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The environment of fear and crimes that made up the Reign of Terror

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The latest episode of Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles is in partnership with the Tulsa World to introduce the story of the Osage Reign of Terror and the upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon. In this episode, show producer Ambre Moton is joined by two writers from the Tulsa World, Randy Krehbiel and Tim Stanley, to discuss the motives for the murders and detail some of the crimes and the environment of fear that the Reign of Terror caused in the Osage community.

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Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Slack and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Welcome to Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles, a Lee Enterprises Podcast. I'm Ambre Moton, the producer and editor of the show, filling in for Nat Cardona who's taking some well-deserved time off. If you haven't listened to the last episode introducing our latest topic, The Osage Reign of Terror. Go check it out before listening to this one. 

Today, we're continuing our look at the series of suspicious deaths in the 1920s of members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the early 1900s.

Oil was found on the land that the Osage is had purchased, but the Tulsa World's Randy Krehbiel explains more.

The story is that for a long, long time, Indians had known that there were these oil seeps. You know, we're seeing oil would seep out of the ground and it'd be in springs and things like that. But through most of the 1800s, there wasn't really a lot of use for that. Well, they they actually they would use it for like rim remedies and things like that.

It was considered medicinal. And so, of course, it wasn't until the invention of things like kerosene lamps and the internal combustion engine that that oil became more valuable. And so the first the first commercial oil well in Oklahoma or what became Oklahoma, this was completed in 1897, just outside the Osage Reservation, just on the eastern edge of it.

And a couple of years later, the first well then was drilled in Oklahoma and about that time. And so this was around, you know, around 1900. And that was about the time we were starting to see motor vehicles and and again, kerosene was already pretty popular. People tend to forget that the first use of oil as as we think of it today, was actually kerosene and to use in lamps and things like that.

So anyway, that was in the early 1900s, around 1900. And by O 1905 or 1906, they knew they had, you know, quite a bit right around the time of World War One is when it really picked up from like about, you know, about the mid 19 teens through around 1929 was kind of the height of the oil boom.

And the Osage nation, the Osage is actually had relative little control over their own affairs. Almost all of that was handled by what now is the Bureau of Indian Affairs or or by the guardians that were appointed. You know, a lot of a lot of them had somebody who was appointed to handle their business affairs because they were not thought to be competent to handle their business affairs.

So a lot of that was out of their hands. And also, I think a lot of them, especially the older ones, probably didn't even really completely understand what was going on. But when they first moved there, they probably mainly wanted to just be left alone and and it pretty became pretty soon became apparent that they were not going to be able to do that.

When did the Osage reign of terror really begin?

There's not really a definite date. So the killers of the Flower Moon, basically the book follow the is a period from about 1921 to about 1929. But there were probably people dying as early as 1912, 1910 or something like that. And interestingly enough, I mean, similar type things were going on in the adjoining Muskogee Creek Nation. The Cherokees had some of that going on.

It was a different situation because with the Osage, as they all when they started, they all had equal share. So any Osage was worth, you know, some some sort of money from their head. Right. Whereas with the Muskogee and the Cherokees, their mineral rights were tied to their individual allotment. So if you were if you were a member, one of those tribes that had a particularly valuable allotment, you could be targeted.

And and so in some cases, you know, 19 six, 1907, 1908, there were people who were disappearing. Some of them turned up alive somewhere else. Some of them were never found. As far as the Osage, it really began to intensify. It seems like, you know, 19, probably around 1920. And that coincides with when the the the the the height of the boom.

So, you know, the boom was really taking off in the late teens, early twenties. By the late twenties, I'm sorry, the late teens, early twenties, it was pretty well subsiding by the late twenties.

A very quick reminder about the Osage as mineral rights, the original allotments of the mineral rights were divided into over 2200 shares, which were called head rates as people died, had babies, got married, etc. those rights began moving around and you had some people with multiple rights and some with fractional rights. Making things even more complicated was the ability to pass had rights to non-tribal areas.

I spoke with Randi's colleague, Tim Stanley about the series of crimes that earned the name the Osage reign of terror.

I am Tim Stanley, reporter here for the Tulsa World have been with the world for a little over 20 years, the reign of terror. I think that was a term that was probably coined maybe by a journalist. I'm not real sure of the origins of it, but I know it did appear in some of the newspapers of the time, but it was a reference to a series of murders that took place among Osage Nation tribal members in the early 1900s.

Specifically, I think they date them or officially to like 1921 to 26, that a five year span. Of course, as we as David Grant in his book has pointed out, and as we also did in our series, the the exact years that this took place and the true number of victims probably were probably talking about a much larger span than just that five years.

But the murders were, you know, committed by I mean, there was a conspiracy involved. But at the same time, there were a lot of people just individually taking the opportunity they saw to to cheat and exploit and white people taking the opportunity to cheat and exploit their Osage neighbors there in Osage County. But yeah, I just I mean, I think specifically the reign of terror and the word terror there refers to, you know, just how this atmosphere of dread and terror that that really materialized in Osage County.

Among the tribal citizens. Thereafter, I think the first three or four killings, I mean, when it kind of became obvious that that these were connected and that potentially anyone who was a member of the tribe could be next. So, yeah, it was I mean, as reported in the newspapers at the time and as David Grann and others have chronicled, it was a time of heightened fear.

You had many this was I mean, the electric light bulb in that at that time was still a relatively new innovation. But for a lot of the people, Osage tribal members living outside of the town of Pawhuska or some of the other towns, they lived in the countryside. And Grant describes this in his book that they began to put up electric lights on their properties at night in such a way that they just really are shown for miles around.

And they were doing that really out of fear, out of what might be out there in the darkness. Of course, as as we would come to find out, it was less the danger that was out there in the darkness. For many of these folks. It was less what was out there as opposed to what was was inside and close to them.

Many of the murders, as it turns out, were committed very sadly by people They trusted, people they knew, family members, close family members, spouses, people who who would then have access to their oil wealth, which was really the motive behind it all.

How many victims were there officially?

Officially, this is this is where it's interesting, the number that has been tossed around, you know, for years, even before the grand book was was 24. And where that.

Which is a lot in a nutshell.

That's definitely I mean, it should be eye opening, just as it is today. People know where that comes from. It's interesting, You know, the federal investigators at the time who investigated this case and ultimately, you know, brought charges that that number was one that they put out there. And I think their exact words were they believed that there were at least 24 victims.

So they were even, you know, in their language, I think, leaving it open for more. But the 24, you know, that's that's the number that has sort of been, you know, considered official. But, you know, the problem with it, as you know, as we as would as we found out and in our own reporting and as has been reported, you know, my grand you know, the T4, you know, is probably well shy, well short of what the true number was.

You know, the problem with the 24 is that and and it's given rise to so much speculation is in saying that there were at least 24 you know, federal investigators didn't give you give or provide a list of those 24. So all we've been able to do, you know, in retrospect, and that includes, you know, the tribal members who've looked into this, is sort of speculate at the top for themselves.

Now, some of them are obvious. Three homicides that ended up, you know, charges being brought in that were investigated as homicides. But then you had many others that were just the circumstances were probably suspicious, but they were never investigated as homicides. It's just it's really in other words, it's really hard to come up with a definitive list of the 24 that, you know, federal investigators, you know, thought were were victims here.

You know, you'll find lists out there where people speculate on who they might have been. And between those lists, some names or certainly they have in common. But yeah, they didn't they didn't do us any favors when they put that number out there all those years ago and then didn't bother to elaborate on on who that might be.

All of them outside of the ones in their specific cases. I think the best thing you can say about it is it's more of a starting point. I mean, it's it's a number that was put out there by the people who investigated it. So it's worth considering. But the problem is we don't even know who the 424 were.

And and we now have reason to believe that there were many more in addition to that, that was never made the list. So. So that's that's where the number comes from. And just a little background on it.

I guess, unofficially, members of the Osage tribe, do they have another estimate for victims?

And when we had a chance to sit down with some of the tribal officials and we talked to the chief Standing bear. Chief for Standing Bear, the principal chief. He said, you know, once there was a time many, many years ago, several decades, when when they were sort of informally talking about this just amongst themselves. And again, very informal, he said.

But the number they came up with was I would have put it at well over a hundred killed for their oil wealth during that time span and that it would have been roughly 5% of the tribe's then population, which is pretty eye opening. And he said, you know, even then there were other some of the older members of the tribe who maybe had, you know, who were around even back at the time, who thought that estimate was too low.

So, you know, so the tribe unofficially, based on that very informal internal investigation, you know, suggested or proposed well over 100, I mean, 100 compared to 24. So we're talking a death toll, you know, really far exceeding that original estimate. But as you know, Chief Standing Bear pointed out to us, there's just nothing there's no way to do anything with that.

There's no way to to, you know, make it any more official than just that. It's pure speculation because that's all you can do, really. A hundred years removed from the events when the when the when the deaths were not necessarily investigated as homicides and when when all you've got or family stories or family suspicions. I mean, that's all you can do is speculate.

I mean, it's nothing wrong with that. Speculation can be a good thing. And in this case, I think it is a good thing. But as he would say and remember, it is speculation. It's just it's something we can never know, unfortunately.

The way people were killed, it wasn't the same. It wasn't everyone was shot or whatever.

No, that would have that sure to have made it a lot easier. Right. From a from an investigative standpoint. But no, you could probably put them into categories. And that's, you know, the ones that were obviously violent and there were many shootings. There was a you know, as it's going to be vividly, I think, portrayed in the movie, there was a house that was dynamited and blown up.

Three people killed in it. So those I mean, obviously, you know, those didn't take Sherlock Holmes to to know that you were dealing with homicides. But there were a lot of others, you know, that were just very quiet and just where the, you know, the homicide, if, in fact, that's what it was, just just wasn't obvious and would have taken some serious investigation and in most cases was not done.

And in the article that you wrote about how the total number of victims, you know, we may or we will never know the total number of victims compared to what's officially on record. You talked about a few specific or wrote about a few specific stories. Is there anything about those that you'd want to share on the podcast?

You know, it's difficult, you know, a hundred years removed to find people who can talk about it or family members that still remember. I you know, we I guess, you know, centrally or especially important to our story was, you know, an interview we did with former Osage principal chief Jim Gray, who is the great grandson of one of the one of the pivotal, pivotal figures, you know, in the whole story.

And that was Henry Roan, who was one of the victims and who was a victim who ultimately it was his his slaying that that Hale and the others held accountable were charged for Henry, you know, ended up being a pivotal figure in the story. He was he was murdered, found, you know, shot in the head. He was one of the early murders.

He was a he wasn't the first, but it was his that I think, as we mentioned, really, really sort of triggered the terror as we called it at that point, that people could really connect the dots and see that that somebody was out to get these tribal members. But yeah, I think the interview with with former Chief Gray about his his great grandfather was was critical to our story because, number one, I mean, Henry is is so important to the overall story but also just the insights that that Jim Gray could give a contextual understanding of the other forces at work in Henry's life and in helping or making him who he was at that point in his life. But yeah, I mean, he never you know, Jim Gray never had a chance to know his great grandfather. He just knew him through things that his mother would tell him about Henry, who was her grandfather. You know, we went to one of the interviews we did was with the former executive director of the Osage History Museum in Pawhuska, which is a sort of a repository there of a lot of tribal history and artifacts.

So a wonderful place if you ever get a chance to go. But the former executive director of that is the lady still lives in that era area named Katherine Red Corn. She talked to us. She she was interviewed by David Grann for his book Killers of the Flower Moon and in it as as in our interview, you know, she talks about an exhibit that they did and there that really sort of, I think from David Grann's own recollections, really sort of launched him on this mission to write this book.

And that was an exhibit of of photos from tribal members from the early 1900s, many of whom would have been caught up in this in the reign of terror when they first put this exhibit together. I think Grann came in later and he saw it and was moved by it. But the reason I mean, we want to talk to Katherine about that, because that was pivotal.

But she has a family story that I think illustrates what a what a lot of a large number of families have been left to live with as far as questions about a relative's demise and not being able to know for sure whether it was connected. She she told us about, you know, her grandfather, a man named Raymond Red Corn, who died.

And this is important. He died in 1931 of suspicious circumstances. And the reason that's important is that if he died in 1931 and his his death is connected to the reign of terror, well, that's you know, the official span was 1921 to 1926 that these killings took place. So if if his death was connected, it shows that they spanned not only farther than that, but end of the next decade.

And, you know, we want to be careful with this because, as she said, you know, we really don't know anything for sure. But there there there's always been suspicions surrounding her grandfather's death and that he apparently, based on what things that he said at the time that were that have been passed on, he believed that his his wife at the time, in 1931, I believe, would have been his second wife was actually poisoning him.

And he from what Catherine and others told us, you know, if you went over to his house during that time period, he would advise you, don't eat anything while you're here. Don't drink anything. You know, he clearly believes something was going on. And then and then what do you know? One day he dies and now he had had a protracted illness.

He had been growing weaker. Well, the only thing we can say, you know, and it really is circumstantial, you know, case. But, you know, the the evidence does seem to fit the patterns of of other what we might call other poisonings. And one thing that makes this so difficult is, is some of these killings were were it was very obvious that they were homicides that you because they were violent.

I mean, like with Henry who was shot in the head, I mean, there was no denying it. But with many, many others that that people in retrospect now, we believe, were suspicious. I mean, the cause was just not so obvious. And this was an era when when poisonings were very common, a lot of murders by poison. And depending on, you know, what the substance was and how it was administered, it could be very hard to detect.

Now, they could, you know, if they did an autopsy and they did a what we now call a toxic toxicological do talks on it, they could determine that poison was present. They did have that. They did have that capacity. Then, however, you know, if if there was no obvious reason to do it and and you also were dealing with potentially corrupt authorities who were not inclined to look too closely, a lot of these a lot of these deaths were never investigated.

We have to take a quick break. So don't go too far.

The reign of terror did just that, created an atmosphere of fear in the Osage community. Fear of violence and fear that authorities weren't going to help, even if someone were to speak up. Randy explained how this fear impacted the investigations.

The earliest? Well, it was called the Reign of Terror because people just lived in terror. They were afraid to to talk. And when the FBI came in there in 1923 to try and sort things out in their in their letters and reports and so forth, from that time, you know, they talk about how people are just terrified to talk and and they would not talk to outsiders at all.

And in fact, is as is been talked about a lot with with this book and movie. They wound up putting some some men undercover to try and insinuate themselves into the community so they could get information. And because people were afraid if they if they told what they knew or what they thought and they were honest about it, they they'd be killed.

And and this and this was true of a lot of other people in And, you know, I think Molly Burkhart, at one time, she told her priest that she was afraid. People just, you know, people, people who were not part of the and even some of them who were part of the these these organizations that were that were doing these things were afraid to talk about it.

And sometimes they were afraid to talk about it because they were involved, too. You know, but but they often they were afraid to talk about it because of repercussions against themselves. And, you know, so again, you'd have people just go missing their bodies, you know, that that would turn out you know, they'd find them out in the in the oil field or or in a ravine or or you'd have one thing that happened a lot was was unexplained deaths.

People would, you know, quote, get sick and die. And that happened with Molly Burkhart mother. And and at least and in one of her, at least one of her sisters, where they, uh, they called it like mysterious wasting disease and things like they didn't really have a name for it. And the FBI suspected the local doctor was in on it, that he that he knew what was going on.

And he was, you know, making it worse or at least reporting it.

Maybe taking kickbacks from the perpetrators.

Well, yes, exactly.

Some people some of these folks suffered from diabetes and they weren't being. Now, treating diabetes, I think in those days was probably a lot more difficult anyway. But they were not like, we're not helping it anyway. Mm hmm. And it you know, it was just.

It... Was it was a time when you just had to, you know, be careful about every little thing you did and said.

And this is where we wrap things up today. Thanks for listening to Late Edition, Crime Beat Chronicles. Hit that subscribe button so you don't miss. Our next episode will pick up with the investigation and who was held responsible- or not- for the murders during the Osage reign of terror.

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