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The headlights on the Buick touring car cut through the darkness, bumping down the road between Fairfax and Pawhuska in Osage County. It’s the late hours of May 21, 1921.
Anna Brown, a 40-year-old, full-blooded Osage woman, stares sourly into the cloud of dust gathering in the headlights. Byron Burkhart, a white man in his early 20s and Anna’s off-and-on lover, is behind the wheel, trying to coax her out of her testy mood.
As they drive over the Osage hills, Burkhart knows that Brown will not live to see the sunrise.
It’s the 1920s, and oil production in the Osage Nation is at a peak. The tribe’s wealth has become legendary. But along with its bounty, sorrow and fear will paralyze the Osage Nation in the coming years, during an era the tribe now calls “The Reign of Terror.”
REIGN OF TERROR
Numerous conditions led to the Reign of Terror, but one of the most significant was the creation and subsequent abuse of the so-called “headright system.” The term “headright” came about in the 1950s and was coined by court and Indian bureau officials to refer to Osage oil royalty shares, said Tara Damron, Oklahoma History Center historian and Osage tribal member.
In the years leading up to Oklahoma becoming a state, the Osage was the only tribe that had purchased and received title to its reservation, which was owned collectively as a tribe. But this was problematic for the Oklahoma territorial government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which were pushing for statehood. Oklahoma could not become a state until all property was held in individual allotments.
The other Oklahoma tribes had years earlier gone through the process of dispersing tribal assets to individual members. Since the Osages had bought their reservation in 1872, only an act of Congress could mandate individual tribal allotment.
In 1906, the Osages finally relented, and Congress passed the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. The allotment consisted of sections of land and individual shares of the oil royalty payout for the 2,229 individuals listed on the 1906 roll. Many of those individuals were contested by the full-blooded faction of the Osage Tribe.
As oil revenues climbed into the millions, headrights began to pass out of the tribe, often by illegal means. Despite being considered the wealthiest people on Earth, the Osages were beginning to realize their money wouldn’t buy them protection. Many were swindled and even killed for their headrights. County, state and Indian bureau authorities, either from a lack of interest or evidence, offered little relief from the growing threat.
“There was always this struggle,” Damron said. “We were constantly fighting greed and corruption at the bureau level. Who could you trust?”
Anna Brown and her family were particularly vulnerable, especially to “squaw men” — men who would marry wealthy Osage women either to be kept by their money or to inherit their headrights. Anna, her mother and her sisters were immensely wealthy, with seven headrights: Anna’s mother, Lizzie Q. Kyle, with four headrights; and Anna and her two sisters, Mollie and Rita, with one headright each.
By the end of the decade, a widespread conspiracy led by one man left Mollie as the sole survivor. And she, it was determined, was in the process of being poisoned when federal agents stepped in.
Much of the following information comes from FBI files.
THE KILLING OF ANNA BROWN
Photo courtesy of the FBI
On that May night in 1921, Byron Burkhart and Anna Brown are joined by Kelsey Morrison, an acquaintance of Burkhart’s, and Morrison’s wife, Catherine Cole Morrison, also a full-blooded Osage.
Burkhart’s Buick arrives at a location near the Gray Horse cemetery then turns north and west onto a remote road. In the full moonlight, Catherine Morrison sees a gate in a fenced-off pasture. Burkhart drives through the gate and heads down a hill toward a wooded area.
Brown is drunk. She likes her whiskey and had started drinking early that day. She is barely coherent when the Buick comes to a stop near a tree, about 100 feet from a ravine.
“Just after we stopped, (Byron) and Kelsey got out of the car and helped Anna Brown out of the car,” Catherine Morrison recalled later in a statement to the FBI. “Anna Brown was very drunk and (Byron) took her on the right side and Kelsey on the left and walked her off from the car, going in the direction of the ravine … As they started away I started to say something to Kelsey. He turned around and (swore) and continued on. I realized that they were going to do something to Anna Brown and it scared me very much, and I was afraid to say anything to Kelsey for fear that he would do something to me.”
KING OF THE OSAGE
William King Hale
In the early days of oil discoveries on the Osage Nation Reservation, a man named William King Hale found his way into the county from Texas. He reportedly was uneducated but was able to amass a fortune — mostly from insurance fraud and his unscrupulous dealings with the Osages.
“Eventually he became a millionaire, who dominated local politics and seemingly could not be punished for any of the many crimes which were laid at his door,” Thomas B. White, special agent in charge, wrote in a 1932 memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. “His method of building up power and prestige was to put various individuals under obligation to him by means of gifts and favors shown to them. Consequently he had a tremendous following in the vicinity composed not only of the riffraff element which had drifted in, but of many good and substantial citizens.”
In addition to a ranch near Gray Horse, Hale, who proclaimed himself the “King of the Osage,” had controlling interest in a bank in Fairfax and was part owner of a store there. He eventually garnered favor with most of Osage County’s law enforcement, mayors, lawyers and even judges.
Despite Hale’s numerous assets, he coveted the Kyle family money and persuaded his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to marry one of Lizzie Q. Kyle’s daughters. Ernest Burkhart married Mollie Kyle, Anna’s sister.
Hale and Burkhart now had power over Mollie’s headright and part of Lizzie Q.’s four headrights upon her death. But for Hale, there was no reason to stop there.
In Hale’s scheme, Anna Brown’s headright was too easily obtained to pass up. She was divorced and had no children and therefore no one to leave her headright to. Hale knew if she died before her mother, her headright would, by law, go to Lizzie Q., whose estate then would be inherited by the remaining Kyle sisters — Mollie, Hale’s niece by marriage, and Rita.
MONEY AND MARRIAGE
Location where Anna Brown was found dead.
By the spring of 1921, Lizzie Q. Kyle was very ill. To those who knew her, it was obvious she would not recover. If Hale’s plan were going to work, he would have to act quickly to ensure that Anna died before her mother.
Hale provided Morrison and Byron Burkhart a .32 automatic pistol, according to a 1932 FBI report.
The plan was to get Anna Brown drunk and, with Catherine Morrison along, appear they were out for a night of drinking. They then would drive to a ravine and leave Anna there with a bottle of whiskey, take Catherine back to her home and return to the ravine to kill Anna.
Matt Williams, a local bootlegger, told U.S. Attorney T.J. Leahy in 1926 that Byron Burkhart had bought the liquor for Anna Brown for $15. “He told me at that time that he was going to meet Kelsey Morrison at the end of the bridge. I said, ‘What you going to do, Byron?’ He said, ‘I’m going to do some work for Uncle Billy tonight.’”
“Who was Uncle Billy?” Leahy asked.
“Hale,” Williams answered. “He (Burkhart) said he had made arrangements with Shorty Wheeler, Fred Wheeler, to bring them some more whiskey at the Salt Creek Bridge about 9 or 10 o’clock. I let Wheeler have my car, a Maxwell roadster. He got there just as they was killing Anna Brown. He heard her scream. Byron Burkhart was holding her in his arms, Kelsey Morrison was beating her over the head with a six-shooter from behind. They carried her to the bank of the creek. She still showed life and they shot her in the back of the head. After that Kelsey Morrison come to my place … and he told me, ‘Matt, that was the most brutal deal ever I pulled off.’”
Hale paid Kelsey Morrison $1,000, forgave a $600 debt and bought him an automobile, according to Morrison’s testimony in federal court.
On May 27, 1921, hunters discovered Brown’s decomposed and swollen body. Undertaker F.S. Turten was summoned from Fairfax. Because of the poor condition of the body, he and two doctors, J.G. and D.A. Shoun, performed a hasty and crude autopsy near the ravine where it was found.
Their examination revealed that Brown had been dead five or six days, shot through the back of the head with a .32-caliber pistol.
Anna Brown’s estate probated to Lizzie Q. Kyle, who died two months later. The bulk of Lizzie Q.’s estate went to her daughter and son-in-law, Mollie and Ernest Burkhart (Hale’s nephew).
COMMUNITY IN TERROR
In the following years, the bodies of dead Osages become more frequent. Townspeople hear whispers about murders for headrights but are too terrified to act.
But W.E. Smith, Anna Brown’s brother-in-law and the husband of Rita Kyle, refuses to be intimidated.
Smith has his suspicions. Perhaps deep down, he knows his own time on Earth is limited. Dubious of local authorities, he launches an outside investigation, hiring a detective firm from Tulsa, and apparently finding sufficient evidence to accuse Hale of Anna Brown’s murder.
Smith begins to state openly that Hale had Anna Brown murdered “and that he would not hesitate to kill the last of Lizzie Q.’s children,” Bureau of Investigation Director Hoover later wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings.
Despite Smith’s mounting accusations, Hale’s confidence is at a pinnacle.
A DEADLY EXPLOSION
Rita Smith (left) and her housekeeper Nettie Brookshire.
By 1923, Smith and Hale were open enemies. Not only had Smith accused Hale in public of perpetrating the murder of Anna Brown, he also claimed he had loaned Hale $6,000, which Hale refused to pay.
Hale told his friends that to silence Bill Smith and gain control over the headright of his wife, Rita, he intended to kill both of them, witnesses including Matt Williams later testified.
“Bill Smith come to my home at Ralston … and said, ‘If Hale don’t settle up with me I am going to inform on him for the murder of Anna Brown.’ I told Smith at the time, ‘Bill, you are taking a long shot because Hale has already asked me about this thing, and you better move off that creek over there because he will get you there sure. …’” Williams told U.S. Attorney Leahy.
“Now after that, did you tell Hale what Smith said about informing on him with reference to the Anna Brown killing?” Leahy asked.
“… I told Bill Hale. I said, ‘Bill Smith’s been over here and made that assertion,’ and I said, ‘Bill, he is going to inform on you.’ He said, ‘I will put him away, because it ought to have been done years ago.’ He asked me at that time of some man that would put Bill Smith away. …’” Williams said.
Hale eventually found a local thug named Asa Kirby, who agreed to kill the Smiths.
On the night of March 10, 1923, Kirby placed a 5-gallon keg of nitroglycerin beneath the Smiths home at Fairfax. When the keg exploded it shook the entire town.
“… I was in bed with my wife. When it first happened it shook everything. At first I thought it was thunder, then there were three or four shots fired. I saw a light on the north side. … I knew what it was,” Ernest Burkhart said in a statement to the FBI.
Rita Smith and her housekeeper, Nettie Brookshire, were killed instantly. Bill Smith was thrown a distance from the house, sustaining injuries that left him badly mangled.
Bill Smith lived three or four days, dying on March 14, 1923 — a blow to Hale’s plan. Since Rita died before her husband, her headright went to him and subsequently to his daughter from a previous marriage, as well as to Rita’s cousin Grace Bigheart. Mollie Burkhart received just $5 from the estate.
BUREAU STEPS IN
J. Edgar Hoover, circa 1920s
The killings continued. Among the other Osage Indians who died of suspicious causes between 1921 and 1923 were Joe Greyhorse, Charles Whitehorn, Anna Sanford, William Stepson and Henry Roan. Many had ties to Hale.
In March 1923, the tribe sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., to implore the Department of the Interior to act. They made their case, and on March 24, the Office of Indian Affairs officially asked the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, later the FBI, to intercede.
“… a number of these Indians have, within a recent period, lost their lives under suspicious circumstances which gives rise to the view as expressed by the Attorney General of Oklahoma in his letter to me, that ‘their respective deaths are the result of a plot …,’” wrote Chas. H. Burke, commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs, in a letter to W.J. Burns, director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation.
The case landed on the desk of 28-year-old assistant director J. Edgar Hoover.
On April 2, 1923, the bureau sent an agent to Pawhuska, the Osage County seat. The investigation focused on 24 murders and suspicious deaths that had occurred between 1921 and 1923.
Suspicion fell almost immediately on W.K. Hale, but few in the county would agree to testify.
“The Indians and several white people in Fairfax and vicinity are very much afraid that some deed of violence is going to befall them, probably by the hands of the Hale faction, and have placed in the rear and front of their homes electric lights, which they burn all night. Quite a number of these people want to sell their homes and leave the Osage country,” Special Agent F.S. Smith said in a report to the bureau.
Alleged corruption and cronyism during the Harding administration had significantly injured the reputation of the bureau. Hoover saw the high-profile case as a means of proving the bureau as a viable investigative arm of government, said FBI historian John Fox.
“Bureau considered it a big case,” Fox said. “The big law enforcement problem was prohibition. The Bureau of Investigation was not a big player in prohibition enforcement. That was Department of the Treasury. For us, sending people undercover, conducting an investigation over several years, that was a big deal.
“The ’20s was a period of transition. The case itself is one of historical interest in the bureau. Certainly over the Hoover years we look at it as a case that really showed what we could do,” Fox said.
THERE CAN BE NO EXCUSE
Ernest and Mollie Burkhart
Oklahoma Archives / FBI
The election of Calvin Coolidge led to a shake-up at the Department of Justice, and Hoover was appointed director May 10, 1924.
Four agents were brought in to work undercover as an Indian medicine man, an insurance salesman, an oilman and a cattleman. Slowly, the strategy began to pay off. Informants began to come forward highlighting the voracity of Hale’s power and the fear within the community.
Special Agent Smith wrote in an Oct. 6, 1925, report:
“Through a confidential informant, a Catholic Priest, Agent learned that Mrs. Mollie Burkhart, who professes the Catholic faith and who is the wife of Ernest Burkhart, and a daughter of the deceased Lizzie ‘Q.,’ sent word to the Priest just recently that she was afraid of being poisoned at her home with whiskey, and the Priest advised her not to drink any liquor of any kind under any circumstances. The Priest also told Agent that Mrs. Burkhart had not attended church for some time and is being kept from doing so by her husband, Ernest Burkhart, because of fear she might talk to some of the church members.”
The case attracted national attention, and an increasingly impatient Hoover wanted it solved.
“I cannot too strongly emphasize my desire that this situation be cleared up at the earliest possible moment,” Hoover wrote to W.D. Bolling, the special agent in charge in Oklahoma City in 1925. “I understand that much of the evidence in the cases has been gathered by Agents of this Bureau. I want the situation to be such that insofar as the evidence is concerned, there can be no excuse offered for the failure of the cases to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.”
RESOLUTION OF CASES
William King Hale leaves the courthouse during his trial in Pawhuska. Oklahoman Archives
After three years of investigation, only five slayings were brought to trial: the murder of Anna Brown, the murders of W.E. Smith, Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire, and the murder of Anna Brown’s cousin, Henry Roan, who was found shot through the head in his car in 1923.
During the course of the investigation, the bureau assigned 13 special agents to the case.
Finally, Hale and many in his faction were arrested in 1926.
Anna Brown: Byron Burkhart and Kelsey Morrison were arrested in April 1926 for the murder of Brown. Morrison, who was serving time on another charge, testified in court to his part in Brown’s murder. He received a life sentence at McAlester and was paroled in 1931. In 1937, he was killed in a gunbattle with police at Fairfax.
Byron Burkhart turned state’s evidence in the Brown murder and was never convicted. Within months of the murder, he married an Osage woman named Rose Laseley. He died in 1985.
Catherine Cole Morrison divorced Kelsey Morrison shortly after the murder of Brown. It later was revealed that Hale had paid a local man, Dewey Selph, to help kill Catherine, but Selph testified that he lost his nerve, and she lived to testify in the case.
W.E. Smith, Rita Smith and Nettie Brookshire: Asa Kirby, whom Hale hired to blow up the Smith home, was shot and killed a month after the murders while trying to rob a store in Catalie, southwest of Vinita. It was reported that Hale had told the store owner when Kirby would be arriving to rob him.
Once the Hale faction was behind bars, the killings abated. Even from jail, Hale managed to tamper with witnesses and pay off jurors. Convicting any of them would be difficult without a confession.
Ernest Burkhart proved to be the weak link. In early June 1926, he slipped a note from jail to Bureau of Investigation agents indicating that he wanted to confess to helping Hale in his plot to murder the Kyle family and others.
Burkhart’s confession led to a conviction later that month. He was sentenced to life in prison at the state penitentiary in McAlester for his part in the murders of W.E. and Rita Smith and their housekeeper. He was paroled in 1937 and given a full pardon by Gov. Henry Bellmon in 1965.
Mollie, the sole remaining member of the Kyle family, recovered from being poisoned. She divorced Ernest Burkhart and later died June 16, 1937. Her children with Ernest Burkhart inherited what remained of the Kyle family fortune.
Henry Roan: In the end, Hale was never tried for the murders of the Kyle family. Instead, it was the murder of Roan for a $25,000 life insurance policy that led to his Hale’s undoing.
State and federal authorities knew Hale’s resources and control over the locals would make convicting him in district court in Pawhuska difficult at best. Since Roan was killed on tribal land, that crime fell under federal jurisdiction. It was decided that the government would take over prosecution of Hale in federal court, effectively removing him from his ring of influence.
After four trials, from 1926 to 1929, Hale and his accomplice in the Roan murder, John Ramsey, each received a life sentence for the murder of Roan, to be served at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. Hale claimed his innocence throughout.
Hale was paroled in 1947. He moved to Montana and worked as a cowboy and dishwasher and eventually migrated to Arizona, where he died in 1962 at age 87. He is buried in Wichita, Kan. Ramsey was paroled in 1947.
DARK ERA COMES TO AN END
To prevent another “Reign of Terror,” Congress passed a law in 1925 that prohibited non-Osages from inheriting the headrights of tribal members possessing more than one-half Osage blood.
As for the Osage wealth, although significantly diminished, the U.S. Government holds much of it in trust. In 2000, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the government alleging historical losses to its trust funds and interest income as a result of the government’s mismanagement of the tribe’s trust assets.
In 2011, the government settled with the tribe for $380 million — the largest tribal trust settlement in U.S. history, according to the law firm that represented the tribe.