Part 4 — With the money came the trouble
(Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth installment from the Pawhuska Journal-Capital’s popular 1996 history book, “Cowboys, Outlaws and Peace Officers.” Portions of the book will be serialized each week for the next several weeks in the pages of the J-C. The original volume was compiled by former J-C General Manager Larry Lucas and writer Libby Meyer. Sharon Yates assembled the photo collection and JoAnn Gibson is credited with production duties on the original book.)
The oil money rolled in: $2,719 per headright in 1917 increased to $8,090 per headright by 1920. An average Osage family of four at this time had an income of $40,450 per year. By 1925, the same family was receiving more than $65,000 per year.
As old members of the tribe passed on, their heirs inherited these headrights. At the time of her death, Lizzie Q. Kyle had acquired by inheritance eight headrights. All of these passed on to her last living daughter, Mollie Burkhart.
With the money came the riff-raff, whiskey, “dope” and trouble. The 1920s became a nightmare that sensational writers of the time called the “Osage Reign of Terror.” Al Spencer’s gang of train and bank robbers made the tangle “Cross Timbers” hideouts of the Osage county their headquarters. An ex-world champion rodeo rider named Henry Grammer became “Kingpin of the Bootleggers.” With a killing behind him in Wyoming, Grammer quickly added two more in Osage. He was found dead in an auto wreck in 1923. There is much question as to whether the wreck was an accident, or was planned to silence Grammer because he “knew too much” about W.K. Hale and the Osage murders.
Crimes of violence were frequent in 1923. From bank robberies to shootings, the paper was full of stories. Through all this violence, it does not seem altogether strange that the murders of the few Osage citizens were overlooked. The Osage Tribal Council pointed out to the U.S. Bureau of Investigation that at least two dozen killings of Osage had accumulated, and were being ignored, in the unsolved files. Many Osage had strung electric lights completely around their homes, keeping their yards ablaze with light throughout the hours of darkness.
The U.S. Bureau quietly sent agents into the Osage. They posed as cowhands and cattle buyers, and soon observed that all trials seemed to lead to popular and wealthy W.K. Hale, who was proud to be known as the “King of the Osage.” He had accumulated wealth from meager beginnings. Originally from Texas, he and his wife had lived in a tent during their early days on the Osage range, grazing and fattening cattle for market. Now, twenty years later, he owned or leased many thousands of acres of that same Osage ranch land and had accumulated vast holdings of cattle, horses, city real estate, and banking interests. The Osage people considered him a trusted friend. He had been a pallbearer at Anna Brown’s funeral.
The 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 into possession of the property of these families.”
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 with 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 fortunes of her mother and her two murdered sisters. The problem was to find a crime in which the Federal Government would have 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 the crimes with which they were charged. Witnesses were intimidated. They would simply disappear, perhaps to turn up later in Mexico, or not at all. The first 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 jurors had been bribed.
Continued next week.