Hell's Half-Acre

by Susan Jonusas | History |
ISBN: 9781984879837 Global Overview for this book
Registered by wingGoryDetailswing of Nashua, New Hampshire USA on 6/13/2022
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Journal Entry 1 by wingGoryDetailswing from Nashua, New Hampshire USA on Monday, June 13, 2022
I got this hardcover at Barnes and Noble. I've read several works about the deadly Bender family (including Rick Geary's The Saga of the Bloody Benders graphic novel), and couldn't resist this new one. (I first heard of the Benders via the Anthony Boucher short story "They Bite," in which they were mentioned in passing; my first encounter with the non-fiction version was in Edmund Pearson's Murder at Smutty Nose.)

Later: A highly detailed account of the crimes - and of the way people lived on the Kansas frontier in that time, which featured many other perils, from accident to illness to starvation. And while crime was certainly not unknown, it more typically involved robbery - stagecoaches being held up, or individuals getting robbed while drunk or distracted, sometimes suffering injury or death but more usually just having to deal with the aftermath as best they could.

But then the Benders set up shop, ostensibly as a grocery store (though with very little stock) and a wayside inn (though with poor food and very little space). What it did have: the attractions of Kate Bender, the daughter (it was presumed) of the older couple, and either the sister or the wife of young John Gebhardt. Kate was described as quite attractive, and she also offered to do spiritual readings or hold seances - the spiritualist movement was on the upswing at that time, and with limited opportunities for recreation on the frontier, anything unusual piqued the interest of the residents.

Over the course of a year or two, people began to disappear - oh, a couple of bodies were found, but without an indication as to where they had been killed, and the others vanished without a trace... for a while. Some people were suspicious of the Benders; indeed, the book features several accounts of near-misses, people whose senses led them to bolt from the cabin. (How many of these described their decisions before the discovery of the extent of the Benders' crimes, as opposed to the many who piped up afterwards, isn't quite clear, but so many people did visit the cabin and lived to tell the tale that at least some of them probably did get "bad vibes".)

At that time, the concept of serial killers wasn't common; a band of robbers, sure, or a gunfighter with a nasty temper, but the deliberate lying-in-wait... not so much. When the inquiries about the missing people (mostly men, though one man was traveling with his toddler daughter) included the Benders, they were cooperative - until the questions grew more pressing. At this point few people suspected them of doing the killing, they just thought they might know something - but when the family disappeared, leaving their farm animals behind to starve, the community realized that something was very wrong there indeed. And then they began to search the grounds - and found the first grave. And the second. And more...

The situation became a media circus of the day; there were even special trains (!) commissioned to bring the curious to the area. And of course the souvenir hunters pretty much demolished the cabin and any other relics, leaving the area a churned mass of mud and the fading smell of blood and decomposition.

The book features more details of the family's flight and the investigation into their whereabouts; I hadn't realized that so much was recorded, as the first stories I'd heard suggested that the Benders vanished overnight without a trace, hinting that vigilantes had found and disposed of them and were keeping it quiet. From the viewpoint of the law-enforcement folk trying to find them, this may as well have been the case: they did get many reports of sightings of one or more members of the family, some quite far-flung, and all difficult to verify or debunk. And there was even a trial: two women, allegedly Kate and old Mrs. Bender, were charged with the murders some 16 years later, only to have the hearings turn into a circus as the many witnesses could not agree as to whether these were the Bender women or not. Eventually both women were cleared - after enduring a pretty nightmarish time - and while some people were still convinced they were the Benders, there was no way to pursue the case past that point. And despite all the searching, there's never been a conclusive answer to the question of what became of that family of killers...

I appreciated the sections that dealt with the families of the victims; from their initial horror and grief to the various ways they moved on with their lives (or, in some cases, did not) was a reminder that the notorious murders had longterm effects on so many innocent parties.

Journal Entry 2 by wingGoryDetailswing at Ipswich Ale Brewery (see notes) in Ipswich, Massachusetts USA on Friday, March 31, 2023

Released 2 mos ago (3/31/2023 UTC) at Ipswich Ale Brewery (see notes) in Ipswich, Massachusetts USA


I left this book on a window ledge outside the Ipswich Ale Brewery while stopping by for some lunch. Hope someone enjoys it! (Update: on my way out I saw the book on a shelf inside the entrance.)

[See other recent releases in MA here.]

** Released for the 2023 Oh, the Places We Can Go challenge. **

** Released for the 2023 52 Towns in 52 Weeks challenge. **

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