The Osage Murders: Oil Wealth, Betrayal and the FBI’s First Big Case
One of the most dangerous places in the United States in the early 1920s was the Osage Indian Reservation in eastern north-central Oklahoma. During a two-year stretch beginning in 1921, at least two-dozen Osage Indians died in increasingly peculiar ways, from suspicious suicides to explosions. Among the Osage, it came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.”
This black chapter in U.S. history is an incredible story of oil, greed and murder. The Osage Indians went from poverty to prosperity when huge petroleum reserves were discovered on a corner of their reservation. But the sudden wealth also brought great misery. Perhaps the most gruesome was the crime spree known as the Reign of Terror – one of the first homicide cases for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the Bureau’s own account, the investigation into the Osage Indian murders remains one of the agency’s most complicated cases.
It began in May of 1921, when a group of hunters discovered the badly decomposed body of Anna Brown, an Osage woman, in a remote ravine in Osage County. At first, police chalked up her death to alcohol poisoning. Later an undertaker found a bullet wound in the back of her head. The same day the body of Charles Whitehorn, also Osage, turned up nearby. Two months later, Brown’s mother, Lizzie Kyle, died unexpectedly, her death blamed on bad whiskey.
Then in February 1923, Brown’s cousin Henry Roan was shot to death. The following month, Brown’s sister, Rita Smith, and her husband were killed when their house exploded. One by one, Osage people in the area died from violence or suspicious causes. As grief for the victims subsided, panic set in.
While it became increasingly clear that the deaths were homicides, local police seemed unable – or unwilling – to solve the crimes. Officers routinely overlooked unusual details when an Indian passed away. Even the local coroner seemed complicit. One victim’s body was mutilated so grotesquely during the autopsy that the cause of death could not be determined.
By the spring of 1923, the Osage community had developed such intense distrust of local authorities that the Tribal Council wrote to the FBI, an organization in its infancy, to ask for help.
When agents arrived at the reservation in the spring of 1923, they found a community so fearful that some residents had begun stringing lights around their homes, burning them from dusk until dawn, as if to ward off the evil that seemed to be menacing the tribe. The evil, it turned out, was closely connected with what might have seemed a great stroke of good fortune for the tribe. Oil was discovered on the reservation in the late 19th century, and by 1923, the reservation was dotted with 8,579 oil wells that annually netted $27 million, enough to make the region the richest oil-producer in the country. An act of Congress in 1906 gave each Osage person a “headright,” or share of the reservation’s natural resources, and in less than three decades, the Osage people had become among the wealthiest in the world.
The tribe’s newfound affluence often prompted envy and disdain. “Osage Indians did not always ride in limousines, squat in blankets among Grand Rapids furniture and generally give a pathetically good imitation of nouveaux riches the world over,” Time magazine reported in 1932. In the bestselling 1929 novel Cimarron, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber wrote about members of the tribe driving limousines and leaving them where they crashed.
The Osages’ wealth also attracted the worst kind of settlers: conmen, schemers and thieves. To prevent swindles on the Osage people, the government appointed guardians to people deemed “incompetent” to handle their finances. But the guardians were sometimes no better. Some 93 percent of tribal funds held in government trust went toward the costs of administering the guardianship system. A government study estimated that by 1924 nearly 600 guardians had swindled some $8 million in Osage oil funds.
And with its dense forests and vast stretches of inaccessible canyons, Osage County – which is about the size of Delaware – became an ideal hideout for criminals on the run. According to the FBI, one Oklahoma prison inmate would later recall a gathering in the early 1920s during which more than thirty notorious bank robbers and train bandits met to swap stories and tricks of the trade. Lawyers flocked to the reservation offering underhanded contracts; entrepreneurs sought dubious business loans and single men came looking for love.
William K. Hale, christened the “King of Osage Hills,” was one of thousands of white ranchers who flocked to the area during the Oklahoma Land Rush that followed the passage of The General Allotment Act of 1887. The legislation removed reservation land from communal ownership and allotted parcels to individuals within each tribe. (The bill also permitted giving any “surplus” land to non-Indians.) Government officials had hoped land ownership would help Native Americans to assimilate. Instead it resulted in the loss of millions of acres of tribal land through leases given to white settlers like Hale, who, according to legend, earned his fortune by insuring his 30,000-acre plot and then ordering his ranch hands to torch it. Though Hale portrayed himself as a pillar in the community, he had developed a reputation for corruption and became an early suspect. Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, was married to Anna Brown’s sister, who had inherited nearly $2 million in oil rights following the untimely deaths of family members. Moreover, less than a week after Henry Roan’s death, Hale tried to cash in on a $25,000 life-insurance policy on Roan’s life. Incredibly, Hale served as one of Roan’s pallbearers.
From 1923 to 1925, the FBI interviewed more than 150 people, and four special agents worked undercover on the case. Much of the evidence they gathered, however, was unsubstantiated rumor. Despite FBI declarations about explosive revelations, the fledgling agency seemed to be as interested in attracting attention to boost their budget as they were in catching a killer. The investigation dragged on for months. At one point local newspapers reported that the agents had actually left town.
Finally, in January 1926, authorities took Hale’s nephew into custody. At gunpoint, Burkhart revealed his uncle’s elaborate scheme to consolidate the oil rights of Burkhart’s Osage in-laws. Hale had also devised an elaborate scheme to consolidate and inherit Osage headrights. First, he convinced his nephew Ernest Burkhart to marry an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle. He then arranged for her family – Anna Brown, Lizzie Kyle, Rita Smith and Henry Roan – to be dispatched one by one so that she and Burkhart would inherit the family’s wealth.
The plot included a local bootlegger and a convicted burglar who was released from jail by bribed guards to commit several murders. He then secretly returned to his cell, creating the perfect alibi. Special agents also discovered that Burkhart had been slowly poisoning his wife all along. If she had passed away, Burkhart would have inherited the Osage family’s entire fortune. And, of course, in the event of Burkhart’s death, Hale would have been next in line. Hale was tried four times before a Federal District court finally convicted him in 1929. For the dozens of murders he allegedly orchestrated, Hale was found guilty of just one – the death of Henry Roan – and he was paroled in 1947. The rest of the homicides remain cold cases.
Burkhart was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the murders of the Smith family. He was paroled in 1959. In 1965, the governor of Oklahoma, Henry Bellmon, granted Burkhart a full pardon. The Osage Nation would ultimately pay the FBI $21,509.19 for the bureau’s investigation.
Molly Stephey is a Senior Writer for American Indian magazine and a Public Affairs Producer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.