Hell’s Half-Acre by Susan Jonusas

I had this on my Wish List at Audible and then it came up at the library.  Oh my – yes – So I started listening but it was late and I kept drifting off and finally just fell asleep.   I woke up and tried to find where I’d lost it and just kept getting interested. So I finished but somehow I wanted more –  I still hadn’t got it all – I missed quite a lot in those dozing sessions.  

Hell’s Half-Acre:
The Untold Story of the Benders, 
a Serial Killer Family on the American Frontier
By Susan Jonusas
2022 / 345 pages
Read by Lee Osorio 8h 16m
Rating – 8/A:  history-true crime 

So I started over – still just listening.  Hmmmm… this really is pretty good, so I got the Kindle sample – yes … excellent. And yes-  I bought the Kindle version and kept going on through the book on this, my “second” reading – kind of. 

Part of my problem was that I was expecting “True Crime” in the way I’m used to reading True Crime.  I didn’t expect an academic or scholarly history book with a crime at the core or with a lot of related material plus immaculate source notes. I think Hell’s Half-Acre  is what is sometimes called “creative nonfiction” because the conversations Jonusas describes are likely not found in the source documents. There are other factors – the story arc is important and the author skillfully built tension often appropriate to a thriller. The more scholarly history books I’ve read lately don’t do that – lol. The source notes here are good but they’re generalized – nothing indicates specifically where the author got these particular words or ideas.

This is a history book for members of the general public who just want a good read, not folks who are looking for scholarly source notes or carefully worded suggestions of what might be considered. .  

 Hell’s Half-Acre takes place between 1872 and 1889 in the southeast corner of Kansas, not far from the borders of Missouri and Oklahoma. The Civil War had just ended not too long prior, the Homestead Act had been passed and railroads were going through the West. Displaced Southerners as well as new immigrants to the US were coming to Kansas looking for a home. Oklahoma belonged to displaced (evicted) Natives and Texas was full of abandoned cattle just waiting to be rounded up and taken north to the new railheads. This was a time of change. The frontier would be declared “closed” by the Bureau of the Census in 1890 – but not yet.

This book is about the Bender family who lived on that half-acre mentioned in the title, and their serial murdering of 11 or more people who wandered onto their property (saloon/cafe/inn). It’s just as much or more about the efforts of law enforcement and others to hunt them down. A few suspects were found and a trial held, but no one was ever convicted. The Benders were not among them though and they apparently simply left the area when they were about to be found out.  

 Hell’s Half-Acre isn’t an action-packed thriller although there’s quite a lot of tension in places because these are “the ‘Kansas Fiends’ a family of murderers whose crimes sent the newspapers and the nation into a frenzy.”

As a lover of both True Crime and the history of the West, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think I might have come across the name Bender long ago, but I’m not certain. 

 Photo of setting with William York in the casket:chttps://www.posterazzi.com/bender-murders-1873-nthe-grave-of-dr-william-henry-york-a-victim-of-the-bender-family-of-serial-killers-in-kansas-wood-engraving-after-a-photograph-by-george-r-gamble-1873-poster-print-by-granger-collection-item-vargrc0354739/


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