In 2011, when I was working on notes for the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the one that was the most fun to write and research was about the Bloody Benders. These serial killers in Kansas played a starring role in the most important statement Wilder ever made about her work, the speech she gave at the Detroit book fair. And no wonder: the Benders had it all—murder, mystery, sex appeal.
When Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography was published, I was thrilled to see that it included, among its other gorgeous accoutrements, a meaty little appendix about the Bloody Benders. Then Nancy Tystad Koupal and Pioneer Girl Perspectives offered me the perfect excuse to indulge my morbid fascination with this killer family and to delve into the story of why the Benders became something of a touchstone for Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Why were they always bringing up the Bender account—what did it mean to them? And what does their adding the episode to the Pioneer Girl narrative say about their understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction?
My essay aims to provide some answers to those questions, but to give you a teaser: Lane’s early journalism goes back to a lurid period in the history of newspapers—what used to be called “yellow journalism,” named for the “Yellow Kid” comic strip immortalized during the circulation battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Yellow journalists gave rise to both good and bad trends, to investigative journalism as well as tabloid fodder—they were the pioneers of “fake news.”
Lane cut her teeth in the “journalistic kindergarten” of yellow journalism in San Francisco, California. Within weeks of being hired at the San Francisco Bulletin, she began churning out fake celebrity “autobiographies.” At the same moment, she was teaching her mother the tools of that strange trade. It’s an astonishing chapter in their story. The saga of the Bloody Benders dramatizes the editorial struggle between them, a struggle over values represented by truth, on the one hand, and fiction on the other. My essay features new information on the Bender-Ingalls connection and how Wilder and her daughter may have come across the salacious tale, as well as a long-lost letter of Lane’s, described for the first time.
Caroline Fraser, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.