In today’s episode, Rachel heads to Independence, Kansas to discuss The Bloody Benders – a family of serial killers. Then, Emily heads to… Boston, Massachusetts (sorry) to share the story of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Hopefully, you’re horrified!
Story 1: The Bloody Benders
We’re going way back to October of 1870. We are about 5 years past the civil war, and homesteaders were engaging in the good old American tradition of displacing Native Americans and setting their wagons on previously native land.
Anywho, 5 families of spiritualists decided to settle around Osage, in the northwest area of Labette County, including the Bender family, who claimed 65 acres. The family built a cabin, a barn, and a well. The Bender women also planted a large vegetable garden and apple orchard. They divided the cabin into 2 rooms, with the 4 family members living in the back room. They set up the front room as a general store, where they sold goods, but they also had a little table, so weary travelers could stop for a meal or spend the night if they needed too.
Although this seems very idyllic and Little-House-on-the-Prairie-ish, the Benders were not incredibly well liked by their neighbors. The patriarch of the family was about 60 years-old and did not speak much English – the family was German or perhaps Dutch – and Wikipedia describes him as speaking in a “guttural” tone. The matriarch, Elvira, was around 55-years-old and was known around the homestead by the cute little nickname of “she-devil.”
But 25-year-old Little John was more charming. He was 1870s hot, with auburn hair and a sweet sweet mustache. John also spoke with a thick German accent, which would have been fine, but he also laughed a lot for no reason, so people didn’t see him as very smart. It reminds me of when Phoebe is giving Joey feedback in that episode of Friends where she is his agent, and she’s all, they thought you were ‘pretty, but dumb.’ Joey is all proud and then she goes, ‘no, actually they said pretty dumb.’ Then, there was Kate Bender. At 23-years-old, she was pretty, cultured, intelligent, and, a self-proclaimed psychic. This bitch was hustling, handing out flyers to people advertising her ability to cure illnesses – she also performed seances and advocated for spiritualism and free love, and was one of the main reasons people wanted to shop and stay at the Bender’s Inn.
We have talked a lot about being nonjudgmental about people’s lifestyles, even if we don’t feel they are for us. But when Kate Bender talked about free love, she meant free for everyone. In her lecture manuscript she wrote, “Shall we confine ourselves to a single love, and deny our natures their proper sway?…Even though it be a brother’s passion for his own sister, I say it should not be smothered.”
Sorry Kate, you lost us.
Let’s jump forward to May of 1871. And, I’m just going to go ahead and preface this: Trigger Warning. The body of a man known only as “Jones” was found in Drum Creek. His skull had been crushed, and his throat had been cut. Of course, the owner of Drum Creek was the first suspect, but there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction, and nothing further happened. The following February, 2 more male victims were found – they had the same injuries as Jones. That winter, George Newton Longcor and his – this is extra terrible – baby daughter Mary Ann, left Independence KS to resettle in Iowa, but they never ended up in Iowa… and in fact, they were never seen again. The following spring, George’s neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, went looking for the father and daughter. He started questioning all of the homesteaders along the trail, but he also mysteriously disappeared. Weird… right?
Also, allegedly murdering a doctor is not incredibly inconspicuous. And this doctor had brothers! Ed York and Colonel Alexander M. York – a war veteran, lawyer, and member of the state senate. When their brother Dr. William didn’t come home, they brought out the literal calvary – seriously – they brought 50 dudes with them and went full Sherlock Homes, questioning every traveler around the Drum Creek Trail.
Finally, on March 28 1873, Colonel York et al made it to the Benders’ Inn. He asked the Bender family all about his missing brother, and they were all…. Hmmmmm he sounds familiar. Probably he stayed with us. But we think he got into some beef with the Native Americans. The Colonel was all, “seems legit,” and ended up staying for dinner. But, a few days later, he came back with some armed men.
Turns out, Colonel York had heard that a woman who had been staying at the inn got the fuck out of there after Elvira Bender allegedly threatened her with knives. Elvira was like, that’s not what happened – that witch cursed my coffee so I made her leave. Kate Bender decided to smooth over the situation – she told Colonel York to come back next Friday, and she would use her psychic powers to help him find Dr. William.
Colonel York was not buying it. He was sure that the Benders were guilty – also, their neighboring homesteaders, the Roaches, which is a super unfortunate name. Anywho, he’s all “HANG THE MURDERERS.”
In the meantime, everyone in Labette County started pointing fingers at the Osage community, saying someone (or multiple someones) there must be guilty of all the disappearances. 75 local community members, including the Colonel and both of the John Benders, gathered together for a meeting and discussed all the disappearances. They decided to obtain a warrant to search all the homesteads between Big Hill Creek and Drum Creek. Big John and Little John were all “yeah, sounds great” in the meeting, but it definitely was not great for them, so they noped on out of there and fled from their Inn.
Three days after the meeting, one of the community members, Billy Tole, was driving cattle past the Benders’ Inn when he noticed that the property had been abandoned and all of their animals had been left unfed, which is awful. Billy reported this right away, but then the weather got crappy so it was several days before the Inn could be investigated. Finally, a search party of several hundred people descended on the property, including Colonel York. Inside the cabin, the search party found that the family had cleared out all of their food and belongings.
But the Benders did leave one thing behind… a bad smell. And the search party found a trap door underneath one of the beds. And it was nailed shut. Don’t you worry, they pried it open. And wouldn’t you know it, there was a room under the door. It was empty, save for some blood that had clotted on the stone slab floor. The searchers broke up the floor with sledgehammers, but no bodies were found. However, they determined the gross smell was the coagulated blood that that had soaked into the soil.
Finally, after more outside searching, they came across the body of Dr. William York in the vegetable garden. The next morning, they found another 9 bodies, one of which being found in the well along with a number of disjointed body parts. Almost all of the bodies had their throats cut and their heads bashed in with a hammer. And, this is truly horrifying, the only body that did not have these injuries was that of a young girl. The hypothesis was that she had either been strangled or buried alive.
Let’s take a quick sec to talk about why and how the Bender family killed their victims. Most people think that the Benders would give weary travelers a seat of honor at their table. This seat was so special that it was right in front of a weird wagon cloth and sitting on top of a trap door. So psychic Kate would distract the patron, and then one of the Johns would sneak up from behind and hit victim with a hammer. Then, either Kate or Elvira would slit their throat, and then, the victim’s body would be dropped through the trap door. Later, they would be buried somewhere in the orchard or garden.
And, interestingly, most of the victims were not incredibly wealthy – the Bender family was killing just for the hell of it.
We know a little about the way the Benders probably killed because of intended victims who ended up surviving. One guy noped out of there when he saw that there were weird stains on the wagon cloth. Another guy, a priest, saw one of the Johns trying to hide a big hammer, so he felt icky and ran out as well. Another couple of gentlemen who showed up to see psychic Kate also didn’t want to sit by the weird cloth. They wanted to sit by the counter at the shop, and Kate started threatening them, and then they saw the Johns come out from the cloth. So. Creepy.
Also creepy – over a dozen bullet holes were found in the cabin – media speculated that some victims tried to fight back after they were hit by the hammer.
Obviously, a family of serial killers in a small town caused Morbid Curious to come out in droves, and our people swarmed the house. Over 3,000 people visited the cabin and took everything as souvenirs, including the bricks and stones making up the areas in which the bodies were found.
Alexander York, the state senator, offered a $1,000 reward for information that led to the arrest of the Bender Family, and Thomas A. Osborn, the governor, added another $2,000 reward to the mix.
So, where are these fuckers?
Detectives were able to find the family’s abandoned wagon (and starving horses) outside of a town called Thayer. Then, they found out that the Bloody Benders had boarded a train for Humboldt, KS. They continued on through the country, perhaps traveling through New Mexico or Texas, and at this point, detectives stopped following them. Apparently, the Benders went through outlaw territory, and outlaws were not fans of cops. If they were to have continued on the trail of the murderers, these cops would likely have found themselves dead as well.
One detective did say that he followed the family all the way to the border, where he found out that Little John died of apoplexy. Big John and Elvira faked everybody out. Instead of getting off at Humboldt they went up to Kansas City and then on to Saint Louis.
Vigilante groups have other stories. One group claims to have caught and shot the Johns and Elvira. They say that they burned Kate alive. Another group says they caught the entire family, lynched them, and through their bodies into the Verdigris River. A third group said that they entered into a gun fight with the family, killed all 4 of them, and buried them in the prairie. All good stories, but no one ever claimed the $3,000 reward.
The search for this murderous family continued on and off for fifty years.
There are some theories about what happened to them – in 1884, John Flickinger completed suicide in Lake Michigan. Apparently, this man murdered someone by means of taking a hammer to their head, which sounds familiar. Regardless, his body was decomposed so badly they were not able to confirm his identity. Some were so convinced that John Flickinger was actually John Bender Sr. that his skull was displayed in a Saloon as “Pa Bender,” until the bar closed in 1920 because, you know, prohibition. And some Morbid Curious must have taken that skull because it disappeared.
There were some arrests made – 12 “men of bad repute in general,” but it seemed as though the Benders disappeared. There was a pair of women, Almira Monroe and Sarah Eliza Davis, who were arrested in Michigan for larceny, and then arrested for the murders. They were found guilty of being Elvira and Kate, and ended up serving time for a bit, but eventually were discharged. There was not a ton of evidence, except a very convinced woman who had lost her daughter because of the Benders’ murderous ways.
Overall, the Bender family probably killed over 20 people. Most of the bodies were unclaimed. The Benders live on in notoriety though, as assholes tend to, and you can go to the Cherryville Museum, where there is a display about their crimes, to include the hammer, AKA the murder weapon.
And that is the gross, awful story of the Bloody Benders, America’s first family of serial killers.
• 1) May 1871: Mr. Jones. Body found in Drum Creek with a crushed skull and throat cut.
• 2-3) February 1872: Two unidentified men found on the prairie in February 1872 with crushed skulls and throats cut.
• 4) December 1872: Ben Brown. From Howard County, Kansas. $2,600 (2021: $56,167) missing. Buried in the apple orchard.
• 5) December 1872: W.F. McCrotty. Co D 123rd Ill Infantry. $38 (2021: $821) and a wagon with a team of horses missing.
• 6) December 1872: Henry McKenzie. Relocating to Independence from Hamilton County, Indiana. $36 (2021: $778) and a matched team of horses missing.
• 7) December 1872: Johnny Boyle. From Howard County, Kansas. $10 (2021: $216), a pacing mare, and an $850 (2021: $18,362) saddle missing. Found in the Benders’ well.
• 8-9) December 1872: George Newton Longcor and his 18-month-old daughter, Mary Ann. Contemporary newspapers reported his name as either “George W. Longcor” or “George Loncher”, while Mary Ann is similarly reported as being either eight years old or 18 months old. According to the 1870 census, George and his wife, Mary Jane, were neighbors of Charles Ingalls and family in Independence, while his wife’s parents lived two houses away. Following the deaths of his infant son, Robert, from pneumonia in May 1871 and his 21-year-old wife, Mary Jane (née Gilmore), following the birth of Mary Ann several months later, George was likely returning to the home of his parents, Anthony and Mary (Hughes) Longcor, in Lee County, Iowa. In preparation for his return to Iowa, George had purchased a team of horses from his neighbor, Dr. William Henry York, who later went looking for George and was also murdered; both were veterans of the Civil War. $1,900 (2021: $41,045) missing. The daughter was thought to have been buried alive, but this was not proven. No injuries were found on her body, and she was fully clothed, including mittens and hood. Both were buried together in the apple orchard.
• 10) December 1872: John Greary. Buried in the apple orchard.
• 11) December 1872: Red Smith. Buried in the apple orchard.
• 12) December 1872: Abigail Roberts. Buried in the apple orchard.
• 13-15) December 1872: Various body parts. The parts did not belong to any of the other victims found and are believed to belong to at least three additional victims.
• 16-19) December 1872: During the search, the bodies of four unidentified males were found in Drum Creek and the surroundings. All four had crushed skulls and throats cut. One might have been Jack Bogart, whose horse was purchased from a friend of the Benders after he went missing in 1872.
• 20) May 1873: Dr William York. $2,000 (2021: $43,206) missing. Buried in the apple orchard.
Story 2: The Great Molasses Flood
Today I’m going to be talking to you about a perfect storm that hit Boston in 1919. A perfect, terrible, extremely sticky storm. Yes, today I’m going to be talking about Boston’s Great Molasses Flood.
That story, however, starts in 1915. Because this was the year that the molasses tank was built. It was erected along Boston’s waterfront and was operated by the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol. Now, I think about molasses as a baking ingredient, but back then grain alcohol was made from fermented molasses and it was highly profitable. It was also used to make dynamite and other weaponry for World War I. Crazy right?
So, they built this massive tank. It was more than 50 feet high and 90 feet in diameter. It rose up above the elevated train that ran through Boston and it held up to 2.5 million gallons of molasses. Do you know how much 2.5 million gallons is? It takes about 660,000 gallons to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool… so we’re talking just under 4 Olympic swimming pools.
Anywho, apparently tankers would come into the Boston Harbor and delivered shipments of molasses to the wharf and it was then pumped into the tank and stored until it could be sent to distilleries on train cars.
The only problem was that the tank was built FAST and therefore it was not built super well. Locals pretty much all knew that it leaked and also reported that it emitted low rumbling noises – like that isn’t ominous AF. Some people made the most of it and would send their children to collect pails of molasses to bring home… others would complain about the oozing brown liquid. So, what was Purity Distilling’s solution? Patching it up? Nahhhhhh. They just painted the tank brown so it wasn’t as easy to see that molasses was seeping out. This just cracked me up. Have you ever done this as a “fix” before? I have definitely used brown sharpy to color in a small scratch on a table, back in my youth. And I’ve definitely seen tweets about “you know you’re poor when you get a hole in your jeans and you color your skin beneath it to cover it up.” LOL “Purity” Distilling apparently didn’t have pure intentions, especially when you take into consideration the fact that the tank wasn’t even tested with water before filling it with molasses.
At some point later on, structural engineers did a little retrospective reviewing of tank – you know, after it was too late – and found that the tank’s walls were actually built far too thin to hold the heavy molasses. AND, the chemical composition of the tank’s walls actually made them vulnerable to cracking. They asked an intern to build this tank with no supervision, apparently.
Shoddy workmanship is part one of the perfect storm.
Part two was a sudden temperature change in Boston. On January 15, 1919, the temperature had risen above 39 degrees F (4 C for our international listeners), which was a relatively significant increase from the very cold temperatures of the previous days.
Because the metal used to build the tank was already super brittle it couldn’t really handle the extreme change in temperatures. Plus, they were receiving a new shipment of molasses that day and they had heated it up so that it could transfer more simply – because, if you’ve ever worked with molasses you will know that when it’s cold it gets very viscous.
Anywho, when the new shipment of molasses was transferred from the ship to the tank, there was a significant temperature difference between the newer and existing product.
This was part two of the perfect storm.
The final straw was the sheer amount of molasses that was poured into the tank on the 15th. As you remember, the tank held 2.3 million gallons of molasses, but in the four years since the tank had been built it had been filled 29 times and only four of those times were even close to being near capacity. On this instance, however, a ship arrived from Puerto Rico containing a full load of 2.3 million gallons of molasses. The tank was about to get filled allll the way to the brim.
This was the final straw.
At approximately 12:25 p.m. locals heard a slight rumble and at 12:30 p.m. all hell broke loose. The tank burst and all 2.3 million gallons of molasses, weighing around 13,000 tons, spilled into the streets of Boston. Fun fact, 13,000 tons is about 28.6 million pounds. Or like… 4 Empire state buildings. So, imagine a tank bursting and what pours out of it is essentially like four 100-story buildings falling onto the street.
Not to mention that the molasses was pouring out at an estimated 35 mph and the “wave” that came out was between 15 and 40 feet high and some 160 feet wide.
The wave of the thick sweet syrup was so powerful it picked up a truck and threw it into the Boston Harbor. It destroyed several city blocks, leveled 6 buildings and damaged automobiles. It knocked the elevated train off of its tracks and completely moved a firehouse off its foundation.
Unfortunately, buildings and vehicles weren’t the only things destroyed. Here’s where it gets extra horrible. The flood also killed 21 people and injured 150 more. So, even though it seems like it might be a kind of funny site – to see sweet brown sludge slowly flowing through the streets people getting stuck in it like “Ackkkk!!” like Kathy from the Sunday Funnies back in the day – it was not a funny sight.
The runnier molasses that poured out of the tank trapped people in the area, but then as temperatures cooled, the molasses got more viscous aka got stickier and completely trapped those who were caught by the flood.
The Boston Post reported the day after the disaster that many of its victims suffocated, were smothered in the molasses that enveloped the area, or were crushed by the wreckage it caused. Here’s a quote from the article from that next day:
There was no escape from the wave. Caught, human being and animal alike could not flee. Running in it was impossible. Snared in its flood was to be stifled. Once it smeared a head–human or animal–there was no coughing off the sticky mass. To attempt to wipe it with hands was to make it worse. Most of those who died, died from suffocation. It plugged nostrils almost air-tight.
It went on:
“[The] dead, dying, suffocating, struggling and maimed mass of humanity and animals that it left in Commercial street and in the area it swept over were not all rescued or their bodies recovered for hours afterward. The sight that greeted the first of the rescuers on the scene is almost indescribable in words.”
Then of course the hospitals and relief centers were completely overwhelmed. Stretcher after stretcher arrived and usually the nurses couldn’t even tell what the gender or age of the person was.
Although no prominent people were killed in the flood (they were mostly immigrants and city workers) I am somewhat shocked to say that ALL 21 victims have been identified and I have a little info on them. I wrote this out and initially the 21 bios took up about as much time as the first half of my story, so I slimmed this part down, but there is more detail in the Boston Globe which I will link to in the show notes.
But now, let’s talk about the men and women who perished in the flood:
Pasquale was 10 years. He was reportedly collecting firewood near the molasses tank while home from school for lunch when the explosion occurred. According to reports, the boy’s father, Giuseppe, was watching from their apartment window and saw the moment Pasquale disappeared in the mass. He searched for hours for his son but eventually had to trudge back up the stairs, alone.
The body of the 37-year-old driver from Norwood wasn’t found until 11 days after the flood. He worked for Balboni’s Boston and Norwood Auto Express, and he was reported missing in the immediate days following the disaster. Gallerani is said to have been sitting on his truck at the time of the collapse of the tank.
A 32-year-old who worked as an “expressman” or a wagon driver. His body was found four months after the tragedy, under Commercial Wharf.
A 44-year-old worked as a laborer at the North End Paving Yard. He left behind a wife.
61-years-old, a resident of East Boston. He worked as a teamster, which at the time, referred to a man who drove a team of horses, typically transporting goods in a wagon.
The 65-year-old was crushed by a collapsed building. She was reportedly in her “old homestead” at 6 Copps Hill Terrace, which extended along Commercial Street, with her daughter and two sons, Martin and Stephen, when “the first shock came” from the explosion.
Apparently, the tremendous rush of air created when the great sides of the giant molasses tank opened out created a vacuum of such force it pulled the house into Commercial st and it fell a heap of ruins beneath the Elevated structure, where the uprights were broken.
Bridget was carried along to where her home fell, the roof collapsing and crushing her.
A 34-year-old who had been eating lunch with his sister in their home. Both were hurled into the street but survived. Unfortunately, Stephen suffered such trauma that he later was placed in a psychiatric hospital, where he died. And his family argued that his death was caused by the trauma.
John was a 43-year-old who worked as a paver at the North End Paving Yard.
Maria was only 10-years-old and she was found early in the recovery process buried beneath a pile of molasses barrels near the base of the wrecked tank. She had also been gathering wood in the yard when the accident happened. There was a terribly sad report in the Globe that said, “Sad-hearted workers lifted her bruised little body onto a stretcher and silently bore it across North End Park to a waiting ambulance.”
William was a 58-year-old who worked as a laborer in the North End Paving Yard. He was born in the North End and had worked as a stone cutter for the City of Boston for 21 years.
Peter was a Charlestown resident and he died at a hospital. Sadly he had to be identified by his clothing by his son. The 64-year-old was a blacksmith who was working at the North End Paving Yard when the molasses flooded the area. He actually briefly regained consciousness and was given his last rights before he died. Born in Ireland, he’d worked for the city for 20 years and was a prominent member of St. Catherine’s Parish in Charlestown.
James H. Kinneally
James was a “valued employee of the city” who had lived in South Boston for about 12 years. He worked as a laborer at the North End Paving Yard, and his wife later testified in court that they’d been married for 30 years at the time of his death and had nine children together, five of whom were alive when she testified.
The 17-year-old from Charlestown was a driver for the Baxter & Oldfield Express Company and was delivering freight at the time of the explosion. His body was found under the “molasses-coated mass of wrecked auto trucks, express boxes and packages in the freight shed of the Bay State Electric Freight Railway,” according to the Globe.
George was a 38-year-old firefighter, assigned to Engine 31, and was crushed in the wreckage of the nearby firehouse. Members of the Boston Fire Department “chopped and dug” at the debris of the station’s quarters to rescue those who had been buried when the molasses flood caused part of the building to collapse.
“It was nearly four hours after the disaster that the work of these men was finished, and then it was when the body of George Layhe, third engineer on the fireboard, was taken from under heavy timbers, held down by the piano and pool table, still warm, but not alive.
Layhe was reportedly going to bed shortly before the disaster. He was found at the foot of the station’s sliding pole and left behind a wife and three children.
A 64-year-old foreman with the Paving Department who was killed when the building where he was eating lunch collapsed. A resident of Roxbury for 25 years, Lennon was born in Ireland but came to the United States “as a young man [and] attended the public schools of Boston,” the Globe reported. He’d worked for the Highway Division of the Public Works Department for 25 years and was widely known throughout the city.
Martin, 21, was born in Boston and served in the Navy for about a year. He’d been working as a storekeeper at the service’s Hingham camp until two months before the explosion. At the time of his death, he was working as a driver for Blackstone Supply Company.
He was unloading goods from a wagon when knocked down by the bursting of the tank nearby.
The 76-year-old Dorchester man was working as a messenger for the Public Works Department. He had returned to work 20 minutes before the explosion and was thrown several feet against a pile of paving stones and suffered a fractured skull, both legs broken, contusions and internal injuries.
The 46-year-old was working as a foreman for the Bay State Express when he died.
The 43-year-old longshoreman was born in Ireland, and served in the British Army for 10 years. He and his son, Carthage Noonan, were returning home from South Boston and when on Commercial Street were caught in the flood of molasses and wreckage. Noonan died at the hospital, and his 14-year-old son was treated for injuries. He was survived by his wife, four other sons, and three daughters.
Shaughnessy was an 18-year-old teamster. His horse, covered with molasses, was found dead near North End Park, and the wagon was found wrecked. No trace of the young man was found. The day of the flood was his first day on the job working as a teamster for Johnson & Co. truckers.
John was a 69-year-old blacksmith who worked in the North End Paving Yard. He was born in Germany and became a naturalized citizen. He’d been working for the city for about 47 years. He was home resting after his noon meal and he died of his injuries at the hospital.
Those are the 21 victims that were taken by the flood.
Next, the city had to clean everything up, which was NOT an easy process. Molasses coated everything. It was the moisturizer that exploded in Ross’ bag … “Oh it’s on EVERYTHING.” This made it almost impossible to move fragments of building and vehicles. Finally, city workers realized that saltwater broke down the molasses and began spraying the area with water pumped in from the harbor. The Engine 31 fireboat, who’s firehouse had been destroyed in the flood, was key in the cleanup efforts.
The other aftermath of the flood was the question: WHO IS TO BLAME?
I think we all know who it was… *cough* Purity Distillery *cough* … but they initially blamed an anarchist plot to bomb the tank claiming that it had been sabotaged by “evilly disposed persons.” Eyeroll.
Of course, an inquiry and a later class-action lawsuit (filed by 119 plaintiffs) revealed the structural instability of the tank. In 1925, a court-appointed auditor ruled that the negligence by the tank’s owners was to blame for the tank’s collapse and the loss of life and property.
The little silver lining was that the tragedy of Boston’s molasses flood led to great changes in the way the United States regulated industries. There were new regulations stipulating that engineers needed to sign and seal plans, building inspectors needed to examine projects, and that architects needed to show their work all came as a result of Boston’s molasses flood.
There’s one other lasting impact that we’ll have to check out for ourselves when we visit… according to locals, when it gets warm enough, you can still smell molasses in Boston.