The people of the Osage nation became the wealthiest individuals per capita in the world during the late 1800s—something that, unfortunately, put a target on their backs; this is their story.
Warning: The following article contains mentions of murder. Kindly read at your own discretion.
Cinephiles and fans of filmmaker Martin Scorsese are likely aware that his latest work, Killers of the Flower Moon, just made its U.S. premiere late last week. The movie already received plenty of buzz prior to its release as it made its way around various film festivals. A slew of critics have praised the work, with The New York Times calling it “an unsettling masterpiece.” But perhaps the most notable aspect of the film is the deep involvement of its subjects during its creation process. The Osage people behind the movie’s chilling narrative ensured that Scorsese approached their story with the cultural sensitivity and historical accuracy needed to do it justice.
The Native American tribe lies at the center of the movie, which takes inspiration from the eponymous nonfiction book by journalist David Grann. Their story is a dark and painful one, and U.S. institutions attempted to erase it and sweep it under the rug for years until Grann, and later Scorsese, brought it back to mainstream attention.
So whether you want to do some reading on the film’s context before watching it in theaters or are simply curious about the historical events surrounding it, below is the true story behind Killers of the Flower Moon:
Wealth of the Osage Land
In the 19th century, the U.S. government pushed the Osage people out of their land in Kansas, as per BBC Culture. This would lead them to purchase plots in Oklahoma. Most people found the spot to be quite rocky and infertile, deeming it virtually worthless, according to PBS NewsHour. However, they couldn’t have been more wrong, as the Osage tribe later found that their new home was unimaginably rich in oil.
Osage Principal Chief James Bigheart and John Palmer, a half-Native lawyer, negotiated a deal with the government that would grant every full-blooded Osage 657 acres of land and a headright in the tribe’s communal mineral trust, reported Time. As such, when the Osage discovered oil in their land, they became the richest people in the world per capita.
Just how rich? Grann told CBS Sunday Morning that the earnings would amount to millions of dollars. “By 1923, the Osage collectively received that year more than $30 million, which today would be worth the equivalent of more than $400 million dollars. And this was being split up by a group of about 2,000 people,” he shared during the interview.
With this newfound wealth, the Osage were able to purchase mansions, hire servants, send their children to school, wear the most luxurious outfits of the time, and even drive the best cars. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy for the Native Americans.
Guardians or Threats?
These riches also came with unfair conditions based solely on race. The U.S. government believed that the indigenous people were too “incompetent” to handle their wealth, and designated “guardians” to control exactly when and how the Osage could use their money. This, of course, led to a lot of corruption.
“There were kickbacks, there was skimming, and in many cases there was just outright stealing where they would just abscond with millions of dollars from these Osage, and [they] never saw this money again,” Grann added in his interview with CBS Sunday Morning.
Sadly, stealing was just the surface of an even deeper, more sinister plan to rob the Osage of their wealth.
A harrowing period during the early 1920s became known as The Reign of Terror. In just a few years, around 24 Osage people died from poisoning or more violent acts, as per Smithsonian Magazine. Even allies who attempted to solve these murders were killed, such as lawyer W.W. Vaughan, who fell off a speeding train after a perpetrator pushed him, according to BBC Culture.
An Osage woman named Mollie Kyle, as well as her entire family, became the prime targets during the Reign of Terror.
In 1918, Mollie’s sister Minnie Smith died of a “peculiar wasting disease,” according to doctors, but later evidence suggested poisoning. Then in 1921, Mollie’s older sister Anna disappeared for three days after attending a luncheon at Mollie’s house. Mollie sent a search party for her, and after around a week, a young boy found her dead in a ravine with a bullet wound. Later on, in another part of the area, an oil worker found another Osage named Charles Whitehorn dead with bullet wounds—presumably from the same gun.
Authorities declared Anna and Charles’ deaths as two separate cases, then closed the inquiry into their murders. Shortly after, Mollie’s mother Lizzie died of a long-term illness—though later evidence, once again, pointed to poisoning.
The terror continued as Mollie’s younger sister, Rita, died in her house alongside her maid. The cause was a homemade bomb that someone had planted right at the bottom of the abode, as per PBS NewsHour. Her husband, Bill, was seriously injured and died shortly after. Mollie witnessed the house explode into an orange flame as her sister Rita disappeared from her life forever.
More murders occurred throughout the period. According to Grann, 24 is just the number of deaths that authorities investigated. There were hundreds more cases around the area that remained uninvestigated.
Authorities didn’t listen to Mollie and her community, as members of the authorities were either complicit in the crimes or simply prejudiced, Grann told Smithsonian Magazine. However, public outrage and a petition by the Osage Tribal Council pushed U.S. authorities to investigate the issues.
The Reign of Terror ended up becoming the first case of the newly-formed FBI (then the Bureau of Investigation). After some time, they discovered one mastermind behind many of the murders: William Hale, a wealthy rancher who looked down on the Osage while pretending to be an ally.
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Part of Hale’s plan was to attain all the wealth of Mollie’s family. This is why he encouraged his nephew, a World War I veteran named Ernest Burkhart, to marry Mollie in 1917. He then created a plan to kill every member of the family so Ernest would gain their inheritance. Beyond Mollie’s family, Hale and his nephew were directly involved in the murders of multiple Osage members, with co-conspirator John Ramsey.
In January 1926, authorities arrested the four men and put them on trial. Ernest later confessed to many of the killings during questioning, implicating his brother Bryan in the murder of Anna. He then recanted his stand before pleading guilty once more. However, it took another three years for the jury to find Hale and Ramsey guilty, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The court sentenced all three men to life in prison. Unfortunately, Time reported that none of them served full sentences. They were eventually granted parole, and in 1966, Ernest received a full pardon from Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon.
The Haunting Truth
It would be simpler to say that Hale was the true villain in The Reign of Terror, the one who orchestrated everything. In a sense, he was responsible for betraying many of the Osage people and murdering them in cold blood. However, one person can’t accomplish heinous acts of this scale alone—which is perhaps the most chilling part of this period in history.
“I thought I was writing a book about this singular evil figure who had been apprehended by the FBI,” Grann told Smithsonian Magazine. “Instead, I began to realize that this was less a story about who did it and who didn’t do it. It was really about a culture of killing and a culture of complicity, … [with] many of these murders carried out by individuals who were profiting from this very corrupt system of targeting the Osage, often marrying into their families and then plotting to kill them to steal their oil money and inheritance.”
Mollie herself had felt ill for some time, likely due to her doctors—James and David Shoun—slowly poisoning her through medication. She eventually recovered after removing herself from their care, and upon learning of her husband’s crimes, divorced him.
“When Mollie realized that her husband, her husband, who had helped search for the killers was in fact the killer, she could never look at him again,” Grann told CBS Sunday Morning.
Moving Forward but Never Forgetting
Not many people knew of the Osage people’s struggles, as schools rarely taught them in history classes. However, nearly every member of the Native American community had lost someone close to them during that dark period. When the oil stopped flowing, the Osage also lost their wealth, causing them to abandon the bustling town they’d built.
However, despite everything, the nation has been honoring their ancestors by moving forward. In 2011, the U.S. government settled a 12-year lawsuit with the Osage nation for mismanaging their funds with a fee of $380 million. Jim Gray, a former Osage chief, focused on implementing reforms that would revitalize his community. This included buying back land that the Osage originally owned and investing in the casino business. All the money from the business endeavor was used to open up schools, healthcare institutions, and cultural and language preservation centers.
The Osage also encouraged Scorsese to visit them and learn more about their culture in order to create a movie that would stay true to their past with as much honesty and authenticity as possible. “The industry is moving closer to allowing indigenous people to tell their stories, and I think Scorsese has really set a new bar,” Gray told ABC News.
The media outlet also asked Margie Burkhart, the granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest, what the legacy of the Burkhart name is now, after everything.
“Persevering; for Mollie and her sisters, and for my children,” Margie shared.
Banner photo from IMDb.