Tag Archives: Mass Murder

The Lawson Family Murders

               In 1911, Charles Lawson married his wife, Fannie, and the two had eight children together. Their third child, William, died in 1920 at six from illness (Blanco). Six of their seven remaining children died in the horrific murders that became a spectacle in 1929. In later 1929, at Christmas time, Charles Lawson, 43, took his family for a studio photo, an unusual thing for people of their standing to do. Taking a family studio photo was akin to taking a sudden trip to someplace like Disney in modern times – it was expensive, and generally not done by people in the working class. He bought his family new clothes specifically for the occasion (Sutton). At the time, it was unknown as to why he was getting something so expensive done.

               The morning of December 25, 1929, Marie Lawson, 17, woke up early to make her family a Christmas cake. The cake would never be eaten and for years after that Christmas morning, it would be on display and protected under a glass cover after tourists stole raisins from the top of the cake (Sutton). The oldest son, Arthur, 16, was not home, as he had been allowed by Charles to walk to Walnut Cove with a friend to buy ammunition for a rabbit hunt, a popular past time (Spear).  While Arthur was away and Marie was making the infamous cake, the middle daughters, Carrie, 12, and Maybell, 7,  headed out to the home of their Aunt and Uncle, but the two would never arrive (Sutton).

               Charles Lawson was waiting outside by the tobacco barn, a 12-gauge shotgun in hand, and as his daughters passed by he shot them both. To ensure the two were dead, he bludgeoned them before hiding their remains in the barn. From there, he headed to the porch where his wife, Fannie, 37, was sitting. He shot her as well before heading inside where Marie had screamed and his two youngest sons, Raymond, 2, and James, 4, tried to hide. He shot Marie just as he shot his wife and other two daughters before hunting down his sons, bludgeoning them to death as well as their infant daughter, Mary Lou, who was only four months old. An autopsy would later reveal that Mary Lou’s cause of death a skull fracture. Charles maneuvered the bodies, laying them with rocks under their heads and arms across their chests (Sutton).

Following the murders, Charles took the family dogs, Sam and Queen, and retreated into the woods nearby the farm, where he reportedly washed the blood from his hands in a stream (Spear). While people had discovered the murders and were flocking to the scene, Charles was in the wood, pacing around a tree for what could have been hours. A gunshot was heard from the forest by those at the home, and soon after Charles body was found by the tree he had been pacing around (Sutton). In his pocket they found two letters, one saying, “Trouble can cause…” and the other, “Nobody to blame,” written on receipts from a tobacco auction. These letters gave no answers as to why Charles would massacre his family the way he did, leaving 16-year old Arthur alone. Some believe Charles allowed Arthur to leave because Arthur was likely the only one who could have stopped the massacre from continuing (Spear).

At the time, rabbit hunting was a popular past time, which would explain why the sound of gunshot wouldn’t necessarily be alarming in the area. The weather conditions were bitterly cold, the ground covered with deep snow (Spear). Winter is generally harder for people, especially when it is a particularly cold winter. Could the level of cold and snow around at the time have contributed to the actions Charles Lawson took those days? Nearly 100 years later, we likely will never truly know, but speculations abound. In the months leading up to the massacre, Charles was reportedly exhibiting erratic behavior. He had been to his doctor, Dr. C.J Helsabeck, for insomnia as well as severe headaches. Dr. Helsabeck would be in charge of the death inquiries, along with the brother to Sheriff John Taylor, Dr. Spottswood Taylor, who was home for the season from his internship at John Hopkins in Baltimore. The two removed Charles’ brain, which was noted as being smaller and having an underdeveloped central region. Dr. Taylor took the brain, which was preserved in formaldehyde, back to Baltimore for further examination. The current location of the brain, if it is still around somewhere, is unknown (Spear). Charles had also sustained a head injury while digging a ditch several months before he killed his family, which some claim changed him. Despite this, the examinations done on his brain showed no abnormalities (History).

Another speculation, though uncorroborated, is that Charles was a witness to something major. Organized crime has been suggested (Blanco), and it is known that at least one well known member of an organization visited the home after the murders occurred (Spear). This theory claims that Charles didn’t commit the murders or die by suicide. Instead, Charles was framed for the murders and set up after he was killed as well (Blanco).

In the 1990s, decades after Arthur Lawson unfortunately died in a car accident in 1945, the possible motivation behind the murders was finally revealed. Stella Lawson Boles, cousin of the Lawson children, published a book about the murders. She claimed that her mother and other Lawson women had been heard at the funeral discussing something that Fannie had come to them with concerns of before that Christmas – she was concerned that Charles and Marie may have been engaging in an incestuous relationship (Sutton). Not only had there been discussions among the Lawson women at the time, but Jettie Lawson, who died in 1928, had spoken about the possibility before her death. This points to the possibility that Fannie suspected an incestuous relationship long before the massacre (Blanco).  Furthermore, Marie’s friend, Ella May Johnson, came forward with a claim that Marie was pregnant at the time. She claimed that Marie confided in her that she was pregnant with her father’s child (Sutton). According to Ella May, Charles and Fannie knew that Marie was pregnant with Charles’ child at the time (Blanco). A neighbor, Sam Hill, also came forward with supposed knowledge of incest, though he claimed that Charles had forced himself upon his daughter, and threatened Marie, after she became pregnant, that “there would be some killing done” should anyone find out (Sutton). Despite these claims, however, there are no records showing a pregnancy in her autopsy (Spear).

Charles brother, Marion Lawson, opened the house as a tourist attraction shortly after the murders, claiming the money was going to Arthur to pay the mortgage on the farm. The cake Marie made that Christmas was put on display, a macabre reminder of what should have been a normal Christmas morning. After the raisin decorations on the cake began to be taken by tourists, the cake was protected with a glass cover (Blanco). The rooms were left as they were when the murders occurred – bloody and dirty – for the authenticity (Spear).

The family was buried in a mass grave, dug by family and friends, in seven caskets, despite there being eight victims. The youngest victim, four-month old Mary Lou, was buried in her mother’s casket, wrapped up in her mother’s arms (Spear).  

History, Unmasked. “Bloody Christmas Of 1929: The Lawson Family Massacre”. Unmasked History Magazine, 2019, https://unmaskedhistory.com/2019/12/22/bloody-christmas-of-1929-the-lawson-family-massacre/.

Sutton, Candace. “Lawson Family Christmas Day Massacre Photo Tells Secret Behind Slaughter”. Newscomau, 2016, https://www.news.com.au/news/secret-behind-photo-in-lawson-family-christmas-day-massacre-when-seven-people-died/news-story/080cd6dcee54a210d70098ca45dc3851.

Blanco, Juan. “Charles Davis Lawson | Murderpedia, The Encyclopedia Of Murderers”. Murderpedia.Org, https://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/lawson-charles-davis.htm.

Spear, Susie. “Lawson Family Murders: A Look Back After 90 Years”. Greensboro, 2019, https://greensboro.com/rockingham_now/lawson-family-murders-a-look-back-after-90-years/article_16aeaae1-5ded-57e8-bde0-35e0d3e69466.html. Accessed 22 Feb 2021.

The Bender Family Murders

            After the Homestead Act of 1862, the Osage were forced to move from their land, now known as Labette County, Oklahoma, and settlers from Europe came to live where the displaced tribe was forced from. Years later, in 1870, the Bender family were one of five families that settled in the area. The Benders settled specifically in a 160-acre plot of land that faced the Osage Trail (Cappello 2019).

            The family were thought to be German immigrants, as the first to arrive at the homestead, John Bender Sr., and John Bender Jr., both had accents. John Sr., approximately 60, had a thicker accent and spoke broken English, while John Jr., approximately 25, spoke English fairly well and had less of an accent. The two built up a cabin and barn and the women of the family arrived in 1871. Elvira “Ma” Bender, John Sr.’s wife, was estimated to be 55-years old and, like her husband, spoke broken English and was apparently rather unpleasant. She earned herself the nickname, “she-devil.” It was the daughter of the family, Kate Bender, approximately 23, that brought people to the property. She was reportedly beautiful and a talented psychic. She spoke fluent English and worked as a healer, though she was self-proclaimed and not trained. Spiritualism was popular at the time, and she would do seminars at the home about it. Kate notably advocated for free love, which was part of the major draw to her and the family (Cappello 2019). The family even took out an ad in Kansas papers, touting “Professor Miss Kate Bender can heal disease, cure blindness, fits and deafness. Residence, 14 miles east of Independence, on the road to Osage Mission. June 18, 1872” (historicalcrimedetective). A curtain was used to split the single room of the cabin to create an area for a general store, kitchen, and dining area. They could sell dry goods to travelers as well as serve meals and offer somewhere to stay for a night. The home became known as the Bender Inn (Cappello 2019).

              The first body as found in May 1871, a man with his skull crushed and his throat slashed, in Drum Creek. The Bender home was not far, just Northwest of the location of the body. More remains were recovered in February 1872, two more men with their skulls crushed and throats slashed. It didn’t take long for the disappearances of travelers on the Osage Trail came to the attention of others and soon the trail was being avoided whenever possible by those looking to pass the area. There were even some groups looking to find who was responsible, often arresting innocent men on suspicion before releasing them later (Cappello 2019).

            The beginning of the end for the Bender family came when Dr. William Henry York was alerted to the discovery of the horses and carriage he lent to a neighbor who was moving from Kansas to Iowa, without the neighbor present. The neighbor in question was George Newton Longcor, who was moving to Iowa with his 18-month old daughter, Mary Ann, after the death of his wife. It appeared that the man and daughter had not even made it out of Kansas, as the horses and carriage were found near Fort Scott, Kansas. In spring of 1873, Dr. York began his search for the Longcor’s. At Fort Scott, he was able to positively identify the horses and the carriage as the ones he lent to the Longcor’s, as well as clothing as being items he knew to belong to them (Cappello 2019). On March 9, 1873, Dr. York left for his home in Independence, Kansas, but unfortunately, he made the fatal mistake on his way home of stopping at the Bender Inn. His friends were sure he would not have disappeared and were certain he must have fallen afoul of some bad folk (historicalcrimedetective). Unfortunately for the Benders, Dr. York was from a prominent family and his brothers, Colonel Ed York and Alexander M. York of the Kansas State Senate, quickly organized a search when they learned their brother was missing (Cappello 2019).

            The search party, which consisted of 75 men, were able to track Dr. York to the Bender Inn in March of 1873. The Benders denied having ever met Dr. York and suggested that he may have met with danger near Drum Creek, where previous victims had been found. John Jr. even claimed that he had been shot at down in the creek around the time of Dr. York’s disappearance. With no evidence to prove that the Benders were involved, the York brothers left the Inn. However, Colonel York found some evidence that lead him back to the Bender Inn, in the form of a woman who had escaped the Inn. Reportedly, Elvira had threatened the woman with pistols and knives while she was staying there and the woman had fled the Inn. When confronted with this information on April 3rd, Elvira pretended she didn’t understand English before she began to yell about the woman cursing her coffee. Elvira was quick to kick Colonel York and his men out, but she had already made a grave mistake: they now knew she spoke English and her true nature (Cappello 2019).

            The communities surrounding the Osage Trail began to grow suspicious that the area was where those responsible for the disappearances were. A public meeting was called in the Harmony Grove schoolhouse, where the community agreed to get search warrants for the properties between Drum Creek and Big Hill Creek. It didn’t take long for the Bender Inn to come under scrutiny, but not from the search warrants. Just a few days later, it came to the attention of the Bender’s neighbors that their farm animals were all dead or starving, and it became obvious after some investigation that the farm had been abandoned (Cappello 2019). It was a search party traveling nearby on April 9 that alerted others to the state of the Bender Inn (historicalcrimedetective). The investigator, Officer Leroy Dick, discovered a disturbing odor coming from a trap door in under the bed that was strangely nailed shut. He sent out a call for a search party and soon enough, hundreds of local arrived ready to search the Bender Inn with pick axes and shovels (Cappello 2019). Other reports claim that the Bender’s took off right after Colonel York and his men left (historicalcrimedetective).

            The smell was coming from clotted blood that had seeped through the floor and trap door and into the soil under the house. No bodies were discovered under the house, so the search expanded to the land. Elvira and Kate had a vegetable garden, and there was where Dr. York’s remains were found. Ten bodies were found in the garden and the well, all killed in the same manner – their heads were all crushed, likely with a hammer, and their throats had been slashed. Unfortunately, 18-month old Mary Ann was also found, and had been buried alive. Several victims had been mutilated, apparently in an indecent manner that suggests possible genital mutilation (Cappello 2019).

            Thanks to survivors of the Bender Inn, we believe we know how they committed their murders. When guests were at the Inn, they would be given the seat of honor at the table. The seat of honor set them with their back right against the curtain that separated the front room from the living area, and right over the trapdoor. While the guest was distracted one of the men would hit them over the head and the women would then slash their throats. After the victim died, they would be dropped through the trapdoor before they were stripped and buried or dismembered. Bullet holes found in the cabin suggested that some victims tried to fight back. The way the Bender’s chose their victims, which seemed indiscriminate, also suggests that they were not after valuables, but simply the thrill they got from killing (Cappello 2019).

            A Bible was found in the cabin with notes in German that named John Jr as one John Gebhardt. The combination of reports from the Bender’s neighbors and the notes in the Bible lead to the theory that John Jr and Kate were not siblings, but actually a couple. Now it is believed that only Elvira and Kate were actually related and that Elvira was from the Adirondack Mountains, born Almira Mark. Almira Mark had multiple children and husbands, who some say died of head injuries. John Sr was probably actually John Flickinger, who immigrated from either Germany or the Netherlands, and Kate was probably actually Eliza Griffith, Elvira’s fifth child (Cappello 2019).

            The Bender’s disappeared, it seems. Senator York and Kansas Governor Thomas A. Osborn offered a reward for the apprehension of the Bender family. While they were able to track wagon tracks from the house to where the horses were abandoned 12 miles from the Bender Inn. Officially, no one from the family was ever seen again. However, rumors and speculation flowed forth. One detective claimed he had followed John Jr. down to the border of Mexico and found that he had died. Another rumor spread that John Jr. and Kate had gone to an outlaw colony near the Texas/New Mexico border, traveling by railroad. Women traveling in pairs were frequently accused of being Elvira and Kate and there were several vigilante groups that claimed, without proof, they had managed to capture and kill the Bender family. In the 1880s an elderly man was arrested for a murder that was committed with a hammer. He reportedly fit the description of John Sr, but died after attempting to escape by cutting his foot off while they waited for information to arrive from Kansas. He was too decomposed by the time the information arrived for an identification to be made. A mother named Elvira was arrested with her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, in 1889 for larceny and accused of being Elvira and Kate, but the committee from Labette was not able to confidently identify them and they were released (Cappello 2019).

            In the aftermath of the Bender family running, people who knew them were put in danger by those who wanted vengeance for the many deaths that occurred at the Inn. A local grocer who had worked with John Sr and was also a German immigrant. The man was taken by a group of locals from his grocery store and brought into the woods. There, the group tried to force him to tell them what he knew, but he actually knew nothing. Still, they hanged him nearly to death before reviving him to question him again. This continued until they were satisfied that he really didn’t know anything and they left him nearly unconscious in the woods. He did manage to recover (historicalcrimedetective).

            The Bender Family was never found again. To this day, no one knows where they went after they disappeared. No evidence has ever been found. It is unlikely that we will ever have an answer as to where they went. For now, the tale of the Bloody Benders remains one without a true ending.

Cappello, N. (2019, August 22). The Bloody Benders: America’s First Family of Serial Killers. Retrieved October 03, 2020, from https://crimereads.com/the-bloody-benders-americas-first-family-of-serial-killers/

The Family That Murders Together. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2020, from https://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/the-family-that-murders-together/