What Is The Reign Of Terror?

Join Tess Maune in an overview of the Reign of Terror including details of what happened.

Tuesday, October 10th 2023, 10:25 pm

By: Tess Maune, News On 6


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Killers of the Flower Moon is set to hit movie theaters next week. The movie is based on the Osage murders and the real-life events of the Reign of Terror. 

“We survived a terrible history, a terrible time in history,” Kathryn Red Corn said. Red Corn is a former Osage Nation Museum Director. 

It's a story kept quiet for close to a century, a part of the Osage Nation's past that is still painful to talk about to this day. 

“It just wasn't talked about, ya know,” White Hair Memorial Program Director Tara Damron said. “For us, it's always gonna be more personal because those are our ancestors. Those are family members.” 

It is known as the “Reign of Terror,” the murders of Osage people for their money and land in the 1920s through a twisted plot of greed and betrayal. 

“I question every Osage death from that time period because there was so much conspiracy and collusion and dishonesty about how they died or why they did. It just doesn't make any sense,” Damron said. 

Close to 30 murders were solved, but Damron, a historian and director of the White Hair Memorial near Ralston, said most Osage deaths were never investigated and believes that number is much higher. 

“The Reign of Terror specific era is from 1920-1926, and of the original allottees, which Osages is 2,229, of the original allottees, there's over 200 people that died in that timeframe,” Damron said. 

The real-life crimes became a centerpiece for the best-selling book turned movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

It focuses on the life of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, who watched her three sisters and mother mysteriously die, leaving her with just her son, daughter, and husband, Ernest, along with the massive fortune that once belonged to her family. 

But investigators would eventually learn Ernest played a part in the murders in a crime spree orchestrated by his uncle, Bill Hale. 

“He's a cold-blooded monster, right?” Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said. 

Hale, the self-proclaimed "King of the Osage Hills,” was a cattle rancher originally from Texas who followed the money to Osage County. 

Investigators said Hale dominated his nephew and recruited Ernest to move to Oklahoma to marry an Osage woman. Hale's goal was to kill off Mollie and her family, maybe even Ernest, so the wealth would one day belong to Hale. 

“Osages I knew remember talking to him and considered him sort of a charmer. That's what I've heard about him. He's a con. He's a con, yeah. Murderer,” Standing Bear said. 

Principal Chief Standing Bear said Hale had the county fooled and pretended to be a friend of the Osage but only wanted their land and money and didn't care what it took to get it. 

He hired hitmen and paid off witnesses and lawmen to secure his spot in high society. 

“Couldn't rely on law enforcement, couldn't rely on lawyers or the courts or the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Standing Bear said. 

No one knows if Hale ever carried out a killing on his own, but he is suspected to be the mastermind behind at least a dozen deaths, including Henry Roan's. 

His murder brought federal investigators to town and ended with Hale in prison. Hale was sentenced to life but served only 18 years. 

“I remember when Bill Hale got out of prison,” Red Corn said. “I thought that he should have never been released from prison.” 

Red Corn is retired now but spent nearly 20 years as the director of the Osage Nation Museum. 

During her time there, she hung a panoramic picture of an Osage celebration. The original, she said, includes the “face of evil,” so she cut it out. 

“Bill Hale was on the end of it. We have smaller version in the back where you can look at it, but that decision was made not to include him in that panorama,” she said. “He was just an awful person.” 

Hale died a free man, along with every other person implicated in the Osage murders. 

“That's the thing about this story. There's really not a hero. There's really not,” Damron said. 

“We survived it. That's the important thing,” Red Corn said. 

The heroes are actually the Osage people, whose past is part of them but does not define them. 

“We're still here, ya know. We're still here as a people. And we have our culture. We have our language,” Damron said. “The future's hopeful...We as a people have to understand what happened to and not lose that, but we also... we have to continue fighting.”

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