Sunday, February 6, 2022

Hell Benders, or The Story of a Wayside Tavern

Edmund Pearson (1880–1937)
From >True Crime: An American Anthology

Illustration of the scene of the crime: the Benders’ home in Kansas. From History, Romance, and Philosophy of Great American Crimes, by Frank Triplett, 1884. Edmund Pearson included this illustration in his book with the caption, “A quiet, home dinner with the Benders.”
In October 1937, the month of the publication of On the Banks of Plum Creek (the fourth of her nine Little House books), Laura Ingalls Wilder accepted an invitation to deliver a speech at a book fair in Detroit. She told the capacity crowd that the “incidents” and “circumstances” in her books were true, but they weren’t the whole truth, and she recalled an episode that she hadn’t included in the series.
There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.
She then summarized for her audience the history of this four-member family, who by the end of 1873 were fugitives, having murdered and robbed at least a dozen of the many travelers who stopped in their meager home for a meal or drink. As soon as the Benders realized they were under suspicion for the disappearances, they decamped. “The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa,” Wilder recalled. Her father took his rifle and joined the vigilantes—but the Benders were never seen again. Whenever the subject came up again, Pa Ingalls would say “in a strange tone of finality, ‘They will never be found.’ They never were found and I later formed my own conclusions why.”

The mystery of the Bender family would remain in the news for years and, undoubtedly because of their proximity, became part of the Ingalls family lore. But, as several critics and scholars have pointed out since, there are several problems with the details as recalled by Wilder, who was just three years old during the last year the Ingallses lived in Kansas. The Benders lived seventeen miles on the other side of Independence, not between the town and the Ingalls home; they arrived in the area only a few months before Laura’s family left Kansas; they did not open their home as a “tavern” until more than a year later; and—where her story really unravels—the discovery of the murders and the formation of the vigilante groups did not occur until two years after the Ingallses had returned to Wisconsin.

Wilder also included a similar, if more dramatic account of the Benders in her memoir, Pioneer Girl, which had been rejected by publishers at the end of the 1920s and which was finally published in 2014. Readers have been puzzled ever since. Was the entire association with the Bender family simply the false memory of a three-year-old girl, or was it a ploy to incorporate a famous and sensational crime in her own story, or was it perhaps meant as a deliberately invented addition to the “semifictional” Ingalls family she later depicted in the Little House books—an addition that she ultimately opted to omit?

An entire mythology developed around the Bender family; numerous contradictory stories circulated about who they were, what they did, how they killed their victims, and what happened to them. Some chroniclers even doubted they were a “family” or that Bender was really their surname. By the end of the century, there were probably more travelers remembering how they escaped the clutches of the family and more men claiming to be members of those vigilante groups than there were white settlers living around Independence in 1873. What’s interesting, then, is the accuracy of the details about the Benders themselves in Wilder’s speech, which suggests that she may have consulted another source to confirm the details of the crimes—a source like Edmund Pearson’s article on the subject, “Hell Benders,” which appeared in his 1926 collection, Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders. In his essay, Pearson cuts through the fantasies surrounding the notorious family and provides readers with an outline of what we do know—and what we will probably never know.

Pearson’s no-nonsense approach to true crime was the reason for his popularity. “He studied murders,” wrote mystery writer Miriam Allen deFord, “he did not empathically participate in them. That is why in his own writing there is the patient piling up of evidence, the search for a logical solution, the ambient play of dry humor, but little or no emotion.” A professional librarian, Pearson approached crime with much the same attitude that he tackled his various bibliographic studies and his popular humor column, “The Librarian,” which appeared weekly in the Boston Evening Transcript for nearly fifteen years.

What especially set Pearson apart from other crime writers of the period was his disdain for sensationalism: “There is nothing in my accounts which would keep anyone, except a nervous invalid, awake for five hours.” And to those wondering how a librarian ended up as the “Dean of American True Crime,” Pearson merely replied that “eight out of ten people are interested in murder, and of the two, one is a pretender.” In the headnote to this week’s selection, Harold Schechter, the editor of the Library of America collection True Crime, adds a few details about Pearson’s background and his influence on the genre.

Notes: Pearson casually mentions other crimes and scandals of the nineteenth century in his article, each of which are fascinating stories on their own. Among them: Serial killer Belle Gunness, of Laporte, Indiana, is believed to have murdered at least fourteen men between 1884 and 1908; her crimes were discovered after she died (or disappeared) when her farmhouse burned down. Thomas Osborn was governor of Kansas from 1873 to 1877; he offered a reward of $2,000 for the capture of the Bender family, and Pearson’s descriptions of the family members are from Osborn’s “Wanted” handbills.

The Claflins were sisters Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Claflin Woodhull, whose mother was a follower of Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer—beliefs passed on to her daughters. The sisters became the first female stockbrokers and then used the money earned on Wall Street to start up a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. In 1872, the year before the Benders became national news, the sisters’ views on “free love,” sex education, and regulated prostitution, among other topics, were attacked from the pulpit by Henry Ward Beecher, and the women responded by publishing substantiated allegations that Ward was an adulterer. The sisters were arrested for distributing obscene material, and Beecher was sued for adultery by Theodore Tilton, the husband of the woman in the affair. The trial of Beecher resulted in a hung jury; the acquittal of Woodhull led to the passage for the Comstock Laws in 1873. It is this background, as well as Woodhull’s subsequent prominence on the lecture circuit and in the women’s suffrage movement, that prompts Pearson’s comparison of Kate Bender to the Claflins.

Captain Joseph White of Salem, Massachusetts, was murdered by four young men—two pairs of brothers—in 1830 under the mistaken belief that his death would result in a large inheritance to the mother-in-law of one of the accomplices. The case became national news—and a source of fascination to the young Nathaniel Hawthorne—when it was prosecuted by Daniel Webster. Thomas S. Duke, a former police captain, was the author of Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, 1830–1910. Jim Fisk was a stockbroker famous for involving the unwitting President Ulysses S. Grant in a scheme, with his partner Jay Gould, to corner the gold market in New York, which led to the Black Friday panic of 1869. Fisk was murdered in 1872 by Edward Stokes, a fellow businessman who attempted—and failed—to extort money from him.

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The wholesale murderer is often the grimmest and most disagreeable character in all the list. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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