History Worth Shouting About

I tend to think of history as one of those long ropes we were forced to hold on to during kindergarten field trips.  When one kid tripped or veered sharply in one direction, we were all tugged after her.  In short, no one could move without impacting the rest of the group.

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While “rope theory” speaks more to the general ebb and flow of history rather than to the “what a small world” coincidences I’m about to describe, I believe the two are related nonetheless.  After all, we’ve all got hold of the same rope.  Of course we’re going to bump into each other every now and again.

I recently read a biography in which the author insisted on loudly pointing out every historical coincidence.  “How ironic!” he would shout from the pages, “This guy lived and this guy died!  Just imagine if this guy had died and this guy had lived!  How different everything would have been!”  If we ignore the fact that this author would do well to check a dictionary definition of “irony,” his shouting is still obnoxious, because if everyone shouted about every historical coincidence, we would all be shouting.  All of the time.

But it’s fun to shout, especially when the children in front of you and behind you on the rope join in and you wail on and on until your teacher agrees to pass out graham crackers earlier than usual.

So here’s my most recent shout-worthy discovery:

Last night, into the wee hours, I was reading Heather Williams’s Farmer Boy Goes West.  It’s a recently published Little House on the Prairie spinoff, picking up where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy left off.  I take it upon myself to read all attempts to carry on Laura’s work and to criticize them mercilessly.  This one, however, was well done.  Williams clearly did her research, not only regarding the Wilder family, but also regarding matching her writing style to Laura’s.  This book, I daresay, actually fits in with the rest of the beloved series.

One detail perplexed me, though: at one point in Farmer Boy Goes West, Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) is reunited with his older brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a few years.  Immediately, his brother remarks on how tall he is.  “That can’t be right,” I said to myself, “Almanzo was a shorty.”  Sure enough, a Google search told me that Almanzo’s adult height was 5 feet 4 inches.  Another Google search told me that average male height in the 1870s (Almanzo’s growing-up time) was around 5 feet 6 inches.  So not such a shorty in those days.  My 5 feet 10.5 inches would have made me the town giant.  For an explanation of why people were shorter in the 19th century, read this fascinating article (scroll down to “Heights” section).

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet four inches, respectively.  (Photo circa 1940)

Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls Wilder, 5 feet 4 inches and 4 feet 11 inches, respectively. (Photo circa 1940)

This was interesting, but not a shout-worthy coincidence.  Here’s the star of the show:

The same website that told me how tall Almanzo Wilder was told me something else: The Ingalls’s and the Bloody Benders’ paths may have crossed in Kansas Territory (setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie).

If you don’t know about the Benders, or the Bloody Benders, read here.  It’s a gruesome story, and I don’t want to scare you with it without your consent.  There’s also a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about them.  Essentially, they were a family of serial killers who ran an inn and a general store in Kansas in the 1870s and who used these businesses to lure travelers whom they would then brutally murder.

From a speech Laura gave in 1937 regarding the truthfulness of her novels (warning: gruesome):

There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.

On his trip to Independence to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before.

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. 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.

According to Deb Houdek Rule’s website, which quotes Laura’s unpublished memoirs (warning: gruesome):

Laura, in her memoirs, says, “…he had had some thoughts of stopping at the Benders’ for the night… Kate Bender came out and asked him to have supper there and put up for the night… Mary and I had those names in our minds, Independence, Kansas and Benders… I heard Pa say ‘dead… Already twenty or more, in the cellar… Benders–where I stopped for a drink. She asked me to come in… They found a girl, no bigger than Laura. They’d thrown her in on top of her father and mother and tramped the ground down on them, while the little girl was still alive…’ Laura then describes Pa riding off, returning to say, ‘Yes, Caroline. Kate Bender with the rest. She deserved it just as much as they did.’

Laura says, “For a long time, even for years, after that, I dreamed about a little girl thrown on top of her father and mother and buried alive. Sometimes I was the little girl.”

She says she was grown before she ever asked Pa about the Benders. The information she records in her memoirs is correct, and the dates and location are correct for her Pa to have passed by the Benders’ house. But the date the Benders were found out doesn’t fit having Charles Ingalls being part of the group who went after them. That took place in 1873, a couple years after the Ingalls had left Kansas–they were back living in Wisconsin at that time. It is somewhat possible Pa made the trip to Kansas, or was there on some business or exploration trip, however.

Asking Pa about it, Laura recounts, “Wasn’t he one of the Vigilantes who went after the Benders, and didn’t the catch them? He only said, ‘We thought you were too little to understand.’ As for what became of the Benders, he would not answer. He said, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll never find Kate Bender anywhere.'”

Mind. Blown.  One of pioneer America’s most beloved, wholesome families neighbors with one of its most notorious.

Of course, the Charles Ingalls/Benders encounters are somewhat shadowy.  The vigilante action dates, as Houdek points out, don’t exactly match up.  And Laura was, after all, a very little girl (four years old or so) when her family lived in Kansas territory.  Probably too young to have detailed memories, and likely too young to be told outright by Pa and Ma what was going on.

Maggie Koerth-Baker suggests in an article that perhaps what Laura thought she remembered wasn’t entirely true:

To me, the body of research on false memories suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilder might not have been lying when she told a story about her family crossing paths with the Bloody Benders. If you think about it, it would be pretty simple. A young Laura might simply have heard her parents talking about the Benders, misconstrued the situation, and created memories that fit her understanding. In the course of telling the story to friends and family, her parents might have changed it themselves — a simple “and it turned out they lived right down the road from us!” story became, over time, a story of participating in the downfall of the serial killers. 

Regardless of whether their paths actually crossed or not, the Ingalls and the Bender families were in the same area at the same time.  Truly a pairing only history could dream up.

Hold the rope tightly, kids. The world is only getting smaller.

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