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Literature

The Bender Tragedy: Family of Serial Killers

The Bender Tragedy, Mary E. York, Geo. W. Neff Books & Job Printer, 1875. Nonfiction, $12.99, Paperback. Photos.

Bender Tragedy“Dedicated to the Memory of My Husband: Dr. William York, Murdered in Labette County, 1873.”  This book is a tong-lost treasure filled with information written by a grieving widow. Mary York’s husband, Dr. Wm York was one of the victims of the Bender family who murdered unsuspecting travelers on the Kansas frontier in the early 1870s.  Dr. York was a Civil War veteran, and younger brother of Senator Alexander York, also a Civil War veteran of the Union Army.  Mrs. York published the book soon after the Bender tragedy unfolded, but copies were apparently scarce, and the original manuscript languished in a University library collection until recently discovered by a member of the Cherryvale, Kansas Historical Society.

The first part of the book deals with Mrs. York’s premonition that her husband might not return from a two-week business trip by horseback.  The Yorks had three small children, and Mrs. York was pregnant at the time.  She tells how the terrible waiting for information was followed by news that his body was discovered in the Bender apple orchard.  The book then deals with information about the Bender tragedy itself, followed by how the loss of her husband affected her and the children. Mary York was an educated woman using the archaic writing style of the time, which lends credence to the story.

Bender TragedyA great flurry of accurate as well as inaccurate stories flourished when the Bender murders were discovered, with many details erroneously repeated in newspaper articles due to the high excitement surrounding the horror.  Mary York’s story contains a few important details that were overlooked by writers of the time.  While this book does not cover all aspects of the Bender tragedy, it gives a sentimental account of what was happening in the lives of those whose loved ones had disappeared.

The Bender family of four posed as Ma, Pa, grown daughter Kate and son John, living in a one-room shack on the road outside Cherryvale, Kansas.  They operated an “inn” offering food, groceries, and a place to camp to folks traveling west.  After murdering some travelers for money, clothing, horses and wagons, the perpetrators buried their victims behind the shack in the apple orchard.

Eventually the gruesome remains were discovered, but not before the Benders fled.  Their whereabouts, until recently, remained one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the Old West.

When Mary York wrote this book in 1875, she had no clue as to where her husband’s killers had gone.  However, her book is filled with pertinent information from the perspective of one who experienced those dreadful days filled with sorrow and fear.  We must remember there were no telephones, no emails, no television news, no quick and easy way for information to travel.  This heartbroken woman spoke of her awful journey waiting for word, then dealing with the terrible truth, and finally trying to calm the anxieties of her small children.

This book can be obtained by contacting the Little House on the Prairie Museum, 2507 CR 3000, Sedan, Kansas. 67301.

Publisher’s Notes: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West, including Death For Dinner, the Benders of (Old) Kansas, Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 399, Unionville, New York, 10988. Ph. (845) 726-3434. www.silklabelbooks.com.

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