Native Americans have a long history of being persecuted and mistreated. But even in context it is still hard to believe the story of the Osage Indian murder is a true one.
In the 1920s a group of powerful Oklahoma businessmen and criminals plotted to steal the wealth of the oil-rich Osage Nation. They did so through murder, legal loopholes, and with the help of the Oklahoma state.
It’s a tale of poison, murder, jealousy, government corruption, and racism. These crimes were so heinous they’ve even been linked to the creation of the FBI. Even worse, justice was never really done.
The Osage Nation’s Oil Boom
Usually, when we talk about Native Americans being pushed from their lands it’s all negative. For the Osage Nation of Oklahoma however, it came with one benefit, at least for a while.
In 1865 the Osage Nation negotiated a treaty that allowed them to purchase their own reservation in what eventually became northern Oklahoma. Being allowed to purchase your own land back might not sound that great, but in the 1890s oil deposits were discovered on the reservation, now known as Osage County.
Unsurprisingly, given its track record with the Native Americans, the US government tried to rip off the Osage, and in 1906 Congress passed the Osage Allotment Act. Thankfully, a clued-up tribal lawyer managed to preserve the subsurface mineral rights for the Osage people. And when it turned out the reservation had some of the largest oil deposits in the US, the Osage started getting very rich, very fast.
The government held the mineral profits in trust on behalf of the Osage but paid the tribe mineral lease royalties. Royalties were split equally, and each member was paid in shares called “headrights.” When someone died their headrights were passed down to their next of kin.
It didn’t take long for these shares to be worth several million dollars each and the Osage became incredibly rich. Tribe members began buying mansions, cars, and other luxury goods that their white neighbors couldn’t afford. Surprising no one, envy and racism soon reared its ugly head.
In March 1921 Congress decided that the Osage needed guardians to stop them wasting their money. Court-appointed guardians were given the power to manage the money of any Osage person deemed to be “incompetent.”
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In reality, the guardians were all prominent white citizens, and any full-blooded Osage was deemed incompetent while mix-race members of the tribe were deemed competent and allowed to keep their money.
The Reign of Terror
This sorry state of affairs led to what became known as the “Reign of Terror.” Locals wasted no time in using this guardian system to steal the wealth of the Osage.
At first, this was done by the dishonest lawyers, bankers, and businessmen who had been made guardians. They simply skimmed money off the top of their wards’ royalties.
Then things took a deadly turn. William K. Hale, the self-appointed “King of the Osage Hills” was a powerful Oklahoma cattle rancher and businessman who decided skimming off the top wasn’t enough. He wanted the headrights themselves.
Part of the 1906 act had made a change to the law that allowed non-Osage people to inherit headrights. Upon realizing this, Hale pushed his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to marry a full-blooded Osage, Mollie Kyle. Hale, Burkhart, and their accomplices then set out to murder her entire family one by one.
The killing spree began in 1921 with the death of Mollie’s sister, Anna Brown. Not long after her mother, Mollie Kyle (who had previously inherited three additional headrights) was poisoned. Over the next two years, Mollie’s cousin, Henry Road, and her aunt and uncle, Rita and William Smith were also murdered.
As the bodies began to stack up Mollie inherited all of their headrights. If she just so happened to die her white husband would inherit several million dollars’ worth of headrights.
Tragically it wasn’t just Mollie’s family. While estimates of the number of Osage murdered by Hale and his accomplices vary, it’s believed that anywhere between two dozen and 60 full-blooded Osage, all under guardianship were murdered between 1921-26.
And the deaths weren’t discreet. Methods of murder ranged from poisonings to being run over by trains and a bomb containing 5 US gallons of nitroglycerine. By 1925 at least sixty wealthy Osage had died under strange circumstances, their lands inherited by or deeded to their guardians.
The Osage were terrified, and many became recluses, refusing to leave their homes at night for fear of being murdered. Tribal elders appealed to local officials like lawmen, medical examiners, and judges for help, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
They were either all on Hale’s payroll or had been intimidated into silence. The few honest people who tried to help the Osage soon found themselves lying in graves next to them.
Justice At Last?
After realizing help at the State level would never come, the Osage Tribal Council appealed to the US government itself. The Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor to the FBI), which was led by J. Edgar Hoover at the time, and had jurisdiction over Native reservations, was assigned the case. To its credit, the FBI took the pleas for help seriously and the Osage murders became its first ever major homicide investigation.
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A former Texas Ranger, Thomas White, was appointed lead investigator by Hoover. It didn’t take him long to point the finger at Hale and his friends. White’s suspicions were raised when he found out Hale had claimed a fraudulent $25000 dollar life insurance policy following the death of one of the Osage. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.
Over the next two years three undercover agents, John Burger, Frank Smith, and John Wren worked hard to infiltrate Hale’s inner circle and gather enough evidence to hang him. Their big breakthrough finally came in May 1926 when a man called Morrison, a known criminal, admitted to being a hired gun for Hale. He told the undercover investigators how he had been tasked with the murder of Anna Brown. He happily implicated both Hale and Burkhart in the multiple killings.
It was also discovered that poor Mollie was already being poisoned by her husband. She had gone to her priest and told him she thought her husband was poisoning her drinks; the priest passed her suspicions onto the federal agents, who had no problems believing them. Thankfully, Mollie survived the Reign of Terror and eventually divorced her murderous husband.
White had his work cut out trying to secure convictions however. Federal prosecutors constantly butted their heads against suspicious legal delays, hung juries, and the intimidation or complete disappearance of witnesses. Prejudice against the Osage meant a white jury would likely never convict the murderers.
The first member of the conspiracy to be convicted was Burkhart who pleaded guilty in 1926. He got life imprisonment. That same year Hale was also convicted of murder, but his conviction was quickly overturned. It took three more years for him to finally go down for good, having been found guilty of murder a second time. He too was sentenced to life in jail.
Except justice wasn’t really done. Burkhart got parole in 1937 and Hale was out by the end of 1947. Burkhart even got himself a pardon in 1966 from the then-governor of Oklahoma, Henry Bellmon.
At least Congress amended the 1906 act to stop the same thing happening again. Under the new rules, no non-Osage could inherit the headrights of a tribal member who had more than one-half Osage blood.
The case also helped lead to the creation of the FBI as we know it today under Hoover. As for the Osage, they haven’t forgotten the partial justice they received or the way they were treated by their state’s corrupt legal system.
Top Image: More than 60 Native Americans were murdered for their money during the Osage Indian Murders. Source: winterbilder / Adobe Stock