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       November 05, 2014 3:38 PM

 Greed and Murder in Osage County


On the night of May 21, 1922, Anna Brown, age 40, a full-blood member of the Osage Indian Nation, went for a ride with her boyfriend, Byron Burkhart, a white man in his 20s.

Anna (photo left) and her boyfriend had been drinking all day and she was drunk. She was also a rich woman.

Six days later her body was found in a ravine in Osage County, Oklahoma, shot in the head. She was the first in her family to be murdered, but she would not be the last.

Oil, Greed and Murder

In 1897, oil was discovered on Osage Indian land in Osage County, Oklahoma. Before Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the Osage tribe had purchased its reservation land. In 1906, Congress passed the Osage Allotment Act, stipulating that property and income from the oil be distributed equally among the 2,229 members of the tribe. Each share was called a "headright.”

By 1920, oil wells on Osage land earned millions of dollars, making the Osage people among the wealthiest in the world. But such wealth attracted con-men and unscrupulous swindlers.

So called "squaw men” married Osage women to inherit their headrights. Worse, the federal government appointed guardians for those deemed "incompetent” to handle their finances. Most guardians were white businessmen or lawyers. By 1924, 600 guardians had duped Osage Indians out of $8 million.

When Anna Brown was murdered, her family was immensely wealthy and held seven headrights. Anna's mother, Lizzie Q. Kyle, (photo left) had four: her own, her deceased husband's and two from her previously deceased daughters.

Anna and her two sisters, Mollie and Rita, had one headright each. Mollie was married to Ernest Burkhart, a white man. Rita was married to William E. Smith, another white man.

The Murders Continue

In July 1921, two months after Anna's murder, her mother, Lizzie Kyle died. At the time she was living with her daughter Mollie and Mollie's husband Ernest Burkhart. The coroner blamed it on "bad whiskey,” but an autopsy later revealed she had been poisoned. Her four headrights were inherited by her two surviving daughters, Mollie and Rita.

By 1923, oil wells on the Osage Indian land were netting $27 million each year. Lizzie Kyle's nephew, Henry Roan, also owned a headright. In January 1923, he was murdered. Like Anna Brown, he died of a gunshot wound to the head.

On March 10, 1923, a bomb went off under the house where Lizzie's daughter Rita Smith lived with her husband W. E. Smith and their housekeeper, Nettie Brookshire. Rita and Nettie, (photo left) died instantly.

Mollie's husband, W.E. Smith (photo right) died in the hospital four days later.

Mollie Burkhart, the last survivor of Lizzie Kyle, and her husband Ernest Burkhart inherited all of the Kyle family headrights, and with them incredible wealth.

At the time of the bombing, Mollie was feeling ill herself. Later it was determined that she was being poisoned.

Enter the FBI

In March 1923 representatives of the Osage tribe went to Washington, D.C., requesting help from the federal government to solve the many suspicious deaths of their people. Between 1921 and 1923, two dozen Osage Indians had died from suicides, gunshot wounds, and explosions.

In April the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked the U.S. Bureau of Investigation [later called the FBI] to investigate. At that time, J. Edgar Hoover, 28, (photo right) was the assistant director. Hoover sent an agent to Pawhuska, the Osage County seat, but people were afraid to talk. By then, many who had witnessed or knew about the murders had died under suspicious circumstances.

At that time the reputation of the FBI was less than stellar. One of their tasks was enforcement of Prohibition, an unpopular law if ever there was one. Hoover saw the resolution of the Osage County case as a way to polish the FBI's image. In May 1924, Hoover was named director of the FBI.

Hoover sent four undercover agents to Osage County. The case had attracted national attention and he wanted it solved. "I cannot too strongly emphasize my desire that this situation be cleared up at the earliest possible moment,” he wrote to the Special Agent in Charge of the Oklahoma City office. Fearful of retaliation, residents were reluctant to talk, but eventually they did. William King Hale became the prime suspect.

William King Hale

At the time of the murders, Hale (photo at right) was immensely wealthy. In addition to owning a large ranch, he had a controlling interest in a Fairfax bank and part ownership of a store. He dominated local politics, and his influence extended to Osage County law officers, mayors, lawyers and judges. Hale called himself The King of Osage Hills. People didn't mess with William Hale.

Hale was born in the 19th century, some sources say in Canada in 1870s. In 1887, Hale was one of many white ranchers who flocked to Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Land Rush. The General Allotment Act of 1887 allotted parcels of land to each member of the Indian tribes, but any "surplus” land could be given to non-Indians, like Hale. It was rumored that Hale insured his 30,000 acre plot, ordered his ranch hands to torch it, and received a large insurance settlement.

Despite his considerable wealth, Hale (photo left) was greedy. He knew the Kyle family was wealthy and he wanted their money. To that end, he persuaded his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, to marry Mollie Kyle, Lizzie's daughter and Anna Brown's sister.

Ernest's brother Byron was Anna Brown's boyfriend. Knowing Lizzie Kyle was ill, Hale had to work quickly to make sure Anna died before her mother, who would then inherit her headright.

The Case Against Hale

Hale paid Kelsey Morrison $1,000 to help Byron Burkhart kill Anna and gave them a .32-caliber pistol. When Anna put up a fight, they shot her in the head. Lizzie inherited Anna's headright. When she died two months later, the bulk of Lizzie's estate went to her daughter Mollie and her son-in-law Ernest Burkhart, Hale's nephew.

W.E. Smith, Anna's brother-in-law, hired a Tulsa detective, but he couldn't find enough evidence to accuse Hale of Anna's murder. Smith began to voice his suspicions openly: Hale had ordered Anna's murder and would not hesitate to kill the last of Lizzie's children, namely, Smith's wife, Rita. A friend of Smith's later testified that when Smith threatened to inform on Hale, the friend told him: "You better move off that creek because he will get you.”

Sure enough, Hale paid a local thug, Asa Kirby to kill the Smiths. On March 10, 1923, Kirby put a 5-gallon jug of nitroglycerin under the Smith home in Fairfax. When it exploded. Rita Smith and housekeeper Nettie Brookshire died instantly. But Hale's plan backfired. W.E. Smith outlived Rita and inherited her headrights. After he died, his daughter from a previous marriage and Rita's cousin, Grace Bigheart, inherited them. Mollie Burkhart received only $5 from the estate.

Fearing Asa Kirby might talk, a month later, Hale set him up, telling Kirby a store in a nearby town was ripe for a robbery. Hale then tipped off the owner that Kirby was coming. During the attempted robbery, the owner shot Kirby dead.

Arrests and Trials

In January 1926, William Hale and John Ramsey were arrested and charged with the murder of Henry Roan. Ernest Burkhart was charged with the murders of Rita Smith, W.E. Smith and Nettie Brookshire. In April 1926, Byron Burkhart was arrested for the murder of Anna Brown.

Hale (photo left leaving the courthouse) maintained his innocence, telling a New York Times reporter: "I will try my case in the courts and not in the newspapers.”

In May 1926 Kelsey Morrison confessed to the murder of Anna Brown and received a life sentence. Byron Burkhart, Anna's boyfriend,  testified for the prosecution and served no time for her murder. In June 1926, Ernest Burkhart received a life sentence for the murders of Rita Smith, W.E. Smith and Nettie Brookshire.

But convicting William Hale was no easy task. From his jail cell in Guthrie, OK, Hale tried to bribe, intimidate or murder government witnesses. He was never tried for the murders of the Kyle family, only for the murder of Lizzie's nephew, Henry Roan. It took three years and four trials to convict him. In January 1929, Hale received a life sentence for the murder of Henry Roan. In November 1929, John Ramsey, the trigger man, received a life sentence for the Roan murder.

The sole surviving member of the Kyle family, Mollie Kyle Burkhart, recovered from being poisoned and divorced Ernest Burkhart. When she died in 1937, her children with Burkhart inherited what remained of the Kyle family fortune.

In 1931, Kelsey Morrison was paroled from prison, but he died in a shootout with Fairfax police in 1937. Ernest Burkhart was paroled in 1937. In 1941 he was jailed for theft, but paroled in August 1946. Despite the protests of Osage Indian tribe members, he received a full pardon in 1966 from Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon for his part in the murders of Rita Smith, W.E. Smith and Nettie Brookshire. In November 1947, John Ramsey, the triggerman in the Roan murder, was paroled from Leavenworth.

In July 1947, William Hale, the ruthless man who had orchestrated the murder of many Osage Indians and several of his accomplices, was paroled from federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He moved to Montana and eventually to Arizona where he died in 1962, reportedly at the age of 87.

Please leave a comment! I'd love to hear what you think about this complex case.


The Osage Murders: Oil Wealth, Betrayal, and the FBI's First Big Case. http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2011/03/the-osage-murders-oil-wealth-betrayal-and-the-fbis-first-big-case.html

Greed, collusion lead to Osage Murders http://newsok.com/ndepth-greed-collusion-lead-to-osage-murders/article/3921909

FBI-A Byte Out of History-Murder in the Osage Hills http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2005/january/osage_012605

Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes, part 3, Volume


Osage Murders, Jon D. May, Oklahoma Historical Society.


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posted by SUSAN FLEET   November 05, 2014 3:38 PM  Serial Killers 


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