Scary House On The Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Brush With 'Bloody Benders' Serial Killers
Did you know there might have been a connection between the famous historical serial killers the “Bloody Benders” and a VERY famous series of children’s books?
According to a speech given by acclaimed author Laura Ingalls Wilder at a book fair back in 1937, she claimed to have kept a story of her family’s encounter with the notorious murderers out of the Little House books because she didn’t believe it appropriate for a children’s saga. (FYI, the Bloody Benders, also known as “America’s first serial killers,” were a family that owned an inn and general store in Kansas, near where Wilder’s family lived. It’s believed that the Benders brutally killed at least 12 travelers passing through the area.)
During Wilder’s speech, which was reprinted in The Saturday Evening Post in September 1978, she told the book fair attendees about how the Benders lived about halfway between their house and the town of Independence, Kansas.
According to Wilder, the Ingalls family would stop at the Benders’ property on trips to and from Independence. She said her father would get water from the well for them and the horses, but he would never go into the Benders’ tavern. This was odd, because she said it was the only place on that road south of the town for travelers to stop. What was also odd was that many travelers who headed south from Independence were never heard from again.
One thing Wilder said the locals did notice was that the garden on the Benders’ property seemed to always be freshly plowed, but nobody could recall seeing anything planted or growing there. Wilder told the attendees the story of how a man who’d arrived in town to investigate his brother’s disappearance finally led to a search of the Bender home. When they arrived, she said it appeared as though the Benders had left in a hurry. During that search, they were said to have discovered a body with its head bashed in with a large hammer sitting close by.
Digging up the garden reportedly revealed multiple bodies and sets of human bones. One body was even supposedly that of a little girl who had been buried alive to be with her murdered parents. Wilder ended the story by talking about how Pa Ingalls disappeared with his rifle one night, telling Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” She said he came back late the following day, and whenever the subject of hunting for the Benders came up after that, he would always say that the family would “never be found.” Wilder told her book fair audience that she didn’t feel good about putting the story in a kids’ book, so she omitted it.
As always with historical crime mysteries, there are inconsistencies in Wilder’s retelling. The Benders, it should be noted, were very real. There is some disagreement among historians about whether they were a true family in the traditional sense, or if they were four people who chose to take a common surname. Regardless, there were two men and two women in the Bender clan.
According to the historical record, the Benders were not actually discovered until 1873, which was two years after Wilder and the rest of her family were supposed to have left Kansas. Also, Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, so she would have only been four years old at best if the encounter with the Benders did happen before the family left Kansas in 1871.
This begs the question, is Wilder’s story the truth (and history is wrong), the result of a faulty memory, or just a piece of historical true crime that has been a tiny bit fictionalized by a prominent author? You be the judge.