In the 1920s, the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma became the richest people per capita in the world. This wealth was the result of massive oil deposits that had been discovered on their land. As would be expected, Osage living standards greatly improved in a short period of time. Many built large homes, bought expensive cars, and hired white people as servants. At the same time that their lives were improving, though, their reservation became one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The first body to be found was that of Anna Brown in 1921, an Osage woman who was found in a ravine, horribly decomposed, with a bullet wound to her head. Two more Osage would turn up dead under mysterious circumstances that year, one of whom was Anna Brown’s mother. By 1923, over 20 Osage or people who were trying to help them had been killed.
There was no doubt in the minds of the Osage that jealousy on the part of white people was fueling the murders. It also did not help matters that laws passed by Congress, ostensibly to help the Osage manage their newfound wealth, only compounded the problem. First, each person of half or more Osage ancestry had a guardian appointed who was supposed to help them manage their wealth. Second, no white person could become an owner of Osage mineral rights, except by inheritance. It wasn’t long before several white men married wealthy Osage women, including Mollie Burkhart, the sister of Anna Brown, and relative of several other victims.
Local law enforcement had proved less than helpful in hunting down the Osage killers, so tribal leaders asked the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) to help. This was to be the first major murder case undertaken by Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover appointed a former Texas Ranger and new agent named Tom White to the case.
White assembled an undercover team made up of frontier lawmen who posed under such professions as insurance agent and rancher. He also hired a Native American, which was unusual for the time. This team soon uncovered a massive criminal racket designed to defraud the Osage of their money and that primarily used the guardianship system to accomplish their goals.
Several people were eventually arrested for the murders, including Mollie Burkhart’s white husband, Ernest. What was more shocking than the killings themselves, however, was the huge attempted cover-up that prevented most of the accused from being convicted. Juries were paid off, morticians covered up true causes of death, and local authorities refused to do anything to see that justice was served.
Only three men- Ernest Burkhart, William Hale, and John Ramsey- were convicted for any of the murders, and even then they only received convictions for a fraction of the 60 murders that eventually took place. It is unknown how many other killers and accomplices escaped arrest and jail time. Even the three convicted murderers were paroled, despite the life sentences they received.
Today, only about 4,000 Osage still live on or near the reservation lands in Oklahoma. And their once great wealth was vastly diminished due to the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars during the time of the murders. Even the oil that was once so abundant under their lands has been largely depleted. Sadly, the Osage murders and the fates of their descendants is one of the great miscarriages of justice in American history.