by Michelle M. Martin
With the close of the American Civil War, western states like Kansas teemed with travelers and refugees seeking opportunity and solace as shattered families worked to rebuild their interrupted lives. Filled with open space and limitless development potential, Kansas attracted former Union and Confederate soldiers, Exodusters (newly freed African-Americans), and migrants from the world over. Rural Labette County, in the southeastern part of the state, was no exception.
In 1871 the Bender family — father John, mother Almira, son John Jr. and daughter Kate — arrived from parts unknown and settled north of the growing community of Cherryvale. Quickly the Benders erected a one-room clapboard structure that from all appearances seemed normal. The Bender wayside stop sold supplies, served hot meals, and supplied overnight lodging to trail-weary travelers for a price.
By the spring of 1873, however, the entire countryside was abuzz with talk of missing men, mysticism, and strange happenings on the Osage Trail that ran from Fort Scott to Independence. Kate — the attractive, intelligent, twenty-something-year-old Bender daughter — was at the heart of rumors and innuendo that swept through local communities like a fire over the sun-scorched prairie. The Benders’ neighbors found themselves asking the question: could Kate Bender be serving travelers death with dinner at their roadside inn?