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Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie: The Serial Killer Family Who Terrorized 1870s Kansas

May 03, 2022
00:00 29:47
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Lone-wolf serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy live in infamy – it’s a familiar archetype in true crime. But a family of serial killers is much less common, and the killing spree committed by the Benders in 19th century Kansas is likely the most famous murder case in American history that you’ve never heard of. This family became known as the Bloody Benders—a mother, father and their daughter and son—and their exploits were called the “little slaughterhouse on the prairie.”

Today’s guest is Susan Jonusas , author of the book Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier. She discusses the dangers and lawlessness of the American West, and chroncles families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape.

In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood . . . And the Benders were nowhere to be found. This discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders. The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

All of this takes place during a turbulent time in America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.

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Meet Your Host
Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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