Murders most foul: The real story behind Scorsese's 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

Of a greed-fuelled conspiracy that killed over 60 Osage Indians in 1920s

killers of flower moon true story A collage of the poster of Martin Scorsese's 'Killers of the Flower Moon', cover of journalist David Grann's book

The Old Farmer's Almanac—an annual American journal that contains weather predictions, planting schedules, astronomical tables, recipes, anecdotes, and more—has different names for 12 full moons. January's full moon is called Wolf Moon, February has Snow Moon, March has Worm Moon, April has Pink Moon and May, Flower Moon. Also known as Planting Moon, and Milk Moon, May's moon gets this sobriquet on account of the wildflowers that bloom in the month. In the pitilessly indifferent nature, the wildflowers that sprout in April and bloom in May are forced out by taller plants stealing their water and light.

"In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long, they are buried underground. This is why Osage Indians refer to May as the time of flower-killing moon," writes David Grann, in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The book has now been turned into a major motion picture, helmed by arguably one of the greatest directors of all time, Martin Scorsese.

There is no better allegory to describe the evil that befell the people of the Native American tribe, Osage Nation, in Northeast Oklahoma, in the 1920s, than the fate of the tiny plants that bloom and die in May.

The curse of black gold

Resource curse—also known as the paradox of plenty and poverty paradox—is a political-economic theory that argues that mineral and fuel abundance does not always lead to the development of a nation, or people who possess the said resources. The theory suggests that such abundance may cause state intervention and large degrees of rent-seeking and corruption. "...extraction projects often attract large influxes of people, whether or not additional employment is actually available. This can cause stress on economic, social and cultural relations," a paper titled The Resource Curse: The Political and Economic Challenges of Natural Resource Wealth observes.

While this theory, proposed in the context of less developed countries and the oil boom, may not apply to the Roaring Twenties of the United States—an era that was marked by widespread prosperity—it would not be all wrong to take recourse to it to understand what happened to Osage, who were once the world's wealthiest people per capita.

Known as the Children of the Middle Waters, the Osage were always land-rich. However, in the 19th century, within years after US President Thomas Jefferson bought from the French the territory of Louisiana, which was home to the Osage people, they were forced to cede much of their ancestral land—nearly a hundred million acres—and settle near southwestern Kansas, Oklahoma. They were assured by the US government this new land would be their home forever. The Osage did not want their new land to be violated by the white men, and so they bought the territory. While they settled into their reservation, which was certainly not prized real estate, hoping that their deities and way of life would not have to be compromised, the US authorities, as white man's burden always demands, thought that it was necessary to make them accept the the god and ways of the white men.

When Oklahoma became the 46th state of the US, the tribe sold their surface land in what was now Osage county but kept the mineral rights (headright) of the land under their control. Grann writes that the tribe knew that there were oil deposits under the reservation. The Osage wanted to make sure that they collectively owned what was below the land, and so they gave each person a headright, which could not be sold or bought. It could only be passed on or inherited. The headright for the land essentially meant that they had a share in the mineral trust and hence would receive a check for royalties for the oil drilled from their land. With the tribe's approval, John Florer, owner of a trading post, and a wealthy banking partner got a lease to begin drilling on the reservation. The tribe soon began leasing more of their areas to white prospectors for exploration.

The black gold changed their fortunes overnight. From being America's poorest, they became the richest people per capita in the world. An Osage writer later described the people of this decade as "the Kuwaitis of the 1920s."

"They were drawing millions. By 1923, the Osage collectively received that year more than $30 million...This was being split up by a group of about 2,000 people," Grann said in an interview.

As money started pouring in from oil royalties, they built mansions, appointed white servants, and bought the finest cars.

The reign of terror

Wealth attracts envy, and more wealth attracts the envy of the whole wide world. According to Grann, "The public, the whites, not just in Oklahoma, but across the US, were transfixed by the Osage wealth." It was said that each Osage owned 11 cars. Publications began to write about the lavish lifestyles of the Osage people. The message they wished to convey was that the Osage did not deserve this wealth and that they were wasting it.

Soon, things began to fall apart; and what has been described as the "reign of terror" began.

The US was still the land of outlaws, men with guns, and lawmen who dished out the kind of justice they deemed fit. "Everybody in the world descended into this area to try to find every possible way to separate the Osage from their money," says Grann in a documentary titled The Osage Murders.

The government held the racist belief that the Osage, or any tribes for that matter, could not manage their money, and so white guardians were appointed to help them with their money. These unscrupulous guardians had complete control over the assets of their wards, and they began looting the Osage. There were kickbacks for being appointed as guardians, skimming, and in many cases, outright stealing where the guardians would abscond with millions of dollars belonging to the Osage.

University of Tulsa professor Garrick Bailey, whose research Grann banked on while writing the book, observes in The Osage Murders documentary: "Many of the whites who lived in Osage county attempted to exploit the Osages. There are bootleggers, prostitutes, gamblers, burglars, rustlers, armed robbers, all of these people victimised the Osage. They are not the only ones. The merchants created a two-tier prizing level, charging the Osage more than they charge the non-Osage customers."

Soon, some of the members of the tribe began dropping dead under mysterious circumstances or started to disappear!

The whites also married the Osage headright holders. Upon the untimely death of a headright holder, the spouse would be left with great wealth. The book Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on one such marriage, that of Mollie Burkhart, originally, Mollie Kyle. Mollie was married to Ernest Burkhart, whose uncle William King Hale was seen as a respectable figure and the most powerful man in Osage county. Her sister, too, had married a white man. The book begins with the murder of Mollie's sister Anna. In a few months, other members of her family started dying, except Mollie as diabetes was taking her to an early grave anyway. The medication that she was on was only making her sicker.

Two months after Anna's murder, Mollie's mother was poisoned to death. Two years later, another sister, Rita, and her husband, Bill Smith, died after their house was destroyed in a bomb blast at night. As her family members died, Mollie became the sole owner of their headrights, and her wealth was managed by Ernest who was under the thumb of Hale.

Between 1921 and 1925, the official number of untimely deaths of Osage were 27, while unofficial accounts put the death count above 60. According to Grann, the world's wealthiest people per capita were becoming the world's most murdered. As Grann focuses on the life of Burkharts and Mollie's efforts to find the truth behind the murder of her sister Anna, he leads the readers to more such gory deaths—by bullets, poisoning, "peculiar wasting illness", and from being thrown off a speeding train. It was as if every full-blooded Osage was walking around with a death warrant on him/her.

The deaths of Mollie's family members and others did not bother the authorities. Hale, his nephews, other oil barons, medics who examined the deceased, Hale's henchmen and other avaricious white men who stood to gain from these deaths were quick to draw a veil over the suspicious early deaths. Hale, the self-proclaimed 'King of the Osage Hills', knew how to cover his tracks as he never personally got his hands dirty.

Mollie, suspicious of the deaths surrounding her, began to fear for her life. She approached the law enforcement requesting them to look into the deaths, but was ignored. She even hired a private detective to look into the deaths, but he turned out to be corrupt. However, after the bomb blast, the Osage Tribal Council began urging the federal government to send detectives to investigate the murders.

The investigation

In May 1924, an ambitious 29-year-old man was made the chief of the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover—the deeply polarising figure in American history who headed the agency for decades—in the summer of 1925, summoned Thomas White, an old-school lawman and former Texas Ranger, who had no formal police training. Hoover asked White, who joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1917, to head the investigation into the Osage murders.

It was certainly not an easy task. The Osage had developed a general distrust for outsiders and white men. Nobody was willing to talk although they all knew Hale was behind the reign of terror. There was “an almost impenetrable wall of fear...People who were afraid to talk and witnesses who might have given information had long since disappeared,” writes Don Whitehead in the book The FBI Story: A Report to the People.

White had his team go undercover, as a cattle buyer, oil prospector, an insurance salesman, and a medicine man, to get people talking. Over time, they collected enough evidence to build a case against Hale and his henchmen. The investigators also got Ernest Burkhart to talk. He admitted that his brother Bryan was part of the plot to murder Anna at the orders of Hale. Hale's grand stratagem involved Ernest eventually killing Mollie, making him the sole owner of the family's oil rights as one did not have to be an Osage to inherit a headright. Grann, who spent five years researching the crimes, once said during an interview that Ernest Burkhart reminded him of "what are sometimes referred to as 'the willing executioners' in Germany during the Holocaust. They weren’t necessarily the leaders, but they were the people who went along. And because of that, so many people were killed."

Ernest revealed most of his uncle's misdeeds, including ordering the murder of Rita and her husband. Hale was also found guilty of the murder of Osage member Henry Roan, from whose death he benefitted $25,000 in the form of the life insurance policy taken out on his life.

The FBI cracked the crimes involving Hale after months of grueling undercover work, and the murders mostly stopped after the arrests of Hale and his accomplices. But not every murder was solved, not every murderer was brought to justice. "The murderers are now dead, and so are the eyewitnesses. One of the great horrors was that the murderers had many cases, not only erased their victims, they had often erased their history too," Grann said in an interview to

It is hard to make sense of mass murders. Such deplorable crimes are possible only when a section of people refuse to see another as their equal. "Unquestionably, greed was the driving force. But I would say there was another deeper force at work than just greed. For these systemic crimes to have taken place, greed was fused together with a dehumanisation of another people. The perpetrators did not look upon their targets as fully embodied humans with souls and dignity," Grann said during a recent discussion at Oklahoma Christian University.

"Seldom in the long history of the white man's dubious dealings with the Indian has there been such a determined combination of craft and violence as that described by witnesses before the grand jury," The New York Times had said while reporting on the trial in the case.

The oil eventually dried out, and the Osage Indians have moved on to newer trades, but the collective memory of the genocide of their forefathers still haunts the current generation, although they mostly remain as mere footnotes in the vast history of oppression by the white men in America.

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