Part 5 — ‘To destroy with bullet, poison and bomb’
(Editor’s Note: What follows is a portion of the book, “Oil in the Osage,” originally published in 1996 by the Pawhuska Journal-Capital. Much of the book’s content was produced by writer Libby Meyer. However, the section examining the infamous Osage Reign of Terror was taken in part from a 1972 article by Bill Burchardt. As a tribute to that book and the rich story it told, the newspaper is serializing the content over a period of seven weeks.)
The Osage Reign of Terror
This information on the “Osage Reign of Terror” is in part from an article which appeared in the Pawhuska Journal-Capital on September 29, 1972 by Bill Burchardt, a well-known Western writer of the time.
The gory tale broke in the national press in 1926. The New York Evening World commented on, “the efforts of an evidently well-organized band, diabolic in its ruthlessness, to destroy with bullet, poison and bomb the heirs to the oil-rich lands of the Osage Indians….”
W. K. Hale, a rancher in Osage County, Oklahoma, had been arrested and charged with the murder of Henry Roan, a wealthy Osage. John Ramsey, a cowhand and cattle rustler, was in jail charged with killing Roan in cold blood, shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 caliber six-shooter.
About 3:00 a.m. on a spring night in 1923, a gigantic charge of nitroglycerin blew up the home of W.E. Smith in Fairfax, killing Smith, his wealthy Osage wife, Rita and their housekeeper, Nellie Brookshire. Ernest Burkhart, a nephew of W. K. Hale’s had been indicted for complicity in this murder spectacular.
In the ensuing trials, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, predecessor of the F.B.I., revealed a remarkable and deadly chain of events. On May 28, 1921, the body of Anna Brown, Osage, had been found in a pasture near Grayhorse, Osage Nation. There was a bullet hole in the top of her head, and an empty whiskey bottle near her body.
Kelsey Morrison, an ex-convict, was brought from jail in Guthrie, Oklahoma, to testify that he had been hired by Hale to kill Anna Brown. The price was $1,000, cancellation of a $600 debt, and a new car. Morrison stated that he and his wife, Katherine Cole Morrison, and Byron Burkhart, Ernest’s brother, had taken Anna Brown on a drinking party. When she was drunk, they had driven to the canyon near Grayhorse, and carried her from the car.
“I shot her in the top of the head with an automatic,” Morrison testified. “I told Byron how to hold her up, then I shot her. I did not watch her die, but left immediately. Hale suggested leaving some whiskey and if they did not find her soon, they would think she died of whiskey poisoning.”
It quickly became apparent why W.K. Hale wanted Anna Brown’s body found and identified. Two months later, Lizzie Q. Kyle, Anna’s mother, died. Lizzie Q., as her name appeared on the tribal role, was an aged Osage woman whose estate was valued at several million dollars.
Rumor suggested that she had been poisoned. There was no investigation. All of Lizzie’s fortune and all of her daughter Anna’s oil wealth became the inheritance of Lizzie’s two remaining daughters, Rita and Mollie. Rita was Mrs. W.E. Smith. When she and her husband were both killed in the nitroglycerin blasting of their home in Fairfax, Mollie inherited all.
Mollie was Mrs. Ernest Burkhart. Ernest was W.K. Hale’s nephew.
The murder trials leading to Hale and his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, were plainly marked. George Bigheart, Osage, dying of poisoned whiskey, was taken to an Oklahoma City hospital by Hale and Burkhart. Bigheart summoned his attorney, William Vaughn, from Pawhuska. Bigheart died and Vaughn caught the M.K.&T. night train to Pawhuska.
The next morning, Vaughn’s body was found on the railroad right-of-way. As the newspapers pointed out, “In more than one instance, W.K. Hale came in to possession of the property of these families.”
Next week: The Osage Reign of Terror, continued.