The Murder of Rita Smith: An Osage Family’s Tragedy

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Who was Rita Smith? What was her role in the Osage murder conspiracy?

Rita Smith, along with her husband Bill, was murdered in an explosion during the plot by Rita’s brother-in-law and others to steal the family’s money. Read more about Rita Smith and the conspiracy.

The Family of Rita Smith

The five-year-long Reign of Terror began in May 1921 with the discovery of the body of a murdered Osage woman named Anna Brown. Anna had been married to a white man, as were her sisters, Mollie Burkhart and Rita Smith.

By July 1921, the local authorities wrapped up the investigation, concluding that Anna was murdered by “parties unknown.” They had surrendered the quest for justice for Anna. And that same month, another tragedy befell Mollie Brown when her mother, Lizzie, died from her wasting illness, so similar to how Minnie had died a few years before—and to how many other healthy Osage seemed to have died of unexplained wasting sicknesses in recent months.

Bill Smith, a white man and the husband of Mollie’s sister, Rita, found the circumstances of Lizzie’s death to be highly suspicious. He began to believe that she and other Osage had been deliberately poisoned, and that her death was linked to those of Anna Brown and Charles Whitehorn.

He and his wife Rita, Mollie’s sister, began to receive threats and intimidating “warnings” as Bill appeared to get closer to the truth, especially after he discovered a connection between Roan’s murder and local criminal kingpin and bootlegger Henry Grammer. It seemed that that Roan had told people he was headed to Grammer’s ranch to get some illegal whiskey right before he disappeared—and that Anna Burkhart had often visited Grammer’s ranch as well. Bill and Rita Smith fled their home in early 1923, believing that they were being targeted. Bill confided to his friends that he “didn’t expect to live long.”

The Explosion at the Smith House

On March 10, 1923, the house that Bill and Rita Smith had moved into exploded in a thunderous blast, just before three o’clock in the morning. Neighbors heard the explosion for miles around, with the force of the blast blowing out windows in the neighboring town of Fairfax. Nothing remained of the house but twisted metal and burnt furniture.

A party of searchers, including Ernest Burkhart, arrived on the scene and found Bill Smith, burnt nearly beyond recognition. Rita Smith’s mangled and charred remains were pulled from the rubble. The body of their young servant, Nettie Brookshire, was never found—most likely, her body entirely melted away in the blast, leaving no remains.

Bill recovered consciousness two days later, in unbearable physical agony and emotional despair upon learning of his wife’s death. The doctor David Shoun, one of the two brothers who had presided over the autopsy of Anna Brown, claimed that Bill revealed no details of what he knew about the explosion or the murders that had preceded it before his death on March 14.

By July 1925, Tom White, FBI agent, began to think Bryan Burkhart, brother of Ernest Burkhart (Mollie’s husband) and brother-in-law to Mollie and Rita, was the most likely perpetrator of Anna’s murder. He was the last person to have seen her alive when he dropped her off back home the evening she disappeared. Tom believed this, even though Bryan’s alibi was well-corroborated by people who claimed to have been in his company at the time of the killing, including his brother Ernest and his uncle, William Hale.

As he studied the probate records, Tom discovered that many headrights had come into the possession of Mollie Burkhart, married to Ernest Burkhart, nephew of William Hale. Ernest was known to be highly influenced by his domineering uncle. When all of this money came to Mollie, it would be easy for Hale to exercise control of it through his nephew—though it would be even easier if Mollie were to be killed, too.

Linking the Conspiracy

This explained the precise pattern and order of deaths in Mollie’s family. The divorced and childless Anna had been the first to be eliminated, with her headright going to her mother Lizzie. Killing Anna first ensured that her assets would not be divided up between multiple heirs. Lizzie herself was the next target, having willed her headrights to Mollie and Rita, her surviving daughters.

This also explained why the next victims, Bill and Rita Smith, had died in a bombing attack, which was an unusual method of killing. In fact, the Smith murders were done this way because it was critical that the two died at the same time. If only Rita had died, her headrights would have gone to her husband Bill Smith. But because the couple died mere days apart, Rita’s headright reverted to her only surviving heir—Mollie. It all began to make sense as the outlines of the murderous plot became clear to Tom White. By conspiring to have all the members of Mollie’s family killed, Hale was maneuvering to have all their headrights bequeathed to her. Once Mollie herself was murdered, the oil wealth would be his to exploit.

Fortunately, White had also worked with the Oklahoma state attorney general to draft murder charges on the Smith bombing for use in state court, in the event that the federal government was found to be lacking jurisdiction. Hale and Ramsey were immediately re-arrested and put on trial for the murder of Bill and Rita Smith. Still, the trial would now be held in Hale’s domain of Osage County, presenting the prosecution with a steep uphill battle. The government assembled an all-star legal team for the prosecution, while Hale hired his own team of high-powered attorneys, which he was confident would help him defeat the charges.

Eventually, William Hale and Ernest Burkhart were convicted of murder. The murders of Rita Smith and her husband Bill were a constant source of pain for Rita’s surviving sister, Mollie.

The Murder of Rita Smith: An Osage Family’s Tragedy

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of David Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Killers of the Flower Moon summary :

  • How the Osage tribe had vast oil wealth, but had it seized by their murderous neighbors
  • The brutal and unresolved murders of Osage Native Americans
  • The complicated history of the FBI in profiting from the Osage murders

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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