Simanaitis Says

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THIS IS a tale of an Oklahoman who was entrusted with preserving environment and culture. Alas, he turned out to be conniving, deceitful, and, in time, murderous.

A memo to the Director of the Bureau of Investigation reported that this Oklahoman “seemingly could not be punished…. His method of building up power and prestige was to put various individuals under obligation to him by means of gifts and favors shown to them. Consequently he had a tremendous following in the vicinity composed not only of the riffraff element which had drifted in, but of many good and substantial citizens.”

It is not surprising if a person coming to mind is currently raping the environment while heading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No, today I’m describing an earlier Oklahoman: William Hale, King of the Osage Hills.

David Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, is reviewed in the October 5, 2017, issue of the London Review of Books.

The LRB article “Hell, yes,” by J. Robert Lennon, is summarized online. Its title comes from a Hale-concocted insurance scheme: “Bill, what are you going to do, kill this Indian?” Beneficiary Hale’s response: “Hell, yes.”

William King Hale, 1874–1962, American cattleman, Osage Indian Reservation boss, convicted murderer.

The sad tale of the Osage Nation is akin to other Native Americans, such as the Delawares ending up in Oklahoma as well. Lennon describes, “At one time, the Osage were powerful and widespread, with territory that extended deep into Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas.” Eventually, they were forced into what was considered a useless patch of Oklahoma, cited by Lennon as “broken, rocky, sterile and utterly unfit for cultivation.”

In the 1890s, even this reservation was carved into small allotments for each Osage, the rest opened up for white settlement. However, “The Osage managed to negotiate … ‘that the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands… are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe. ’ ”

By the 1920s, the Osage Nation grew rich on “headrights” to these resources. This in turn encouraged Hale. Notes Lennon, “A cattleman turned entrepreneur and dandy, he was a charming, pistol-packing schemer who had ingratiated himself with the Osage…. His nephew Ernest Burkhart was married to an Osage named Mollie, of whose riches he was guardian.”

Anna Brown, Mollie Burkhart’s sister; another holder of Osage headrights, murdered in 1921. Image from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Hale had Mollie’s sister Anna killed in 1921, with Anna’s headrights going to her mother Lizzie Q and Mollie. Subsequent deaths of Lizzie Q and several cousins left Mollie Burkhart, and thus, her husband Ernest, as heirs to headrights worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1921, several millions today.

Mollie fell ill and was later discovered to have been poisoned. She moved away, recovered, divorced Ernest, and left her kids a sizable estate. This turned out to be the only good part of a sordid tale.

The Osage Murders. Image by Rmosmittens from the Oklahoma Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society Photo Archives.

During all this time, Hale had been practicing his Osage insurance scam: Insure ‘em, have ‘em killed, and profit as the beneficiary. Another of his scams was to insure his pastureland and then have his cowhands torch the acreage.

Osage Native Americans, 1912. Image from the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Osage Tribal Council smelled a rat, but townspeople were bribed (or scared) not to testify. Ernest’s brother Byron agreed to squeal, then backed off, but ultimately did so. He avoided serving any time.

It took four trials, but in 1929 Hale was convicted in a Federal District Court of killing Anna’s cousin Henry Roan. Wikipedia says, “Hale had attempted to cash in a $25,000 [figure $350,000 in today’s dollars] insurance policy on Roan’s life only a week after the man’s death. Obligingly, Hale had also served as one of Roan’s pall bearers.”

According to The National Museum of the American Indian, “Meanwhile, even from his jail cell in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Hale tried to destroy the prosecution’s case by bribing, intimidating, and even murdering the government’s witnesses.” See also the Osage Indian Murders.

Hale was sentenced to life, but was paroled in 1947; he died in Arizona in 1962.

Ernest was also a lifer, but was released in 1959 and pardoned in 1966 by Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon.

The Osage Nation protested both of these paroles and the pardon. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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