The Benders appeared to have vanished from the face of the Earth, and for the next 30 years or more, sightings and claims of their demise occupied the press.
But it seems plausible that one of the four Benders, an old man who was their leader, died in Grand Haven around 1884.
The Bender family popped up quietly in southeastern Kansas in the spring of 1872 and appeared to be just another immigrant family that had escaped the confines of the eastern cities to try their hand out west. That was until about 18 months later when law officers, responding to a tip concerning missing area people, unearthed up to two dozen bodies on the Bender property.
The Benders had been killing guests at their hotel.
The Bender “family” included Old Man Bender (or “Pa”), Ma Bender, and their two children, John Jr. and Kate. Daughter Kate was the star attraction at the family’s hotel as she entertained guests as a “psychic medium.” Men often booked a “private reading” with Kate, and were seated with their backs to a canvas room divider.
While Kate distracted the client Old Man Bender or his son would sneak up to the curtain with a sledgehammer and strike a merciless blow to the top of the man’s head, killing him instantly. The body was then dragged back beneath the canvas, stripped and robbed. A trap door that led to an earthen cellar was opened and the body was dumped below until it could be buried somewhere on the prairie. A favorite burying ground was apparently an orchard that was located on the property.
By the time law enforcement officers showed up on the property to discover the remains of victims buried about the property, the Benders were long gone.
It was later discovered the Benders were not a family at all, but a group of misfits who had banded together as one. John Sr. was found to have been a man named John Flickinger, from either Germany or Holland. John Bender Jr. was a man named John Gebhardt and not Kate’s brother. Ma Bender was born Almira Meik in the Adirondacks and had married a man named George Griffith at an early age. Kate Bender was actually Almira Meik’s fifth child named Eliza Griffith. Almira Meik killed George Griffith, and many other men as she remarried, including some of her subsequent children, it was reported.
The Bloody Benders had apparently vanished into history, but according to some researchers, one member of the “family” whose end demise be verified was Old Man Bender.
The death of Old Man Bender was first reported in 1884 as “a drowning in Lake Michigan” and scantly appeared in a variety of newspapers around the country.
The death was determined to be “a suicide” and reported to have occurred in “Ottawa County” somewhere near the “Grand River.”
However, several years later, a precise county location was published.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1889, The Sedalia Weekly Bazoo (Missouri) reported that the daughter of one of the Bender’s victims, Frances E. McCann, acknowledged an “official report” of Old Man Bender's death. The report stated the death resulted when Old Man Bender committed suicide by drowning in Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.
“She (McCann) says she is satisfied that old Bender drowned himself at Grand Haven, Mich., about four years ago,” the newspaper reported.
One article stated Ma Bender and daughter Kate were hunkered down in Niles, Mich., at the time and were headed to meet up with the old man and John Jr. in Ottawa County by the Grand River. Then Old Man Bender drowned himself.
It is unknown if Ma Bender and Kate ever arrived in Grand Haven, but it was said John Bender Jr. had arrived in the city but fled after Old Man Bender died.
While substantiating the tale of whether a member of the Bender clan actually died at Grand Haven is likely impossible, it seems to be the only death of any “family” member that notes a location and cause is what was reported as an “official report.”
If Old Man Bender died at Grand Haven, the incident generally has remained low profile to this day. And whether his remains are buried in the pauper section of Lake Forest Cemetery only adds to the mystery.
In the spring of 1895 another local Bender “sighting” report made the pages of the The Detroit Free Press when the newspaper identified a woman named Mary E. Hughson, living in Fruitport, to be “Kate Bender.”
Hughson had been arrested on April 11, 1895, for the murder of a previous husband, Nathan Douglas, on July 30, 1892. Within days, the newspaper published a retraction.
“When Mrs. Henry W. Hughson was arrested a week ago for the murder of her second husband, Nathan Douglas, a story was sent out from here to the effect that she was Kate Bender. The story has no foundation in fact,” the Free Press stated.
Hughson, at trial in Muskegon County, was exonerated on the charge of murder, but for some area folks, gossip continued for some time as to whether she indeed was Kate Bender even though Hughson was born Mary E. Root in Manhattan, N.Y., in 1851.