Getting away with murder

The Bender family would never be held accountable for the horrors found at their rural Kansas home in 1873. Their neighbors found numerous bodies buried on the property, sparking lore that continues to fascinate.

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August 23, 2021 - 9:30 AM

Register reporter Trevor Hoag scans the field where, in the early 1870s, the Bender family murdered at least 11 victims northeast of what would later become the site of Cherryvale. Courtesy photo

In the spring of 1873, young Billy Toll was driving cattle past the Bender Inn in Labette County, on his way to Sunday School, when he noticed the place looked deserted.

His suspicions were confirmed when he discovered a desperate sow dying of thirst, along with a young calf and its mother whose corpses were decomposing.

When he managed to peer through a crack in one of the inn’s broken windows, he found only silence.

By the time township trustee Leroy Dick found his way out to the house in order to investigate, an overpowering stench permeated the air.

The smell of death was rank, and the horrors in store, unimaginable. 

Not long ago, when I stood on the edge of that same unassuming field myself, I swore that that terrible wind lingered still.

The Bender family were: John “Pa” Bender, Elvira “Ma” Bender, John Bender and Kate Bender.Courtesy photo

THE MORNING following Toll’s discovery, Leroy Dick and others converged on the Bender Inn, armed with shovels, spades and a plow.

In short order, the number of searchers jumped from around 40 to upwards of 1,000, and people swarmed the property like flies.

The search proved fruitless until Ed York, who was seated in his buggy with head above the crowd, suddenly shouted: “Boys, I see a grave!”

Probes and shovels then attacked the prairie earth in the Bender’s half-grown apple orchard, and soon after discovered a naked body facing downward with legs bent, skull smashed and throat slashed from ear to ear.

It was the body of Dr. William York, who had been missing for more than a month.

Accounts state that eight more bodies would follow, including that of a young girl, the daughter of George Loncher, who had been buried alive.

Shortly after the bodies were

In the Cherryvale Historical Museum, one can view three of the hammers the Bender family used to kill their victims. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

SHORTLY after the bodies were unearthed came the vultures.

Not those of the kind with enormous black wings, mind you, but curiosity-seekers determined to own a piece of history.

According to local teacher and author Fern Wood, “with no one to restrain them, every visitor went away with a board from the house, a loose shingle, or even a stone from the well.”

They stripped the entire property clean, even including the smaller trees.

And the Thayer Headlight newspaper noted that, even after everything had been taken, “thousands of people daily visit the grounds,” compelled to witness the scene of community trauma.

The pioneers had to see the place that would later be christened “Hell’s Half-Acre,” where hammers struck unsuspecting heads from behind a curtain, throats had been opened time and time again, and for what?

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