There’s a heady mythos about life in the Wild West, of gunslingers and dusty trails and sun-weathered pioneers and opportunity as wide as the horizon, all wrapped up in a whole lot of unchecked colonialism. Truth and fiction informed each other in a very meta merry-go-round until the world caught up with the enterprising migration and the closer connection with civilization meant posses started being frowned upon, most of the time. Still, stories persist about those days of questionable lawfulness.
Susan Jonusas’s book Hell’s Half-Acre details one of those stories, which has enough lurid twists and turns to prove that truth really is stranger than fiction.
Over the course of the early 1870s, a number of travelers, mostly men, disappeared on a stretch of prairie in southeastern Kansas. Along that same stretch of road was a small family called the Benders, made up of a pair of German immigrants and first-generation Americans, who ran a little grocery out of their dilapidated cabin. Sometimes the daughter, Kate, gave seances or otherwise practiced spiritualism. Several people who survived reported strange encounters with the family, not knowing they were the lucky ones. When a man too well-connected to simply disappear vanishes, the search for him puts enough pressure on the Benders for them to skip town. The discovery of the crimes and the grisly remains they left behind is only half the story, as the lens then turns to tracking down fugitives in a land open and unsettled enough for them to move seemingly without a trace. Those who were left behind remember—and react to—the lengthy search for the Benders that follows in ways both as similar and distinct as the crimes that connected them in the first place.
The fact that we know about them at all, and in the degree of detail that Jonusas writes about both their crimes and their later days on the lam, removes all doubt, of course, that they will eventually be found and tried for their lengthy list of murders and thefts. Getting there is the interesting part, particularly given the amount of detail afforded to us. Jonusas writes, and specifies in a decent-sized notes section in the back, that the unusual amount and depth of information from contemporary sources allowed for such a rich retelling of a hundred-and-fifty-year-old crime.
There are certain narrative tools and uses that do seem to be creativity acting as a connective tissue to this well-researched book. How much of the detail-level embellishment comes from Jonusas and how much comes from the prolific accounts she used is anyone’s guess. Regardless, that’s not unusual for histories, though it is something I find myself a little more attuned to (and snobbish about) because of my particular professional work. But in this case, it’s hard to argue with the results of whatever blend of imagination and source material Jonusas uses. In one chapter, as one person was narrowly escaping becoming a Bender victim, I actually gasped, and then truly regretted (but also did not regret at all) reading it right before bed.
At times, it’s easy to read Hell’s Half-Acre and have the classic horror movie experience of yelling at a character to not go into the extremely creepy, dilapidated cabin filled with flies and the stench of rot. I had a similar experience listening to this season of the Park Predators podcast, which had multiple stories involving hitchhiking. From today’s perspective, you’ve got to be pretty hard up for a ride to stick out your thumb in a world where that’s known as a pretty surefire way to get assaulted, robbed, or killed (or all three, and not necessarily in that order). But those stories took place in past decades and places when hitchhiking was not only common but considered generally safe. In the time before gas stations and Holiday Inns, homesteads out in the wilderness were supposed to be safe for just about anyone, and for a house like the Benders’, which doubled as a very small and poorly stocked grocery store, safety was thought to be all but guaranteed.
The Benders succeeded at killing so many people because they used the social expectations of the time in their favor, and generally chose their victims carefully: loners, single men, people traveling from a great distance who could have been lost or attacked in any number of places. That kind of exploitation of societal expectations didn’t end with the buffalo herds; it just changed faces in response to a changing era.
The progression of the world I mentioned earlier plays an interesting role in the search for justice. Time shrinks the world and it sands the barbs off of the miners and cowboys and settlers that survived long enough, but it also dims memory and blurs facts into folklore. People’s appetites for stories of grisly crime were ravenous then and now, an odd little connection with the past. And, as Jonusas notes in her epilogue, the same fascination for true crime of yesteryear persists beyond having a market for this book: as she was finishing this book in the foreign land that was pre-pandemic 2020, the land where the Benders once lived came up for sale, and that bit of real estate news spread internationally.
Hell’s Half-Acre was gripping and fascinating, a look in startling detail about life on the margins in a certain point in history that resists being voyeuristic even though the subject material almost begs for it. I won’t forget about the Benders, or the lives they left in tatters along the prairie, anytime soon.