On a Kansas evening in 1872, Julia Hestler immediately regretted her visit to the Bender family. The stagecoach that dropped her off was already racing away, leaving her alone on the prairie in front of a solitary, decrepit cabin.
When the self-proclaimed “spiritualist” Kate Bender invited Julia inside for their scheduled séance, she was revolted by a strong stench and buzzing flies. She sat across from Kate and held hands to begin, not wanting to insult her hostess.
But with her eyes closed, Julia felt doom. She looked up to see three Bender family members suddenly standing silently behind Kate. Pa Bender held a heavy tool that shone in the candlelight. Terrified, Julia leapt up and fled. She tumbled down the cabin’s front steps before scrambling to her feet and running for her life across the darkened plains.
Julia was lucky to survive, as Susan Jonusas writes in “Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier” (Viking), out now. The neighbors she told found the incident more creepy than criminal, but the following spring her fears were validated when eight corpses were found buried beneath the Benders’ apple trees. The Benders would go down in American history as the most infamous family of serial killers.