Murder and Mayhem in the Osage Hills

FBI file image
Hale-Ramsey murder case from the Oklahoman Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society Photo Archives. Wikimedia Commons

The investigation of the brutal Osage Indian murders which occurred in the early twentieth century was one of the most complicated and difficult investigations ever conducted by the FBI. Just prior to initiation of the FBI's investigation, nearly two dozen Osage Indians died under suspicious circumstances. The entire Osage Indian tribe, as well as other non-Indian citizens of Osage County, Oklahoma, were horror-stricken and in fear for their lives.

In May 1921, the badly decomposed body of Anna Brown, an Osage Native American, was found in a remote ravine in northern Oklahoma. The undertaker later discovered a bullet hole in the back of her head. Anna had no known enemies, and the case went unsolved.

That might have been the end of it, but just two months later, Anna's mother Lizzie Q suspiciously died. Two years later, her cousin Henry Roan was shot to death. Then, in March 1923, Anna's sister and brother-in-law, William and Rita Smith, were killed when their home was bombed.

One by one, at least two dozen people in the area inexplicably turned up dead. Not just Osage Indians, but a well-known oilman and others.

What Did They All Have In Common?

That's what the terrorized community wanted to find out. But a slew of private detectives and other investigators turned up nothing (and some were deliberately trying to sidetrack honest efforts). The Osage Tribal Council turned to the federal government, and Bureau agents were detailed to the case.

Fingers Point to the King of Osage Hills

Early on, all fingers pointed at William Hale, the so-called "King of the Osage Hills." A local cattleman, Hale had bribed, intimidated, lied, and stolen his way to wealth and power. He grew even greedier in the late 1800s when oil was discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation. Almost overnight, the Osage became incredibly wealthy, earning royalties from oil sales through their federally mandated "head rights."

A Clear Case of Greed

Hale's connection to Anna Brown's family was clear. His weak-willed nephew, Ernest Burkhart, was married to Anna's sister, Mollie. If Anna, her mother, and two sisters died all of the "head rights" would pass to the nephew and Hale could take control. The prize? Half a million dollars a year or more.

False Leads Hamper Investigation

Solving the case was another matter. The locals weren't talking. Hale had threatened or paid off many of them and the rest had grown distrustful of outsiders. Hale also planted false leads that sent FBI agents scurrying across the southwest.

So four of the agents got creative. They went undercover as an insurance salesman, cattle buyer, oil prospector, and herbal doctor to turn up evidence. Over time, they gained the trust of the Osage and built a case.

FBI Makes Progress

Investigators revealed that on the night of her murder, Anna had been plied with alcohol by Kelsey Morrison, Morrison's wife and Bryan Burkhart. They drove by the ranch house of William K. Hale who gave Morrison a .32 caliber automatic pistol to kill Anna. From Hale's house the group drove to within a few hundred feet of where Anna's body was later found, and while Bryan Burkhart held the intoxicated Anna, Morrison shot her in the back of the head. Morrison later confessed that Hale told him to murder Anna and testified as such during Hale's trial.

The FBI also learned that Hale had hired John Ramsey, a 50-year-old bootlegger, to murder Henry Roan. Hale bought Ramsey a $500 Ford car prior to the Roan murder as part payment for the deed and paid him $1000 in case after the murder had been committed.

Ramsey befriended Roan and the two drank whiskey together on several occasions. On January 26, 1923 Ramsey persuaded Roan to drive to the bottom of a canyon. Here he shot Roan through the back of the head with a .45 caliber pistol. Hale later expressed anger that Ramsey failed to make Roan's death look like a suicide. Ramsey later confessed to the murder.

Hale hired John Ramsey and Asa Kirby to murder the Smith family. Under instructions from his uncle, Earnest Burkhart pointed out the Smith's house to the two hit men.

After the Smiths murder, Hale became afraid that Kirby would talk about Hale's connection to the murder plot. He convinced Kirby to rob a grocery store where he would allegedly find valuable gems. The owner of the store was told of the exact hour the robbery was to take place. When Kirby broke into the store, he was hit with several shotgun blasts resulting in his death.

The Weak Link

Ernest Burkhart proved to be the weak link in the Hale organization and was the first to confess. John Ramsey also confessed after learning how much evidence had been complied about the Hale murder plots.

It was also discovered that Mollie Burkhart was dying from what was believed to be a slow poisoning. Once removed from the control of Burkhart and Hale she made an immediate recovery. At Mollie's death, Ernest would have acquired the entire fortune of the Lizzie Q family.

Case Closed

During Hale's trial many defense witnesses committed perjury and many of the prosecution's witnessess were intimated and threatened to silence. After four trials, William K. Hale and John Ramsey were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Ernest Burkhart received life imprisonment for his part in the murder of the Smith family. Kelsey Morrison was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Anna Brown. Bryan Burkhart turned state's evidence and was never convicted.

Historical Note

In June, 1906, the Federal Government enacted a law under which 2,229 members of the Osage tribe were to receive an equal number of shares known as head rights.

The Osage Indian Reservation consisted of a million and a half acres of Indian allotted land. An Osage Indian born after the passage of the law would inherit only his proportionate share of his ancestor's head rights. Oil was later discovered on the Osage reservation and overnight the Osage tribe became the wealthiest people per capita in the world.

More: The case files (all 3,274 pages of them) are available free of charge on the Freedom of Information Osage Indian Murders web page.

Source: FBI