Couples who kill together — Fred and Rosemary West, Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, David and Catherine Birnie — get plenty of ink. But what about siblings and larger family groups whose shared viciousness leads them into committing horrifying crimes? Read on for six especially nasty examples.
A gang of four so ferocious they have the catchy nickname to prove it, the Benders settled in isolated Labette County, Kansas, in the early 1870s. They were followers of the newfangled Spiritualism movement, and the family superstar was its most comely member (and also the one who was most fluent in English, since everyone else had major German accents), Kate, who was in her early 20s. Though the main Bender business was running a small store and inn for travelers, Kate was also renowned for performing seances that showed off her psychic abilities. Between the hotel’s convenient location just off the Osage Trail, and Kate’s mysterious allure, there were no shortage of strangers that happened to pass by.
But all was not what it seemed in this windswept corner of southeastern Kansas. Though the Benders lived together in a family-like configuration of husband, wife, and young-adult son and daughter, historians suspect that not only were they not actually related, they weren’t even named Bender. Which, normally, who really cares, right? It’s just that so many people who happened to pass through Labette County never made it to their final destinations, including a well-known local doctor, William York. After a community meeting (attended by both male Benders) resulted in a search party’s formation, it was soon noted that the Bender homestead appeared recently abandoned.
The Benders were gone, but they left behind plenty of evidence revealing what had gone on at their farm:
Near the table where guests were served was a trap door and the foul smelling hole beneath the door was clotted with blood. The ground in an orchard near the house had been carefully plowed but one small section was noticeably indented. The ground was dug up revealing the decomposed body of Dr. York. His skull had been crushed and his throat had been cut. Before nightfall seven more bodies were extracted and another was found the next day.
Guests at the inn were urged to sit in the place of honor, which was against [a curtain dividing the house’s rooms]. While dining, the guest of honor would be hit in the head with a hammer from behind the curtain, his throat would be slit, and then his body dropped into the trap door to the cellar. One man, Mr. Wetzell, heard the story and remembered when he was at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot. His decision caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the curtain, he and his companion decided to leave.
Their motive? Robbery ... or just the thrill of it. Despite a reward and several unsubstantiated claims of their capture at the hands of various posses, the Benders appear to have gotten away with murder, and their grim story continues to intrigue. From 1961-1978, the town nearest their Kansas killing grounds, Cherryvale, operated a museum constructed to be an exact copy of their house (check out photos of the eerie installation here).
In 2012, it was rumored that Guillermo del Toro would be involved in bringing the Benders’ real-life tale of horror to the big screen. Though it never came to be, the killer family has been featured in literature and pop culture over the years, not to mention the recipient of their very own state historical marker:
These sisters hold the Guinness World Record for “Most Prolific Murder Partnership,” a dubious honor they earned due to their estimated 91 kills. Their victims were plucked from the brothel they ran together in Mexico, the Rancho El Angel. (Two additional sisters, Carmen and Maria Luisa, were also implicated in the deaths, though for whatever reason they didn’t make the cut for a Guinness shout-out.)
There’s not as much information on the González family as the Bloody Benders, despite the fact that the sisters were actually caught, and their crimes were committed much more recently. (Both received 40-year sentences in 1964). According to Murderpedia, however:
The police picked up a woman named Josefina Gutiérrez, a procuress, on suspicion of kidnapping young girls in the Guanajuato area, and during questioning, she implicated the two sisters. Police officers searched the sisters’ property and found the bodies of 11 men, 80 women and several fetuses, a total of over 91.
Investigations revealed the scheme was that they would recruit prostitutes through help-wanted ads; though the ads would state the girls would become maids for the two sisters. Many of the girls were force fed heroin or cocaine. The sisters killed the prostitutes when they became too ill, damaged by repeated sexual activity, lost their looks or stopped pleasing the customers.
They would also kill customers who showed up with large amounts of cash. When asked for an explanation for the deaths, one of the sisters reportedly said, “The food didn’t agree with them.”
Photo source: Murderpedia.
If you thought The Hills Have Eyes’ charming family of cannibalistic cave-dwellers who preyed on vulnerable travelers were a figment of filmmaker Wes Craven’s prodigious imagination, think again. Papa Jupiter and company had some historical inspiration. Though the story may have been invented as political propaganda during the 18th century, the legend’s been around for centuries, and some think (or hope) it’s at least partly based on fact. At any rate, the sensational tale is even more terrifying than any horror-movie homage.
Sawney Bean (or Beane), the story goes, was the patriarch of a large clan which increased its population via incest and enjoyed dining on human flesh, procured via unfortunate travelers who happened to pass by their lair: a sea cave on the western edge of Scotland.
Eventually, it’s said, the sheer number of missing people (and repeated incidences of body parts that washed up on local beaches) spurred an investigation. According to the narrative, no less than King James IV took up the cause, deploying 400 men and a pack of bloodhounds to track down Sawney’s inbred fun bunch and expose their repulsive crimes. What they found was indeed stomach-turning:
The men entered the cave and found a horrible scene: dried parts of human bodies were hanging all from the roof, pickled limbs lay in barrels, and all around piles of money and trinkets from the pockets of the dead lay in piles.
Again, this one’s probably not true, but it’s included here for its deliciously gruesome details, and the fact that the story is so long-standing. It’s still being passed on into contemporary lore via tourist attractions like the Edinburgh Dungeon.
Image of Sawney Bean (and woman in background carrying some to-be-pickled limbs!) licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Bean brigade may never have existed, but the three brothers who rampaged around Richmond, Virginia in the late 1970s most certainly did. “Briley Is Scheduled To Die Late Tonight,” a somber 1985 Washington Post headline reads atop a story detailing the last chapter in the reign of terror wrought by James (or “J.B.”), Linwood, and Anthony Briley. James and Linwood met their ends within months of each other in Virginia’s electric chair.
Linwood, the oldest brother, was 30 when he died. His first kill was at age 16, when he shot an elderly neighbor who happened to be outdoors and within range of his bedroom window. He only served one year for the crime. A few years later, he and his two brothers, plus a fourth accomplice, began their brutal robbery, rape, and killing spree, dispatching random victims with exceptionally cruel methods (including crushing a teenager’s skull with a cinderblock). It lasted seven months and claimed 10 lives, including several elderly people, a pregnant woman, and her five-year-old son. Two more victims who were doused in gas and set ablaze managed to survive.
After their murder convictions, Linwood and J.B. made further headlines in 1984 when they led a group of six inmates in a dramatic escape from death row. (They were re-captured 19 days later. The Brileys’ childhood home became a news item late last year when a developer, who’d purchased the fixer-upper from the brothers’ father, quickly put it on the market for a bargain price after realizing the notoriety of the address.
Though history can’t quite confirm whether “America’s first serial killers” were actually brothers or cousins, North Carolina-born Micajah (the taller one, hence the nickname distribution) and Wiley Harpe made for a most grim duo. Operating before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, the pair detoured from their original career plan (to be plantation overseers) to fight on the side of the British, committing abundant rapes and acts of arson along the way. They were also horse thieves, a crime that put them on the radar of the law ... and spurred them into their true calling, that of murderous outlaws.
According to a wonderfully descriptive Nashville Scene story:
Their trail of slaughter begins in late 1798 at Hughes Tavern, a watering hole west of Knoxville. An 18th century tavern could serve as a town hall or center of early governance, but not this “rowdy groggery” known to the Harpes and other roughnecks. Little Harpe even manages to get into a scrape that ends with a knife wound in his chest, courtesy of one John Bowman, which doesn’t mean much at the time. It would take more than a cat scratch to lay out a Harpe.
Among the drinkers on hand is a man named Johnson. Whether he had snitched on the Harpes at some point is a matter of speculation. Regardless, a few days later, a traveler spots something floating in the nearby Holston River. It is a man’s body, disposed of in a hideous way.
The man’s guts have been ripped out. The cavity is stuffed with stones, intended to sink the carcass to the bottom. They must have dislodged, or the man known as Johnson wouldn’t have his sole claim to posterity — as the first of what would become many more victims.
The pair, accompanied by a group of “wives” who may or may not have been willing accomplices, would go on to commit more than 40 murders (read enough about the Harpes and you’ll notice certain words start to repeat, including “beheaded” and “disembowled”). They also dabbled in river piracy.
Eventually, they were captured and met their ends in a manner that befitted the way they’d lived. “Big” Harpe was captured in 1800, while “Little” met his end in 1804, writes Legends of America. Both were beheaded and their heads put on display as a deterrent to anyone who thought about emulating their lifestyle; see the Kentucky roadside marker commemorating Big Harpe’s downfall here.
Included so that nobody thinks that serial-killing families are a thing of the distant past, this colorful Russian family was nabbed in September 2013. According to a breathless Daily Mail report, nursery-school teacher Inessa Tarverdiyeva and her husband, dentist Roman Podkopayev, were behind “a six-year reign of terror including at least 30 murders and countless robberies.” Among the dead: six cops and multiple children, including Inessa’s teenage goddaughter, whose eyes were gouged out.
Oh, and it gets worse:
Tarverdiyeva’s daughter from her first marriage Viktoria Tarverdiyeva, 25 and her 13-year-old daughter Anastasiya ‘actively took part in all crimes’, say police in the Rostov region.
The Mail notes that the family would plan camping trips to provide cover for their robbery and murder sprees. Motivated by greed and an apparent hatred of police, they operated under the radar for years.
Vladimir Markin, chief of Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, said: ‘They looked like a totally good, nice family. Imagine them - a mother, a father, two children, including an underage girl.
‘I am sure that when they were together one could hardly imagine that they could even plan a crime.’