An Unsolved Murder? The Osage Oil Conspiracy

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Were the Osage oil murders ever truly solved? Are there still unsolved murder cases in Osage?

The Osage open murder cases were officially closed with the conviction of William Hale and others in 1926. But Osage community members argue that Hale and his group weren’t the only perpetrators, and many of the deaths remain cases of unsolved murder.

A Closed Case?

Although the Reign of Terror took place nearly a century ago, its memory haunts the Osage today. A great-grandson of the slaughtered Henry Roan told David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, that the murders are always in the back of his mind, especially knowing how personally connected he was to all of it.

In his archival research and interviews with descendants of victims of the Reign of Terror, Grann made a shocking discovery—Hale and his gang were not the sole perpetrators of the murderous conspiracy. Although the Bureau had declared the case to be closed when Hale, Burkhart, Morrison, and Ramsey were convicted, many more people had taken part in the slaughter. Not all of the murders could be linked to Hale—and for all of the unsolved murder cases, justice had never been done for these victims. 

The Osage with whom the author spoke told him that there were many unsolved murder cases from the Reign of Terror that were never counted among the totals and never properly investigated by the Bureau. As he pored over the archival record, Grann discovered the stories of Osage who had been murdered before the Reign of Terror’s conventional start date of 1921. One Osage woman, Mary Lewis, had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer by two white men and her body left to rot in a swamp. This heinous crime had occurred in 1918, three years before Anna Brown was found in the ravine, and remains an unsolved murder. The Burkhart-Hale saga may have been the bloodiest episode of the Reign of Terror, but it was just one thread in a vast web of murder and mayhem.

Grann made contact with Martha Vaughan, a granddaughter of W.W. Vaughan, the attorney and confidante of George Bigheart who had been mysteriously strangled and thrown from a train after he’d publicly declared his intention to intervene on behalf of the Osage in 1923. Vaughan had been Bigheart’s attorney and was helping him obtain a certificate of competence, which would have entitled Bigheart to freely spend his headright money instead of having it frozen in a guardianship. Yet a few days after Bigheart had conferred with Vaughan, both men were dead, another unsolved murder.

Martha believed that there was more to the murder than Hale simply wanting to eliminate someone he perceived as a threat. She said that a relative who had tried to investigate Vaughan’s death after Hale’s incarceration had received an anonymous letter threatening to kill the entire family if he looked into the matter any further. Whatever the conspiracy was, it went beyond Hale, and many open murder cases remain.

Martha also revealed that a shadowy and unscrupulous figure named H.G. Burt had embezzled Vaughan’s estate after his death. When Grann dug further, he discovered that Burt had been deeply involved in the “Indian business,” borrowing money on the cheap from whites before loaning it back out to Osage at usurious interest rates. In reality, he was little more than a loan shark. Agents of the Bureau had identified Burt as an associate of Hale during the original investigation, but never brought charges against him. He was not charged with any of the closed or open murder cases.

As it turned out, Burt had been named guardian of Bigheart’s daughter’s headright (as he had been for many other Osage) and would have been in a position to greatly profit from Bigheart’s death. Moreover, a news article at the time of Vaughan’s murder from the Pawhuska Daily Capital revealed that Burt had been a passenger on the very same train from which Vaughan was thrown. It may have been circumstantial, but the evidence in the historical record of Burt’s guilt was overwhelming—and he was merely one of the countless white Oklahomans of the time who stood to gain handsomely from the bloody “Indian business,” leading to yet another unsolved murder.

The True Toll

The archival records showed a seemingly endless series of Osage wards who died under mysterious circumstances during this era, many of which are still open murder cases. Because these cases were never investigated by local authorities, private investigators, or even the Bureau of Investigation, it was impossible to determine conclusively whether or not these individuals had been murdered. But their frequency and shared characteristics strongly hinted at a conspiracy. 

Many deaths that looked innocuous were anything but. One Bureau agent wrote in the case files that white perpetrators would get an Osage drunk and take them to a doctor (like the Shoun brothers) who would declare them intoxicated. Poison would then be injected into the victim, after which the doctor would pronounce them dead of alcohol poisoning. Many scholars now believe that the official death count of 24 for the Reign of Terror is tragically off the mark, and that the true figure is in the hundreds.

One scholar has tabulated the Osage annual death rate from 1907-1923 to be 19 per 1,000, based on the possibility of a high number of unsolved murder cases. The comparable rate for whites during this period was 12 per 1,000: Osage were dying at more than 1.5 times the rate of white people. And this was all despite the vast wealth of the tribe, which, all other things being equal, should have made their death rates lower than those of white people. Another scholar has noted how many Osage from the era died in childhood, a chilling sign of the moral depravity of the killers.

So many prominent members of the white community had blood on their hands—business leaders like Hale; doctors like the Shoun brothers; merchants like Scott Mathis, owner of the Big Hill Trading Company and guardian of Anna Brown’s estate; bankers like H.G. Burt; not to mention attorneys, politicians, law enforcement officials, and judges, all of whom had a role in the unsolved murders.

The Osage community has managed to persevere—the tribe now operates several casinos that generate tens of millions of dollars annually and, in 2011, received a $380 settlement from the U.S government in compensation for the decades of fraud and abuse. The Osage Nation has its own tribal government within the state of Oklahoma and operates its own health, education, and welfare programs. And although the oil money is mostly gone, the old fear that the white man’s money would erase their identity has happily not come to pass, and the tribe proudly maintains its cultural heritage.

But the past can never be erased and the pain never forgotten. The fields and prairies of Osage County are forever soaked in blood.

The unsolved murders of the Osage tribe continue to haunt the community to this day. Though some felt justice was served with William Hale’s arrest and conviction, the open murder cases meant many more remained certain that other killers walked free, and their people were still in danger.

An Unsolved Murder? The Osage Oil Conspiracy

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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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