Part 6 — ‘King of the Osage’ finally falls
(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, continued
Henry Roan, Osage, was found in his car, dead and frozen, on February 6, 1923. The car had been abandoned in a lonely Osage range pasture. It was never determined how long he had been dead. He had been murdered, a .45 caliber bullet through his head. W.K. Hale had a $25,000 insurance policy on Roan’s life.
Bureau of Investigation agents were not blind to the fact that Mollie Burkhart, Ernest’s Osage wife, had inherited the fortune of her mother and two sisters. The problem was to find a crime in which the federal government had jurisdiction. The Roan killing solved that. Henry Roan was murdered on government restricted land. W.K. Hale and John Ramsey were charged with Roan’s murder.
The State of Oklahoma followed suit, charging Ernest Burkhart as the conspirator who had arranged the nitroglycerin explosion which killed W.E. and Rita Smith and their housekeeper.
It soon became apparent that because of Hale’s vast wealth and influence, it would be virtually impossible to convict these men of these crimes, which they were charged. Witnesses were intimidated. They would simply disappear, perhaps to turn up later in Mexico, or not at all.
The trial resulted in a hung jury, which failed to reach a verdict after fifty hours of deliberation. There were charges of perjury. Rumors reported that the jurors had been bribed.
Two months after the hung jury failed to reach a verdict in the federal court in Guthrie, W.K. Hale and John Ramsey were again brought to trial, in federal court in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Blackie Thompson, one of the anachronistic outlaws serving a life term in the state prison, was released under immunity to testify that Hale had offered him $1,000 and a new Buick to blow up the Smith home.
Thompson had refused. Ernest Burkhart finally confessed that he was the “go-between” who had actually secured the Smiths’ killer. Acting on instructions from Hale, Ernest had approached John Ramsey. He talked with the “Kingpin of the Bootleggers,” Henry Grammer.
He made the offer to another outlaw, Curly Johnson. He had tried to hire train and bank robber, Al Spencer. All refused. Finally, he made a deal with one Ace Kirby. For $3,000, Ace had nitroglycerined into eternity W.E. and Rita Smith and their housekeeper. Ace Kirby could not be prosecuted. He had been cut in half by a storekeeper’s shotgun blast during an attempted robbery some months earlier.
Ernest testified that Hale had hired Ramsey to kill Henry Roan. Ramsey’s price: $500 and a new Ford.
The “King of the Osage,” W.K. Hale, took the stand and denied everything. He had been in Fort Worth attending the Fat Stock Show when the Smith home was blown up. He insisted that he had no reason to want Roan killed. But the jury’s verdict this time was “guilty.”
Hale, Ramsey and Burkhart were sentenced to life imprisonment. Hale appealed. He was re-tried in 1929, and again found guilty. Ramsey appealed and was re-tried. At his last trial, Ramsey told an interesting new story, claiming that Curly Johnson had killed Henry Roan.
Mollie Burkhart had, in fact, been Roan’s wife before she married Burkhart. If she had divorced Burkhart and remarried Roan, Ernest Burkhart would have lost the wealth Mollie had inherited from her mother and murdered sisters. Ramsey’s new defense failed to convince the jury. He was again found guilty.
At least twenty Osage murders were never officially solved. But with Hale, Ramsey and Burkart in prison, killing in the Osage came to an abrupt halt. The “Osage Reign of Terror” was over.
Next week: Depression Ends the Boom Days, The Oil Industry Matures, Oil Embargo Brings Boost in Oil Prices, The Future of Oil in the Osage.