October 13, 2023
The Osage Murders
On this episode of Inside the FBI, learn about the Osage family that was targeted in a deadly conspiracy and how a young Bureau of Investigation searched for answers.
Ellen Ferrante: At the turn of the 20th century, oil was discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation in present-day Osage County, Oklahoma.
Through government royalties, members of the Osage Nation profited as the oil market expanded. As word spread, opportunists flocked to Osage lands, some seeking to separate the Osage from their wealth by any means necessary—even murder.
In this episode of Inside the FBI, learn about the Osage family that was targeted in a deadly conspiracy and a young Bureau of Investigation searching for answers.
I’m Ellen Ferrante, and this is Inside the FBI.
Ferrante: The Osage Nation Reservation is located in present-day Northwestern Oklahoma. It contains almost 1.5 million acres of rolling hills, forests, and tallgrass prairie.
In the 1800s, the Osage Tribe purchased the land from the Cherokee Nation after the U.S. government forced them from their previous homes.
Soon after, it was discovered that the land offered something that would change the lives of the Osage forever—oil.
As landowners, members of the Osage tribe were assigned federally mandated royalties—known as headrights—from oil sales. And as the oil market expanded, they became incredibly wealthy. By 1917, the oil fields were said to be some of the richest in the country.
FBI Historian Dr. John Fox explains that American industry boomed in the early 20th century, particularly with the new mass manufacturing of automobiles.
John Fox: 1908, Henry Ford opens up his Dearborn, Michigan, plant. And so, these cars need gas. Gas is made from oil. Oil is taken by mining out of the ground.
Ferrante: As word spread about the oil, opportunists from across the country rushed to Osage lands. And the Osage became increasingly wealthy.
Fox: And so, the Osage Indians became known for trying to blend, in a sense, this nouveau wealth that they had with their tribal customs. And so, you've got this mix of ancient and modern coming together in a unique way in the Osage Hills.
Ferrante: But sometime towards the end of the 1910s, Dr. Fox says:
Fox: We start seeing a series of murders and mysterious disappearances and deaths that perhaps have explanations other than natural.
Ferrante: It was May 1921 when the decomposed body of Anna Brown—an Osage Native American— was found at the bottom of a ravine in northern Oklahoma, on the pasture lands belonging to a cattle rancher named William Hale.
The undertaker later discovered a bullet hole in the back of her head. An investigation followed.
Anna’s brother-in-law, Bill Smith, was especially active in pursuing justice. He and Anna’s sister, Rita Smith, believed that William Hale was behind the murders.
William or Bill Hale, the so-called “King of the Osage Hill,” had arrived from Texas and worked as a local cattleman. He’d also bribed, lied, and stolen his way to power and wealth. Hale employed his nephews, brothers Ernest and Bryan Burkhart, to work for him.
Hale's connection to Anna Brown's family was clear: Ernest was married to Anna’s sister Mollie.
If Anna, her mother, and her two sisters died—in that order—all head rights—those oil royalties—would pass to Ernest. The income from them would amount to a sum of at least half-a-million-dollars a year in 1920s money.
Bryan Burkhart was initially arrested and charged with Anna’s murder, but he was acquitted. And after that, the case went silent.
Unfortunately, Anna’s death was just the beginning: Two months after the discovery of Anna’s body, Lizzie Q, her mother, died suspiciously.
In February 1923, Anna’s cousin Henry Roan was found dead in the front seat of a car in a ravine. He had also been shot in the back of the head.
Then, in March 1923, Rita and Bill Smith’s house was bombed. Rita, along with their 17-year-old servant Nettie Brookshire, died instantly.
It was discovered that a five-gallon keg of nitroglycerin had been placed under the Smith’s home and ignited.
Bill Smith was rescued from the debris and held on for about four days until he died. Before he passed away, he said that he had “only two enemies in the world, and they are Bill Hale and Ernest Burkhart.”
Mollie was now the last living member of her immediate family.
At this point, the overall death toll had grown across the community, not just within Anna’s family. Over two dozen people—including other Osage Native Americans and a well-known oilman—had inexplicably turned up dead.
Those who shared suspicions and accompanying evidence about murder suspects could be met with death threats—or killed. It seemed like no one could be trusted—not even doctors, some of whom drafted suspicious cause of death write-ups.
Newspapers began referring to the murders and environment of fear during this time as the Reign of Terror.
Who was behind all the murders? That's what the community wanted to find out.
Fox: Several people in the town had hired private investigators to try and look into this.
The state of Oklahoma's attorney general, of course, had people who were looking into this. There was a lot going on. And one of the things that we found early on was that a lot of this ended up making the investigation very difficult because some of these investigators, it turns out, had actually been hired by people who were involved in some of these criminal activities, and in fact, seemed to be either trying to intimidate witnesses into not speaking to others or otherwise, you know, mucking up the environment so that it was harder to find and trace the clues.
In fact, even as some people begin to try to deal with it as they head off to Washington to seek redress, one person is brutally murdered and thrown off a train as he's trying to raise the warning.
Ferrante: The Osage Tribal Council grew more and more concerned and turned to the federal government for help.
Fox: And so, the tribal council in 1923 gets together and sends a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs saying, “We need help. We're living in desperate times here and fear for our lives. You know, and local law enforcement isn't doing anything obvious about this; state law enforcement isn't doing anything about this. We need the help of the federal government.”
Ferrante: The Bureau of Indian Affairs contacted the Department of Justice, whose investigators were part of the Bureau of Investigation, as the FBI was known back in those days. At that time, J. Edgar Hoover was the assistant director.
Fox: So, he was the number two guy in charge. But he tended to handle a lot of the administrative matters and things like that.
Ferrante: Dr. Fox discusses the challenges the Bureau faced early in the investigation:
Fox: Between April 1923, when we began, and 1925, we had a handful of investigators who were working regularly on this matter.
They were interviewing anybody they could find. They were keeping close touch with the state officials and tribal officials who were involved in these matters. And they were trying to also work in part with those private detectives who they thought knew something or were doing a decent job. And it was very frustrating because it was difficult to get people to talk.
The Osage Indians themselves were scared and some of them perhaps intimidated. Other people in the area, of course, you had those who were involved in the crimes and they, of course, had their own interests in keeping quiet. And you had, of course, the people who were around also who ran various businesses or worked for the Osage Indians who, like the Indians themselves, were scared.
Ferrante: Furthermore, there was the matter of jurisdiction: Most violent crimes, including bank robbery and kidnapping, weren’t yet federal crimes in the United States.
Fox: Murder itself, unless it occurred on government property or government-controlled reservations, was not considered a federal crime.
Ferrante: By 1925, the Bureau was struggling to make progress on the case.
Fox: There were lots of rumors. There were lots of suspicions. The names of Hale and Ernest and Bryan Burkhart kept coming up because of their closeness to so many of these things.
Ferrante: But the Bureau still needed more evidence. Frustrated, J. Edgar Hoover appointed Agent Tom White to lead the investigation.
Fox: White had been a Bureau agent for many years and moved up into the ranks of leading field offices. He had most recently come from the Atlanta office, and in Atlanta, he had actually really impressed Hoover.
And Tom was asked to take over the Oklahoma City office. And at that point, he decided that we needed to refocus the investigation. We needed to tackle it in a different way. And so, one of the things he did was to bring in different agents who had experience in Southwest offices and investigations.
Ferrante: White’s plan: Send the agents undercover into the Osage community. Dr. Fox explains how, at the time, this was actually a rare thing for agents to do:
Fox: Basically, agents had perhaps gone in, under pretexts before, operated short-term. Several of the agents working under White, though, were going in more long-term. In Hoover's Bureau, the use of undercover agents was largely discouraged.
Well, it was thought that the areas where using an undercover agent might be most successful would be things like racketeering or organized crime-type investigations. But in turn, it would put the agent in a position where they might have to violate the law—and the way to maneuver that conundrum of the law enforcement agent being involved potentially in illegal acts was something that Hoover didn't think would work.
And he was fearful that being that close to crime and to those criminal elements might in the end provide a corrupting influence on the agents, as well. And so, it wasn't until after his death that the Bureau began to use long-term undercover agents against organized criminal enterprises.
Ferrante: However, going undercover proved key to solving the Osage murders. White led a team of four agents who went undercover as an insurance salesman, cattle buyer, oil prospector, and herbal doctor to turn up evidence. Over time, they also gained the trust of the Osage as they built the case.
Fox: Among other things, they thought if they could figure out some of these murders connected to Mollie Burkhart’s family, they could put together a common thread for them. And what they found was that a lot of these, especially the deaths in the Brown family, the murder of Henry Roan, the bombing of Bill and Rita Smith's house, all had the common element of Bill Hale.
And Hale, obviously, was known for both being wealthy and prominent but also for being ruthless.
Ferrante: And so, the Bureau started focusing on learning more about Hale and those around him, building on rumors and other knowledge.
They eventually linked employees of Hale to the bombing of the Smith house. They also linked other employees of Hale—in this case specifically, Bryan Burkhart and a man named Kelsey Morrison—to the last known whereabouts of Henry Roan.
They pressured Morrison through interviewing him and presenting how they knew he had been involved.
Eventually, Morrison began to talk—and so did Ernest.
Fox: Now, this in turn meant that Hale, when these matters were coming to trial and Burkhart was being brought forth to testify, sought very hard to try and make sure that this didn't happen. And it led to maneuverings in the court itself to try and derail Ernest's testimony.
In fact, when he was called to the stand, Hale’s lawyers asked for time to interview him in private because his role had been kept quiet at that point and was not necessarily known to the defense. And the judge allowed them to question him in the courtroom next door.
Ferrante: Instead, Ernest was snuck out of the courthouse and taken to Hale’s ranch. Wavering under the pressure of his uncle...
Fox: The next day, Burkhart comes in to testify and basically renounces all that he has told the Bureau agents up to that point.
Ferrante: In the meantime, Hale had also tried to get federal charges overturned. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the case could proceed in federal court.
Days later, Ernest pleaded guilty, admitting a role in the bombing of Rita and Bill’s home, and testified against his uncle.
The results of the investigation proved that Hale ordered the murders of Anna and her family to inherit their oil rights. The investigation also showed that Hale ordered the deaths of cousin Henry, for insurance, and of others who had threatened to expose him.
It's alleged they attempted to kill Mollie by poisoning her, but their attempts were unsuccessful.
In January 1929, Hale was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Hale’s henchmen—including a hired killer and crooked lawyer—also got time, as did Ernest Burkhart.
Even though justice was served for Anna and many others, it’s likely many more Osage were killed during the Reign of Terror than records have accounted for. And that many more murderers may have walked free.
Mollie divorced Ernest and later remarried. Sadly, she died in 1933 from diabetes, at the age of 54.
Ferrante: More than 100 years after Anna Brown’s death, the FBI continues to investigate the most serious crimes in Indian Country—like murder, child sexual and physical abuse, violent assaults, drug trafficking, and public corruption. We are also committed to ensuring that victims receive the rights they are entitled to and the assistance they need to cope with crime.
As for the Osage murder case’s legacy in Bureau history, Dr. Fox explains:
Fox: The Osage case is certainly one of our most prominent Indian Country cases in history.
It's not our first investigation conducted in Indian Country, but it was clearly unique given both the scope of the effort, the number of years the investigation covered, some of the hurdles that we faced in conducting those investigations, the fact that it led, among other things, to a Supreme Court case. Most of our cases do not do that.
So, it was clearly different from what we had done before and in many ways is one of our first really important early cases.
Ferrante: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Ellen Ferrante from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.
In May 1921, the badly decomposed body of Anna Brown—an Osage Native American—was found in a remote ravine in northern Oklahoma. Two dozen people, including her mother, eventually turned up dead. The early Bureau solved the case using undercover work.
An FBI initiative known as Operation Not Forgotten detailed 40 special agents, intelligence analysts, staff operational specialists, and victim specialists to 10 FBI field offices whose designated regions support women and children in Indigenous communities. During the resource surge, investigators handled over 220 cases.