By Roger McKinney
The story of the murderous Bender family, which killed a dozen people in Southeast Kansas between 1871 and 1873, is being filmed in Kansas.
The Benders, often referred to as the Bloody Benders, were a husband and wife and their adult son and daughter. They operated an inn and store at their house atop a mound along the Osage Trail in Labette County between Parsons and Cherryvale.
Independent filmmakers John Alexander and J.C. Guest, both 24 and from Los Angeles, are turning the Benders’ story into a feature film. “The Bender Claim” is filming in Wichita, Junction City and El Dorado. The pair of filmmakers, who met at Harvard, also wrote the screenplay together. Guest, the producer, originally is from North Carolina, and Alexander, the director, is from Los Angeles.
Guest, in a phone conversation, said neither of them were aware of details of the Bender story before they started researching it.
“John was looking for material set in the Old West, but the kind of Old West that’s a little different from the standard Hollywood version of the Old West.
The pair had begun filming in Grand Island, Neb., on Wednesday, and on Friday had finished the day’s shooting in Geary County, Kan. Shooting is expected to take a month, but Guest said she was reluctant to put a release date on the film.
She said as word of the movie spread, she and Alexander heard from so many people from Southeast Kansas whose family members had been to the Bender inn, or had been part of the posse that searched for them, or had other connections with the Bender story.
“That’s really added to the story,” Guest said.
As for the filming locations, Guest said the site where the Benders actually operated didn’t lend itself to filming. She said there were too many highways and soybean fields there now.
“We searched far and wide for locations that would look like Kansas in the 1870s,” Guest said. “We definitely spent a lot of time in Montgomery and Labette counties.”
Guest said the “claim” in the title refers to the land the Benders claimed, and the claims the Benders made about themselves, and the claims and rumors others made about them.
The area where the Benders settled at the time had recently been opened to white settlers, and there would have been a lot of traffic along the trail, according to the Kansas Historical Society. Men arrived in the area with money to buy supplies and livestock.
The following historical information is provided by the Kansas Historical Society.
The Benders had outfitted their one-room timber cabin with furniture and supplies. A canvas was hung to divide the room. Behind the canvas was a trap door leading to a stone cellar.
The inn had a garden and an orchard.
The daughter, Kate, was said to have been a beautiful woman, with cultured social skills and an alleged gift for clairvoyance.
While a visitor was seated on a bench next to the canvas, a family member behind the canvas used a sledge hammer to bash his head. The bodies were temporarily tossed in the cellar, where the victims’ money and belongings were taken.
Apparently no one noticed the disappearance of seemingly anonymous travelers, but suspicions arose when locals began disappearing.
An Independence resident, George Loncher, and his daughter had disappeared as they were traveling to Iowa to visit family there. Their wagon was found near Fort Scott.
Another Independence resident, William York, a well-known doctor, was returning home from Fort Scott on horseback in early March 1873, but never arrived home. The doctor’s brothers traced him to the Bender inn, where the Benders said York had stopped before continuing on his journey. Several Cherryvale residents also had disappeared without a trace.
In early May 1873, someone noticed that the Bender inn had been abandoned, with dead and emaciated livestock in the barn. Entering the home, area residents found dried pools of blood in the cellar. Depressions in the ground in the orchard revealed the graves of the victims, including those of York, Loncher and Loncher’s daughter.
Posses were formed and a $2,000 reward was offered, but the Benders were never found.
Rick Dykstra, with the Geary County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Junction City, helped the filmmakers scout locations. He said the film will feature the Kansas landscape, which might attract other filmmakers and benefit the state.
“Any exposure is better than no exposure,” he said.
Rick Dykstra, with the Geary County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Junction City, called the Bender story a “true-life thriller.”