Americas,  ER,  United States

Osage Reign of Terror

Anna Brown Photo courtesy of the FBI

The early 1920’s looked like a good time for the Osage tribe.  They were in the midst of an oil boom as large deposits of oil were found on tribal land in north central Oklahoma.  Many members of the Osage tribe were becoming wealthy.  Unlike other Native Americans, the Osage had deeds to their land, unlike other tribes forced onto a reservation.  Under the 1906 Osage Allotment Act all subsurface minerals were tribally owned and held in trust by the United States government.  Revenues from the mineral leases paid the tribe over 30 million dollars.  Each member of the tribe received one share, called a headright, which could be passed to a tribe member’s legal heir upon death.  To receive a headright through inheritance, one did not need to be a member of the tribe.  

Sounds good, right?  Not so much. There was a lot of envy from white people in Oklahoma and all over the country.  The press referred to them as “the red millionaires and the plutocratic Osage.”  This new found wealth brought trouble the wealthiest among the tribe were dying under suspicious circumstances.  Soon the most dangerous place in the United States was on the Osage Indian Reservation, and that period of time became known as the “Osage Reign of Terror”.

In May 1921, a group of hunters discovered the body of Anna Brown in a remote ravine in Osage County.  She was a member of the Osage tribe, and at first police chalked up her death to alcohol poisoning.  Her body was found in an advanced state of decomposition, and as we mentioned in earlier posts, coroners were not trained in the CSI methods we are familiar with today.  (For more on this, please see these posts: and ).  Anna’s sister was Mollie Burkart nee Kyle.  The two girls grew up in an Osage lodge and following the traditional tribal ways.  Because of the oil deposits found on their land, the family became wealthy.  At the time of Anna’s death, Mollie was living in a mansion and married to a white husband with two children.  Mollie had been looking for her sister for weeks after she mysteriously disappeared.  After the body was found, Mollie pressed for more investigation and an undertaker found a bullet wound in the back of Anna’s head.

A string of tragedies befell Mollie’s family.  Her mother, Lizzie Kyle, died unexpectedly two months later.  The poor woman seemed to waste away and no one could figure out what was happening.  Finally, Lizzie’s body withered and she passed away from the mysterious illness.  Like her daughter, her death was attributed to “bad whiskey”.  Mollie and Anna had another sister, Rita Smith, who lived in a home not far from Mollie’s.  One night after going to bed, Mollie was awoken by a loud bang.  She went to her window and saw an ominous orange light from her sister’s house.  It was found later, someone planted a bomb under the house and when it went off, it killed Rita, Rita’s husband, William E. Smith, and their housekeeper, Nettie Brookshire.  Mollie’s cousin, Henry Roan, was found shot in the head, much like Anna.  George Bigheart, another of Mollie’s relatives, became ill and was taken to the hospital in Oklahoma City.  It was determined there he was poisoned.  Between 1921 and 1923, at least two dozen members of the Osage tribe died under suspicious circumstances.

There was some attention from the press, but they and the sheriffs were willing to write this off.  Even though it was extremely obvious these were homicides no one would do anything.  One man was poisoned by strychnine and witnesses describe him as jerking as if electrocuted.  One body found was so mutilated the autopsy could not determine cause of death.  Yet all of these were chalked up to natural causes or suicide.

Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire pictured in front of their summer home.

Mollie wasn’t going to take this lying down.  She issued rewards and hired private investigators.  However, this was the 1920’s and private investigators were a mixed bag.  Most of them were on the take.  The tribe approached a white oil man named Barney McBride.  They knew McBride to be an honest man, and he genuinely wanted to help.  He went on their behalf to Washington DC to try and get federal help.  As befitting a man of the times, he brought with him a gun and a Bible.  When he arrived at his boarding house in Washington, he received a telegram to be careful.  Later that night, he was kidnapped, and his murdered body was found naked and beaten.  He had been stabbed at least 20 times.   Another man named W.W. Vaughn, tried to help the Osage.  He had been called in by George Bigheart from the hospital in Oklahoma City.  He called the local sheriff and told him he had evidence to charge someone with murder and was coming home.  He was thrown from the speeding train and his neck was broken.  People were terrified and many Osage fled Oklahoma for other parts of the country, mainly California.  Children were not allowed outside, doors were locked and lights hung so houses were always illuminated.

In desperation, the tribe contacted a little known branch of the Justice Department- the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  It was their first murder investigation.  However, the Bureau had just come under control of an ambitious young man named J. Edgar Hoover.  He was itching to remake the Bureau in his image and coming up with a conviction here would be a win.  Hoover recruited a frontier lawman named Tom White.  White put together a team of undercover agents, who were all experienced frontier lawmen, surprisingly for the time including a Native American agent.  They hit the reservation in the spring of 1923 looking for answers.  What they found was a vast criminal conspiracy.  The names that kept coming up were William K. Hale, Byron Burkart and John Ramsey.

William K. Hale, “King of the Osage Hills.” Photo courtesy the FBI.

Hold up.  Wasn’t Mollie’s name Burkhart?  Well spotted.  Ernest Burkhart was Mollie’s husband and Byron Burkhart was Ernest’s brother.  The sordid tale that came out was especially sick because of all the family ties and the long term planning involved.  William K. Hale was a wealthy cattleman and the self proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills”.  Apparently his extensive banking and business connections weren’t enough because he lusted after the Osage oil money.  He convinced his very pliable nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to marry Mollie Kyle.  Then systematically had her family murdered so that she would control their headrights.  By the time the murder plot was discovered, Mollie controlled about 2 million dollars worth of headrights.  Mollie was also dangerously sick with what turned out to be poisoning.  If Mollie died, all her headrights would go to her husband, then if he accidentally turned up dead….well, that would all go to dear Uncle William.

Under interrogation, Ernest Burkhart tied John Ramsey to the murder of Henry Roan.  Ramsey sang like a bird and fingered Hale in the Roan murder as well as the firebombing of the Smith house.  Testimony also revealed Hale had taken out a $25,000 insurance policy on Henry Roan with himself as the beneficiary.  Nice.  Byron Burkhart and Kelsie Morrison were fingered for Anna Brown’s murder as they was last seen with her.  It was found this was done at Hale’s behest.  The defendants were tried in state and federal courts at Guthrie, Oklahoma City, Pawhuska and Bartlesville.  The initial trials were rife with jury tampering and corruptions.  Eventually, Hale was convicted and sentenced to “hard labor for the rest of your natural life at Leavenworth prison.” Kelsie Morison, John Ramsey and Ernest Burkhart were also sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth.  Byron Burkhart turned state’s evidence and got off.

Despite Osage protest, Burkhart, Hale and Ramsey were all paroled.  Burkhard even received a full pardon from the governor of Oklahoma in 1965.  The only good thing that came out of this was a law in 1925 that stated headrights could not be passed to anyone who wasn’t a tribal member with more than one-half Osage blood.  No more murders for headrights.  However, I think Joseph E. Tinker, an Osage, said what I am thinking.  He said: “In our minds there is no doubt that Hale was the ringleader in the mass murder of our tribesmen. His good conduct in prison does not mitigate that fact. I personally think he should have been hanged for his crimes.”  Amen and amen.