Last Updated on August 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
The trial of Bill Hale and John Ramsey for the murder of Henry Roan began in late July of 1926. Hale was still busy trying to buy off witnesses and corrupt the jury. He even wanted Blackie Thompson to kill Ernest Burkhart. There was also the issue of whether or not a jury of twelve white men would convict two other white men of killing an Indian.
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Ernest Burkhart testified as he had promised, explaining that Hale wanted Ramsey to make Roan's death look like a suicide. Hale denied everything. The jury failed to reach a verdict. Bryan Burkhart's trial also resulted in a hung jury. White asked the Justice Department for an investigation, which revealed significant corruption and the obstruction of justice on the part of the defense.
The case of Hale and Ramsey was retried with even more care to “safeguard the jury.” This time, the defense briefly questioned Mollie, bringing out the fact that Henry Roan was once her husband. Finally, the jury delivered a guilty verdict, but it refrained from issuing the death penalty, instead recommending life in prison for both Hale and Ramsey.
At his trial for Anna Brown’s murder, Kelsie Morrison again denied his involvement. Bryan Burkhart related the gruesome details of Anna’s death and his feigned grief. Mollie listened; she could no longer deny the role of her husband and brother-in-law in these crimes, and she would soon divorce Ernest.
- Edgar Hoover celebrated the Bureau’s triumph in the convictions in the Osage murder cases, making sure that reporters got the story just right. Hoover failed to give White and his team the public recognition they deserved, but the Osage Tribal Council did. White soon left the Bureau to take a job as the warden at the prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Shortly later, Hale and Ramsey both arrived at Leavenworth.
At Leavenworth, Tom White encountered many familiar faces as he settled his family into a home on the prison grounds. White worked hard to improve prison life, and he was both fair and courageous, quelling a prison riot and prohibiting the abuse of inmates. He also tried to give prisoners hope that they could change their lives for the better. Yet White also had to oversee an execution.
Bill Hale spent his prison days mostly working on the prison farm. White treated Hale just like every other prisoner and was courteous toward Hale’s family. Hale never admitted his guilt nor showed any remorse, and a prison psychologist identified “extremely vicious components” in Hale’s character. Hale continued to portray himself as “an American pioneer” even as he tried to bribe the appeals court and plot his release from prison.
Mollie Burkhart began to resume a relatively normal life. She divorced Ernest and in 1928 married John Cobb. Mollie also attained her “competency” and was released from the guardian system.
In 1931, Tom White was seriously injured during a prison break. He was kidnapped by the escapees yet managed to save the lives of two young people at a farmhouse the prisoners entered. White was shot and left for dead, but he survived even though his left arm was rendered useless. White moved to a less intense job at La Tuna prison in Texas, but first he ordered that the escapees who survived should not face retaliation at Leavenworth.
- Edgar Hoover used the Osage murders investigation as a means of boosting the Bureau’s reputation. As the Bureau grew, it was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover became the face of the FBI, even as men like Tom White’s brother Doc solved major cases. White kept in touch with Hoover over the years, but Hoover barely acknowledged him.
Movies about the FBI occasionally mentioned the Osage case, yet White felt that this was not enough to keep the memories of the victims or his agents alive. With the help of author Fred Grove, he prepared a manuscript about the case, but it was never published. White died in 1971.
The narrative now shifts to the 2010s. The regions where the Osage murders took place have been largely abandoned or at least diminished in population, because the oil boom has long since passed. The Osage nation, however, still exists and is geographically scattered yet united.
David Grann himself now enters as a character in his own story. He had been researching the Osage murders, and in 2012, he traveled to Pawhuska and met with Kathryn Red Corn at the Osage Nation Museum. Kathryn showed him pictures, including images of the murder victims, and noted how Bill Hale had been cut out of one image. She also told how Anna Brown’s skull had finally been buried with honor. The pain of what has become known as the Reign of Terror “never goes away,” she remarked.
Grann also attended the Osage ceremonial dances, where he met Mollie and Ernest’s granddaughter, Margie Burkhart, the daughter of James “Cowboy” Burkhart. Margie gave Grann many details about the Burkhart family. Mollie died in 1937. Ernest was paroled the same year but ended up back in prison for robbery. Hale, too, was released on parole and died in 1962. Ernest was again paroled and eventually pardoned. Margie had met Ernest, and she recalled how difficult the whole situation was for her father and aunt, Elizabeth. Cowboy occasionally visited his father before Ernest died in 1986.
Margie also took Grann on a drive to survey the area, pointing out the cemetery where Mollie and her family were buried, the site of Anna’s murder, and the location of the Smith home. Margie noted that the Reign of Terror has always been in the “back of our minds,” making it difficult for Osage descendants to trust anyone. Margie also noted that Mollie and her children were supposed to be at the Smith house the night of the explosion; only Cowboy’s earache kept them at home.
As Grann dug more deeply into the Osage murders, he came to see what many people at the time missed, including gaps in the investigation. After Hale was convicted, the cases were closed, but many also remained unsolved, including those of McBride and Vaughan.
Grann met with Vaughan’s grandchildren. The family had done some investigation over the years, trying to figure out the reasons and perpetrators behind Vaughan’s death and the family’s consequent poverty. Relatives had been threatened, though, and older generations remained frightened. Grann discovered that the corrupt Pawhuska bank president H. G. Burt, a friend of both Vaughan and Hale, was likely the culprit.
In this section of the narrative, Grann brings the story of the Osage murders to its climax and then begins to resolve it. The climax occurs in chapter 20 in the trial and conviction of Bill Hale. Tension builds as the first trial resulted in a hung jury, and readers may wonder if a jury would ever convict Hale, despite the clear evidence against him. Another hung jury in Bryan Burkhart’s trial increases the tension even further.
A government investigation into the first Hale trial unsurprisingly revealed significant corruption including perjury, threats, and bribery. This information continues to raise doubts that the efforts of the justice system would actually bring justice for the victims and their families. As the new trial approached, White’s agents were brought in to make sure the jury members remained safe.
Grann shares only a few details about the new trial, but he chooses ones that continue to heighten tension, as with Mollie’s testimony. Finally, the guilty verdict was read, and herein lies the climax of the entire narrative. Hale was finally found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was shocked, for he had thought that no one would ever convict him.
Grann then begins to resolve the narrative, and he does so as thoroughly as possible, bringing the lives of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart to a satisfactory conclusion through the eyes of their granddaughter, describing how Tom White remained a moral force until the end of his career and his life, and relating how Hale died in obscurity and without remorse.