January 29, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Bloody Benders: truth or fiction?




Kate Bender. Image via DisInfo.

There are two reasons I’m very happy about the recent runaway success of Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s annotated autobiography. The first reason is that an indie press hit it big with Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is just heartwarming on all fronts. After all, Farmer Boy was the first book my father read out loud to me! (Awwwwwww.) The second, and much darker, reason is that it means I get to write about the connection between the Wilders and the Benders, a notorious family of serial killers who killed at least 10 people. This is not to say that the story of this book’s long road to print isn’t fascinating, but so are serial killers, so strap in.

Pa, Ma, Kate and John Bender, or the “Bloody Benders” as they became known, were a group of people who lived as a family on the Osage Trail in 1870’s Kansas. Mental Floss points out that it’s unclear exactly how they met:

Later investigations revealed that none of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only ones that were related were Ma and her daughter Kate. Pa was born John Flickinger around 1810 in either Germany or the Netherlands. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik, and her first husband was named Griffith, with whom she bore 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.’s real name was John Gebhart, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate’s husband instead of her brother.

The Benders lived in a one-room house that they used as a general store, as well as an inn, offering beds to travelers passing along the trail. They would then bludgeon their guests to death, bury their bodies, and steal whatever valuables they had (if any). It was years before anyone picked up on this, because there was no Yelp in the 1870s, but it all went pretty well for the Benders until they killed William York.

York was investigating the disappearance of George Longcor and his infant daughter, both of whom were killed by the Benders. When he went missing, his two very well connected brothers mounted a huge search that led them to Osage. Upon being questioned, Kate Bender promised to use her alleged clairvoyant abilities to find William York. Instead, she alerted her family, whom upon sensing that the jig was up promptly fled, never to be seen again. An investigation into the abandoned Bender property revealed ten bodies, including York, Loncher, and Loncher’s daughter, all buried in their vegetable garden. Various other gruesome evidence clinched the Benders as one of the first documented teams of serial killers in the United States.

Meanwhile, almost 20 south in Rutland Township, the Ingalls family was living the stuff of future bestselling book series. So did the two families ever meet? The answer can be traced back to a seemingly-apocryphal story told by Wilder at a Detroit book fair in 1937, which was republished in 1978 in the Saturday Evening PostDuring a discussion about which details she left out of her books due to unsuitability for younger readers, Ingalls described several narrow run-ins between her father Charles and the Bender family, and this choice detail:

The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

This anecdote was only ever republished in 1988’s A Little House Sampler, until it was reproduced in the new edition of Pioneer Girl. It’s creepy, cinematic, and likely untrue.

In their review of Pioneer Girl, the Christian Science Monitor refers to the episode as “pure fiction – an account Wilder added to her manuscript at one point, in an attempt to appeal to adult audiences by linking the Wilders to a sensational news story of the day.” The Ingalls family did indeed leave Kansas to return to Wisconsin long before the discovery of the Benders’ house of horrors, which makes Laura’s story rather difficult to swallow. Whether or not Pa Ingalls ever met the Benders during their brief stay in Independence is impossible to verify. However, some sketchily cited census data does indicate that the tragically fated George Longcor (documented as “G.N. Lunker”) lived in Rutland Township in 1870, which would have made him close neighbors with the Ingallses, written in the census as the “Ingles” family. What’s more likely is that Ingalls’ memories were bolstered by family oral history and legend, which then partially absorbed the tale of the Benders due to proximity after it made national news.

The success of Pioneer Girl shows an eager audience hoping to see the truth behind the Ingalls family legend, though that truth, of course, is Laura’s constructed memoir, and while it may provide a rougher and more nuanced portrait of the Ingalls family, it’s still only a piece. And no matter how tenuous or fabricated the connection, this new book ensures that the lurid tale of the Bloody Benders will live on as long as the tale of the Ingallses.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.