Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier

Susan Jonusas. Viking, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-1-984879-83-7
Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, historian Jonusas debuts with an impressive and deeply unsettling account of the Benders, a family of German immigrants who killed at least 10 people after they settled in Kansas’s Labette County in 1870. The Benders used their cabin as a general store and as lodging for travelers. After some of their guests went missing, the Benders eventually came under suspicion, and they abandoned their home in 1873 as the net was closing in. When their cellar was excavated, human remains were found in a gruesome crime scene that a reporter dubbed “hell’s half-acre.” Investigators later figured out the killers’ m.o.: after a lodger was fed and felt relaxed, one of the Benders stunned the victim with a hammer before smashing in their head and slitting their throat. The killers, whose motives were never learned, escaped justice, as they were never found after fleeing the county, and Jonusas lays out evidence for alternate theories of their fate, which included a successful escape into Arizona or Colorado, and the family being killed by the Texas Rangers. Radiant prose (“Creeks, dancing and clear, divide vast expanses of prairieland rolling toward the sky”) enhances the page-turning narrative. The combination of true crime and a vivid depiction of frontier life earn this a spot on the shelf next to David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Assoc. (Mar.)
Reviewed on : 01/14/2022
Release date: 03/01/2022
Genre: Nonfiction
Book - 1 pages - 978-1-9848-7984-4
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