This is the ninth graphic documentary by Rick Geary as part of his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series, and it might be the best so far. While the book may not have the resonance of “The Murder of Abraham Lincoln” or the well-trod complexity of “The Borden Tragedy,” this book has a certain kind of documentary verisimilitude that makes it very special.
This graphic novel is the story of the Bender family, who own a small grocery along a desolate stretch of the Osage Trail in extreme southeast Kansas in 1870. Due to their isolation and the peculiarities of the extremely rural settings of the incidents, the Benders are able to get away with a long series of cold-blooded murders of men, women and children as the people come across the Osage Trail.
Geary tells the story in five parts, each more intriguing than the one before. He spends much of part one simply setting the stage for the story, describing “Bloody Kansas” and its unique place in American history. I found this section of the story somehow fascinating. With Geary’s evocative use of language and humanizing portraits of the characters who settled Kansas, this book starts out with history that feels dramatic rather than like a dry recitation of facts. In part two, Geary draws readers into the story of the Benders. Here, small and evocative details have a way of humanizing the characters. In their banality they are more compelling. John Bender Jr. and Sr. can’t spell the word grocery. The family owns an antique eight-day clock. Kate bender is a bizarre and moody woman who imagines herself as having a connection to the spiritual world.
Through these small touches and many more, Geary makes these incidents feel immediate and realistic rather than a simple dry historical document. In short strokes Geary introduces the murder victims through a simple recitation of facts that somehow acquires extra resonance through his artistic portraits of them. Each of these people seem so ordinary and sincere as Geary draws them, and the Benders all seem to be slightly depraved in each panel. The book feels both straightforward and off-kilter at the same time, effectively depicting the horrific strangeness of the story.
In part three, the Benders leave their small farm as quickly as they had arrived. From that point forward, Geary seems to tell the story of the Benders with a detached eye, as much about the lives of the people in surrounding towns as about the Benders themselves. It’s horrifying when the members of the surrounding families find the dead bodies and bloody abattoir, and somehow even more scary when an angry mob tries to lynch one of the Benders’ neighbors because they blame him for the crimes. Nobody escapes the horror, even those who are completely innocent.
By part five, entitled “What Came of Them?” Geary has taken his story to magnificently unique heights. In this chapter, Geary explores the legend of the Benders, attempting to explain what happened to the family after they left Kansas. It turns out that nobody knows what happened to them. Did they take their murder spree to West Texas? Or were they found by sheriff’s deputies and killed? Did Kate become a society matron, a whore or a practicing outlaw? This unresolved mystery gives Geary’s book a little final zing. Here were some of America’s first and worst serial killers, and nobody even seems to have a clue what happened to them. It seems so unlikely and yet so realistic at the same time.
This is a wonderfully thoughtful and interesting book. Geary’s wonderful artwork has seldom looked better, combining a documentary realism with his typically humorous style. And he’s never created a story as thoughtful and intriguing as the saga of the bloody Bender family of southeastern Kansas.