Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child.
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
. 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. Independence, Kansas
On his trip to
to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before. Independence
There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from
. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found. Independence
Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.
He made up a party in
and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place. Independence
The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.
In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. 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.
You will agree it is not a fit story for a children’s book. But it shows there were other dangers on the frontier besides wild Indians.
According to Wilder, it is "fit" for children to read about "wild Indians" but it is not "fit" for them to read about serial killers who are white, nor is it "fit" for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm.
Think about that omission and what it means. I invite your comments, and please take a minute to read about racism in the Little House books (links below).
The Bloody Benders, as they were called, represent one of Kansas' most enduring mysteries. They appeared to be a family of well-organized killers who robbed and killed unsuspecting travelers who ventured into their home/inn for a meal and whose bodies dropped through a trap door in the floor under the chair in which they were seated. Here is further information from our state historical society: Bender Knife.
There is a museum in Cherryvale, KS, which has items from the Bender home and a wreath of human hair from their victims, as well as a roadside marker near Labette, KS: The Bloody Benders.
And, another person has written, pointing me to a graphic novel called A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Saga of the Bloody Benders.
For further reading:
Posts about racism in Little House on the Prairie series