The Osage Indians were once the richest per capita people in the world due to oil reserves on their land. Congress then passed a law requiring court appointed “guardians” to manage their wealth. Over 60 Osage were murdered from 1921-1925, their land rights passed to the guardian.
In 1907 each tribal member received an allotment of 657 acres, and they and their legal heirs, whether or not Osage, earned royalties on the “headrights” from their portion of oil-producing land. The tribe held the mineral rights communally, and paid its members by a percentage related to their holdings. By a law of 1921, Congress required most Osage of half or more Native American ancestry to have court-appointed guardians until they demonstrated “competency;” all minors were required to have guardians appointed by the court, whether or not they had living parents. The guardians were generally local white lawyers and businessmen, who made money off their fees and sometimes set up criminal means to defraud the Osage of their wealth. The Osage wealth attracted many other opportunists, some of whom had criminal intent.
In 1925 the tribal elders, with the help of James Monroe Pyle, a local law officer, sought assistance from the Bureau of Investigation (which later developed as the FBI) when local and state officials could not solve the rising number of murders. Pyle presented his evidence of murder and conspiracy and requested an investigation. In its undercover investigation, the FBI found that several murders in one family were found to have been committed by a gang led by William “King of Osage Hills” Hale. His goal was to gain the oil royalty headrights and wealth of several tribe members, including his nephew’s Osage wife, the last survivor of her family. Three men were convicted and sentenced in this case, but most murders went unsolved. A late twentieth-century investigation by the journalist Dennis McAuliffe revealed deep corruption among white officials in the county at the time. Problems included failure of law enforcement to conduct post-mortem exams, falsified death certificates issued by the coroner’s office, and other activities among white officials to cover up the murders.
Osage County officials sought revenge against Pyle for his role in bringing the murders to light. Fearing for his life, Pyle and his wife fled to Arizona. There he again served as an officer of the law. He died there in 1942.
In 1925 Congress passed a law prohibiting inheritance of headrights by non-natives from Osage of half or more Native American ancestry, to reduce the threat to the Osage. From 1926–1929, Hale and an associate were convicted of the murders; one nephew pleaded guilty; and they were sentenced to life in prison. They later received parole, although the Osage objected. The investigation was an early, high-profile success of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.
In 1897 oil was first discovered in Osage County. The United States federal government‘s Department of the Interior managed leases for oil exploration and production on land owned by the Osage Nation through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later managed royalties, paying individual allottees. As part of the process of preparing Oklahoma for statehood, the federal government allotted 657 acres to each Osage on the tribal rolls in 1907; thereafter, they and their legal heirs, whether Osage or not, had “headrights” to royalties in oil production, based on their allotments of lands. The headrights could be inherited by legal heirs, including non-Osage.
By 1920 the market for oil had grown dramatically and the Osage were wealthy. In 1923 alone “the tribe took in more than thirty million dollars, the equivalent today of more than four hundred million dollars.”
People all across the United States read about the Osage, called “the richest nation, clan or social group of any race on earth, including the whites, man for man.” Some Osage used their royalties to send their children to private schools; others bought fancy cars, clothes and jewelry, and traveled in Europe; and newspapers across the country covered their activities. Along with tens of thousands of oil workers, the oil wealth attracted many white opportunists to Osage County; as the writer Robert Allen Warrior characterized them, some were entrepreneurial, while others were criminal, seeking to separate the Osage from their wealth, by murder if necessary.
Believing the Osage would not be able to manage their new wealth, or lobbied by whites who wanted a piece of the action, by 1921 the United States Congress passed a law requiring that courts appoint guardians for each Osage of half-blood or more in ancestry, who would manage their royalties and financial affairs until they demonstrated “competency”. Under the system, even minors who had less than half-Osage blood had to have guardians appointed, regardless of whether the minors had living parents. The courts appointed the guardians from local white lawyers or businessmen. The incentives for criminality were overwhelming; such guardians often maneuvered legally to steal Osage land, their headrights or royalties; others were suspected of murdering their charges to gain the headrights.
At that time, 80 lawyers were working in Pawhuska, the Osage County seat, which had 8,000 residents; the number of lawyers was said to be as great as in the state capital, which had 140,000 residents. In 1924 the Department of Interior charged two dozen guardians of Osage with corruption in the administration of their duties related to their charges, but all avoided punishment by settling out of court. They were believed to have swindled their charges out of millions of dollars. I[a] In 1929 $27 million was reported as still being held by the “Guardian System,” the organization set up to protect the financial interests of 883 Osage families in Osage County.
Murders in Osage County
In the early 1920s, the Western United States was shaken by the murders of eighteen Osage Indians and three non-natives in Osage County, Oklahoma within a short period of time. Regional Colorado newspapers reported the murders as the “Reign of Terror” on the Osage reservation. Some murders seemed associated with several members of one family.
On May 27, 1921, local hunters discovered the decomposed body of 25-year-old Anna Brown in a remote ravine in Osage County. Unable to find the killer, local authorities ruled her death as accidental, due to alcohol poisoning, and put the case aside. [b] Brown was divorced, so probate awarded her estate to her mother, Lizzie Kyle. A petty criminal, Kelsie Morrison, admitted to murdering Anna Brown and testified that William Hale had asked him to do so.[c]
The body of another Osage, Charles Whitehorn (also known as Charles Williamson), was discovered near Pawhuska on the same day. Williamson, a cousin of Anna Brown, had been shot to death. Two months later, Brown’s mother, Lizzie Q. Kyle, was killed as well.[d] By that time, Lizzie had headrights for herself, and had inherited the headrights from her late husband and two daughters. Her heirs became fabulously wealthy.
On February 6, 1923, Henry Roan, also known as Henry Roan Horse, a cousin of Anna Brown, was found in his car on the Osage Reservation, dead from a shot in the head. Roan also had a financial connection with William Hale. Roan had borrowed $1,200 from Hale and had made Hale the beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance policy.
On March 10, 1923, a bomb demolished the Fairfax, Oklahoma house of Anna’s sister Rita Smith and her husband Bill. The blast instantly killed Rita Smith and her servant, Nettie Brookshire. On March 14, Bill Smith died of massive injuries from the blast (but not before he had given a statement to investigators). Later, Ernest Burkhart testified that the bomb contained 5 US gallons (19 L) of nitroglycerine.
George Bigheart (1876–1923 ) was dying at home, on June 28, 1923, when he was put on a train and taken to a hospital in Oklahoma City by William Hale and Ernest Burkhart.[e] [f] At the hospital, doctors suspected that Bigheart had ingested poisoned whiskey. Bigheart called attorney W. W. Vaughn[g] of Pawhuska, asking the attorney to come to the hospital as soon as possible for an urgent meeting. Vaughn complied, and the two men met that night. No one else knew what they discussed, but Bigheart died the next morning. Vaughn boarded a train that night to return to Pawhuska. The next morning, when the Pullman porter went to awaken him, Vaughn was missing from his railroad car, and his berth on the train had not been used. The attorney’s body was found later with his skull crushed; it was beside the railroad tracks near Porter, Oklahoma, about five miles south of Pawhuska. [h]
Thirteen other deaths of full-blooded Osage men and women, who had guardians appointed by the courts, occurred between 1921 and 1923. By 1925, 60 wealthy Osage had been killed, and their land had been inherited or deeded to their guardians: local white lawyers and businessmen. The FBI found a low-level market in murderers for hire to kill the Osage for their wealth. In 1995, the writer Robert Allen Warrior wrote about walking through an Osage cemetery and seeing “the inordinate number of young people who died during that time.”
In 1925, tribal elders of the Osage Nation hired the assistance of the newly organized Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the Department of Justice, under its director J. Edgar Hoover. Bureau of Indian Affairs police from the US Department of Interior had not solved the murders.
Murder investigation and trials
The Osage Tribal Council suspected that rancher William “Bill” Hale was responsible for many of the deaths. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior sent four agents to act as undercover investigators. Working undercover for two years, the agents (John K. Wren, who was one of the investigating agents) discovered a crime ring of petty criminals led by Bill Hale, a wealthy rancher, known in Osage County as the “King of the Osage Hills”. He and his nephews, Ernest and Byron Burkhart, had migrated from Texas to Osage County to find jobs in the oil fields. Once there, they discovered the immense wealth of members of the Osage Nation from royalties being paid from leases on oil-producing lands.
To gain part of the wealth, Hale persuaded his nephew Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blooded Osage. She was the sister of Anna Brown and Rita Smith. As the evidence revealed, Hale had arranged for the murders of Mollie’s sister Anna Brown; the Smiths; and her mother Lizzie Q. Kyle; as well as her cousin Henry Roan, to cash in on the insurance policies and oil headrights of each family member.Other witnesses and participants were murdered as investigation of the conspiracy expanded. Mollie and Ernest Burkhart inherited all of the headrights from her family. Investigators found when they entered the case that Mollie was already being poisoned.
Charges and trials
Due to the investigation of the FBI, Hale, his Burkhart nephews, and one of the ranch hands they hired were charged with the murder of Mollie’s family. Hale was formally charged with the murder of Henry Roan, who had been killed on the Osage Reservation land, making it a Federal crime. Two of his accomplices had died before the FBI investigation was completed. Hale and his associates were finally convicted in state and federal trials from 1926 to 1929, which had changes of venues, hung juries, appeals and overturned verdicts. In 1926, Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty to being part of the conspiracy.
Finally Hale and his accomplice John Ramsey were convicted. Ramsey was described as a “cowboy-farmer”. Ramsey confessed to participation in the murder of Roan as soon as he was arrested. He said that Hale had promised him five hundred dollars and a new car for killing Roan. Ramsey met Roan on a road outside of Fairfax, and they drank whiskey together. Then Ramsey shot Roan in the head. Subsequently, Ramsey changed his story, claiming that the actual killer was Curly Johnson. His accomplice Byron Burkhart, another nephew, had turned state’s evidence. The trials, with their deadlocked juries, appeals, and overturned verdicts, received national newspaper and magazine coverage. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Hale, Ramsey, and Ernest Burkhart later received parole despite protests from the Osage.
Various residents of Pawhuska petitioned Oklahoma Governor Jack C. Walton to conduct a full investigation of the deaths of Charles Bigheart and Judge Vaught. Walton assigned Herman Fox Davis to the investigation. Shortly after the assignment, Davis was convicted of bribery. Although Walton later pardoned Davis, the investigation of Bigheart and Vaught was never completed.[i]
In the case of the Smith murders, Ernest Burkhart was soon convinced that even his wife’s money and his uncle’s political influence could not save him. He changed his plea to guilty and asked to be sentenced to life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. He turned state’s evidence, naming his uncle as responsible for the murder conspiracy. Ernest said that he had used a person named Henry Grammer as a go-between to hire a professional criminal named Ace Kirby to perform the killings. Both Grammer and Kirby were killed before they could testify.
Ernest Burkhart’s attempt to kill his wife failed. Mollie, a devout Catholic, had told her priest that she feared she was being poisoned at home. The priest told her not to touch liquor under any circumstances. He also alerted one of the FBI agents. Subsequently, Mollie recovered from the poison she had already consumed, then divorced Ernest. She died of unrelated causes on June 16, 1937. Her children inherited all of her estate.
In the early 1990s, the journalist Dennis McAuliffe of the Washington Post investigated the suspicious death of his grandmother Sybil Beekman Bolton, an Osage with headrights who died at the age of 21 in 1925, during the “Reign of Terror.” As a youth he had been told she died of kidney disease, then as a suicide. His doubts arose from a variety of conflicting evidence. In his investigation, McAuliffe found that the FBI of the time believed that the murders of several Osage women of that period “had been committed or ordered by their husbands.” Most murders of the Osage during the early 1920s went unsolved. McAuliffe found that when Sybil was a minor, the court had appointed her white stepfather A.T. Woodward, an attorney, as her guardian. Woodward also served as the federally appointed Tribal Counsel, and he had guardianship of four other Osage charges, each of whom had died by 1923. McAuliffe learned that his grandmother’s murder had been covered up by a false death certificate. He came to believe that her white stepfather, A. T. Woodward, was responsible for her death. His book about his investigation, Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation (1994), presents an account of the corruption and murders during this period.
Change in law
To try to prevent further criminality and to protect the Osage, in 1925 Congress passed a law prohibiting non-Osage from inheriting headrights from Osage who had half or more Native American ancestry.
Trust management lawsuit
The Department of Interior continued to manage the trust lands and pay fees to Osage with headrights. In 2000, the tribe filed a lawsuit against Interior, alleging federal government management of the trust assets resulted in historical losses to its trust funds and interest income. (This was after a major class-action suit was filed against the departments of Interior and Treasury in 1996 by Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) on behalf of other Native Americans for similar issues.)
In 2011, the US government settled with the Osage for $380 million. The settlement also strengthens management of the tribe’s trust assets and improved communications between Interior and the tribe. The law firm representing the tribe has said this was the largest tribal trust settlement with one tribe in U.S. history.
Representation in other media
- John Joseph Mathews (Osage) based his novel Sundown (1934) in the period of the murders.
- “The Osage Indian Murders,” a dramatization of the case first broadcast on August 3, 1935, was the third episode of the radio series G-Men, created and produced by Phillips Lord with cooperation of the FBI. G-Men lasted 13 episodes before leaving the air in October 1935. A retooled version, Gang Busters, which dramatized cases from a number of different American law enforcement agencies rather than just the FBI, debuted the following January.
- Award-winning western novelist Fred Grove, part Osage on his mother’s side, was 10 years old when he was an “ear” witness to the bombing murders of Bill and Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire. This incident haunted him. Several of his novels were based on aspects of the case: his first novel, Flame of the Osage (1958), two written in roughly the middle of his career: Warrior Road (1974) and Drums Without Warriors (1976), and one of his last, The Years of Fear (2002).
- The Kyle family murders were featured as a dramatic part of the 1959 film, The FBI Story.
- John Hunt portrayed this period in his novel The Grey Horse Legacy (1968).
- Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit (1990) explores a fictionalized version of the murders.
- Tom Holm’s novel The Osage Rose (2008) is a fictionalized account of murders on Osage Territory intended to strip Osage members of their royalties and land.
- David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” (April 2017) explores the murders in detail.
- In 1925, each Osage headright was worth $1 million in equivalent 1994 dollars, according to the work by journalist Dennis McAuliffe.
- Subsequently, an autopsy revealed that the cause of Brown’s death was not alcohol, but a bullet fired into the back of her head.
- Morrison received a life sentence in 1926, for his participation in the Brown murder.
- According to a 2006 article in the Tulsa World, local authorities had initially ruled that Lizzie’s death due to old age.
- George Bigheart was the son of James Bigheart, the last hereditary Osage chief.
- Hale was Bigheart’s neighbor and friend, and had recently been designated by the court as Bigheart’s guardian.
- The attorney’s name is given as Vaughn in some sources (e.g. Fixico) and as Vaught in others (e.g. Farris). It is unclear which is correct.
- Vaughn’s body was so badly disfigured that the coroner could not be certain whether the man had fallen off the train or else been beaten first and then pushed off. The coroner ruled the cause of death was “suspicious,” but did not rule that it was murder. pp. 265–266. Accessed April 28, 2016.
- Governor Davis was impeached in November 1923, although the charges had nothing to do with the Osage County murders.