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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

History’s Mysteries, Crimes, and Oddities

I’ve joined my colleagues in all weeding fun, and while I found the first set of books I tackled lackluster (fish farming isn’t really a favorite subject of mine), the set I’m currently working on has been absolutely enthralling. Right now, I’m working my way through a section containing books about American crime throughout history. One book I’ve found, A Pictorial History of American Crime, combines two of my favorite subjects: old photographs/illustrations and history. Before I even cracked this one open, I knew I’d be spending a little extra time with it. The book chronicles 50 of some of the most bizarre, shocking, and mysterious crimes to occur between 1849 and 1929, including:

- The story of a woman who conned millions from American banks by pretending to be the illegitimate daughter of wealthy businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie

- The tale of an heiress who went missing from 5th Avenue in broad daylight

- A stunning photograph of New York Mayor William J. Gaynor as he was shot by a disgruntled city employee in 1910.

One of the most surreal tales sounds more like a horror movie plot than reality. Between 1871 and 1873, the Bender family of Labette County, Kansas ran a roadside inn where they routinely murdered and robbed guests who stopped by seeking rest during a lengthy journey. In the Benders’ home, a canvas wall separated the dining area from the bedroom, and the Benders would have their guests sit with their backs to this wall. One of the family members would find an excuse to go to the bedroom. The absent family member, from behind the canvas wall, would smash a sledge hammer into the skull of the unsuspecting diner, killing him. The family would then drag the victim under the canvas into the bedroom, rob him, strip him, and drop him into the cellar through a trap door. Later, they would bury the body in the large pasture behind their house. Creepy, but true. These twisted acts continued until a man who was searching for his missing brother, discovered the graves.

Unfortunately, no one knows for sure what happened to the Benders. By the time the bodies were discovered on their property, they family had fled the area. One theory is that an angry posse found the family, killed them, and kept the murder-profits for themselves.

I wonder if anyone has written a book or made a movie about this, yet? I think Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Wes Craven could have a field day with this one.

Churchill, Allen. A Pictorial History of American Crime, 1849-1929. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1969.

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