New edition of 'The Deaths of Sybil Bolton' published

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Osage Nation paid $20,000 for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of what has become known as the “Osage Reign of Terror,” but it didn’t get a whole lot for its money, Dennis McAuliffe Jr. argues.

The investigation lasted more than two years and resulted in just three indictments in January 1926. It also produced 3,274 pages of file material, but the points of view represented in the material are those of white, male law officers talking to white, male bad guys about dead Osage Indians. The voices of the Osage people are not represented.

McAuliffe is a proponent of Osages telling their own stories about the “Reign of Terror,” and of more investigation of the murders to better establish details.

“There are all sorts of effective ways of telling a story,” McAuliffe told the Journal-Capital, explaining that museum exhibits and oral histories would be among the many ways to approach the telling of the stories of the “Reign of Terror.”

McAuliffe, a journalist, wrote a book about his investigation of the death in 1925 of his Osage maternal grandmother, Sybil Beekman Bolton. First published in 1994 under the title “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: An American History,” the book came out a second time in 1999 under the title “Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation.”

It has been published a third time this year under the title “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation," with a foreword by David Grann, author of "Killers of the Flower Moon".

McAuliffe’s book was the first to use the FBI files regarding the “Osage Reign of Terror” as the basis for an investigation. While “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” contains a broad range of background information about the FBI investigation and the Osage people, it is primarily focused on the author’s quest for a rational, evidence-based explanation for his grandmother’s death at the age of 21.

Explanations offered for the death were kidney disease and suicide. McAuliffe’s investigation, with crucial assistance from family members, led him to the conclusion she had been murdered.

“When my book came out, basically nobody read it and especially around here,” McAuliffe, 71, said. The times are changing, and resources about the Osage murders are now in much greater demand.

Grann’s 2017 book, titled “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” also uses the FBI papers on the “Osage Reign of Terror,” but it is concerned less with any particular death than with the overall phenomenon of whites killing Osages, who were oil-rich, to steal their wealth.

Movie director Martin Scorsese is in the process of making a film based on Grann’s book. Much of that movie is being filmed in Osage County, including in the county seat, Pawhuska.

Scorsese’s movie about the “Reign of Terror” is likely to embed awareness of the killing spree in the American national consciousness like nothing prior to it, McAuliffe said.

Additional film projects, independent of Scorsese’s movie, are in development that may produce programs to be aired on CNN and on PBS, McAuliffe indicated. Hopefully, more Osage individuals and families will begin to find ways to share their knowledge of the “Reign of Terror” with the general public, he said.

McAuliffe also advocated the placement of source materials about the “Reign of Terror” online, making them widely accessible.

Asked how many people his research indicates were murdered in the “Reign of Terror,” McAuliffe said the correct answer may be beyond establishment.

“That’s the ongoing mystery and the lingering part of the Reign of Terror,” he said. “In my mind, that’s part of the definition of terror – you just don’t know.”

He said, however, that present-day thinking is gravitating toward the idea that there may have been hundreds of killings. William Hale, Ernest Burkhart and John Ramsey – the three suspects indicted based on the FBI investigation – may essentially have been “fall guys” of a sort, McAuliffe said, toward whom other guilty parties pointed federal agents.

At the core of McAuliffe’s concept of the “Osage Reign of Terror” is the financial guardianship program that Congress mandated, allegedly to protect the Osages. McAuliffe concluded, based on his investigation, that the guardians instead became involved in killing the Osages to enrich themselves.