Every movement has its bad apples, and this certainly includes the Spiritualist movement that swept North America and much of Europe in the 19th century. But when we think of Spiritualism's bad apples, we're probably inclined to remember fraudulent mediums, unscrupulous spirit photographers, and other hucksters who were exposed by journalists, skeptical magicians, and the diligent efforts of psychical researchers.
There's one set of bad apples, however, that deserve their own special mention: the Bloody Benders of Kansas.
Who were the Benders? They were a family of four, though the details of their family relationships remain ambiguous to this day. Wikipedia tells us,
The family consisted of John Bender, his wife Mrs. Bender ..., son John Jr. and daughter Kate. While Bender mythology holds that John and Kate were brother and sister, contemporary newspapers reported that several of the Benders' neighbors have stated that they claimed to be man and wife.
The clan migrated west in 1870 as part of a larger community of Spiritualists, settling in Osage. The younger Kate styled herself as a medium and held seances for the locals. She also claimed healing powers, and advertised lectures on Spiritualism.
But the Benders' interest in death wasn't limited to communications from the afterlife. They took a rather more active role in the matter. They were, in point of fact, serial killers; and from 1871 to 1873, they murdered more than a dozen people, burying many of them in the apple orchard near the inn.
The murder method was simple. Wikipedia again:
It is conjectured that when a guest would stay at the Benders' bed and breakfast inn, the hosts would give the guest a seat of honor at the table which was positioned over a trap door that led down into the cellar. With the victim's back to the curtain Kate [the younger] would distract the guest, while John Bender or his son would come from behind the curtain and strike the guest on the right side of the skull with a hammer. The victim's throat was then cut by one of the women to ensure his death. The body was then dropped through the trap door. Once in the cellar, the body would be stripped and later buried somewhere on the property, often in the orchard. More than a dozen bullet holes were found in the roof and sides of the room and the media speculated that some of the victims had attempted to fight back after being hit with the hammer.
By the time local suspicions were finally aroused and the bodies were dug up, the Benders had fled. Despite scattered reports of their arrests or deaths, their fates were never confirmed.
So what's the point of this post? None, really. I don't think the Benders reflect on the Spiritualist movement in general, which mostly involved decent, well-meaning people. In fact, Spiritualism played an important part in both the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements.
Mostly, I just find the story interesting because I'd never heard of the Benders until recently, and their weird, violent pathology makes a dramatic contrast to the doctrines of peace, love, and immortality that they preached.
And I can't help wondering about young Kate, in particular. Could she have had any genuine mediumistic talents - and if so, what sort of messages might she have received from those whose throats she'd cut?