If you were a serial killer with an insatiable appetite for murder – then the Wild West of 19th America was about the best place you could exercise your passion for slaughter. Below I describe three very different examples of serial killers in the Wild West and yet they have one common feature – they got away with it because their victims were often held in such low regard.
One murdered members of the Crow and Sioux tribes on an almost industrial scale – then ate their livers. Another shot dead freed African-American slaves who crossed his path. And the third story involves a family preying on weary travellers making their way west to forge a new life. Instead, they met their own deaths in a brutal manner.
Welcome to the serial killers of the Wild West.
TRIGGER WARNING: I will quote from contemporary accounts of the lives of these serial killers and details may disturb some readers who I would advise not to proceed further. These details are not intended to be gratuitous – but to illustrate that these people could indeed be classified as serial killers.
Wild West Serial Killers: John “Liver Eating” Johnson (1824-1900)
The story of John “Liver Eating” Johnson does vary in different accounts. But in a nutshell, he was born in New Jersey; did military service in the Mexican-American War; then headed west prospecting for gold; but his wife (a native American woman) was murdered by a Crow brave. Grief-stricken, Johnson then embarked on a murder and cannibalism spree across Montana killing, scalping an estimated 300 Crow braves then ate their livers. Sometimes raw. Sometimes cooked. He preferred them raw.
What is shocking to us is that whole thing was viewed by mainstream society as a bit of a joke.
In 1893, Johnson wrote to The Billings Times declaring that he was “trying to quit killing Indians and eating their livers”. Despite this disagreeable habit, he demanded that the newspaper stop associating him with other “hard characters”. The paper issued a sarcastic response: “We congratulate him on his abandonment of Indian livers. They are not indeed in the menu of a good, healthy, Montanian and so long as Mr. Johnson is trying to live without them we shall offer our best encouragement.”
Somehow, Johnson made his peace with the Crows and they became his “brothers”. But he hadn’t lost his taste for human livers. Now his attention turned to the Sioux nation. He roamed the state of Montana with other “mountain men”, though they didn’t share his cannibalistic tendencies.
One story, recounted in an obituary for Johnson in The Anaconda Standard (February 11, 1900), has the deranged mountain man tracking a badly injured Sioux warrior following blood splashes on the ground and smeared on the grass. Once found, Johnson announced in the Sioux language, which he spoke fluently, that he was going to scalp the Indian brave first, then cut his throat like a dog. Kneeling on his captive’s head, he made an incision around the Sioux’s scalplock and pulled it off.
Then seizing him by a big brass ring in his ear, Johnson twisted the Sioux’s head round until every muscle and sinew was taut and then “gave it one quick, ugly sweep of the knife and the painted head came off in his hand, dripping a crimson flood, while the blood spurted in gushes from the headless trunk, which slipped to the ground”.
He then rejoined some fellow mountain men, one of whom couldn’t help noticing a small strip of flesh hanging from Johnson’s knife. Glancing down, the serial killer noted that it was “a piece of Indian’s liver. I just had a feast of one and thought maybe some of you would like a taste. Try it”.
Everyone passed on the offer leaving Johnson extremely offended: “You don’t know how good it is. I eat nothing else when I am out on the plains if I can get Indian livers. They taste best raw.” The obituary in the Anaconda Standard goes on to mention Johnson’s friendship with the Crows without reminding readers of his one time fondness for their livers.
When he was unable to get human meat, Johnson gorged himself on buffalo. In one winter, he reportedly killed and wolfed down an astonishing thirteen whole buffaloes. This was a man who craved a high protein diet.
In 1972, Robert Redford starred in the movie Jeremiah Johnson loosely based on the liver eating Johnson. In look and feel, it’s like a watered down version of the 2015 movie, The Revenant. Two years later, students at a school in Wyoming successfully campaigned to have the cannibal serial killer’s remains buried with honour in their state describing him as a “rugged frontiersman”. They had written to Redford asking for his support but the great actor had not responded.
Wild West Serial Killers: “Wild” Bill Longley (1851-1878)
While Johnson targeted native Americans for his serial killing, Bill Longley directed his murderous tendencies mainly – though not exclusively – at African-Americans. He grew up in Texas during the Civil War followed by the period of Reconstruction after the defeat of the pro-slavery Confederate south. The victorious Union meted out punitive measures on former slave states like Texas for having rebelled and seceded from the United States of America causing so much bloodshed.
Young southern, racist men like Longley seethed with resentment. His first confirmed murder took place when he was seventeen. Three freed slaves rode into town to visit friends. Longley, with two companions, forced them off the road and into a dry creek bed. Then when one of the freedmen panicked and tried to ride off, Longley pumped him with bullets.
This brazen act of murder went unpunished and Longley embarked on a series of robberies and assaults killing another freed slave, Paul Brice. And then murdered a freedwoman. At which stage, the authorities felt constrained to pursue Longley but he skipped over the state line and journeyed into Wyoming. Incredibly, he enlisted into the US army though deserted twice, but was noted for his marksmanship skills.
The murders continued with another freed slave in 1873 and then a childhood friend in 1875. Later that year he was working on a cotton farm but had to depart hastily after murdering George Thomas in the wake of a fist fight. Then in January 1876 he killed a fellow outlaw, Lou Shroyer before shooting dead his landlord while he was milking a cow.
On June 6, 1877, Longley was arrested in Louisiana while living under a false name, Bill Jackson. He was returned to Texas and hanged in 1878 solely for the murder of the childhood friend, Wilson Anderson.
His fame by this stage was global. In London, The Illustrated Police News (November 2, 1878), seemed to applaud his criminal stamina and was confident that he’d been responsible for a large number of killings:
“To be hanged at the age of twenty-six years, after having committed thirty-two well-authenticated murders, ought to entitle a man to a high niche in the temple of murderous fame. The memory – now alas! only a memory – of Bill Longley, of Texas, holds this pre-eminent position…”
The paper joked that murder was like shooting “big game” to Longley. It was a sport where the hunter pursued the hunted just for the thrill of the chase:
“Not actuated as some unworthy murderers are by love of filthy lucre, and seldom even by the violent passion of hatred and revenge, when he murdered it was usually from pure love of his art – out of a sheer spirit of wickedness and mischief, and nothing else.”
As with Jesse James and Billy the Kid, Longley’s horrendous slayings were soon presented as something almost noble. From 1958 to 1960, CBS aired a Wild West drama series, The Texan. The main protagonist was an intrepid cowboy, Bill Longley, played by actor Rory Calhoun. The murderous racist thug had become something entirely different. Like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, his viciousness had been airbrushed out entirely.
Wild West Serial Killers: The Bender Family
Reading about the Bender family’s crimes in the 1870s reminded me of a Scottish family that three hundred years before was notorious for kidnapping and eating travellers who passed by their home in a huge cave at Ballantrae, Ayrshire. The patriarch of the clan, Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his large clan of cannibals were eventually executed in a variety of gruesome ways for the pleasure of the Edinburgh mob.
The Benders were maybe not in the same league. But they had a good go!
Kansas had seen much blood spilt between pro and anti-slavery factions before the American Civil War and its fair share of horror during the four-year long conflict. But by 1870, the Union had not only won but moved the Osage Indians out of Labette county in south-east Kansas allowing white settlers to take their land. The Benders were one of several families glad to start a new life in the west.
John Bender Sr (sometimes called Joseph or William) was 60 married to Elvira. Their children were John Bender Jr and Kate. It’s assumed the mother and father originated in the German-speaking part of Europe which at that time stretched from modern Belgium to Ukraine. Though they were often described as Dutch. John senior was a gloomy presence in the community, heavily built and over six feet in height. It was said he communicated in grunts and wasn’t very sociable.
The family built a wooden cabin, barn, and corral next to the Great Osage Trail down which a stream of people made their way through Kansas seeking their fortune. The Benders soon realised that this was a market that could be tapped. The cabin was divided with a canvas sheet, most likely from their wagon. Front of house was a grocery business of sorts and at the back, a bed for weary travellers.
Elvira and her daughter Kate claimed to have psychic powers. More than likely they were trying to tap into the spiritualism craze that gripped both America and Europe. Everybody wanted to talk to the dead. And pay well for the experience. This led to Elvira being dubbed a “she-devil” while Kate raised eyebrows by also advocating free love.
Furthermore, she questioned conventional morality and posed the question: is murder always wrong? Rumours later circulated that Kate was in an incestuous relationship with her brother or that he wasn’t actually a family member at all.
From 1871 to 1873, several people making their way along the Great Osage Trail were reported missing. A body was found in a nearby lake with the throat cut and head bashed in. Travellers began avoiding the trail as people vanished. Given the prevalence of bandits, disease, and the risk of accident – nobody assumed that a family in the community could be responsible.
In late 1872, George Newton Longcor and his daughter Mary Ann from the town of Independence, Kansas were heading west to Iowa and disappeared. In the spring of 1873, Longcor’s neighbour – Dr. William Henry York – went looking for him and he too was never seen again. But York’s brother – Colonel Alexander M. York – was a big cheese in the state as a member of the Kansas Senate. And he organised a thorough search in all the homesteads along the trail.
This included a visit to the Benders’ cabin where the family admitted that the doctor had stayed with them. Their erratic behaviour, especially that of Elvira, prompted York to organised a meeting where he declared that every habitation in the vicinity was to be searched. Shortly afterwards, the Benders fled. This wasn’t noticed at first – but weeks later, locals finally realised they’d gone. When their cabin and the surrounding area was investigated, up to eleven bodies were found in the small orchard.
The method of murder had a touch of Sweeney Todd about it. A guest would be given a seat of honour and distracted by Kate with talk of psychic powers while the father or son smashed the victim’s head in with a hammer and one of the women cut the throat. The body was then dropped through a trap door to a rudimentary cellar below; stripped of all clothing and valuables; and buried outside.
There were variations on this account – some saying that the throat was cut by one of the women waiting in the cellar for the body to drop. And newspapers increased the number of bodies unearthed in the orchard to twenty or more.
This is where events took a depressing turn. Here was a family of serial killers. Their crimes were beyond doubt. Even poor Dr. York’s body turned up in the orchard. But the deficiencies of law enforcement in the Wild West became glaringly obvious. Contracting out the pursuit of the Benders to vigilantes resulted in bounty hunters claiming to have killed members of the family and demanding the reward but then…failing to show their bodies as required.
Newspapers reported lynchings, shootings and even the burning to death of the female Benders as witches! None of this stood up to a moment’s scrutiny.
So the unpalatable alternative was that they had escaped the clutches of the law. One reporter claimed the bloodthirsty foursome went to live among the Choctaw tribe “wandering beyond the boundaries of civilisation ever since”. Another wrote that Kate fled in one of her father’s buckskin coats riding as a man among cowboys. She then participated in many “drunken and murderous sprees” until her sex was discovered after which she fled to Michigan subsequently working on a farm.
In 1897, The Oswego Independent quoted a certain Captain W. H. Ward, former private secretary to the Governor of Kansas who admitted the Benders had got away and some of them might still be alive. He pointed to what he believed was a reliable statement by a convict at the Michigan state penitentiary in Detroit, Sam Merrick, who gave a very detailed account of how the Benders had escaped with help from the Apaches and assumed fake identities.
Something that lingered in my mind about the disappearance of the Benders was the alleged collusion of native American tribes like the Choctaw and Apaches. And I’d be curious to know your view. But I wondered if some American Indians, especially those driven from the area, may have been sympathetic to the family. After all, they were killing those pesky white settlers who were seizing tribal lands. This may be far-fetched and I certainly don’t want to suggest that the Choctaw and Apaches would have routinely endorsed such crimes. Over to you!
DISCOVER: Did Buffalo Bill invent the Wild West?
The stories of these Wild West serial killers sheds a light on just how disturbing this period of history could be. John “Liver Eating” Johnson kills hundreds of Crow braves and eats their livers. His victims might as well have been buffalo instead of human beings. The value placed on their lives was clearly minimal.
Bill Longley’s cold-heart racist murder of freed slaves is jaw-droppingly awful. But it’s only when he shot dead a (white) childhood friend that the law finally closed in and the noose went round his neck. And finally the Bender family. Serial killers par excellence. Yet 16th and 17th century Scotland made a better job of tracking down Sawney Bean and his family of cannibals than the state of Kansas did 150 years ago.