names to Baker, but that Kate Bender was once his wife.  Ayres told police he was Kate’s third husband.  The first had deserted her and the second had died in prison.  

According to the June 18, 1901, edition of the Milford, Iowa, newspaper the Milford Mail, Ayers and Kate moved to Fort Collins shortly after they were married.   John Bender Junior decided to remain in Longmont where he owned a string of race horses and worked at a livery stable.  “Our troubles began once I moved her into the house I had built for her,” Ayers told authorities.  “One night my coffee was drugged and I knew nothing more for fourteen days.  When I recovered I was in the Baker home (a boarding house in Manhattan, Colorado where the couple lived when they first met) and informed that a friend had found me on the railroad tracks.  I had been hit in the back of the head.”  The friend that had found Ayers took him to the Baker house where he was nursed back to health by his wife, the alleged Kate Bender.

Ayers told the police he was placed on the railroad tracks with the “expectation that a train would finish him, but the timely aid of an old friend saved him.”  He believed his wife nursed him back to health to avoid suspicion.  He noted that even after his friend rescued him, some of his medicines were poisoned, and his friend threw them away.  Ayers claimed that “after his recovery he made inquiries and was convinced that he had been foully dealt with by his wife and he deserted her, coming to Kansas City last fall dressed as a woman.”  He believed that the ranch he owned in Colorado had oil beneath it, and he sent a man out to look at it.  This man lived in Labette County, Kansas when the Bender murders were committed and knew the Benders.  Upon the man’s return to Missouri he told Ayers that he had seen Kate Bender.  He described Kate Ayers as the woman, and another man who was sent to Colorado on a separate mattered returned with the same story.    In spite the fact that seven witnesses verified Ayers wife as Kate Bender, Labette County authorities refused to act on the matter.  

More than seventeen years passed from the time Doctor York was killed and the bodies of the eleven other murder victims were found at the Bender home until the time the police decided to reexamine the case.  The crime was so gruesome investigators did not want to revisit the incident.     

From 1890 to 1909, rumors of the Bender’s whereabouts circulated from one small Midwestern town to another.  Some believed Colonel York had eventually tracked Kate and John Junior down and shot them dead.  Others thought the family fled to Mexico never to be seen or heard from again.  On May 6, 1910, the New York Times newspaper reported that Kate Bender died at the inn she ran in Rio Vista, California.  John Collins, a resident of the area notified the press of the notorious woman’s demise.  “The woman, who was known as Mrs. Gavin, and later as Mrs. Peters, was found dead in a resort she conducted,” the article read.  “Collins, who was her friend, said she revealed her identity to him several years ago, exacting a promise that he should not tell anybody until after her death.  The woman apparently died from natural causes, and had been dead several days when her body was found.  Collins declared that she gave him a detailed account of many murders which she and her brother committed in the Bender home at Cherryvale, Kansas in the seventies.”  As there was no one to identify the deceased as truly being Kate Bender, Collins’ claim was largely ignored.What really became of Kate Bender, her parents and brother remains a mystery.  Criminologist investigating the case in 1911 told the Washington Post that Kate Bender was “one of the most fiendish female murderers in history.”  They speculated that her end probably came at the hand of a victim who successfully fought back.   

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