Literary mysteries: Laura Ingalls Wilder and serial killers? Not likely

A replica of the Ingalls family cabin in Kansas
A replica of the Ingalls family cabin was built near Independence, Kan. The Ingalls lived in the area until 1871, overlapping briefly with the family who became known as "The Bloody Benders" -- one of the first documented serial killer teams in the country.
David Hepworth | Creative Commons via Flickr

For Literary Mysteries, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Did Laura Ingalls Wilder really have a run-in with some of America's first serial killers?

It's not news that Laura Ingalls Wilder left parts of her life story out of the "Little House" series. She cut and polished her family's adventures for the bestselling books.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Last year, when her original memoir, "Pioneer Girl," was finally published, readers got a more complete picture of the Ingalls family's hardships.

Wilder addressed the issue of editing her life in 1937, when she gave a speech at a book fair in Detroit:

"All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth. There were some stories I wanted to tell but would not be responsible for putting in a book for children, even though I knew them as a child."

In this speech, she recounted one such story: her family's brush with one of the first documented serial killer teams in the United States, The Bloody Benders.

The Bloody Benders were a family of four — though it later turned out they were not related, and Bender was a false name — who opened an inn and store on the Osage Trail in Kansas in the 1870s.

Travelers heading west in search of land or gold frequently stopped for provisions, or to stay the night. Some were never heard from again — though with the rampant dangers of the frontier, the Benders were not the first suspects.

The disappearance of William York would be their undoing, according to an account of their crimes in Mental Floss. York stopped at the Benders' inn in search of George Loncher and his daughter, who had gone missing several months before. That was when he too disappeared.

York's well-connected brothers — a colonel and a Kansas senator — launched a search, which centered on Labette County, where the Benders lived. The area residents held a meeting, in which they agreed every homestead should be examined for evidence related to the disappearances.

Then, as Mental Floss notes, the weather turned sour, and the search was delayed. By the time Col. York arrived with a fleet of men, the Benders were gone. Their inn was empty.

When neighbors and volunteers started scouring the homestead, they uncovered a grisly scene: Buried in the garden were 10 bodies, including that of William York, Loncher and his daughter.

The Benders were never found, and that's where Wilder's speech picks up again:

"The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa.

Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, 'The vigilantes are called out.' Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been.

For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, 'They will never be found.' They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why."

Wilder seems to insinuate her father, in a vigilante act of justice, helped track down and dispose of the murderous Benders. There's only one problem: The timeline doesn't match.

The Ingalls family lived in Kansas from 1869 until 1871. Their time there is captured in "Little House on the Prairie."

The Benders, however, didn't settle in Labette County until 1870. And Loncher, his daughter and York didn't go missing until 1872. By the time any vigilante crowd would have been out searching for the Benders, the Ingalls family was safely back in Pepin, Wis.

So where does this story come from? Wilder would have been only four when the family lived in Kansas. It's possible that the shock of the family's proximity to such a lurid tale, when it was uncovered, mixed fact and fiction in her mind.

The Christian Science Monitor argues otherwise, writing in a review of "Pioneer Girl" that Wilder's Bender story "is pure fiction — an account Wilder added to her manuscript at one point, in an attempt to appeal to adult audiences by linking the Wilders to a sensational news story of the day."

So is it a case of false memories or an intentional publicity stunt?

That question doesn't yet have an answer — but you can read more of Wilder's raw account of frontier life in "Pioneer Girl," with extensive annotations from Pamela Smith Hill.