A crowd of several hundred men was gathered in front of the courthouse. There were no hoods or white robes, no fiery crosses ablaze on the lawn. Yet everyone knew who they were and their reputation for brutish violence. They were Klansmen.
Their purpose on that bright April morning was to intimidate the grand jury. A recent Klan flogging was the latest in a rash of atrocities across the state. The incident was particularly brutal, leaving a Negro farmer near death, and the governor had finally declared war on the secret brotherhood. Through the attorney general, he had ordered a grand jury impaneled at the Okmulgee courthouse and demanded indictments against known Klan leaders.
Okmulgee was some ninety miles east of Oklahoma City, the state capital. The rumor was out that Governor Martin Trapp intended to appear before the grand jury and deliver his demands in person. Whether true or not, the mere suggestion had brought out the Klan in force, and they began assembling early that morning. There was rumor as well that Klan leaders meant to make a stand, to block the governor from entering the courthouse, to show him who ruled Okmulgee County. A sense of impending violence hung in the air.
Frank Gordon stood near the front of the crowd. He wore bib overalls, a faded denim shirt, and a crushed fedora covered with dust. Ganged around him were five men, similarly dressed as hardscrabble farmers, their eyes alert and watchful. All of them were armed, pistols secreted in their overalls, and they carried badges identifying them as agents of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. Their mission today was to arrest Cullen Horner, a ranking official of the Klan. They waited for Gordon to make the first move.
The operation was meant to strike a blow at the Klan. A mood of isolationism had swept over the country after the World War and with it a resurgence of bigotry. Just three years ago, during the Great Red Scare, some seven thousand suspected Bolshevists had been jailed without warrant, and many deported without judicial process. A year later Congress enacted a bill to protect the racial purity of America.
The immigration of Europeans was limited severely, and banned altogether for Asians. This hotbed of jingoism, fueled by evangelical preachers, provided a fertile climate for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. In keeping with antics of the Roaring Twenties, the KKK flaunted itself with bold provocation. Yet for all its bizarre regalia and absurd rituals, the movement expanded rapidly across America. By 1923, the membership was estimated at five million, with one hundred thousand members in Oklahoma alone. The political apparatus of at least seven states was dominated by the Klan.
Oklahoma had thus far kept the State House free from entanglement. But the Klansmen controlled many rural areas, justifying their methods with a call to patriotism. Okmulgee was one among many such towns, where the Klan was the bastard child of weak law enforcement and law-abiding citizens fearful to speak out. By appearing personally, Governor Trapp would demonstrate that neither he nor Oklahoma could be intimidated by hooded thugs. That would be the message he delivered to the grand jury.
Frank Gordon planned to underscore that message. A Special Agent with ten years’ service, he normally worked out of the Dallas office. But he’d been temporarily assigned to the Oklahoma City office by Director Forrest Holbrook, head of the Bureau. Over the years he had been placed in charge of several undercover operations, most notably a case involving Mexican terrorists and German spies on the Rio Grande. His experience made him the logical choice to investigate the Klan.
For the past three months, Gordon had operated an undercover ring in Oklahoma. There were five agents under his supervision, and they had managed to infiltrate the Klan in several counties across the state. The target was Cullen Horner, trusted lieutenant for the Grand Dragon of the Midwestern region. A fiery rabble-rouser, Horner traveled from state to state, holding recruiting rallies and inciting violence. He was constantly on the move, his whereabouts known to only a few Klan leaders. Today, he was in Okmulgee.
Gordon had summoned his agents from around the state. Their best intelligence was that Horner would be in the crowd outside the courthouse, leading the demonstration. One of the agents, Jack Spivey, had seen Horner without his robe and hood after a rally in the town of Lawton. Identifying Horner was critical to an arrest, so in that respect, Spivey had distinguished himself from the other agents. He nudged Gordon now, indicating a small group of men near the courthouse steps. He kept his voice low.
“That’s our boy,” he said. “The skinny gent with the mustache.”
The group of men was somewhat separated from the crowd. Gordon studied them a moment; from their air of authority, he assumed they were Klan leaders. Three of them had mustaches, but only one was tall and lanky, and he knew he was looking at Horner. He nodded to his agents.
“Just like we planned,” he said softly. “Wait and see how it plays out with the governor. Follow my lead.”
Shortly before ten o’clock a caravan of five cars rolled to a halt at the curb. State troopers piled out of the vehicles to the front and rear, and quickly formed a protective wall before the center car, a four-door Buick sedan. The troopers carried Winchester pump-action shotguns, held at port arms, and they stared at the crowd with hard eyes. Governor Trapp, accompanied by his personal bodyguards, stepped from the Buick.
The men gathered on the courthouse lawn abruptly turned from a crowd to a mob. A dark, muttering growl erupted, and then their voices were raised in shouts of rage. The troopers immediately formed a wedge, the governor safely positioned in the center, surrounded by his inner ring of bodyguards. The troopers bulled a path through the mob, roughly cracking those who failed to step aside with the butts of their shotguns. The governor’s party made it to the worn marble steps of the courthouse, and a moment later disappeared inside. The Klansmen, outmaneuvered and furious, were left staring at the door.
Gordon and his agents, unnoticed during the commotion, moved closer to Horner. Gordon’s plan was to wait until the crowd was distracted, their attention turned from the courthouse when the governor came back down the walkway. The diversion, with everyone looking toward the street, would provide just enough time to effect the arrest. He thought they could take Horner without anyone being hurt.
Some thirty minutes later the courthouse doors swung open. The troopers, again formed in a tight phalanx, emerged with Governor Trapp in the middle. They were greeted by a strident chorus of catcalls and jeers, for it was apparent from the governor’s confident expression that he’d delivered his message to the grand jury. The crowd surged forward, jostling and shoving, screaming obscenities. Clenched fists were raised in threat.
The troopers leveled their shotguns. The Klansmen split apart as if cleaved in half, and the troopers hurriedly led the governor down the walkway. A roar went up from the crowd, even more clamorous than before, their attention fixed on the governor as the troopers hustled him toward the cars waiting at curbside. The mob followed along, shouting and cursing, still wary of the shotguns. Their eyes were trained on the street.
Gordon intercepted Horner and the three Klan leaders. He pulled a Colt .45 automatic from his overalls and jabbed the barrel into Horner’s stomach. His agents, guns drawn, covered the other men.
“You’re under arrest,” Gordon said. “Don’t try anything stupid.”
Horner glowered at him. “Who the hell are you?”
“U.S. Bureau of Investigation. We have a federal warrant charging you with sedition.”
“Friend, you picked the wrong spot. All I gotta do is yell and a hundred armed men’ll come runnin’. You done got your ass in a crack.”
“Open your mouth and I’ll shoot you for resisting arrest. Take my word on it.”
A fragment in time slipped past. Horner saw something in Gordon’s steady gaze that told him it wasn’t a bluff. He shrugged with a lame smile.
“You’ll never make it stick.”
“Well, sir, that’s for a court to decide. Let’s go.”
Gordon and the agents marched them around the side of the courthouse. At the rear of the building, Horner was loaded into a Chevrolet sedan, and the other Klan leaders were disarmed, then released. They were left to watch, cursing in impotent fury, as the car drove away.
Cullen Horner was placed in the federal lockup in Oklahoma City late that afternoon.
Special Agent in Charge David Turner was head of the Bureau for all of Oklahoma. The offices were located in a building at the corner of Fourth and Robinson, and Turner had sixteen agents under his command. Five of those agents, assigned to Gordon, were working the case on the Ku Klux Klan.
On April 20, Deputy Director J. Edgar Hoover arrived in Oklahoma City. Hoover was the number-two man in the organization, answerable only to the director, Forrest Holbrook. He was traveling by train, on a cross-country inspection of field offices, with a final destination of Los Angeles. His stop in Oklahoma City was routine, but nonetheless sensitive. He had special business to conduct.
Gordon was called to the SAC’s private office that afternoon. He found Hoover ensconced in the chair behind Turner’s desk, and Turner seated in one of the armchairs. Hoover was short and pudgy, with the face of a gargoyle and the fussy manner of a schoolmarm. He extended his hand across the desk.
“Congratulations, Frank,” he said with a limp handshake. “You’ve done an excellent job with the Klan. Quite commendable indeed.”
“Thanks, Edgar.” Gordon was all too aware that Hoover preferred to be addressed by title. He accepted the handshake and dropped into one of the armchairs. “How’s the old man doing?”
“Director Holbrook is very well, thank you. He asked me to convey his regards.”
Gordon thought of Hoover as the quintessential bureaucrat. The U.S. Bureau of Investigation was created in 1908 as a division of the Justice Department, and agents had the power of arrest anywhere in America. The Bureau was mandated to enforce federal laws, including those dealing with interstate fraud and acts of violence. Over the last fifteen years, Director Holbrook had increased the force to some five hundred agents and established offices in major cities across the country. In all that time, Hoover had never served in the field. He was an office man, and crafty as a politician.
“So,” Gordon said, looking across the desk. “What brings you to Oklahoma?”
“A matter of the utmost importance,” Hoover said in a piping voice. “Are you familiar with the Osage Indian tribe?”
“No more than the Cherokees or the Choctaws. Why do you ask?”
“In the last two years, thirty-one members of the tribe have died under suspicious circumstances. We have reason to believe they were murdered.”
“Sorry to hear it, Edgar. But what’s that got to do with me?”
“Director Holbrook wants you to undertake an investigation.”
Gordon wasn’t ready for a new assignment. He was tall, with ruddy features and chestnut hair, in his early thirties. He had a wife and four children in Dallas, and he wasn’t suited to the monastic life. He wanted to go home.
“No disrespect intended”—Gordon spread his hands in dismissive gesture—“I still have to close out the Klan case, and I haven’t been home in over a month. I’m not a eunuch, Edgar.”
“Very funny,” Hoover said testily. “SAC Turner will relieve you of this Klan matter. Isn’t that correct, David?”
Turner clearly had his marching orders. He looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. “Just as you say, Deputy Director.”
“As for you”—Hoover’s gaze shifted back to Gordon—“Director Holbrook specifically requested that you be assigned to the Osage case. Consider it an order.”
Gordon shrugged without enthusiasm. “When did the Bureau start investigating Indian murders?”
Hoover quickly explained the inner workings of government. Late in March, the Osage Tribal Council formally requested assistance from the Department of the Interior. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs then requested assistance from the Department of Justice. On April 10, the attorney general forwarded the matter to the Bureau of Investigation. Director Holbrook ordered a file opened on the case.
“President Harding has taken a personal interest,” Hoover continued. “As you may imagine, Director Holbrook has assigned the case top priority.”
Gordon accepted the inevitable. “Nobody says no to the president, right, Edgar? So tell me, why are all these Osages being murdered?”
“Yes, rather a great deal of oil.”
Hoover went on to elaborate. Oil, principally because of the automobile, was the lifeblood of the economy. The war in Europe had created a demand for gasoline and fuel oil such as the world had never known. When armistice was declared on the Western Front, the demand for oil increased rather than diminished. Throughout the war, automobile and truck manufacturers had become gigantic concerns; their expansion had a profound effect upon the oil business. By 1923 there were ten million passenger cars on the roads, and Henry Ford’s fabled Tin Lizzie placed the automobile within the price range of even the lowliest families. The search for new oil fields accelerated at an ever quicker pace.
Competition among oil companies became increasingly fierce. The impact was never more apparent than in the last three years, when drilling rights to the Osage lands were auctioned off in Pawhuska, the largest town in Osage County. Giants such as Standard and Dutch Shell were challenged, and often outbid, by newcomers such as Phillips and Sinclair. Tracts of 160 acres were put on the block and routinely brought drilling bonuses exceeding a million dollars. One tract, considered the prime quarter-section of the lot, brought a whopping $1,990,000. Osage County was a vast reserve of black gold.
“Quite simply,” Hoover noted, “the Osages are the richest people per capita in the world. This year, the average family will derive an income of over fifty thousand dollars.”
Gordon was visibly impressed. He made less than three thousand a year, and considered himself more fortunate than most. “Wish I had an oil well,” he said. “That’s twenty years’ wages for a lot of people.”
“Not to mix my metaphors, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. The Osages will ultimately realize tens of millions.”
Hoover believed the devil was in the details. He’d thoroughly briefed himself on the case, and proceeded to make the point. Oil was discovered on the Osage reservation in 1897 and the first producing well yielded less than 5,000 barrels a year. There were currently 9,217 wells on Osage lands and the yield for 1923 was projected at 21,000,000 barrels. The Osages, in a manner of speaking, rivaled the Rockefellers.
“So what’s happening?” Gordon asked. “Are they being murdered for their money?”
“Indeed they are,” Hoover said. “The newspapers have labeled it ‘The Reign of Terror,’ and aptly so. Every headright will pay more than twelve thousand dollars by the end of the year.”
“You lost me there, Edgar. What’s a headright?”
“The communal share of oil royalties.”
Hoover gave him a quick briefing. The federal government abolished the Osage reservation in 1906, and allotted 657 acres to every member of the tribe. At the time, there were 2,229 Osages on the tribal rolls, and the government decreed the number would remain constant forever. Unlike other tribes, however, the Osages negotiated a pact whereby the mineral rights, including oil, were reserved to the tribe as a whole. Every Osage was entitled to an equal share, known as a headright.
“What happens to these headrights?” Gordon said with a quizzical expression. “I mean, when an Osage dies, does his headright revert to the government? Or can it be inherited?”
“Very perceptive,” Hoover allowed, nodding. “Headrights can be inherited, and therein lies the problem. People are quite willing to commit murder for an inheritance of such magnitude.”
“Are you saying the Osages are killing each other?”
“Quite the contrary. The Osage Tribal Council believes the murders are being committed by white men. More specifically, white men who have married Osage women.”
“You’re kidding,” Gordon said, one eyebrow arched. “Thirty-one Osage women have been killed?”
“To be precise, twenty-three,” Hoover replied. “Eight men have been killed, some of whom were involved with white women.”
“Have there been any arrests?”
“No arrests and rather dubious investigations. The politics of Osage County are controlled by whites, which includes the sheriff’s department. The Tribal Council believes the Sheriff himself is involved in the killings.”
Gordon frowned. “How could he cover up thirty-one murders?”
“I just imagine it’s a conspiracy,” Hoover said. “Most of the deaths have been attributed to accidental poisoning from tainted bootleg whiskey. Apparently, the death certificates were falsified by the coroner.”
“Are there any honest law-enforcement officers in the county?”
“There’s a deputy U.S. marshal by the name of Will Proctor. We are given to understand that he’s aboveboard and trustworthy. He will be your local contact.”
“When do you want me to start?”
Hoover smiled. “Yesterday.”
“Why would I expect anything else?”
“How will you proceed?”
Gordon was thoughtful a moment. “Sounds like we need a little deception. I’ll conduct an open investigation with the lawman you mentioned, Proctor.” He paused, nodding to himself. “For the other part, we’ll use an undercover agent. Someone they won’t suspect.”
“Do you have a particular agent in mind?”
“Yeah, I’d like to have Jack Spivey. He was the best of the bunch in the Klan investigation.”
“Consider it done.” Hoover rose from behind the desk, extending his hand. “On behalf of the Bureau, I wish you the very best of luck.”
“Edgar, I just suspect I’m gonna need it.”