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'Uncovering things we couldn't actually see': KU archaeology students examine century-old murder mystery

University of Kansas archeological survey
Posted at 9:47 PM, Nov 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-03 12:57:04-04

LAWRENCE, Kan — On the surface, you might only see weeds, dirt and crops, but in the small town of Cherryvale, Kansas, acres of land could be home to one of the biggest untold murder mysteries in the old west.

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The Bender Family got their name as "The Bloody Benders" because back in the 1870s, many travelers who stopped by never left. At least 11 people were murdered.

Bender family house
From the Kansas State Historical Society and Kansas Memory: This is a photograph shows people on the north or front side of the Bender house. They operated a remote road house on a farm near Cherryvale, Kansas.

The Benders eventually disappeared along with many of the victims.

"We need to figure out where the house was and where things all started," said Blair Schneider, an associate researcher and science outreach manager for Kansas Geological Survey.

More than a century later, Bob Miller, the land's new owner, is hoping answers are in the soil.

That's why he enlisted the help of Schneider and her archaeology students to uncover them.

University of Kansas
Sherridan Franklin is an archeology student at the University of Kansas.

Sherridan Franklin is a non-traditional student in her 30s who grew up in rural Kansas.

"Every time we'd find something, we'd flag it," Franklin said. "There are pictures in the field with all these flags."

University of Kansas
KU students surveying land where the Bender family possible committed serial murders.

"My reaction to them was, I don't know if we're going to find anything I've seen from the site," Schneider said. "They stripped down the house, the remnants of everything."

They walked away with around 700 artifacts that could give some clues.

"We got to see how this equipment could uncover things we couldn't actually see," said Dylan Allen, an archeology student.

What these budding archaeologists are learning is that an unsolved mystery doesn't mean something wasn't left behind.

​"The whole mystery of what if and what happened, did they get away or were they killed," Franklin said. "I don't know if we will ever have all the answers."

These students will be tasked with digging up the unknowns of the past.

University of Kansas
KU students survey the possible land of the Benders, one of America's first family of serial killers.

​"There's no telling how many people went missing and the only reason they were found, was because a couple prominent people were missing, but what about all the people who didn't matter at the time?" Franklin said.

They're realizing buried evidence doesn't mean buried history.

"I would say we are all a part of history," Allen said. "This is just how I've been woven into it."

The students are in the process of analyzing what they found. They'll go back and use their discoveries next summer in an excavation trip that will last several weeks.