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


61 Responses to “Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir”

  1. bjacques says:

    Yowza! Little House on the Prairie becomes Wisconsin Death Trip!

  2. John says:

    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.  

  3. planettom says:

     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!

  4. Argento Dei says:

     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.

  5. ChickieD says:

    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.

    • ChickieD says:

      Ok here is one article I found:

  6. awjt says:

    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.

  7. abewhitney says:

    Rick Geary wrote a comic on the bender Story as part of his Treasury of Victorian Murder called “The Saga of the Bloody Benders” . Worth checking out!

  8. AmericAussie says:

    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).

  9. cfuse says:

    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.

    • B E Pratt says:

       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.

  10. KludgeGrrl says:

    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. 

    • ChickieD says:

      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.

      • KludgeGrrl says:

        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.

        • ChickieD says:

          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).

      • B E Pratt says:

         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.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      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.

      • KludgeGrrl says:

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

      • Petzl says:


  11. millie fink says:

    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.

    • Stacy Lee Patton says:

      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! :) 

  12. Stuff you missed in history class did a great podcast on the “Bloody Benders”…I highly recommend it

  13. 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?

  14. Deidzoeb says:

    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.

    • Funk Daddy says:

      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.

      • Deidzoeb says:

        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.”

  15. 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. 

  16. tyger11 says:

    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.

  17. Christina Ward says:

    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.

  18. Mike Marlett says:

    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.

  19. Andrew Glines says:

    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.

  20. 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.   

    • Ronald Riley says:

      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.

  21. suzybrown says:

    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.

  22. Michael_J_Walsh says:

    “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.

  23. Stacy Lee Patton says:

    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.

  24. reddfish1 says:

    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.

  25. jayson says:

    “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.

  26. colleenmorgan says:

    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?

  27. 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.

  28. Devon Heffer says:

    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.

  29. ipolitico says:

    More about cartoonists/graphic novelists, but I like this article’s discussion of how the divide between fiction and non isn’t that clear cut, even when we think it is…

  30. Antinous / Moderator says:

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

    Hansel and Gretel?

  31. Greg Seamon says:

    Saw this historical marker a few years back after visiting the Engles house in Kansas.
    Just scroll down the page a bit. There is a marker about the Bender’s.

  32. Adam Baranowski says:

    Louise Brooks was born there. . 

  33. 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?

  34. planettom says:

    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!

  35. debreese says:

    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.)

  36. ChickieD says:

    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.

  37. That would have been the greatest episode ever!

  38. Susan says:

    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.)

  39. 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…

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