Cover Image: Hell's Half-Acre

Hell's Half-Acre

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Member Reviews

I really had a difficult time getting into the writing style of the book. There were descriptions that made the book feel more like historical fiction rather than a book based on facts alone. I find the story of the Bender family to be interesting but the writing style knocked it down a bit for me.
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The first 60-70% of this book was  great and had me hooked in.  The last part dragged with speculation & felt like it could have wrapped up sooner.
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A thrilling and disturbing story. Surely, this subject matter will come as a shock to many readers, but lovers of true crime will be overjoyed for a book like this.
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Extremely interesting historical true crime! Fans of other historical true crime/detective books, such as The Devil in the White City or Killers of the Flower Moon, will probably enjoy the historical details in this book as well.
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I received a free ARC courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Having grown up relatively close to the eastern side of Kansas and given my interest in true crime, Hell's Half-Acre really appealed to me when I first spotted it. The Bender name was vaguely familiar, however, to my knowledge none of my usual podcasts have covered it. So it was fun to delve into a history of serial killing I hadn't already memorized.

Jonusas has produced a very readable narrative that is far more approachable than some others of the genre. She gives a brief overview of Bleeding Kansas (which was very helpful, why was this not in our curriculum in SW Missouri?) along with how many of the communities featured in the tale were established. The context is to the point and gives readers a really firm sense of what to expect from the inhabitants of these small towns. There's a certain sense of lawlessness that clashes with people's optimistic hopes.

Unlike many others in the genre, the murders themselves aren't wholly know. The methodology is consistent -- blunt force trauma with a hammer, then a slash to the throat -- it's unclear who in the family was doing the dirty work. And the total number of victims is difficult to pin down as well. Therefore, most of the narrative is dedicated to meeting the Benders and other major players, then pursuing the family after the bodies were discovered.

One of the aspects of Hell's Half Acre was the sheer length. At 368 pages, it's really not terribly long, but it feels like it's closer to 500 pages. Most of the book feels like it is ascending towards a climax that never comes even after Ed York finds his brother's grave in the orchard. I believe this is due to the very drawn-out build up to the discovery of the victims and the inevitably fact that the story doesn't end with a sense of closure for the reader. Seeing as the Benders were never apprehended, there are still many unanswered questions -- why did they select these particular victims? How were the Benders even related? And where did they go after Alexander York's investigation of his brother's disappearance led them to flee Kansas?

For a crime committed in the late 19th century, I was really impressed by the level of forensics applied to the case. The folks investigating were by no means trained CSIs, but the attention to detail was way more focused, especially when you compare it to similar crimes such as the Villisca Axe Murders almost 40 years later. Though, of course, there were still plenty of mistakes.

I imagine one of the most difficult aspects of researching this book would separating truth from the fiction. The tale of the Benders spread far and wide, and given the muddy ending, there's a lot of misinformation. Jonusas cuts to the facts, while still entertaining possible outcomes and addressing various snippets of folklore. Still, the ending is far from satisfactory and made even more frustrating knowing this will be one case that will likely never be fully resolved.

But that's not the author's fault! And despite the unfulfilling ending, this is a solid read. Great for history buffs, true crime fans, western readers, and probably your dad. I bet your dad would love a copy for Christmas or whatever. Dads love this kind of stuff.

4/5 stars, perfect for someone looking for a Killers of the Flower Moon readalike and your dad when you're scrambling for a last minute gift.
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This is an absolutely excellent book that is just as much true crime as it is history. A perfect picture of the 1870s on the American Frontier is painted, putting readers directly in the time period. Not only is the crime itself discussed, but the long, tumultuous venture to capture the Bender family.
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This enlightening book is both true crime and an examination of history. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the post-Civil War era, this careful piecing together of the historical record shows depravity has no limits.
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Unfortunately I ended up not finishing this book. It just did not capture my interest. I am fairly familiar with the Bender family but this book felt very slow and had a lot of historical information about the time period, which is fine, just not what I was looking for.  The book blurb said it is suspense-filled, and considering what I know of the Benders, it should have been. This just didn't hit the mark for me.

This book was provided by NetGalley for an honest review.
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You probably know the story of the Bloody Benders: a family comes to claim land in a small Kansas town, sets up a grocery store slash kind of place for people to sleep if they like sharing a room with some crazies. Lots of people go missing, and it eventually turns out that gasp, what, the mysterious and creepy family who have recently moved to town and who are always attempting to murder people ACTUALLY MURDERED PEOPLE. An angry mob is assembled, but the family gets away.

I was always vaguely spooked by the idea of this clever family evading the law for decades, but now I learn from this book that it was decades of incompetence, lying, and straight up corruption that allowed the Benders to basically keep living their lives like half a day away from where they'd committed the murders. Real life is so frustrating. Real criminals are so dumb and obvious but we're all trained to be polite so we pretend we don't see it. #fuckpoliteness

This book does a spectacular job of explaining the historical context of these crimes, why they went unnoticed for so long, and why it became so difficult to arrest the Benders even though many people knew exactly where they were. It's not dry at all. The only problem I have is that the straight chronological timeline makes the ending feel weak. A flashback would have given the ending more balance.
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I liked this book but I didn’t love it. I found it hard to follow at parts and felt like certain aspects mentioned didn’t all connect. However, the overall narrative was good and I appreciate the history and additional aspects about the frontier that the author included. This is a case that has long fascinated me and so I’m glad to have been able to read more about it!
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Well researched! Jonusas does a lot with a scarce information. She paints a really vivid picture of the family, the landscape, the state history, and the time itself.
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This is *way* early - maybe I'll try to remember to repost this in Feb or something, but since this is both scary and local (like the White Hot Hate book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago) it seemed like a good time to post it. Of course, I finished reading it on Halloween, but this won't post until several days later, so I've sort of missed the boat in a couple of ways there...
That being said, this is an *extensively* researched exploration of both the crimes of the Bender family (while located near Cherryvale, KS, just south of us in the NE corner of the state) and the lengthy search and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to bring the Benders back to KS to answer for their crimes.  The story is told well and the notes are unobtrusive but *very* detailed and worth checking out (they comprise the last 1/3 to 1/4th of the book alone) along with the bibliography. The author spent a good deal of time in KS, working with the historical society and other archival collections in the area. She even mentions, at the end of the book, spending some time at the ax-throwing bar in Lawrence, which dates her research pretty accurately (that bar was open for about 5 minutes a couple of years ago...). It's a great exploration of the story and a local interest book that will likely appeal to your patrons!
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**I received an ARC from the publisher on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Very interesting read. Susan Jonusas does a good job of piecing together truth from myth and theories. I loved all the history incorporated into the book, how it paints the picture of the true wild west. For being such an old case where 90% of the information came from the headlines, Susan did a wonderful job sorting through all the information and history of the case.
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The amount of research for Hell’s Half-Acre has culminated in a very interesting, readable account of America’s first documented serial killer family. A homesteading family by the name of Bender has settled in Labette County, Kansas, and from that remote location, offers the occasional traveler food and lodging. After the Benders suddenly abandon their cabin and disappear into history, a horrible discovery follows their name through the west as justice is sought for their crimes. Most interesting was the court case where two supposed members of the family were identified 15 years after the last known sighting, and found not to be Ma and Kate Bender. Or were they?
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A great book for a fan of true crime, particularly historical/american history. The Bloody Benders are the subject of many popular culture podcasts on true crime, and the details of the crimes and the victims is an intense look at a family that wasn't related at all...at least by anything but murder. The question of what happened to the Benders, and exactly what they did and to whom, is examined and looked at by Jonusas. The crimes, particularly the murder of a small child, are gone over in detail and are not for the faint of heart.
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While this book covers some very interesting subject matter, it didn't end up being for me. The material was too dry and the structure of the book was confusing, bouncing back and forth in time between different groups of people some who you would see again and some who you would not--and no clue which was which.
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