Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir

Over the weekend, I read a couple of the posts blogger Ana Mardoll has been writing in which she deconstructs some of the weirder/more objectionable elements of the Little House books. That sent me looking for an essay I'd read several years ago on the actual history of how the Osage people were removed from southeastern Kansas ... which is given a prominent, if rather warped, role in Little House on the Prairie.

I didn't find that essay, but I did find several references to a story I had never, ever heard before. Turns out, the Ingalls family's sojourn in Kansas might have overlapped with that of a family of serial killers. At the American Indians in Children's Literature blog, Debbie Reese writes about stumbling across the story in the transcript of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder gave in 1937. Here's an excerpt from that transcript:

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

... In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder told this story in the context of explaining how the published stories about her childhood differed from the reality. She deliberately left out some things, she explained, because she wasn't trying to tell a 100% un-edited history. She was writing a children's book. Serial killers murdered by vigilantes doesn't make for great children's literature.

Which makes sense ... except that there's no way Pa Ingalls could have been involved in the vigilante justice meted out on the Benders. As blogger and literature Ph.D. candidate Kate points out at the Condensery, the Benders weren't actually exposed until 1873. This was two years after the Ingalls family left Kansas.

So why tell people that you left a story out of your memoir, when that story is not true? That's an interesting question, and I think it calls up some of the key issues involved with writing about your own past — especially your own childhood. How much do you actually remember about early childhood?

Laura Ingalls Wilder would have been only 4 years old when she lived in Kansas. I do remember things that must have come from when I was around that age, but the memories I feel most comfortable calling real aren't particularly detailed. Or long. Instead, what I have are more like still pictures, rather than short movies—a fuzzy scene, a bit of emotion that scene created for me, and that's it. But there are other "memories", too. These are more centered around stories. The visual memories I have of them are definitely more like movies than snapshots. And, not coincidentally, these are also the memories that most coincide with stories I know my parents told me about myself.

It's pretty well-established scientifically that our memories do not represent a 100% accurate portrayal of history. And that's not just in relation to childhood memories. Adult memories can be manipulated, too, and we can manipulate ourselves. An io9 story from back in January looks at a couple of different studies in the literature on this.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the UC Irvine, has spent some time coordinating memories. She had experiment subjects come in and look at a little book of life events; three their own, one not. Each event was recounted to the researchers by the subject's relatives. The fourth event, being lost in a shopping mall, was created by the researchers. The relatives merely confirmed that that event had never happened to the subject.

The false event has four parts: an extended period of being lost, crying, being helped by an elderly woman, and being found by a family member. Twenty-nine percent of the subjects remembered the made-up event. Twenty-five percent of them continued to remember the event after being outright told that it was made up, insisting that it happened.

To me, the body of research on false memories suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilder might not have been lying when she told a story about her family crossing paths with the Bloody Benders. If you think about it, it would be pretty simple. A young Laura might simply have heard her parents talking about the Benders, misconstrued the situation, and created memories that fit her understanding. In the course of telling the story to friends and family, her parents might have changed it themselves — a simple "and it turned out they lived right down the road from us!" story became, over time, a story of participating in the downfall of the serial killers. However it happened, it happened. And it's completely reasonable to think that Laura honestly thought the story she told was completely true.

Which brings up some questions: How accurate should we ever expect memoirs to be? Is a memoir supposed to be a personalized account of researched history, or a personal story of one's own (inherently inaccurate) memories? I don't know that I have a good answer for that. But I'm curious to hear what you think.

Read the rest of the Ingalls/Bender story at American Indians in Children's Literature
Another version of that story, as written in the unpublished manuscript, Pioneer Girl
• The Condensery blog on factual inaccuracies between Laura's story and history
Io9's story on the creation of fake memories

IMAGE: A stereoscopic photo showing the excavated grave of one of the Bender's victims. From the Kansas Memory site.


  1. When I was 3 I visited Ireland.  My memories are the smells, specifically the smell of burning turf (peat moss).  My grandparents still heated their homes with turf then.  I also remember taking walks by myself to the neighbors.  

  2.  Then there was that raped by a clown episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

    And the one where Mr. Olson cuts off his wife’s head in the attic and it rolls down the stairs (Halloween episode).     Of course, in the end, it turns out that’s not really what happened.

    I’m just sayin’.    Even the TV series had some David Lynch, Little House On The Lovecraftian Prairie  moments!

    1. There was also that delightful children’s tale of Albert trying to kick his opiate addiction – against his will. Pa and the Doc kept him strapped to a bed.

      1. Oh lordy, will THAT episode stick in my mind! First time I EVER saw projectile vomiting (not implied!) on TV. And never again until The Sopranos.

  3.  I have complex and well formed memories involving my grandparents and my third grade teacher.  My grandparents died before I entered the second grade.  They are, however, the only memories I have of them, so I still cling to them.  False memories are better than none at all.

  4. I thought it was well established that a lot of her stories were made up or highly embellished. I was trying to find a link to information on that, but all I am digging up is You Tube videos of old clips from the TV show. Hopefully someone will post a link here to back me up.

    1. Ok here is one article I found:

  5. I think it’s interesting that people took notice of the freshly plowed, unplanted garden.  It’s because, in those days, plowing was a BIG DEAL.  It really was.  I went to the national prairie historic monument, and saw a cross-section of unbroken prairie.  The sod was many feet thick. A dense mat of grass roots.  To plow an unbroken bit of land was slow, hard, back-breaking work.  Even re-plowing was arduous with only horses, shovels and plowshares.  So for someone not to plant at least SOMETHING after plowing, like scatter some ryegrass seeds, was unconscionable to white settlers.

  6. My Mom, since gathered to God, grew up in the SE Kansas, NE Oklahoma area. Along with being witness to a Bonnie and Clyde car chase, she would point out the same hill each time we siblings traded her off…in the Independance area. “That’s Bender’s Mound. They were a family of cannibals. Texas didn’t get ’em all.” (We assumed she meant creepy massacres).

  7. Firstly: “Serial killers murdered by vigilantes doesn’t make for great children’s literature.” – I beg to differ.

    Secondly (and more seriously): I am mentally ill and the subject of false memory has come up for me in the course of my illness. I know what I remember happening, but without any credible witnesses to corroborate my version of events I have to be very careful about using them to plan forward actions. I’m always left asking myself “Is what I think and feel about this reasonable and rational?”. This is not as trivial a question as it first appears.

    Our memories are a significant part of who we are. We use them to decide what to do. The idea that our memories might be corrupted, or even outright fabrications, is a disquieting thought. It is made even more so by the knowledge that we simply cannot tell that a memory is suspect by self analysis – there’s little in the way of error checking built into the brain.

    There’s plenty of research covering the fact that the human brain will supply dodgy perceptual information. Memory is just one more aspect of that. In short, our minds lie to us all the time.

    Thirdly: I suppose the way to look at a memoir is as a point of view, rather than a purely factual account. We have textbooks for history, arguably we go to the memoir because it incorporates the flaws of individual memory, not in spite of it.

    1.  Not only is memory dodgy, so is sight. An experiment was performed by having a subject wear glasses continuously that caused everything to be upside down. I don’t remember how long it took, but eventually the brain would correct for this and make everything right side up again. Unfortunately, and rather sickeningly,  it didn’t happen all at once. Wondering if perhaps I had misremembered this from school I asked my ophthalmologist about this once and he confirmed it.

  8. The problem of accuracy is one of the issues with which historians routinely wrestle — and one that many undergraduate history majors have trouble comprehending.  The idea that no source is completely reliable, even a memoir, is apparently a tough one (judging from the complaints I’ve received and the papers I’ve read).  The “art” of history is in balancing various sources and using reasoning to ferret out what you think really occurred — and it has been for literally thousands of years.  And it’s what makes history so much fun — that there is almost always room for a new interpretation, that you can question an account and offer a new interpretation. 

    It is too bad that high schools generally teach history as a completely passive exercise, in which one is told what happened and told to remember it.  Memoirs are great sources, but they (like all sources) need to be used with care, not simply believed. 

    1. When I was in college, I selected courses based on the criteria that it had to be the strangest course that fulfilled one of the college requirements. This is how I ended up taking a history course entitled “Salem Witchcraft”. I  got into the class and learned that I was the only Junior allowed into a class of 12 students. The rest were Seniors, and I believe largely history majors. The class was designed to teach you how historians work. We read the original trial records. We read land records, church records. We read other histories related to similar towns at the time to understand the historical context. We had databases we could sort to find out about church membership, lawsuits, land ownership. Each piece of information we were presented seemed to lead us to a new conclusion about the root causes of the hysteria. I ended up with a huge appreciation for the decisions a historian makes when presenting her ideas, how many little judgements you have to make about small details – at a time when spelling wasn’t standardized, for example, it was hard to know if a record pertained to two people with similar names or the same person whose name was spelled differently in two records. I wish more people got to take a class like this; it made history so exciting to me and taught me a great deal about digging into the research people have done to back up their ideas.

      1. The witch trials are fabulous for exposing the problems in believing source material, given that they not only contradict each other but also contain lots of incredible details (like Satan speaking to people in the guise of a dog, etc).  Not that the latter stopped my students from taking it literally…  Sigh.

        I did not anticipate how fundamentalist christian students would read them. Mea culpa.

        1. One of my big regrets is that I didn’t save the printouts with the original testimony. I’m sure it’s available now somewhere on the web. It’s been forever since I took the course, but I remember thinking that there would be a lot of repressed sexual imagery and there was almost none. Instead, there was a tremendous amount of violence being expressed. It made more sense once we learned that the town was supposed to be a model Christian village where everyone was supposed to at their Christian best. They all were suing each other left right and center and there were so many personal tensions, but they were supposed to just smile and act holy. I don’t see how anyone could take it literally as it was just so odd and of its time, what with the devil always trying to make you write in his book and such – wow (shakes head).

      2.  When I was at UT Austin in the early 70’s, I took a course called Vampirism in Eastern Europe (really, how could one resist that title?). Turned out to be one of the most pleasurable and memorable course I have ever taken and, oddly, full of actually useful material.

    2. The idea that no source is completely reliable, even a memoir, is apparently a tough one

      Not for me. I’ve read accounts of events in which I participated and persons whom I knew that are completely split off from reality.

      I’ve also read some of my friends’ extensive FBI files. Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars. Maybe 5% of the information is accurate. Maybe.

      1.  I might hazard that you are not entirely comparable to an ordinary undergraduate student, Antonius… 


  9. Turns out, the Ingalls family’s sojourn in Kansas might have overlapped with that of a family of serial killers. 

    Yes, maybe so, but it also turns out that the Ingalls family was itself part of a family of serial killers. They called themselves “the white race.” In fact, that very designation justified (for them) the serial killing of members of other so-called races. 

    I do have to wonder what Native American scholar Debbie Reese would think of the way this post about her post veers off into a discussion (albeit an intriguing one) of the nature of memoirs and memory.

    1. Well, it doesn’t exactly veer off–the author here uses the anecdote of Ingalls Wilder and the Benders specifically to raise the question of memory and memoir. That’s her subject from the outset. Funny our reactions, because I was wondering how Koerth-Baker felt about how the comments on her article about memory and memoir ‘veered off’ into a discussion about serial killers! :) 

  10. Maggie! It took me a sec to remember you but I used to write for mental_floss, too. Anyway, I’ve since used my MF powers to write a book about LIW. A friend directed me here.

    The Little House books are published as fiction, even though the stories are based on many real life events. Even so, we Bonnetheads have spent many an hour discerning fact from fiction. Many of the stories told do have a basis in historical fact. A friend of mine who is a meteorologist has verified (to a large degree) the temperatures of The Long Winter. Re: serial killers—I wouldn’t be shocked if Laura told a family story that was a story not an historical account. You know, this post is the first “something new” I’ve learned about LIW in…forever?

  11. Another weird/objectionable part in the series. By the Shores of Silver Lake, in the chapter titled “Horse Thieves”, Laura hints that Pa warned a suspected horse thief about a posse waiting to ambush him.

    I don’t find it totally objectionable that he warns the suspect to keep away.  The objectionable part is when Pa says, “Well… I’ve got to go sell the boys the ammunition for their guns.” (for the ambush that they’re not going to carry out). Talk about playing both sides.

    1. They’ll use the ammo eventually, hopefully hunting something not people.

      I don’t cotton to vigilantes much, can’t say I fault Pa for that one.

      1. I thought of that too, the ammo won’t go to waste just because this ambush was spoiled. And there are other complications: the suspected horse thief is “half breed” Native American, and a big winner at card games, so it’s hard to tell if he the vigilantes want to kill him because they’ve lost money to him, or because racism, or because they actually think he’s a horse thief.

        But Pa’s still shady. It’s a little disturbing how many times throughout the series Laura will ask him to clarify some shady statement, or she’ll make an innocently pointed observation like, “Weren’t the Indians here first, Pa? Didn’t we move into their territory?” — and Pa shuts it down: “Enough questions! Time for bed.”

  12. In a biography I read a while ago about LIW, the family actually lived in Kansas twice–the second time they lived there, the family was basically destitute and reeling from the recent loss of a baby brother. This was probably the time that LIW references with the serial killer story. Somewhere in the house, I have book. 

  13. I remember one of the tv episodes had one of the long-time characters turn out to be a murdering pedophile. I was seriously shocked.

  14. I have a copy of my great-great grandfather’s diary. He came from Germany to join the US Army in 1865, seduced as a 17 year old by the stories of war. He missed the Civil; but ended up moving with the Army westward during the Expansion.  

    His unit helped build Ft. Hayes, KS and numerous forts and outposts all the way to Ft. Assinboine, MT.

    His diaries are incredible. Simply written in English as he practiced the new language. The prevailing themes are these:
    1. Hardships of the Army
    2. Numerous bloody battles with Native peoples.
    3.  That the towns, settlements and forts were filled with drunks, adventurers and killers.

    His diary reads as script overviews of the HBO show Deadwood than Little House on every day of the week.  There were many more “Bender Families” than we have been told.

  15. I was just listening to the Stuff You Missed in History podcast on the Bender family this morning. My great-great grandpa and family settled a farm just a few miles from there at the same time. Damn creepy.

  16. Bender’s Mound!  I still know where to find it, even though they’ve moved the sign since I grew up.  Maggie, thanks for the southeast Kansas refresher.  And yes, it’s about 15-20 miles east of the Little House.

  17. Kate Bender’s ultimate fate is still a mystery.  Although there is one story that she was burned alive by vigilantes, there is no real evidence for that.  For decades after her disappearance, “Kate Bender sightings” were reported across the US.   

    1. I did a ton of research recently on the Benders, and Kate wasn’t the only one of the family reportedly seen/captured in all sorts of places. Some accounts had the family fleeing to France. The Bender story is truly one of a kind.

  18. She was 4 the first time they loved in Kansas but they went back later, and actually ran a hotel! This is when the little brother Frederick was born, and died, and she didn’t write about that, or Mary’s stroke which caused her blindness, either.  They had a lot of sadness in a few short years, she cut it all out.

    1. One of the books mentions that Mary was blinded by a bout of scarlet fever, after the fact.  So she does mention some cause, whether or not it’s the right one.

  19. “How much do you actually remember about early childhood?”

    Chip Delany in “The Motion of Light on Water”  deals with childhood memories that turn out to be not quite correct.  Great book, btw.

  20. David Shields says (or quotes someone who says) that once you attempt to commit a memory to the page it’s an act of imagination, no different from fiction. I agree. I think it’s a fallacy to think you remember what happened. The nature of memory is creative, and the line of ‘truth’ in memoir is for me, most interesting when it’s intentionally blurred. Take Mary McCarthy’s *Memories of a Catholic Girlhood*, for instance–the most interesting sections of that classic for me were the ones at the end of each chapter, where she questions her memories of the events described. Or the kerfluffle over Frey’s *Million Little Pieces*, or Renata Adler’s *Speedboat* (both styled as novels, but clearly ambiguous in their presentation of the ‘story’). I could go on, but in essence, for me part of the excitement of memoir exists in the fallibility of memory, with both the reader and the writer struggling together to arrive at some version of ‘truth’ in the work.

  21. The TV western Big Valley did a story of travelers being bashed in the head at a tavern by one brother as his sister got them to lean back and relax in a chair with their head against a white sheet.They then thru them down a well.

  22. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

    I prefer the version where Pa metes out vigilante justice to the Benders. Telling the story that way won’t change anything one way or another. I’m sticking with Laura’s version.

  23. Fantastic post! Little House on the Prairie was my introduction to one of my favorite genres, survivalism, albeit in a little girl form. 

    Did anyone else make snow candy?

  24. Re-reading those books as an adult is fascinating for all the things she left out.  Every house, barn, shed, and woodpile Pa builds is described in loving detail, but he never builds an outhouse.  And of course we never hear about pregnancies or menstruation.

  25. That’s not fair! I had zombies too!
    Yes. You had zombies. But this is ZOMBIE REDNECK TORTURE FAMILY. Entirely seperate thing. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.

  26. Serial killers murdered by vigilantes doesn’t make for great children’s literature.

    Hansel and Gretel?

  27. I need more dates to figure this out. Mrs Wilder moved the books around a bit from her personal history. In fact the events in LHotP take place before Little House in the Big Woods. If you keep that in mind them maybe the dates with the Benders line up?

  28. Reading through some of these comments and the essays at some of the above links,  I think the existence of the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE TV series is a 400-pound gorilla in this story:  People who read about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real childhood, can’t help but picture Michael Landon sagely solving every problem in an hour, you know, sort of the impossibly good and wise father on the order of Atticus Finch.      And there’s cognitive dissonance; when they realize that her real dad was maybe morally ambiguous.  So there’s a point where they get backwardly angry at the book dad, and/or the real life dad, for not being Michael Landon!

  29. People like to think of Pa as the moral center of the stories. He says things about how the Indians have a right to be mad that whites are on their land, and he counters the feeling that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” when the only Indian with a personal name (Soldat du Chen) and specific tribe  (Osage) tells a large gathering of Indians (with no names, no tribes, few clothes) who “yip” and “yap” and “howl” as they discuss attacking the settlers that he and the Osages will fight them if they attack the settlers. The “good” Indian who deserves to live is the one who would fight alongside Ingalls.

    And, by the way, prior to the time Ingalls and his family got to Indian Territory, the Cherokees and tribes that had been removed from the south, had built towns, schools, stores, etc., much like they had in the south. They weren’t running around half-naked as Wilder depicts in her book. Good story telling (maybe, it depends on your viewpoint), but her depictions of Indians is wrong. Factually wrong. And yet, her books are taught to children in schools, as-is.

    Pa does blackface in one of the books. In another, he tells Laura about his life as a little boy in New York, where he’d pretend he was hunting wild animals and Indians. Wilder repeatedly dehumanizes Indians, makes them animal-like, and as such, it is ok (not) for Pa to imagine hunting them. THAT hunting-humans theme is not in children’s books. But again, the book with the hunting Indians and blackface are taught to children…

    (Editing my comment to include a thanks to Maggie for linking to my site, American Indians in Children’s Literature. I’ve written about LHOP several times, and other books that misrepresent American Indians. CADDIE WOODLAWN is one; TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR is another, and… there’s TWILIGHT. Wanna know more? Visit my site.)

  30. My husband and I met in college, 20 years ago. He and I dated starting about 2 months before graduation and then on for about a year after graduating. We then broke up and had no contact for 15 years.

    During those 15 years I participated in a lot of therapy. I constructed a narrative of my childhood and teen years over the course of that therapy. Certainly part of that narrative was this one nice, more mature relationship I had with this fellow at the end of my college years. 

    I’d gotten to this place where I felt like I could review my whole life over and over again and there was nothing new to learn.  I had maybe 6, 7 really distinctive memories of the one good relationship and nothing I could do would dredge up anything more. This was the point where I decided to reconnect to my old boyfriend – not thinking to rekindle the relationship but just to see if he had some additional memory he could add that could shift my thinking now that I’d come to such a dead end. 

    How weird to find out how much I had forgotten and he had remembered. It was as if I had tried to extinguish him altogether from my past. Try to remember forward round the calendar from graduation I would remember the summer we spent together in DC. Remebering backwards from later events in my life, all I could recall was painful loneliness; he is absent from my memories in that direction altogether.

    Now I have to wonder about my other memories; some I can confirm with an objective fact, like remembering that I was in some class or another and then verifying that against my school transcript. Others are clearly out of order when I compare them with some objective fact, but I can’t figure out where it goes wrong. My older sister, 4 years old, could confirm some things. It’s disturbing to discover that one’s memory is so cloudy and slippery.

  31. It astounds me that people are bringing up the TV show as evidence of anything. A few seasons in they lost the rights to base the storylines on the books. That’s one reason it got so ridiculous! (ps I can’t figure out how to get my name to show at the top of the post. @luindriel on twiter.)

  32. As a three year old I retained the memory of a car my Father owned.. Well, part of it. I recall the color, and that it had wooden spoke wheels. My Mom swears I couldn’t possibly recall this because of my age at the time, but back then we didn’t have color photos. She finally conceded that I had to have absorbed this information into my memory banks since there was no other way I could have known the color and have been able to describe it so accurately. (It was the color of butterscotch pudding)
    I also recall at age 4, attending a circus with my grandparents. The sent, a wooden bench seat grandpa covered with the Indian weave blanket from the back seat of his 49 ford sedan to make the sitting a little more comfortable, an elephant and a woman in a pink feathered costume. Age 5 I have vivid recall of grandma taking me and an Angel Food cake she had backed and decorated to the one room country school I would attend that fall. I had turned 5 in Jan. and she took to me to introduce me to the teacher and kids on their last day of school that spring. So, yeah.. early memories, I would say are very much like snap shots stored in the brain.

    As for memories created, I have those also, but they were created over a period on many years by many people, and I have since seen those memories embellished upon by generations after mine. It makes me laugh, because the actual even was really very simple, and when I hear people speak of it now one would think this happened 50 years ago when in fact it probably occurred 150 years ago. One family member has attempted to have my Father and Grand father taking part in this event.
    My Grand Father was yet to be born.
    The story of an execution of a murderer placed before a firing squad made up of the posse that tracked him down. The man died on a tree stump located at the corners of four counties, Clarke/Decatur/Ringgold/Union in south central Iowa.
    For those who are interested in this the story is called …

    And may be read @Antinous_Moderator:disqus

    I was off on how long ago this took place… it was over 150 years ago…

Comments are closed.