Friday, July 14, 2017
Small Wonder(s)--The Bloody Benders
For reasons that likely have to do with desired ends, the Oregon Trail has a more wholesome reputation than its southern sidekick, the Santa Fe. The Oregon Trail once carried the hopes and dreams of whole families. The wagon trains leaving Missouri carried hundreds of thousands of men and women and children--little girls in sun bonnets and boys in bibs walking alongside the oxen, Mom holding a little one up on the seat of the covered wagon.
The Santa Fe was more or less all about business, about commerce and trade, about money. Its travelers were draymen, truckers, men who liked their steak chicken-fried, heavy on the gravy. Nothing particularly evil about Santa Fe, just not as wholesome as the family-oriented Oregon.
That may be why the story of Bloody Benders seems more fittingly placed on the Santa Fe. The Bloody Benders were a family that weren't. Pa and Ma Bender, both German immigrants whose thick accents, people say, made communication impossible, weren't any more Pa and Ma than they were married. But then, common-law wasn't at all uncommon back then.
Their children weren't their children either. Accounts of their bloody story make the claim that the children, who weren't their children or brother and sister, were as charming and handsome as the parents were not. But then, none of the Benders were who they said they were.
Confusing?--yes. But the wild stuff is yet to come.
Wherever they came from, whoever they were, they homesteaded along the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas. The Osage Indians bought up some cheap land in Indian Territory from the Cherokees, and determined to move or else die a slow death in Kansas. That move opened up land to white settlement, and the Bloody Benders went west for fame and fortune. Fame they got, fortune escaped them, or so people think.
Their murderin' modus operandi was exposed when a man named Loncher and his infant daughter were going east, strangely enough, and not west, east to Iowa, here, having thrown in the towel on the frontier. Loncher and child simply disappeared, and when a Dr. York set out to find them, he too simply vanished.
But York was well-connected. His brothers were determined to find him; and when they didn't, they pressed the case right there where the Osage once roamed, drew the whole township together and got permission to hunt door-to-door.
That night, the Bloody Benders, who weren't Benders, vanished, leaving their two-room frontier abode behind, taking only some food and clothing with them. Their neighbors never saw them again.
I'm going to withhold the blood and the smell--it's beyond the pale. Suffice it to say that the Benders were perfectly methodical murderers. The Yorks found their brother, his daughter, and the bodies of seven others planted in the Benders' garden, which wasn't a garden at all either (neighbors claimed it seemed strange the place was always being plowed).
The Benders had opened their doors to Santa Fe Trail travelers, separated their one-room house with a single curtain, behind which they were said to have their living quarters. They'd set beloved guests in a big chair right in front of the curtain, start into the vittles, when one of them--could've been any, really--would bash in the head of the victim from behind.
The Bloody Benders is a horror, told elsewhere with far more blood and gore. And it ends in a way that'll have you clammy because it doesn't; because the Benders were never seen or heard from again. Mother, father, brother, sister--all of them, whoever they were, simply disappeared, not just from Kansas but from anywhere.
So they live on in the hearts and minds of those who know the story, America's first mass murderers, their horrific crimes unpunished.
This bloody tale was over before 1875, so the Bloody Benders are long gone.
Or are they? How many stories haven't been written about mass murderers? Thousands. Likely as many as the number who ever traveled the Santa Fe Trail, and then some. Maybe more than all the Conestoga wagons down the wholesome Oregon--because as you and I both know, stories like the Bloody Benders will always be prime-time.