It’s the early 1920s in northeast Oklahoma, and the Osage people are enjoying the trappings of their unusual wealth. Rich from oil, the Osage live in mansions, keep white servants and drive the latest automobiles. But then the members of the tribe start dying in mysterious circumstances, sparking a scandal that still haunts the community to this day.
The story began back in the 1870s, when settlers forced the Osage to leave Kansas and relocate to a rocky patch of land in what is now Oklahoma. Initially, it’s likely that few believed this new reservation held any worth. Within a few decades, though, vast deposits of oil had been discovered beneath the new Osage lands.
Then in 1907, preparations were being made to form the state of Oklahoma. And as part of the negotiations, authorities granted 657 acres of reservation land to each member of the Osage tribe. From that time on, then, any prospectors hoping to gain access to the region’s oil were required to hand over a hefty fee.
In fact, in 1923 alone, the Osage collected a staggering $30 million dollars in oil rights – worth around $400 million in today’s money. And members of the tribe then began to live incredibly extravagant lives thanks to these new found riches. Soon, the Native American inhabitants of Osage County had built grand mansions and were driving around in chauffeured cars.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, not everyone was not happy about this situation. Subsequently, in 1921, congress made it a legal requirement for each Osage to have their finances overseen by a court-appointed white guardian. But it wasn’t long before many of these custodians began to abuse their position of power.
These abuses of power saw the Osage defrauded of great swathes their wealth. In some cases, guardians conned the Osage out of money by selling them goods for more than they were worth. In others, certain the use of businesses were recommended to the tribe, with guardians pocketing kickbacks from the given firms in return. There were also a number of incidents when those who were supposed to be monitoring the Osage’s finances stole money outright. In fact, some $8 million of Osage money is thought to have been lost in this way.
And things soon took a far more sinister turn. In May 1921, the body of an Osage woman named Anna Brown was found abandoned in a ravine. Initially, police chalked up her mysterious death to alcohol poisoning – despite the fact that Anna’s head bore a bullet hole. But just two months later, Anna’s mother, Lizzie, died. And this time foul play was suspected, with poisoning deemed to be the cause of death.
Apparently, Lizzie had been an incredibly wealthy woman, having inherited Anna’s land as well as that belonging to her late husband and two deceased daughters. After Lizzie’s death, her wealth was passed on to her heirs. But sadly, money could not stop the murderous violence that had begun to stalk the Osage.
Just two years later, in fact, Lizzie’s remaining daughters, Mollie and Rita, experienced another loss when their cousin Henry Roan was found dead from a gunshot wound. And then one March morning in 1923, Mollie heard the sound of a violent explosion tearing through the neighborhood.
Tragically, a bomb had gone off underneath Rita’s house, killing her and her husband instantly. By now, Mollie’s entire immediate family were dead. And shockingly hers wasn’t the only Osage family being plagued by death and violence. In fact, by 1923, the Osage death toll had reached at least 24 in what the press were calling a “Reign of Terror.” What’s more, it wasn’t just the Osage who were being targeted; those who were trying to solve the mystery were also meeting with unsavory ends.
In one instance, an attorney assigned to an Osage case was killed in a suspicious fall from a moving train. And when a white resident decided to travel to Washington to ask for help in solving the murders, he turned up dead in Maryland. Apparently, he had been beaten and stabbed in a vicious attack dubbed one of the region’s most brutal crimes.
Eventually, the victimized Osage turned to the Bureau of Investigation – the fledgling government agency that would eventually become the FBI. Keen to boost his organization’s reputation with a high-profile case, director J. Edgar Hoover decided to dispatch some agents to Osage County.
Under the supervision of ex-Texas Ranger Tom White, an undercover investigation was subsequently launched. Soon, a number of agents – including one of Native American descent – had infiltrated the Osage County community. And finally, the mystery began to unravel.
Investigators focused in on a local cattleman named William Hale. Born in Texas, Hale had risen to prominence in Osage County after building a successful ranch. Self-styled as the “King of the Osage Hills,” he was an influential member of the local community and had a reputation for using underhand tactics in order to cement his power.
Now, although a number of different men were accused of committing the murders, each pointed to Hale as the man who had ordered the crimes. Even more damningly, the cattleman had made $25,000 after Roan’s death, having persuaded the Osage to take out a life insurance policy naming him as the beneficiary.
Most suspicious of all, however, was that Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, was married to Mollie – and by this point the couple had inherited all of her family’s wealth. Later, it emerged that Hale had been the one to encourage Burkhart into the relationship. But as Mollie’s family dropped dead around her, she began to fear that she had become a target as well.
Afraid that she was being poisoned, Mollie confided in her priest, who instructed her to avoid liquor at all costs. And sure enough, it emerged that someone had been trying to kill her off by poisoning her drink. Luckily for Mollie, her wariness saved her from a fatal dose. But despite the systematic slaughter of the Osage – and all of the evidence pointing to Hale and his accomplices – Mollie would not see much justice for her family and the other victims.
You see, although Hale, Burkhart and an accomplice, John Ramsey, were initially sentenced to life behind bars, they were later granted parole. This, unsurprisingly, caused great distress to the Osage community. There was some slightly better news from Washington, however. In the wake of the violence, a new law was passed banning anyone not of Osage heritage from inheriting land rights from members of the tribe.
But this dark time still left scars on the tribe. So, in 2000, the Osage took the Department of Interior to court, claiming that their mismanagement of the tribe’s assets had led to great financial loss. Eventually, some 11 years later, the government awarded the Osage a staggering $380 million – the largest settlement of its kind in the history of the United States.
Today, the descendants of murdered Osage live shoulder to shoulder with those of the men who committed the crimes. And somewhat remarkably, the community has emerged from the tragedy as a strong and resilient force. “One person told me, yes, we were victims of this murder,” author David Grann recalled in an April 2018 interview with NPR, “but we don’t live as victims.”