Katie Bender, Witch of the Prairie

While researching folklore that crops up in serial killers’ wake, I found some really interesting stories linking Katie Bender, of the infamous Bender family, to old-school witchcraft.

The Benders, Ma, Pa and Katie and John, arrived in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1970. The family settled down and built a cabin to be used as an inn close to the main road between Independence and Fort Scott. The family’s origins are shrouded in mystery: Some said the family had been part of a German or Dutch settlement in Pennsylvania, and had been forced to leave after some sort of dispute, another theory went that the family had been part of an Amish community. The family relations were a bit unclear too. Some said that Katie and John were siblings, others man and wife, and some even said they were siblings living as man and wife. Of the four of them, only Katie spoke English fluently and the family as whole spoke to each other in German.

Shortly after their arrival, travelers — mostly men — started to disappear. When as many as a dozen had failed to arrive at their destinations, it was decided that all the farms in the area had to be searched. The Benders, who saw their share of travelers at their makeshift inn, had not been suspected at that point but took the cue and fled. Not long after, neglected animals had people look in on the farm, which seemed deserted, and a persistent, bad smell made them search the premises.

It didn’t take long before they discovered a cellar smeared with blood, and several graves in the apple orchard. The Benders are believed to be responsible for at least a dozen murders — all of them guests at the inn.

Though it’s a fact that stories told after a horrible event are hardly ever objective and sometimes outright lies, it doesn’t make them any less interesting to me. And in this case it’s particularly fascinating to look at the stories that links Katie Bender to witchcraft and sorcery.

Of the four Benders, Katie was the one who made an impression, both on people she met in real life, and those who just heard of the story. Legend has it what she was beautiful, with thick auburn hair, grey eyes and a great figure. Other contemporary accounts says that her hair was matted and her skin grimy. Several people claimed the inn was filthy and that the Benders lived in squalor.

The Bender family cabin partly dismantled.

The story goes that the two bender women, Katie and Ma, worked as some sort of cunning women, claiming to cure ailments trough supernatural means. This probably went so well that Katie decided to step things up and began promoting herself as medium. Besides talking to the dead, Katie could allegedly find missing items, cure illness, read palms, tell fortunes and procure spells and charms.

With the spiritualist movement being all the rage, it wasn’t a bad time to be a medium, and Katie did pretty well. One story goes that a woman who visited Katie in 1872, hoping the medium could locate a couple of gold rings she had lost, left the Bender home in a huff because Katie had claimed to ‘see’ them in the drain pipe of her home. This, the woman, believed, was impossible. Still, she found a ladder and climbed up to have a look — and found the rings just where Katie had said they would be.

Her peculiar occupation stirred her neighbors’ imagination though, and there’s  several stories about the alleged witchcraft going on at the Bender home (some of them doubtlessly appeared after the fact of their crimes became known). Some even claimed that it was Ma and Katie Bender’s dealings with the Devil that had them flee Pennsylvania in the first place.

One story goes that the Benders always had fresh dairy and sold homemade cheese despite not having a milk cow. One peeping Tom who approached the farm hoping to get a glimpse of a naked Katie, was astonished to see her and her mother busy at work by the fireplace milking rags that hung from the ceiling. In reply, a farmer who lived nearby claimed that his cows were being milked by unknown persons and without his consent. He had even seen the udder inflate as it was being emptied on one occasion.

Another story went that Katie could shape shift into a cat when she went to visit her secret lover.

Some neighbors, like the Weissbrods, decided to do something about the suspected evil in their midst and claimed they fashioned a test for Katie. They had brought with them from Europe the knowledge that a witch who sat on a nail couldn’t feel the prick, and tricked Katie to sit down on razor wire — which she obviously felt. The Weissbrods were not discouraged by this though, they still firmly believed that Katie was a witch.

One particularly wild story goes that one man who went to visit the Benders heard music as he approached the cabin. When he opened the door he saw Katie and another woman, naked but for some feathered jewelry, dancing on the floor. Around them were several black-eyed people who played the guitar and some strange flute. They spoke in a language he didn’t recognize. This story spun the theory that the Benders actually belonged to a Romani tribe that had passed through the area, and that their traveling family helped them sell whatever valuables they had taken off their victims. This would, of course, also explain Katie’s strange powers.

There’s a lot of things in these allegations that reminds me of European witch trials in the sixteenth/seventeenth century. The descriptions of Katie as either very pretty or poor and ugly both resonates with witch stereotypes of that time. To build a reputation as  in possession of mysterious powers was also pretty common back then for people with few means and fewer options — earning many cunning folk and midwives a place at the stake. The stealing of milk and the shape shifting are also things I would have been less surprised to read about in a court transcript from 1612 than an account from Arkansas in 1872. It’s almost as if, faced with human evil on the Bender scale, the immigrants in the area scurried back to their roots and dusted off old superstitions.

Maybe blaming the first evil just makes the serial killer next door more digestible?

17th century witches dancing with devils.

One thing that probably speaks to Katie’s guilt among the believers, is that the Benders were never caught. Their wagon was found abandoned, but the family was never seen again, despite huge awards being promised. Many people at the time claimed that the Benders had been overtaken by vigilantes and killed, but nothing was ever proven.

Maybe the Devil himself showed up and spirited them all away.

Excavation of the Bender property.

 

Sources:
T. Taylor: The Murderous Medium
H. Schechter: Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie

 

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