Scary stuff in the Little House Books

Charles Ingalls shielded his family from scary things when he could.

We all want to shield our children from things that frighten them. Unfortunately, there seems to be no letup to the tragedies and disasters that give us all nightmares.

We may seek escape from the events of the day in books, especially books set in other times.

In my last post, I mentioned some comments from parents who said they censored the Little House books when they read them aloud because reading about butchering a pig or shooting a deer was distressing to their children.

There is plenty of scary stuff in the Little House books, and we never know what will frighten a child. I hope the mom in question took the opportunity to explain that there were no supermarkets in the Big Woods when Laura and Mary were little. In this case, it’s important to give context to the details.

My own daughter spent her childhood traveling to various historic parks with her dad’s vintage base ball team. Her dress-up clothes included historically accurate outfits from the mid-19th century. She watched Civil War re-enactments, drank sarsaparilla and took horse and carriage rides.

But she still needed help to understand some things. When she was three years old, we went to Slate Run, a working 19th century farm that’s part of Columbus Metro Parks. My girl pointed at the outhouse and asked, “Is that where the horses and cows go potty?”

Scary? In its own way, yes.

When I read the Little House books as a child, I didn’t comprehend just how dangerous life was for the Ingalls family. Like most kids, I trusted that the parents would figure out a way to take care of their children.

 As an adult, I was deeply affected by the hardship, heartbreak, and life-and-death circumstances faced by the family.  Here are some examples, in case you don’t remember:

-Pa and Jack the bulldog are the only things that stand between the family and the threat of an Indian attack during their time in Kansas.

-An invasion of grasshoppers eats the family’s wheat and leaves them without a cash crop, forcing Pa to leave and find work as a laborer so the family will have money to survive the winter.

-Pa spends three days lost in a blizzard, during which Ma never lets on that she is worried or frightened.

-Mary is taken ill and goes blind.

-In the wake of terrible illness in the family, Pa sells the farm and takes a job as paymaster in a railroad camp. Ma keeps the girls close, and discourages them from having any contact with “rough” men at the railroad camps on the lawless frontier. The potential threat posed by strange men is a recurring theme in By the Shores of Silver Lake.

-The residents of DeSmet, Dakota are stranded on the prairie during the Long Winter—seven months of blizzards with little respite, during which food supplies run dangerously low and the threat of starvation looms.

Though Laura’s books about her childhood are full of harrowing experiences, one story in her original autobiography, Pioneer Girl, was deemed too terrifying for a children’s book:

One night just about sundown a strange man came riding his horse up to the door on a run. Pa hurried out and they talked for a few minutes. Then the man went away as fast as he had come, and Pa came into the house in a hurry. He would not wait for supper, but asked Ma to give him a bite to eat right away, saying he must go. Something horrible had happened at Benders’ [tavern].

Ma put bread, meat, and some of the good pickles on the table, and Pa talked while he ate. Mary and I hung at the table’s edge, looking at the pickles. I heard Pa say “dead” and thought somebody at Benders was dead. Pa said, “Already twenty or more, in the cellar.” He said, “Benders—where I stopped for a drink. She asked me to come in.”

Ma said, “Oh Charles, thank God!”

I did not understand and felt confused. Mary kept asking Ma why she thanked God, and Ma did not answer. She poured some coffee and Pa blew on it to cool it. Then he said, “They found a little girl, no bigger than Laura. They’d thrown her in on top of her father and mother and tramped the ground down on them, while the little girl was still alive.”

I screamed, and Ma told Pa he should have known better.

Pa took his gun, jumped on Patty and rode away, while Ma tried to quiet me. She said it didn’t mean anything, that no one would hurt a little girl like me, that I was mistaken and mustn’t think of it any more. She gave me my supper.

[At bedtime] we said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I could say it all, by following just a little behind Mary. But I was still afraid, and Pa was gone, and Ma did not seem the same as usual.

Pa wasn’t there when we woke in the morning, and Ma did not tell us where he had gone. All day he didn’t come, and Ma kept looking across the prairie. Mary and I looked, too.

 That night, or perhaps the next night, at sundown, Pa came riding home on Patty, all tired out. Mary and I hung on to him, as soon as he got to the ground. He said to Ma something like, “Yes, Caroline. Kate Bender with the rest. She deserved it just as much as they did.”

For a long time, I dreamed sometimes about a little girl thrown on top of her father and mother and buried alive. Sometimes I was the little girl.

An online search revealed a number of references to the “Bloody Benders of Kansas”, known as the first serial killers in that state. Wikipedia mentions the Little House connection, although it states the killings at the Benders came to light in 1873, after the Ingalls family had left Kansas.  There is no way to verify whether Pa Ingalls actually met Kate Bender.

In her manuscript Pioneer Girl, Laura put a postscript on the story:

I was a woman grown before I ever spoke to Pa about the Benders. He used to listen when other men told about the roadhouse Kate Bender kept between Independence, Kansas and Indian Territory, and the travelers who were murdered there. The roadhouse was curtained to make two rooms, and when a man sat eating, on a bench against the curtain, one of the Benders would come stealthily behind the curtain and kill him by a blow on the head with the blunt end of an ax. All that country was so far beyond the reach of postal service that no one was troubled when no word came back from men who went into it.

When at last eastern relatives of a man who had disappeared began to make careful inquiries, and aroused some suspicion of the Benders, more than forty bodies of men, women and children were dug up in the cellar and around the house.

The Bender family got away across the prairie, and though the Vigilantes followed them, it was never known what became of them…

One day when we were alone I asked him if he had not stopped once to water his horses at the Benders, but had refused to stay all night when Kate Bender asked him. Wasn’t he one of the vigilantes who went after the Benders, and didn’t they catch them?

He only said, “We thought you were too little to understand.” As for what became of the Benders, he would not answer. He said, “Don’t worry. They’ll never find Kate Bender anywhere.”

  Though the adult Laura knew story of the Benders, Pa still chose to shield her from the details.







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