Bloody Benders

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.

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The illustration page from a feature on the Bender murders in Harper’s Weekly on June 7, 1873

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

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017. For information about all the contributors, please visit our Contributors page.

A Mother/Daughter Story

I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. Like many, I received my first copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six from my grandmother, Elsie Mattson, and I continued to receive all of the books, out of order, for varied birthdays and Christmases. Playing “Little House” was a favorite pastime; I lived in northern rural Wisconsin when I was small, and my cousins and I had no shortage of personal experiences to relate to our reading and playing of “Laura’s” story. Grandma Elsie was even friends with the real Laura’s cousins who lived in the area, and I knew early on that the fictional Laura had a real-life counterpart. That knowledge lent realism to my childhood experiences, and that connection fostered my adult interest in women’s history.

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Rose Wilder Lane in 1942. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

But as I grew up and uncovered the story of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, I discovered that I related much better to her than I did to Wilder. Lane was a “modern woman” who left rural America and built a career as a freelance writer in a time when that just wasn’t done. Lane defied convention and gained notoriety in a period when women were actively encouraged to stay home. She also faced significant hardships—a failed marriage, a lost child, and lifelong struggles with depression—and when it came to public opinion, her “give-a-darn” broke long before her divorce in 1918. Lane educated herself, and she valued intellectual thought. I admired her willingness to speak out for her beliefs. Her tenacity led her to carve out a career that allowed her to support herself, her parents, varied friends, and foster children throughout her life.

In the chapter I wrote for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I focus on Lane’s story, particularly her later career, her interactions with the FBI, and her less-than-subtle political commentary in the Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework. My essay reflects on the fact that this extraordinary person was every inch her mother’s daughter. The values that Wilder articulates in Pioneer Girl and her early journalistic writings clearly appear as a theme in Lane’s work and personal choices.

Rose Wilder Lane was not perfect; she made some poor choices that put her at odds with her mother and, later, with her mother’s fan base. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not perfect either, but the lessons each woman’s story holds for the contemporary reader remain valuable to women’s history in the United States.

We can learn a lot from Lane’s story.

Amy Mattson Lauters, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017. For information about all the contributors, please visit our Contributors page.

Pioneer Girl Perspectives Update

Earlier, the Pioneer Girl Project announced that Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder would be coming out in 2017, and it’s on its way—set your calendars for May 18!

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. Along the way, authors William T. Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John E. Miller, Paula M. Nelson, and Ann Romines explore the relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as well as their path to the Little House novels. Editor Nancy Tystad Koupal also includes an interview with Little House Heritage Trust representative Noel Silverman, who has worked with Wilder’s works for over forty-five years, and annotates Wilder’s 1937 speech about the Little House series given at the Detroit book fair.

This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America will also explore, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.

Continue to follow the Pioneer Girl Project website for more updates.