By Matt Blake
With its gentle drama and quaint childhood adventures, Little House On The Prairie painted a picture of wholesome family life in 19th century Midwest America.
Set in the God-fearing town of Independence, Kansas,plotlines rarely ventured beyond the realms of Sunday School and town gossip and real trouble meant somebody being late for dinner.
But behind these tales of youthful innocence that brought fame to the town across the world, lurks a ghoulish story of real-life abduction and serial killing that author Laura Ingalls Wilder neglected to mention.
The family: John Sr spoke with a gruff, guttural voice that was barely understandable while his wife was apparently so unfriendly that her neighbors took to calling her ‘She-Devil’
The children: While their parents tended to keep themselves to themselves, John Jr. (left) and Kate (right) were known about the town of Osage and regularly attended Sunday church. She also claimed to be psychic healer
Some 17 miles south of Independence, the township of Osage became the scene of a brutal campaign of murder by a family that became known as the Bloody Benders.
Originally immigrants from Europe, John Sr spoke with a gruff, guttural voice that was barely understandable while his wife was apparently so unfriendly that her neighbours took to calling her ‘She-Devil’.
While their parents tended to keep themselves to themselves, the children John Jr., and Kate, both in their 20s, were known about the town and regularly attended Sunday church. Kate also claimed to be psychic healer.
The family, believed to have been of German or Dutch origin, ran a bed and breakfast for travellers passing across the frontier. They lived in the back of their cabin. In the front, beginning in 1871, they operated a small inn and store.
It was there that they took to murdering countless travellers who stayed at the lodging between 1871 and 1873.
So many disappearances were reported over that period that it is unclear exactly how many victims there actually were.
It is believed their method was to smash their guests over the head with a hammer during dinner from behind a strategically-placed curtain before tipping their body through a trap door into a made-to-measure cellar.
The victim’s throat was then cut by one of the women to ensure his death.
Once in the cellar, the body would be stripped and later buried somewhere on the property, often in the orchard.
It was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted.
People’s suspicions were aroused but no inquiries ever made. Then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.
House of horror: The Benders would smash their guests over the head with a hammer from behind a strategically-placed curtain before tipping their body through a trap door into a made-to-measure cellar
Dr William York had vanished after setting out in search of neighbour George Loncher and his daughter who had left Independence looking for a better life.
Neither Mr Locher, his daughter, or Dr York were ever found.
Dr York’s brother, Kansas State Senator Alexander M. York, launched a hunt for his missing sibling but to no avail.
On April 3, Colonel York returned to the inn with armed men after a woman fled the lodging claiming Ma Bender had threatened her with knives.
Ma allegedly could not understand English while the younger Benders denied the claim. When York repeated the allegation, Ma flew into a rage and branded the woman a witch who had cursed her coffee and ordered the men to leave her house.
It was this outburst that revealed for the first time that ‘her sense of the English language’ was much better than had been thought.
Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie: But behind tales of youthful innocence that brought fame to the area across the world, lurks a ghoulish story of real-life abduction and serial killing that author Laura Ingalls Wilder failed to mention
Before York left, Kate bid him to pay a second visit the next Friday night when she promised to use her clairvoyant skills and contact the spirit world to help him find his missing brother.
The men with York were convinced the Benders were guilty and wanted to hang them all but York insisted that evidence must be found.
However, as suspicions strengthened and the finger of blame pointed stoutly towards the family.
As more people vanished, a town meeting decided the perpetrators of the crimes had to be found and a search of every home in the area was authorised. Pa Bender and his son both attended the meeting.
Then, within two weeks of the meeting a passer by noticed the Benders’ livestock had not been fed and it became clear the family had slipped into the night, never to be seen again.
When the house was finally searched, their possessions were gone. What remained was a grim collection of more than a dozen bodies and various body parts buried in the property’s grounds. One was even discovered in the well.
The first to be found was that of Dr York. He was buried face down with his feet barely below the surface among trees in the orchard.
As more corpses were unearthed, the true tally of their murderous spree gradually became clear. All victims but one had been hit over the head and their throats cut.
Just the body of a young girl was found with no injuries sufficient to cause death. It was speculated that she had been strangled or buried alive alongside her mother.
A state-wide manhunt was launched but the family was never found. Their true identities have been the source of speculation ever since.
In the weeks following the discovery, 12 men ‘of bad repute in general’ were arrested, accused of disposing of the victims’ stolen goods.
In Thayer, 12 miles north of the Bender inn, inquiries revealed that four people fitting the Benders’ description had boarded a train for Humboldt, Kansas.
The Humboldt station manager said that there the family split with John Jr. and Kate taking a train south, and Ma and Pa Bender, carrying a doghide trunk (possibly loaded with money), had taken a second train to St. Louis.
A team of lawmen managed to pick up the family’s trail as far as Texas and tailed them to El Paso and into the Chihuahua Desert. But they lost track in the end and were forced to give up and return home.
In October 31, 1889, two women arrested for larceny in Niles, Michigan, were identified as Ma and Kate Bender. They were brought back to Kansas. But after being held for two months they were released on grounds of insufficient evidence against them.
There were various alleged sightings since but none led to any arrests. There have been suggestions that they joined a troupe of outlaws in New mexico, others that they fled to the East Coast, even to Europe.