Haunted Crime Scenes
While Kansas was still a frontier area being settled by immigrants, travelers passing through the southeastern part of the state found a warm welcome and roadside entertainment in the Bender family's log cabin. The Benders had arrived from Germany around 1870 and built their home between Thayer and Galesburg as a general store and way-station along the road. Adult daughter Katie was apparently a spiritualist who claimed to summon ghosts (at least, she posed as such), and she had sufficient charm to learn a traveler's financial state and persuade him to sit in a certain area for dinner or for a reading. Behind him hung a canvas curtain, and behind that stood Old Man Bender with a sledge hammer. He would deliver the fatal blow, while Ma Bender, Katie and John, Jr. removed the victim's money and dropped him down a trap door.
Someone was bound to notice, and when Dr. William York disappeared in 1873, his brother, who knew about the Benders, came looking for him. While at the house, he happened to see something once owned by his brother, though the Benders had denied it. He went in search of the local law. The Benders abandoned the place before anyone could arrest them, and when a heavy rain showed the clear outline of several graves in the orchard, the entire area was dug up. Ten bodies were exhumed, including a child who had been tossed into the grave alive and then crushed beneath her father's corpse. (Other accounts say that there bodies number over two dozen.)
This story swept the nation, adding the "Hell Benders" to the tales of Indians and outlaws who posed dire threats to families hoping to settle in western lands. Souvenir hunters took the Bender cabin apart, acquiring scraps of wood, nails, and anything that could be sold for high prices. Whatever remained was razed, and only a large hole was left where the house and store had been. The Benders were identified in various locations, north and south, but no sighting proved accurate. One peace officer in Utah thought he had grabbed Old Man Bender and arrested him for murder, but the suspect died and decomposed before an identification could be made. Still, his skull was removed and displayed in the local saloon as the notorious criminal.
In No Rest for the Wicked, Troy Taylor writes about hauntings in the aftermath of violence. Among his tales is what happened at the former Bender property. He indicates that the ghosts of the victims continued to wander around the empty hole, and one can hear them shrieking or moaning in the dark. It's also said that the spirit of Kate returned to the place. One report says she was caught and burned alive, but it was never verified.
Speaking of the Benders, let's visit one — no relation to this bloody crew — whose talent has turned murder around for the good.